There is just something about the Swedish Saab 35 Draken (Dragon) fighter aircraft that has always fascinated me. It is certainly not pretty to look at, yet its long air intakes and tailless double-delta wing design give it a certain stylistic charm. Cold War chic that remained in operational service in European skies for 45 years from 1960 to 2005!
The Saab 35 Draken proved to be one of the most successful domestic and export combat aircraft for Sweden, yet they never fired a shot in anger! The unique double delta wing design was first flown on October 25th, 1955. 651 Draken fighters were manufactured between 1955 and 1974 as interceptor, ground attack, two-seat combat trainer and reconnaissance variants (see below for a more detailed history). The type was operated by Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Austria.
The Saab 35 was actually one of the first fully supersonic aircraft to enter service in Europe and later variants had an impressive maximum speed of Mach 2.0! Standard armament was 2 x 30mm ADEN cannons and a weapons payload of 2,900 kg /6,393 lb for air to air missiles, rockets and bombs.
The first Saab 35 Draken entered service with the Swedish Air Force (Svenska Flygvapnet) in March 1960 as interceptors with a limited ground attack capability. They also operated two-seat combat trainers along with ground attack and reconnaissance variants.
Swedish aircraft included 90 J 35A fighters, 73 J 35B fighters, 24 SK 35C two-seat trainers (converted from older J 35A variants), 120 J 35D fighters with a more powerful Rolls-Royce Avon 300 engine, 60 S 35E reconnaissance aircraft (around half were likely converted from J 35D aircraft), 230 J 35F fighters (produced between 1965 and 1972 with improved avionics and weapons systems), and finally 66 J 35J fighters that were converted from J 35F aircraft with more modern avionics and weapons between 1985 and 1991. The latter flew until retired in 1999 and were replaced by the vastly superior fourth generation Saab JAS 39 Gripen (Gryphon).
Numerous Draken aircraft can be seen today in Swedish and international aviation museums including the Swedish Air Force Museum (Flygvapenmuseum) at Malmen Airbase in Malmslätt, near Linköping and Aeroseum at a retired air base near Gothenburg where the majority of the collection is within a huge underground Cold War era hangar! I visited both excellent museums in 2017. If you are lucky you may also catch one still flying in the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight (amongst their fleet is a two-seat SK 35C)!
An aircraft of interest at the Swedish Air Force Museum has direct lineage to the Saab 35 Draken – the Saab 210 Draken was a scaled down proof of concept aircraft for the double delta wing design used in the Saab 35. The Saab 210 first flew in 1952 and was also colloquially known as Lilldragon (Little Dragon) after the first flight of the Saab 35 prototype.
The Royal Danish Air Force operated 51 Saab 35XD variants with the first entering service in 1970 (X = Export and D = Denmark). Danish aircraft included 20 of the specialised F-35 strike variant (the only Draken variant to be dedicated to ground attack), 20 RF-35 reconnaissance aircraft and 11 TF-35 two-seat trainers. The combat aircraft received avionics and weapons systems upgrades in the 1980’s and were not retired until 1993. By the early 1980’s the General Dynamics F-16A Fighting Falcon started to enter service and remains the primary combat aircraft of the Royal Danish Air Force.
Finnish Licence-Built Drakens
Finland licence-built 12 new Saab 35XS fighters between 1974 and 1975. They also purchased 36 ex-Swedish aircraft – 7 J 35B fighters, 24 J 35F fighters and 5 SK 35C two-seat trainers between 1972 and 1977 that were redesignated as Saab 35BS/FS/CS. The Finnish Draken’s were operated as fighters and fighter bombers.
The Finnish Saab 35XS variants were upgraded in the 1990’s with new avionics, electronic countermeasures and weapons systems but all their Draken fighters were retired by 2000 and replaced by the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet multi-role fighter. All Saab 35BS and 4 of the 35CS aircraft were already retired in 1995.
Austria Joins the Scandinavians
The Draken was not just a Scandinavian fighter though. The last military customer for the Draken was the Austrian Air Force who ordered 24 single seat Saab 35ÖE Draken fighters in 1985 for primary use as interceptor aircraft with a secondary reconnaissance role using camera pods. No two-seat trainers were purchased and all Draken flight training was completed in Sweden along with simulator training at Zeltweg Air Force Base in Austria.
The Saab 35ÖE was a conversion from ex-Swedish J 35D variants (Ö = Oesterreich, German for Austria, E = Export). Saab re-purchased the J 35D’s from the Swedish Air Force.
The first Saab 35ÖE Draken entered Austrian service in 1987. It is kind of interesting but as part of a 1955 Austrian State Treaty neutrality agreement (signed by the Austrian Government with the Allied occupying powers of France, Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States), the Austrian Air Force Draken fighters did not carry air to air missiles until 1993 (they were only armed with 2 x 30mm ADEN cannons as air to air armament).
The treaty rules were not relaxed until the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the end of the Soviet Union (1991)! In 1993 the Austrians purchased surplus AIM-9P5 Sidewinder missiles from Sweden to truly give their dragon some teeth!
The Austrian Air Force operated the Draken until November 2005, making the Austrians the last to retire the Draken from front line service. The Austrian Air Force temporarily replaced them with 12 Northrop F-5E Tiger II aircraft leased from Switzerland until the first of 15 Eurofighter Typhoon fighters came into service in 2007. Surprisingly the Austrians didn’t go with the Saab JAS 39 Gripen and some controversy remains over this but it was said to have been done to strengthen ties with the European Union.
After almost 20 years of service the Saab 35ÖE Draken was held in high regard by the Austrian Air Force. A number are on display in museums around the country, especially at the Austrian Air Force Museum at Zeltweg Air Force Base which also includes 2 Draken fighters in fantastic looking commemorative schemes that take pride of place in the centre of the Museum.
The red and white Draken was painted by the surveillance squadron in Zeltweg in 1996 to mark the occasion of the 1000 year anniversary of the first documented written mention of Austria (based off my translation of the non-English sign in the museum!). The black Draken commemorated 45 years of service by the “Dragon Knights” of the Austrian and Scandinavian Air Forces from 1960 to 2005. It was great to see these aircraft had been preserved for future generations to see.
There is also a Draken with parts of the fuselage skin removed to get a cutaway look at the airframe. This is pretty cool and gives a great insight into the design of the aircraft, along with its radar and weapons systems.
US Test Pilot School
6 ex-Danish Draken’s (2 F-35 and 4 TF-35 two-seat variants) were also operated in the United States with the National Test Pilot School (NTPS) in California to train candidates to become qualified flight test pilots and flight test engineers. The began operational flying from 1994 with at least half of those on hand being retired by 2009. Some of the retired aircraft ended up on loan to a number of museums. All have been retired from service in recent years.