Gary Parsons reflects on the last operational detachment in the UK of Saab's first supersonic fighter. All pictures by the author unless stated otherwise.
Early September saw the last deployment of Saab's charismatic J-35 Draken (Dragon) to the UK, when the Austrian Air Force once again visited BAE Systems' ACMI facility at Waddington. Due for replacement in a few years, this dinosaur of an aeroplane represents the last fling of the fifties fighters, a time when design advances were rapid and airframe lives usually short.
Enter the Dragon
The Saab J-35 Draken (Dragon) was conceived in 1949 as Project '1200' to find a replacement for Saab's J-29 'Tunnan' ('Flying Barrel'). Intended to be an interceptor capable of encountering bombers flying at Mach 0.9 at high altitudes, it had to be supersonic. To test the radical double-delta design (a combination of a delta and thin swept wing) construction of a small concept aircraft, the Saab 210, was started in May 1950 that flew for the first time on 21 January 1952. This proved the layout to be one that combined good high-speed properties with a low enough take-off and landing speed. The intended engine for the subsequently named 'Draken' was the Swedish STAL 'Glan', the design of which was never finished, so in 1952 it was decided to install the newly-available but tried and tested Rolls-Royce Avon. Design emphasis was placed on the aircraft's ability to be serviced quickly by conscripts with relatively short training - a team of seven, of which six would be conscripts, were supposed to be able to re-arm and refuel the aircraft in less than ten minutes.
In January 1953 the Swedish Air Force ordered three prototypes, the first flying on 25 October 1955. Its engine was the Mk.21 version of the Rolls-Royce Avon (RM5A in Sweden) but with no afterburner. Later prototypes demonstrated that even though speed and a good climb performance was the priority, the aircraft could be a good dogfighter (compared to existing types of the day). Its instantaneous turn rate is good, but as is typical for delta-winged aircraft, induced drag bleeds off a lot of energy during turns. In order to enable it to operate from partially damaged runways and stretches of highway, a braking parachute was installed to shorten the landing run to a minimum of 678m.
Production of the Draken was significant as it was the first double-delta aircraft and the first combat aircraft sold by Sweden to other air forces. Denmark purchased the Draken for ground attack and reconnaissance, Finland as an interceptor, and the Austrian Air Force purchased refurbished Drakens for air surveillance and interceptor roles. After its J-29F Tunnans were retired in 1972 the Austrian Air Force was without a dedicated interceptor for over ten years, but in 1985 a contract was signed for a batch of 24 refurbished ex-Swedish Air Force J-35D Drakens. The D variant was a development of the B - it had a more powerful engine, so the air intakes extended further forward, 600 litres larger internal fuel capacity as well as two 530 litre external tanks. The aircraft were refurbished and modernised to an extent, being fitted with bulged J-35F style canopies, a RWR, chaff-flare dispensers, and deliveries commenced in 1987, finishing in 1989.
Given the designation of 'J-35ÖE' ('Ö' stood for 'Oesterreich' (Austria)), the Austrians did not buy any twin-seaters, flight training being provided in Sweden as part of the sales package. Used primarily as interceptors, reconnaissance pods were also acquired for its secondary role. Initially the J-35ÖEs were only armed with their twin 30mm Aden guns, as Austria's neutrality agreements prevented the fighters from carrying Sidewinders or other AAMs, but after the fall of the USSR AIM-9P3 and AIM-9P5s Sidewinder missiles were purchased from Saab. Currently 23 airframes are assigned to two squadrons of Fliegerregiment 2; 1 Staffel at Zeltweg and 2 Staffel (Tiger) at Graz-Thalerhof. The Drakens are overhauled at Fliegerwerft 2 at Zeltweg every 200 hours, while the 50 and 100-hour inspections are carried out at squadron level. The J-35ÖEs were supposed to be withdrawn from service in 1998, but finding a replacement has been a lengthy process. Austria's air defence system 'Goldhaube' (Golden Hat) has been operational since 1988, at about the same time as the introduction into service of the Draken, consisting of fixed radar sites and mobile radar stations. Two Saab 105s or Drakens are permanently held on quick reaction alert to intercept unidentified aircraft approaching the border.
Training of pilots finished in 1997 with the cessation of the agreement in place with Saab, where trainee pilots flew in the Sk-35C Draken dual-seater at Angelholm in Sweden. Continuation training is carried out in the Draken simulator at Zeltweg, and operational Draken pilots fly 120 hours annually. ACMI training at Waddington was planned to take place every two years, but world events have prevented their attendance since 1997; the Kosovo campaign in '99, the foot & mouth crisis in 2001. Such has been the gap that a return was paramount, although sadly it will be the last.
A final showdown
Fourteen pilots had the opportunity to sample the ACMI showground this year, five making their first visit. Nine aircraft were brought, six being used each day for paired missions against Harrier GR7s from nearby Cottesmore. Major George 'Guppy' Gappmaier, the senior pilot of the detachment, explained their tactics: "The Dragon is poor at turning so we must make the most of our advantage - speed. The first half-chance is the most important - we must position ourselves to get the first shot - if we miss we use our speed to reposition for another try. We can use the gun if we get in close, but the primary objective of the training is to practice using the AIM-9P."
"We aim to practice techniques applicable to our aircraft - therefore we don't train against BVR types such as Tornado F3 or F-16AM." Major Gappmaier was involved in Exercise Amadeus, a recent Austrian/Swiss exercise that gave a chance to fly against the F-18, although it was primarily to test the organisational aspects, not the pilots' skills. Waddington's ACMI provides this opportunity, the debriefing facility being particularly invaluable. "Pilots often exaggerate claims of their success in normal training," said Gappmaier, "but here the debriefing facility tells the truth for everyone to see!" He also paid tribute to his RAF 'foe': "Harrier pilots are very experienced - they have served on active operations and give us a very good test of our skills." He wouldn't elaborate on who was 'winning the war', however!
Austria is now the last operator of this classic aeroplane - it is obvious its pilots enjoy flying the beast, but its time is limited as the capabilities of its opponents increases. Major Gappmaier confirmed that 2005 is the scheduled withdrawal date, regardless of whether a replacement is ready or not. "Existing maintenance contracts with Saab expire at this time," he said, and the airframes will have little life left in them.
Its potential replacement will be the Eurofighter-Typhoon, following a competition from the Austrian Defence Ministry to replace the ageing Drakens. The competition began in 1998 with the participation of Lockheed Martin's F-16, Boeing's F-18, Dassault's Mirage 2000-5, and SAAB-BAE Systems' (Swedish-UK consortium) Gripen, as well as the Eurofighter. The Austrian Air Force assessed the aircraft and, in October 2001, issued a Request for Proposal (RfP). At this time Dassault and Boeing decided to abandon the competition and eventually the Typhoon was the final choice in a 1.79bn euro (£1.16bn) deal, a political message that besides the operational benefits for the Austrian Air Force, Austria was also strengthening ties with the EU. According to EADS officials, the Eurofighter proved superior in the operational assessment, while also presenting an attractive offset package. "The unanimous decision is for the Eurofighter, the Typhoon," Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel.
"It's a political decision," said Gappmaier. It would seem Austria wants to feel more part of the Europe defence structure, Gripen and the F-16 being more appropriate for the budget that Austria probably has. The Eurofighter consortium has promised twice the deal's value in offsets - business for Austrian industry - over a fifteen-year period.
The defence order is Austria's largest since World War II, but since the deal was announced it has already been reduced from 24 to 18 aircraft. After the devastating floods in Central Europe in early August, on the 15th Minister of Defence Herbert Scheibner said, "The alliance army would like to increase its disaster protection and security tasking. This means using finances allocated to the purchase of the Eurofighter, reducing the number of planes from 24 to 18. In the present situation, flexible solutions are required." There was no resistance from the Defence department. "In the present difficult situation the funding for the new fighters will be delayed for three years", said Scheibner. He is convinced that 18 Eurofighters will provide much more capability than the 23 Drakens - a fairly safe assessment - but soon after this news had been released Austria's governing coalition collapsed, triggered by a bitter internal row in the far-right Freedom Party, throwing the whole future of the deal in doubt. Contracts that should have been signed on 13 September still await a pen - it won't be until mid-November, after elections have been held that the Air Force will know its future. Even so, the first payments for the new Eurofighter will not commence before 2006, meaning the Dragon will breathe fire over the skies of Europe for a few more years, the last of the dinosaurs.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to the Waddington CRO, Jacqui Wheeler, the detachment commander Major Gutschi and Major Gappmaier for their help and assistance in preparing this article.