Photography from the fourth Aircraft Illustrated Photo Tour by Sean Wilson and Mike Hall
Sean Wilson gets up-close and personal as the Viggen bids farewell.
2005 sees yet another piece of military aviation hardware become a museum exhibit. As the service career of the Saab Viggen draws to a close the Svenska Flygvapnet (Swedish Air Force) paid homage to its venerable multi-role aircraft with a photocall. F21, based at Lulea-Kallax in northern Sweden, welcomed photographers from all over the world on 6-7 April 2005 to see this incredible aircraft in action one last time.
I have been fortunate enough to attend many photo opportunity events, but none quite like this one. The group of fifty or so enthusiasts that braved the frozen expanse of Sweden might as well have been visiting dignitaries. "We are here for you" were amongst the first words uttered by our host, Stefan von Below. He, along with Stefan Helsing and Louise Levin, were the members of the Public Affairs Office that had put so much effort into organising this event. It was indeed organised with the type of precision one would expect from a military establishment. Coaches awaited and daily schedules were issued.
At the safety briefing we were informed of what was in store for us over the two-day event. Access all areas - beginning with a visit to the squadron's high-tech toy. After flexing our wings in the Viggen simulator it was time to take a look at the real thing.
During the two days we were granted access to the entire base. Runway thresholds, flightline, hangars, technical school, squadron room, photo processing lab and control tower. We were able to photograph anything and everything as long as we followed one simple rule - "Don't touch anything".
F21 had a little surprise in store for us. After arriving at a mini static display consisting of three Viggens, including an SK-37E two-seater trainer/electronic warfare variant, the Viggen hangar doors opened to reveal an AJSF-37 that had been specially painted for the event. A wolf's head adorned the tail with the words 'AKKTU STAKKI' (lonely wolf) written across the fuselage. Unfortunately a last minute oil problem prevented it from flying.
It was a shame that only three Viggens took to the air but at least this trip provided me with the opportunity to photograph them doing what they do best - flying!!
Mike Hall takes us through the visit's itinerary
As for many an enthusiast, the Viggen has for a long time been one of my favourite aircraft. When I learnt that a photo-farewell was being planned, I swiftly applied for a place on the trip.
Lulea, which is the home of F21 wing in Norrbotten, the last active Viggen unit in the Flygvapnet, is situated about 150 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle. The airfield has a military side and a civil side, and besides the Viggens hosts a few SK60 aircraft used mainly for communications.
On arrival at the gate Wednesday morning we were welcomed by recent retiree Stefan Helsing, with whom the arrangements for the visit had been made. He introduced us to our military hosts for the visit, who then briefed us on the two-day schedule. The swift decline in the number of active Viggens was brought home by the noisy departure of two aircraft, one destined for dismantling at Halmstad, the other bound for the museum at Angelholm.
A well-planned schedule was arranged around the flying activity, making sure we were in good locations for photography throughout the day. The first day's weather was superb for photography, if a little chilly, but a visit to the base by so many 'plane crazy' foreigners attracted the attentions of the local media, with a spot on the local TV evening news and photos splashed across the next morning newspapers! Accompanying us during the visit were pilots and ground staff, who were on hand to answer any questions and make sure of our safety.
A visit to the new control tower was the first stop for our group, enabling a good view, thirty metres up, of the layout of the airfield with its 3,350m long runway, the longest in Sweden. Unfortunately the old control tower was being dismantled right in front of us, which was a bit of an obstruction.
During the day, there were several sorties, usually in pairs. SH37 (Surveillance) and SF37 (Photo-Reconnaissance) Viggens operate together in a maritime reconnaissance role, the radar of the former being used to locate the target for the latter to photograph. Runway 32 was in use throughout the day with the various aprons being used by the photographers.
The evening was spent in the town of Lulea, which is very quiet on Wednesdays! A vivid reminder of our location was a brief display of the northern lights, which was unusual for April, we were later informed.
The second day was spent mostly shivering in poor weather. Luckily there was plenty to see and photograph, with coffee provided at the aprons to keep us thawed out. A change in wind direction meant that runway 14 was now being used. We were given access to the flight line and hangars, where the remaining fourteen Viggens still in service are kept. The Gripen, which is superseding the Viggen, was not very active during our visit, as most of the staff operating it were away on a survival course. We were shown around the hangar were they are kept, in almost laboratory-like cleanliness and lack of clutter. Falling snow during the afternoon made photography difficult, but it didn't prevent one last Viggen fly-by with full afterburner and wing waggle.
Before leaving for the airport on the Friday, we were met again by Stefan Helsing, again giving up his spare time, to show us around the F21 museum. Because Lulea has always had a Photo-Reconnaissance unit based there, the photographic exhibits are superb and a unique record of the Flygvapnet at Lulea since the 1940s. The snow got heavier during the morning, closing the main runway and making the return flight to Stockholm a concern. We needn't have worried as a line of eight snow clearers in an echelon reminiscent of combine harvesters on the Canadian Prairie made light of the three inches of snow that had settled. Such is Swedish efficiency!
Acknowledgments: Thanks to Stefan Helsing, Stefan von Below, Louise Levin and all of the people at F21 who made this trip possible and could not have gone to any greater lengths to make us more welcome and the visit more memorable.
This was the fourth 'AI Photo Tour' arranged specifically for 40 photographers. See the current issue for more details of the next one.