Interview with a Gripen pilot

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Tiny, smart and capable, the Swedish Gripen C is a bantamweight fighter aircraft with a big punch. The Gripen E now in development is a bigger aircraft, close in weight to the F-16. We spoke to SAAB test pilot Jonas Jakobsson about flying a machine that emphasises brains over brawn. 

Gripen is a fascinating aircraft, lambasted by the Swiss air force evaluation and loved by its pilots and operators, it does things in a different way. Connectivity, situational awareness and other boring sounding concepts are prioritised over power and speed, resulting in a machine that is cheap to operate and capable of delivering nasty surprises to opponents that underestimate it. Though only around 250 Gripens have been built since production begun in 1987 it has earned Saab an excellent reputation as one of the few aircraft manufacturers that stay close to running timely projects on budget (a key reason for Boeing choosing to partner with Saab for its winning T-X trainer). But is its good reputation just another example of Sweden’s slickness in public relations? Over to Jonas Jakobsson.

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Jonas Jakobsson (middle) with former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

What is your name, rank, unit and hours on Gripen C?

“My name is Jonas Jakobsson and I’m a Major (ret.) and currently an experimental test pilot working at SAAB. I’ve flown well over 1000h in Gripen.”

Which other aircraft types have you flown?

“During air force training I flew Beagle Bulldog (SK61) and SAAB 105 (SK60). My first aircraft as an operational pilot was the strike fighter version of Viggen (AJ-37) which later was upgraded to AJS-37 indicating that it also had recce capability. I’ve also flown Lansen, Draken, and all the other versions of Viggen. During my career as a testpilot I have also flown a number of helicopters, fighters and trainers.”

What were you first impressions of the Gripen?

“That it was a true pilot’s aircraft. I really felt that handling the aircraft out to the very edge of the allowed envelope was made really easy by the flight control system. The way information was fused and presented was also very intuitive. This has been a hallmark of SAAB aircraft for a long time. I think much due to the fact that Swedish fighters traditionally are single seat. A good Human Machine Interface compensated for the second pilot…”

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How would you rate the Gripen in the following categories:

A. Instantaneous Turn rates

B. Sustained turn rates

C. Acceleration

D. Climb rate

E. Range

“Without mentioning specific numbers since this would be classified I would like to expand the question a bit. We have built Gripen to achieve the highest possible operational effect in a number of scenarios defined by our customers. To do this we have to balance a number of factors such as platform performance, sensor performance, weapon performance, avionics, Human Machine Interface etc. The classic metaphor stating that a chain isn’t stronger than its weakest link is relevant for fighters as well! So the answer would be; platform performance is as good as or better than what is needed to reach the high overall operational effect demand of a future fighter.”

(Though Jonas avoids answering this question directly I would like to quote from this article “Gripen is a bit of an unknown quantity against modern air superiority machines because it takes a fundamentally different approach to survivability. Whilst in traditional DACT exercises, Typhoon pilots have often referred to the Gripen as ‘cannon-fodder’ due to its inferior thrust-to-weight ratio, speed, agility and armament, in the few cases where the Gripen has ‘come to play’ with its full electronic warfare capabilities, it has given Typhoons very nasty shocks. Against the Su-35S, Gripen would rely on the cutting edge EW capabilities which Saab builds the Gripen (especially the new E/F) around to hide the aircraft from the sensors of the Russian jets in much the same way as the Raptor relies on x-band stealth. These EW capabilities are so highly classified that there is simply no way to assess their effectiveness in the public domain. Having said that, RAF pilots who I have talked to with experience of the Saab fighter’s EW teeth first hand say that the ability of the aircraft to get alarmingly close without detection thanks entirely to EW is very impressive.” The answer that modern air combat has greater emphasis on fighting at a distance is not just an avoidant answer, but if the Gripen was a very energetic aircraft Saab would be keen to share this, as Eurofighter is with the Typhoon. It is however understood that Gripen has a particularly good instantaneous turn rate. )

What are the best and worst aspects of the Gripen?

“I personally thoroughly enjoy the incredibly well designed HMI which makes it possible for me as a pilot to process enormous amounts of information and really interpret the tactical relevance of this information. The worst aspect of Gripen to me personally is that we are building such a fantastic and futuristic system but it is all on the inside so to speak. This makes it all a bit abstract and difficult to explain the full potential of the aircraft.”

 How would a Gripen do in the following against a Block 52 F-16?

A. WVR combat

B. BVR combat

C. Situational awareness

E. maintainability- cost of ownership?

“Generally we stay away from direct comparisons but if I were to compare Gripen to other fighters in general I would say that I have already touched on one of the subjects you ask about. Situational awareness in Gripen E is outstanding! All the way from the sensor suite (radar, IRST, missile approach warner, radar warner etc), the local fusion of sensor data in every Gripen, the global fusion of data shared within the tactical air unit (and C2) and via the HMI with the elaborate symbology and wide area display. This information chain and the situational awareness it creates is rally the foundation that all fighting rests on. With this said it comes as no surprise that I think that Gripen helps me as a pilot to perform really well in both BVR and WVR.

 

The Swedish defense traditionally relied heavily on conscript personnel for tasks such as aircraft line maintenance. The operational doctrine of the Swedish air force also included operating from dispersed bases, basically a runway in the forest with no workshops or hangars. These two facts have been part of our design-genome for many years now. The result is that Gripen is very easy to maintain and also very fast to turn around between sorties. Generally we say that time for turnaround between two air-to-air sorties is done in 10 minutes and that is including both refueling and rearming! Ease of maintenance i.e. few hours to fix a potential problem and long mean time between failure add up to a high availability and low cost of ownership.”

 Just how good is the Meteor-armed Gripen at BVR combat? Has it a big enough radar to take full advantage?

“Absolutely! The radar is well balanced with the weapon reach. But the radar is far from the only source of information we use to get target data…”

(By this I understand he is referring to the other sensors and information data-linked to the aircraft from off-board sources.)

 What is your most memorable mission? IMG_0927-1024x683.jpg

“A number of sorties comes to mind, my first display with the SwAF display team, my very first solo sortie at the air force academy, QRA sorties during the cold war when the Baltic was buzzing with activity or when I got to bring my children up in a jet trainer. But if I had to pick one sortie I think it would be something very different. About 10 years ago I was assigned to 2 Squadron in the South African Air force. My mission was to train the first South African group of pilots on Gripen. After a successful training and 18 months in the country I was about to move back to Sweden. One final sortie remained. It was a night flight and the weather was fantastic with stars everywhere. I spent that hour and a half cruising among the stars and contemplating what a fantastic job I have. When heading back to home base the mission controller greeted me with a cheerful “welcome back to earth sir”. I think the combination of a beautiful scenario and the end of a great mission all added up and made it a very emotional sortie.”

What is the biggest myth about Gripen?

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“Actually haven’t heard so much negative. Maybe people are too polite to tell me. But I think one might be that a lot of people have the conception that Gripen E only is a slight upgrade to Gripen C because of their similarities in appearance. Nothing could more wrong! It is a totally new aircraft, albeit based on the same general aerodynamic design as Gripen C.”

 One Typhoon pilot described Gripen as ‘easy meat’, how would Gripen perform in BFM against the following types? Typhoon, Rafale, Hornet, MiG-29 and F-22.

“Again no direct comparison but as I said above, the one with the best information wins the fight. It’s been a fact since world war one and still is. The only difference is how the information is gathered. In the old days looking with your eyes, today and in the future sensors and fusion of sensor data. The classic BFM I would say is no more and if you try it you die. In a world of high of boresight missiles, such as IRIS-T, data-link cueing and helmet mounted displays the within visual range fight looks more and more like a mini-BVR fight.”

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Never let it be said that Europeans don’t love a delta. Typhoons, Gripens and a lone Mirage 2000.

What should I have asked you?

“What’s the best thing about being a Gripen test pilot?

The possibility to influence the future design and functionality of Gripen. I think all fighter pilots can relate to this. During training and operational use of the aircraft every pilot formulates his/her ideas of how to improve the design and functionality and now I really get to this. It’s also a huge responsibility. It’s important that I can meet fellow pilots in the air force and feel that we met their demands and built the most pilot friendly and operationally efficient aircraft possible.”

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The first Saab Gripen E for Brazil is in final assembly. Saab hopes to deliver the first test aircraft to Brazil this year, with operational aircraft following from 2021. Brazil should receive 36 Gripen E/Fs between 2019 and 2024. Image source: Saab

What equipment would you like to see integrated into Gripen?

“Weirdly enough I will answer more computer power and unlimited broad band data-links. I think this is the key to success in a future scenario. The things you can do with computational power and data sharing is astounding and we are a good way down that path with Gripen E but you always want more. Luckily some clever engineer foresaw this and designed the avionics to be basically plug and play with both new software and hardware!”

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Thoughts on Gripen

Politics is the biggest decider in arms deals, so what are the political advantages of going Swedish? One may be that for some nations it is a less inflammatory move than purchasing from the US and Russia. But is the Gripen independent from the US? In the past the US has beat down potential rivals to its commercial dominance by refusing export licences (something it may have done in the 1990s with AMRAAM during the search for the next Finnish fighter). Though Gripen E will have European missiles (Meteor & IRIS-T) and radar — it has a US-licensed engine and will probably use US guided munitions (Paveway and JDAM) as well as a US or Israeli targeting pod. Also despite Saab’s streamline, unbloated, approach to manufacturing – can spare parts for an aircraft produced in tiny numbers in an expensive country be cheap?

Gripen E is likely to be far cheaper to operate than the F-35 and is likely to be the only aircraft offering comparable levels of situational awareness in the near term. This is a big plus, and this is combined with the already operational long range air-to-air Meteor missile. If Saab can keep the Gripen E price down, and a suitable political climate prevails, it should find more customers, even in a massively over-saturated market.

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