Flying & Fighting in the Gripen: Interview with a Swedish Air Force pilot
“I know the guys in the Swedish Air Force are very keen to fly their Gripens in air combat manoeuvres against Denmark’s and Norway’s F-35s. I think you can guess why.”
What is your favourite thing about Gripen?
“The large display real-estate. Gripen C/D has a huge Head-Up-Display (HUD) and three large colour Head-Down Displays (HDDs). This gives ample opportunity to create a high-fidelity user interface for the pilot. The big HUD is good for dog-fighting (even though that’s going away, as fun as it was) and HDDs is for Beyond Visual Range air-to-air combat and basically all other mission types that are the chess-playing of today’s air operations. A good pilot user interface and decision support system is an untapped and under developed innovation resource in fighter aircraft, as traditionally “hard” specs have been favoured, perhaps because they are easier to quantify into numbers. In a lot of scenarios, a next-gen system vs a standard “show where the sensor fused enemies are on the map” – can make a 5 to 1 difference. That’s huge, and comparable to the gap between aircraft generations. Gripen E/F will come with an even larger wide area display (WAD) and the possibilities for software upgrades becomes endless. Nowadays my company creates decision support systems for military aircraft and C2-systems, and without large high-fidelity screens to show it on, it wouldn’t be possible. Artificial Intelligence really makes a difference here, but perhaps not in the way many people think of it. AI is for us basically a way to reduce the calculations to fit within a fighter’s limited computing resources.”
“The pilot is still in-the-loop with our AI though, and makes the tactical decisions, but is being presented with information that is richer and more pre-calculated to how the pilot is thinking. All this wouldn’t be possible without the larger screens that can convey the information. This is why it’s my favourite feature, it makes the aircraft more software upgradable.
What is your least favourite thing? The refuelling probe length and position on the Gripen C/D. Even though I know the reasons behind the placing and length (retrofitted into an already set fuselage) it makes a mission component, that should be easy and predictable, an unnecessarily exciting part of the mission. Anecdote coming up! I’ve been told that when Gripen C/D was certified for air refuelling the subject matter expert pilot said something like: “Gripen has probably the world’s worst probe placement but compensates that with the world’s best flight control system.” I concur with the statement. You can fly to the basket/drogue and stay easily within a meter or so of it, positioning your Gripen with almost centimetre precision with the stick, but when you approach it the wake of the canopy will push it outwards. This means that you’ll have to “go for it” and aim a bit on the outside of the drogue. This is not a good recipe for predictability. You do get good at it after a while and learn how to do it safely, but a longer probe wouldn’t harm.”
Would you be confident facing an F-16?
“Absolutely. I can’t think of anything the F-16 would be better at, if we don’t count ease of refuelling (F-16 is refuelled with a boom and the boom operator does much of the job). Of course, there’s a lot of details and circumstances here, but generally the Gripen is a step or two ahead, especially in my favourite areas. As mentioned, I really like pilot UI and large screens, and F-16 is lacking a bit in that area, so maybe I’m a bit biased. I do like the F16’s side-stick though! I have flown an F-16 and I loved the stick. It didn’t take many minutes to get used to the stiffer stick, and it’s more ergonomic for the pilot in high-Gs (and probably for long missions) to have it on the side. Flying in close formation with another fighter was almost as easy as with the Gripen.”
Sustained turn rate
“Good. The Gripen “carves” very well through the air, much because of its all-moving canards and leading-edge slats. Even though it doesn’t have the thrust-to-weight ratio that for instance the Russian Su-35 have, it can hold it own. A pilot always wants more power of course, but if one is looking at the return on investment for more power to get combat effectiveness out of sustained turn rate, a bigger (i.e. heavier and more fuel consuming) engine is a hard sell.”
“Good enough. This is basically thrust-to-weight ratio. I’ve never felt the need to climb faster. I think max speed is more important since a higher speed means a lot in BVR combat. You can fire your weapons at longer distances and go further into an enemy’s WEZ if you have a higher speed.”
“Very good, with a possible trajectory to become stellar. The large screens on the Gripen makes it formidable for Situation Awareness (SA). Given that air operations are moving into more of a chess game than Top Gun turn and burn, the advantage is moving towards aircraft with great SA. Saab struggled initially, but in the long run it was a rewarding path to certify the on-board software in different levels. They call this app-thinking, and it means that all except the critical systems (like flight control software) run software that is not more critical than normal computer software. This can make it much (and I really mean much) cheaper and faster to develop new functionality for the Gripen. However, change is hard to achieve within a large organisation. If the mindset is still the same as for all other fighters in the world – that software for fighters should be developed like it always has been – the advantage will go away. Our company has bet on the prediction that Saab can and will make that mindset change and accept innovative features from external (and internal) suppliers.
Click on the type name for interviews with pilots of the following aircraft: MiG-25, B-52, Mirage 2000, Hawk, Tornado, Phantom, F-100, MiG-21, MiG-27, F-35 , English Electric Lightning
“Reliability is two-fold. How often will the aircraft break and how fast can it be fixed and sent back up again. Unfortunately, I don’t have the statistics on this, though it is my intuitive belief that Gripen is very reliable and extremely fast to get back up again. In operation Unified Protector (Libya) for instance, we had fewer aircraft and definitely fewer maintenance crew in our detachment than most (all?) other nations, and still managed to get a lot of flying time. I can’t remember a single mission being cancelled because of aircraft failure, and this was the first mission abroad for Sweden in 50 years and a new environment (much hotter). A full turn-around can be as fast as seven minutes if memory serves me, but a more normal time in day-to-day squadron ops is about 30 minutes with one maintenance crew for each aircraft. That is quite unique I think.”
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