Interview with Cold War Saab Draken pilot
A masterpiece of fighter design, the Saab Draken was a sleek flying dagger designed for the defence of Sweden. Long before the MiG-29 made it world famous, the Draken was capable of the alarming Cobra Manoeuvre, in which the aircraft snaps its nose beyond a vertical attitude (without losing or gaining altitude). In this dynamic deceleration the entire aircraft acts like a giant airbrake forcing any pursuing fighter to instantly become the pursued. Bosse Engberg flew the majestic Saab Draken for the Swedish Air Force in the 1980s. Here he gives us the low-down on the sleekest of all European Cold War fighter aircraft.
Describe the Draken in three words
What was the best thing about the Draken?
The feeling of being one with the aircraft once you closed the canopy
…and the worst?
None (as I can remember)
What is the biggest myth about the aircraft?
I’d say it was the ‘Superstall’ – which was reality and not a myth. It could be used for the ”Cobra manoeuvre” during dogfights.
What was your first flight like?
We started off in the twin seat version (SAAB 35C). The first two flights were demo flights, seated in the backseat. Coming from the SK60 (SAAB 105) everything happened twice as fast but after a few flights you got used to the experience and had time to start enjoying it.
What was your most memorable experience flying the Draken?
As Sweden was a neutral country, placed between Nato and the Warsaw Pact we always practiced on our own. However, being based closed to the Baltic Sea, there were often things going on. My first experience happened when we were out as a two-ship, practicing low level dogfight over water. My leader (and instructor) was called and asked if we could perform at identification of an unknown low level object. He acknowledged and we were lead by radar towards the target, flying at 30 meters and speed M0.9+. Having less than 100 hours on the type and experiencing your first “mission” increased my pulse significantly. All of a sudden the object appeared – for my leader. I was concentrated following him but was not prepared when he fully extended the speedbrake and went to idle. I passed him and when looking forward I saw an Ilyushin Il-18, painted in Aeroflot livery, over water at 50 metres! Of course I passed that one too, with full speedbrake, idle and now even higher pulse. I realised I had to get in position behind him again so I made a climbing left turn. Stupid enough I crossed his flightpath, meaning “follow me”, and so he did! For a short while until someone else took command and turned back to the easterly heading they had before my manoeuvre. I got back behind my leader, this time with more suitable speed, and we informed the radar operator about type and registration. Running low on fuel we left him and returned to base. The older guys had some good laughs on my behalf at the debriefing. It would have been a good catch though, bringing home an Il-18 in my early career.
What was the role of the Draken and in which unit did you fly?
We were 99% fighters but with the capability to load and launch rockets at special occasions.
How would you rate it in the following categories”
A. Instantaneous turn rates
Quick to react, easily pull 9G
B. Sustained turn
Speed decreasing quite rapidly (with high G load) since the shape of the wings produced a lot of drag
C. Climb rate
Good but have nothing to compare.
D. General agility
A somewhat small and manoeuvrable fighter, quick responses and easy to fly – but you had to be cautious in low speed.
E. High angle of attack performance
Unstable as the double delta shape quickly could throw you in to superstall. If I remember right, we had an α of 12-15˚ in the landing.
F. Off-base operations
Sweden had a strategy of using normal roads as supplementary landing strips in case the runway at the base had been destroyed. Landings were practiced now and then, the first times an awkward feeling with high pine-trees standing close to the strip.
G. As a fighter
As it was the only role it was assigned for and I’ve only fired rockets a few times it’s hard to tell. It drank quite a lot of fuel in low level flight so any longer missions were not possible. So as an attack aircraft it was only considered as a last option.
We had an IR-sensor on the F2 version.
In terms of combat effectiveness and survivability?
This is quite hard to tell since the Draken never has been in combat for real. I know occasions that has taken place “for fun” over the Baltic sea with other countries fighters and performed well.
Cockpit layout and comfort?
Old fashioned layout, only analogue instrumentation. The comfort was good, you somehow “put the aircraft on you as a jacket” when you climbed down. It was tight, especially if you had your drysuit on. Then you had to perform some checklist items with your elbow. The chair was leaning at a comfortable 35˚.
What should I have asked you?
Was it hard to land? It was, in the beginning. Coming from a trainer with nose-down during approach the high AoA was a new experience. Rising the nose immediately required more thrust. Also the fact that you had to look somewhat sideways “around” the instrument panel to see the runway was initially an awkward feeling.
Did the aircraft have a nickname?
Not really but we all had our names and feelings for the Draken.
Which weapons did you deploy and which was the most spectacular from the cockpit?
I only had the chance to fire one Sidewinder (AIM-9B) and one Falcon (AIM-26B) during practice. We also practiced the ADEN cannon once a year. No particular sensation when firing the robots (missiles) just a short “swoosh” when they were fired. Firing the cannon was a different feeling since it was noisy and you saw the tracers.
Did you fly DACT?
We did not.
Do you love the aircraft?
But of course! It was love at first sight when I was 10 or 11 years old. To have the chance to fulfil the dream becoming a fighter pilot was extraordinary. Now living close to Swedens largest Draken museum is perfect, visiting once in a while to relive the specific smell.
What was unusual about Swedish air force tactics and culture?
As mentioned earlier, we could fly from roads in case of war being re-fuelled and re-armed on a small apron in the forest.
Bosse Engberg/lieutenant/F16 Uppsala (based two years at Tullinge, south of Stockholm/5 years flying Draken (version F1 & F2), in all 7 years in the airforce (1981-1988).
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