Flying & Fighting in the Saab Viggen: Cold War Thunder (interview with a Viggen pilot)

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Thundering over icy mountains, taking-off from motorways and tasked with defending a small neutral country from the biggest war machine in history, the Saab Viggen is a strong candidate for the most charismatic of the Cold War fighters. We spoke to former Viggen pilot Mikael Grev to find out more. 

“I have 600 hours on the JA 37 Viggen, which I flew from 1998 to 2003.  JA stands for Fighter and Strike (in Swedish) but Fighter was what it was all about. It is normally just called the Fighter Viggen and it was the best Viggen version, something all pilots agree on. Or it was the Fighter Viggen pilots that were the best – possibly both – I can’t remember.” Mikael noted with a tongue-in-cheek smile, “There were also Recce and Strike versions of the Viggen. There was almost no rivalry among the pilots of the different versions though.”
“The Viggen was capable of massive acceleration, at low level, as long as you didn’t turn much. The engine had a high-bypass ratio, which means lots of power at low level. On a cold day (we have plenty of those in Sweden) at 30 metres altitude, with 30 % fuel left and a clean aircraft it was like riding a rocket!”

Sustained turn rates
“Pretty bad by today’s standard. Of course, if you stayed at low level it was OK, but you basically controlled a big airbrake with your stick. i.e the Viggen itself was a large airbrake. The first versions actually had a normal air brake, but it was later welded shut since it did nothing compared to the induced drag you could get by pulling a few Gs”

Instantaneous turn rate

“OK, but since it didn’t have care free manoeuvring you had to take it a bit easy and keep track of the g-meter. It had a maximum 7g allowed, and that was with quite low fuel, so decent, I guess. It had a clever sound feedback system with beeping tones for high G and alpha (different pitch), so you could pull hard on the stick and still look at the target. But if you wanted that last bit of turn rate, you had to look at the G-meter with one eye and at the target with the other one. And preferably keep one eye one the alpha meter as well. Marty Feldman would be an awesome Viggen pilot!”

High alpha performance

“If we, being respectful to an old lady, interpret that as being able to keep exactly the maximum 23 degrees of alpha in a dogfight, it was fantastic. The flight control system was very good, again for the time. No problem to stay between 22-23 degrees while rolling and manoeuvring against a target in a dogfight.

If you went over 23 degrees or 7Gs you would ‘get the knife’ in your hand (a buzzer built into the stick) which told you to push the stick forward. If you went over 23 degrees you would get an automatic report after landing, and you didn’t want that since it also meant ‘a talk’ with the squadron commander. At 26 degrees alpha, or a bit above that, there was a real risk of super-stall.

There was a trick here that some knew and used. You had to stay above 23 for two seconds or more to get a report. Since every degree count, you could milk it a bit and go back and forth between 24.5 and 23, as long as you didn’t stay above 23 for more than two seconds. If you went above 25 you were toast no matter the duration though.”

Sensor performance & situational awareness
“Good for the time. We had a moving map in the JA 37 C/D, but it was monochrome, and vector based. The Di version, which came in the last years of service, had a colour moving map, just like in the Gripen.

Sensor-wise it had a pretty good radar, but with a limited range of around 60km. The Di version had a bit more due to better processing. The Radar Warning Receiver just told us the quadrant an aircraft locked on from and we had no forward looking infra-red, missile approach warning, laser designator pod or other fancy stuff. The recce camera, I have been told, was state of the art. Fortunately it wasn’t integrated on the Fighter Viggen.”

What was it like using the thrust reverser?

“Like falling over forwards while braking on the runway. As a pilot you’re used to being pushed backwards, but when it was engaged after touchdown the forces got reversed. The more you push the throttle forward, all the way to full military power, the more you hung in your straps. It was good to have, especially at the road bases when it was icy, but honestly, I wonder if it wasn’t more weight to always carry around than it made good the few times it was used.”

Another member of the Viggen family was the AJ37  used for ground attack missions.

Could the Viggen have survived against a Flanker?

“Yes, if we had numerical advantage around 2:1. 1 vs 1 air combat manoeuvring would be pointless, and we’d lose every time. The Flankers take more Gs, have a higher sustained turn rate and carries more fuel. Luckily the cold war never got warm.”

Was its lack of agility an issue?
“Yes, in a sense. But this was in the mid-nineties and a lot of Swedes thought that eternal peace had arrived (Russia was good now and was never ever going to be bad again), and we had something of a strategic timeout. In that way the threat wasn’t really real and nothing military was a real issue. And, the Gripen was already well on its way to enter service and that had much better performance in almost every way.”

It seemed a very different concept to fighters from other nations – was it an unusual concept? “We do have a very different geographical situation. A large country compared to population and lots of roads. Actually, today we try to get back to the road base system since it is a really good way to disperse the Air Force and make it harder to hit with cruise and ballistic missiles. A road base is easy to shut down but expensive to open again though, so we’ll see how many we can get back into use.”

 Did you practice dispersed basing or motorway take-offs?
“Yes. The feeling when you stand in the beginning of the runway, ready to take off, with a forest wall a bit over 800m in front of you, is not unlike standing on the platform looking down when bungy jumping. Same thing when landing on that same strip, 800m seems rather short. It looks like it can’t be done, but then you know many have and you just do it.

How good was the SkyFlash missile?
“Not very good compared to AA-10-Alamo-A or C that the Flankers had. And what I know now about missile models and really fast target aircraft, it was very fortunate we didn’t have to use them in combat.”

What was it like firing the cannon?
“Awesome! The Oerlikon 30mm was really good, not just for its time. It was actually so good that it was loosened a bit to spread the bullets. We had an air-to-air automatic aiming mode for it which used the radar. The pilot just moved the stick in roll and the aircraft calculated and controlled the pitch to hit the target. It was used to fire the gun on larger aircraft with great precision and it hit what it aimed at, if the target was going straight.”

An underside view of a Swedish Saab 37 Viggen fighter aircraft during Exercise BALTOPS ’85.

Best & worst thing about flying the Viggen?
“The sound was the best. It was a deep, soft sound of pure power, just like a muscle car. I sometimes get the question how the Viggen and Gripen differs, and I usually say it’s like a Dodge Charger compared to a Porsche 911.”

Most memorable mission?
“Since we didn’t ever do anything abroad with the Viggens – they weren’t really made for that – it’s probably the sortie where I flew the fastest. I had plenty of fuel left after a training mission just north of Gotland and were RTB just north of Stockholm. We had gotten the OK to go supersonic and I thought, well why not accelerate all the way home?

I started at 30.000 ft and the aircraft just accelerated and accelerated. It must have been a newly serviced engine in combination with high pressure and cold air or something because this was more than usual. I throttled back just before feet dry at Mach 1.8+ and it was still accelerating like crazy! Usually there’s no problem reducing the speed with a Viggen but at that speed there was a feature that kicked in that meant you couldn’t go below full military power because of inlet pressure. And you couldn’t take many Gs either because of the high speed. So, land, with houses and stuff, approached and much quicker than estimated since the speed reduction took way longer than expected.

I thought I had broken every window in the Stockholm archipelago. Sitting on the squadron waiting for the first call to come in was a memorable part of that mission. But no one called. Not even a peep. I guess the weather conditions were on my side that time.”

Three words that describe the Viggen?
“Power. Steel. Fighter-Viggen-is-better-than-recce-and-strike.”

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