The most modern of Saab’s incredible family of combat aircraft, the JAS-39 Gripen replaced the Draken and Viggen in service with the Swedish Air Force and has also found export success. Gareth Stringer spoke to the 2013 Czech Air Force display pilot – Capt Martin ‘Jet Lee’ Spacek.
A lightweight, single-engine, multirole combat aircraft, the Saab JAS-39 Gripen entered service with the Swedish Air Force in 1997. With a very Saab-like delta-wing configuration and canards, the Gripen is powered by a Volvo-Flygmotor RM12, which is a derivative of the General Electric GE F404, and is capable of a maximum speed of Mach 2.
Described by Saab as being ‘swing-role’ the Gripen can carry a host of air-to-ground and air-to-air munitions and was designed to be wholly compatible with NATO interoperability standards. Underneath that good looking exterior, the cockpit is dominated by a head-up display and three large multi-function displays, benefits from HOTAS (Hands on throttle and stick) technology and its PS-05/A pulse-doppler X-band radar. This was developed by Ericsson and GEC-Marconi and is based on the latter’s advanced Blue Vixen radar for the Sea Harrier FA2.
South Africa is one notable export customer for the aircraft, although as few as ten of its Gripens are said to be operational and, most recently, in March 2013, Thailand took delivery of its latest examples, with as many 40 potentially on order for the Royal Thai Air Force. (See the gallery for images of Gripen in many of its guises).
Both the Czech and Hungarian Air Forces operate the Gripen, with the former acquiring 14 aircraft on a lease basis in 2005, a process which, quite remarkably, saw the aircraft delivered just 12 months after the contract was signed. All fourteen jets, 12 single seat and two twin seat examples operate with the 211th Tactical Squadron from 21st Tactical Air Force Base Zvolenská, in Čáslav, a town in the eastern part of the Czech Republic’s Central Bohemian Region.
Primarily tasked with protecting Czech airspace and the airspace of other NATO countries, the 211th is also responsible for re-training Gripen pilots and conducting electronic warfare and joint training with other units, both from the Czech military and across NATO. It is also a member of the NATO Tiger Association, becoming an honourary member in 1993.
Initial training for a Czech Gripen pilot is carried out with the Swedish Air Force at Såtenäs with the Skaraborg Wing, more commonly known as F 7, on the JAS-39A, and candidates must have acquired a minimum of 300 hours on the L-159 ALCA with the 212th Tactical Squadron, also based at Čáslav.
After ten hours of flight training in Sweden, pilots return to the 211th for conversion on to the JAS-39C and after approximately 12 months are considered to be full squadron pilots and combat ready.
Capt Martin Spacek joined the Czech Air Force in 1997 and began his flight training in 2000 on the Zlín Z 142, then the L-29 Delfin, L-39 Albatros and finally the L-159 ALCA.
“I was flying the L-159 ALCA for about six years and I have now been flying the Gripen for three years, with around 300 hours on Gripen, and 1500 in total.
“In 2007 and 2008 I was the ALCA display pilot and in 2008 I was at RIAT when the airshow was cancelled as everything was under water!
“All I ever wanted to be was a pilot but I didn’t really think about display flying until about 2005 when I was on the L-159, but once the opportunity came up, I took it!”
Martin’s display went down very well with the capacity crowds at RAF Waddington and RNAS Yeovilton (where he won best fixed-wing display) and really did demonstrate Gripen from one end of the scale to another – with heights ranging between 100ft and 12,000ft, speed from 100kts up to Mach 0.9 and Gs of between -3 and +9. Gripen is all about versatility, and his routine highlights that very well.
“It is a very light aircraft, with just a single engine of course, and it is also very manoeuvrable, but I think its strongest asset is the cockpit layout. It is a very friendly layout for the pilot.
“Gripen is very easy to fly and the ‘picture’ we get on the radar is excellent, certainly compared to some of the other jets. I have had the opportunity to fly in both F-16 and F-18 and I would say that in this regard, Gripen is better. Of course, we do have less power than those aircraft, but we are still very manoeuvrable.
“Getting Gripen was a huge step for the Czech Air Force and was a big jump in capability from the MiG-21 that was holding QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) before. We focus almost totally on QRA now, that is absolutely our main role, and we specialise in air-to-air combat.
“With just 14 aircraft, it really isn’t enough for us to train on a multi-role basis. We do practise air-to-ground work to a basic level and we are planning to train for CAS (Close Air Support) missions, but with 14 jets and something like 18 pilots, our QRA duties keep us busy.”
The 211th was even busier last year when the squadron took over NATO’s air policing of the Baltic on 1 September, landing at Lithuania’s Šiauliai Air Base to relieve the Polish Air Force’s MiG-29s.
The mission lasted until 1 January 2013 when the Gripens were themselves relieved, by Danish Air Force F-16s, and comprised of a 75 person detachment with four jets, supported by CASA C-295M transport aircraft. It was the second time that Czech Gripens had fulfilled this role, the first taking place in 2009.
For four months the deployed Gripens were on QRA Readiness 24/7 and performed more than a dozen live interceptions, otherwise known as “Alpha Scrambles”. Seven of these scrambles were as a result of Russian military aircraft in international airspace, usually with poor transponder operation or a lack of air-traffic communication. By the end, the four Gripen aircraft had logged 404 hours in 336 sorties, easily exceeding the 290 flight hours that were planned.
Martin simply smiles and tells me, “For that amount of people, it was manic!”
He of course also has an extra responsibility now as the 2013 display pilot. Interestingly though, he didn’t have to worry about designing a sequence at least, as he explains…
“We have a rule where I have to fly the same display as the previous demo pilot, but I think I will change it for next year. Each pilot is different and I would like to add some different manoeuvres for 2014.
“Having displayed the ALCA before, I definitely think that I have an advantage, as the routine is quite similar, albeit in a very different aircraft, so learning it wasn’t too demanding. A lot of it felt fairly familiar.”
Despite its undoubted success, one big question mark remains over the Gripen in Czech Air Force service. In less than two years time, the contracted ten year lease for the aircraft will come to an end. So, what happens next?
Negotiations between the Swedish and Czech Governments have been ongoing since February 2012 and most recently have not only stalled but have been affected by political instability in Prague. At an EU summit in March of this year the Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas reportedly told his Swedish counterpart Fredrik Reinfeldt that the tabled offer simply did not meet expectations, and that the Czech military may look elsewhere.
Additionally, this is an agreement that means much more than ‘just’ the supply of aircraft, with Saab also implementing what it calls the ‘Czech Gripen Offset Programme’, which is designed to contribute to the long term economic strength of its partners. Saab recently released its annual report on this programme and the cumulative value so far amounts to 27.4 billion CZK (Czech Koruna) as of December 2012, the equivalent of more than £820 million or in other terms, a figure representing 130% of the total value of the lease payments for the Gripen aircraft.
On 10 July it was announced that the new Czech Defence Minister Vlastimil Picek, who also held the post in the previous cabinet, will propose a deal extending the lease to the new government, but only after the parliament takes a vote of confidence in it. We await further developments, but with the lease due to end on 31 December 2014, the Czech military does not have much time to play with should it decide to pursue other options.
Naturally you would only expect Martin to give a pilot’s viewpoint, and that’s what he does.
“I want us to continue with Gripen, but it’s up to our politicians,” he says, although that is of course very much his own personal perspective.
You can hardly blame him either. With the JAS-39E now being developed, and Switzerland due to lease its own fleet of eleven C and D models from 2016 while it awaits delivery of the E in 2018, this is a jet which is clearly viewed as a more than viable alternative to the likes of Eurofighter and Dassault Rafale, or legacy types such as F-16 or F/A-18.
Less expensive, certainly, and perhaps slightly less capable, but definitely a platform to be reckoned with.
Gareth Stringer would like to thank Capt Martin Spacek for his time and patience in giving this interview.
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