Linköping is pretty damn cold at this time of year. And on the morning of 6 October, the temperature was a decidedly nippy 6°C. Which is principally why I didn't complain at all when Jakob, Saab's in-house kit-up man, instructed me to strip down and put on olive green full-body woolen inners. That definitely hit the spot, even in the warm basement confines of Saab's experimental test pilot facility. Next on was a special flight suit, far heavier than the Russian and American overalls I had worn. This one had heavy rubberised tubing at all extremities, including the neck, to stop water from flooding in. It was only then that Major Robin Nordlander, an experimental test pilot with Saab on long detachment from the Swedish Air Force, indicated that we would be flying over the Baltic Sea for much of the one hour sortie.
All arrangements were made. A filming crew comprising video professional Per-Ola Hellberg and still photo professional Stefan Kalm, would bundle into a tiny Saab 105 jet trainer and film the first 20 minutes of the flight over Sweden's east coast. After a rigorous no-short-cuts routine of simulator training and sortie briefings (including ejection procedures, always delivered in a slightly unnerving matter-of-fact tone), with harness strapped, flight boots laced to the shins and my Cobra helmet in hand, we left the facility and walked towards our machine. Our aircraft was one of Saab's test platforms, a Gripen D, Tail Number 822, and the day couldn't have turned out better for flying. It was sunny, crisp, with stray wisps of cloud. Perfect.
After Major Nordlander and the pilot of the Saab 105 chase plane quickly discussed a formate plan, I was strapped into the back cockpit of the waiting jet. Major Nordlander did a quick run through of all pre-start safety checks. Strapped in himself, we worked the cockpit intercom and conducted a full routine of checks. Since the back cockpit doesn't have a HUD, I chose to have my left MFD give me a video feed of the front cockpit's HUD. Things of beauty, those big light-sensitive MFDs. Aux power on. Systems check. Then the GE/Volvo Aero RM12 turbofan engine was powered on to ground idle. After clearance, that rang crisply through the intercom, we taxied out from the bay and onto the facility's main runway, sunlight glinting through a row of short pines on the far side of the tarmac.
Positioned on the tarmac on ground idle, we waited a few seconds while the Saab 105 chase plane was closer to roll position. Then Major Nordlander gunned her.
Pushed to mil power and onward to full reheat, the jet zipped down the tarmac, and what was definitely the shortest take-off I've had so far, it sliced into the air. After a terrific burst of climb, we banked hard to port and broke for the coast. It came very soon. The rich lushness of Sweden's South East abruptly splintered into a scattered profusion of tiny emerald islets strewn on the inky blue firmament of the Baltic Sea. But we weren't here to admire the heart-stopping vistas.
Turning against the sun, a quick formation check was conducted with the Saab 105 which had by this time taken off and was on its way to a pre-decided RV point. A tiny speck silhoutted against the sun's suffused (through helmet visor) glow rapidly became the Saab 105, a little gem of a jet airplane that serves as the primary trainer for the Swedish Air Force (they don't use a single propeller trainer). For the next 15 minutes, we looped loops around the Saab 105 as its camera rolled. We did hard break-offs, abrupt dives and flew slowly in a long lazy concentric formation with our jet contrasted against the fish-scale glitter of the ocean below (See Photo). With the Gripen banked at 60° to starboard, we had the Saab 105 filming us from port side, and the ocean to our right. The two aircraft flew with perfectly synched speed and vector. I can't remember a more magical few minutes. After that, Major Nordlander said he was breaking off. The Saab 105 gingerly decelerated and spun away back to base, its work done.
"OK, enough games," piped in my pilot. "Let's go have some real fun now." With that, we climbed to 15,000 feet and banked out fully over the Baltic, till we were cruising somewhere halfway to the Swedish summer retreat island of Gotland, about a third of the way to Latvia. "You have control," said Major Nordlander, and I acknowledged. I was itching to hear those three pre-agreed upon words that would put the jet into my hands. I throttled down to mil power and warmed up with a few barrel rolls to port and starboard. The flight control system was super smooth, with beautifully actuated trim -- no messy jerks, no abruptness, just seamless flight. I flipped the jet onto its back and pitched her nose down, flattening out against the sea. I pulled some quick soft-stop medium-G routines, and, aided by my pilot, some quick high-AoA manoeuvers.
And then it was time to do what I'd never experienced before in three earlier fighter flights. I still had control. I was instructed to power up to full afterburner. As the dull roar of the reheat engaged, Major Nordlander asked me to look out for the very very slight pitch deflection that occured when we smashed the sound barrier. The deflection was too slight to even notice. Or maybe the aircraft just cut too finely through it. Whatever it was, in seconds, 14,000 feet above the Baltic Sea almost due south from Stockholm, we were cruising at 1.2 Mach. Watching the airspeed indicator on the HUD feed was exhilirating. We tore on at 1.2M for a few minutes, before I gunned back down to mil power. Major Nordlander asked me to climb to 20,000 feet and play around as I wished while he did some quick head-down radar work. And so I did.
When he was done, I asked for some low-altitude performance. We spiralled down to the sea, spotting a large luxury cruise-liner leaving a large foamy wake on the inky expanse. At about 600 feet, we did a brilliant slow-flight pass of the vessel, and topped that up with a steep full-gunned climb back to 16,000 feet. Heart-stopping stuff. I flew for a while longer with full controls. Tested out some stick-only flying after engaging auto-throttle. Then it was time for the approach routines.
My pilot selected our landing runway on the nav landing tab on the central MFD. After a brief pulse, the waypoint buzzed onto the HUD, pulling the Gripen towards it. Major Nordlander told me to take the plane in. Just keep the dot of the base encircled in the fuselage circle on your HUD. That's all there is to it. Follow the dot, keep the landing lines vectored at right angles and with no overspill on the indicator tabs. And the plane goes in perfect. Like a videogame. No different. Throttled down to about 250-knots. Touched down, gunned up to full afterburner for a brilliant touch and go at bizarrely short length.
We winged back around, and this time, Major Nordlander made me go almost all the way. I brought the aircraft back with full throttle and stick control to the runway. He took over for the final few seconds before the plane's wheels hit asphalt for a demo of the super-short stop. It was unbelievably short. Back on earth. Sigh.
Tomorrow: GRIPEN DREAM Part II - Inside the Gripen IN
A Half-Hour Feature on my Gripen flight airs shortly on Headlines Today. Will post the schedule when it's confirmed.
Still Photos for Headlines Today by Stefan Kalm (Courtesy Saab)
Labels: Adventure, Aircraft And Helicopters, Headlines Today, LiveFist Exclusive, M-MRCA Competition, Photographs