Where the claws of the Griffin where tested


Gyula Zoltán


Very few people know that beside Sweden’s tourist attractions there’s a place in the northern part of the country which is not know because of its spectacular landscape, but exactly because of its bleak plateau. Europe’s largest overland aeronautical shooting-range can be found here. The rockets of the Swedish Air Force, waiting to enter service, and now the weaponry of the JAS-39 Gripen are tested above this thinly inhabited area. The shooting-range, formerly handled as a super secret base, disposes of two airfields. The silence of the snowy hills has been disturbed by explosions since the 1950’s. From the total of 5200 square kilometres a special area of 1650 square kilometres is available for rocket launching experiments. Usually different ‘drons’ (flying togged or remote controlled vehicles which execute their flight in a pre-programmed manner) are playing the role of the target to be destroyed. The runway available for take-off on the Kiruma airfield is 2500 metres long, while the one on the Vidsel airfield is 2300 metres long. On the 13th July 2003 the reporter of Aranysas magazine, as SAAB’s guest, familiarized himself with the life on the test base at Vidsel.

The data of the safety commissions could be enumerated for long, because for example to the more than 5000 square kilometres of the shooting range a restricted area twice as big is added, which is only opened for the planes that take part in the experiment. There is a need for this area twice as big as a Hungarian county, because flying a 350 kilometre homing action and launch an air-combat missile with a reach of 100 kilometres doesn’t count as a special task.

The probable testing time of live weapons is of course communicated to the inhabitants of the area, but there is no need for fashionable panel discussions, because the Laps are used to the man made flashes buzz off above their heads.

An important view-point is that there is no need in Sweden to build special freezing chambers to imitate the rough weather conditions, because the polar climate of the testing facility solves the problem of testing below freezing point.

Here everything happens according to the wish of the costumer, they are prepared to test air to ground, air to air, ground to air and even air to water missiles. The testing of the weapons is done with the help of the most sophisticated electrical and optical tracking devices, commanding installations, high precision measuring devices and meteorological services.

The testing of AIM-120 AMRAAM happened on this base too, the missiles being launched by a JAS-39 Gripen. The launching of the six test missiles was not only an interesting period but also a memorable one for Nil Widén, who was formally commander of the testing facility for years. The adapting of the missiles ended with a simultaneous launching. Two missiles were launched from one plane on two different aerial targets. All launchings were successful. This time the exactitude of the hits wasn’t proved by smoking wracks in the snow, but the signals of the sensor mounted on the combat unit of the missile, were transmitted to the command post, and with the help of the flight parameters, the scale and exactitude of the hitting zone developed at the meeting of the missile and the target plane can be calculated.

After the evaluation of the gathered data the specialists determine the efficiency of the shooting. The testing of AIM-120 AMRAAM with a longer range had already begun and will be continued during next autumn. The specialists of the testing facility this time work together with the weapon developers of the American Raytheon company. Soon the testing of laser guided high precision bombs will also begin. Because of the different hanger systems there’s the need for making them compatible, but this way the costumer has the opportunity to buy the weapons from the European manufacturer, from the United States, Israel or even Brazil.

Naturally there are weapon stands under the wings of the Swedish fighters, which are suitable for the launching of weapons designed for them.

The treacherous weather didn’t confute itself; the perfectly organized Gripen’s C type presentation in front of the public was disturbed by the rain falling from the quickly closing clouds. The guests had the opportunity during the rain to visit the museum of the base, where we could meet the aeronautical imitations of the last century.

Luckily the rain disappeared as quickly as it appeared. The team for technical service of the Gripen, reception of the returning plane, preparation for repeated tasks, began its work on the wet concrete in the dripping rain. The demonstration proved it once again that the service of the planes is solvable even in field conditions. Probably this conception is rooted in the years of the Cold War, but the Swedish defensive strategy uses it in the long run. The service group, consisting of three vehicles, demonstrated how the plane can be refuelled, rearmed and made completely operational. Later I was sorry that I hadn’t measured the time between the landing and take off of the plane, but it couldn’t have been more than 15-18 minutes. The Swedes have elaborated an interesting and efficient method to save their planes in an eventual war situation and to survive the stroke of the enemy. According to the well practiced method, the planes decollating from the air fields spread out using for landing the specially developed parts of the road-system. Along safe landing the width and structure of the appointed roads are also good enough for the planes to taxi into the cover of a nearby forest.

During the Gulf war it turned out that nowadays reinforced or hardened shelters aren’t strong enough to protect the airplanes. The high precision laser guided bombs can make useless or destroy bunkers with chirurgical precision. For protection against the weather extremities of the area like rain, snow or sunlight, a much cheaper bunker or hangar are suitable.

The similar application of the airplanes didn’t occur only to the Swedes. A similar passage had been included among the terms of the application of the South African Air Force, which asked that the purchased planes should be capable to operate from the suitable parts of the highways. Is it possible that they didn’t choose this model by luck?

During the conversation which followed the demonstration I tried to get some answers to my questions regarding the testing and system integration of the C type Gripen which was due to be shipped for the Hungarian Air Force. That’s how the refuelling in mid air came into question. I had the luck to speak with the pilot who took part in the ‘dry’ testing on the system. I noticed that he was keen to answer all my questions, so I rapidly gathered a bunch of the most frequent questions asked in our profession and the media back in Hungary.  A lot of people don’t understand why an aerial refuelling wasn’t performed, by introducing fuel into the fuel tanks trough the refuelling stud. Namely because till today, only a ‘dry’ test had been performed in England with a VC-10 tanker plane.

 My interlocutor said that this was only because the Swedes wanted to test and practice this operation on their own transformed C-130 Hercules airplane. The Hercules is currently being under reconstruction in order to be suitable for the role of air tanker. The testing of approaching and refuelling was made by test pilots in the United States with F-16 fighters. He says with Gripen this task will be a lot easier. By the F-16 the refuelling stud is situated on the back of the fuselage, behind the cockpit, so that the personnel of the tanker have the task to introduce the movable, stiff but manoeuvrable connector on to the stud. (We had the opportunity to witness this operation on board of a KC-135 as an F-16 arriving to Taszár from Oklahoma executed this manoeuvre.) With a Gripen, he explained, after you reach the starting position for the refuelling you only have to give gas and pay attention to the instructions from the tanker. The refuelling probe of the Gripen would certainly connecting with the basket. If somebody thinks the pilot watches the basket and that’s how he tries to hit it, he’s wrong. That’s not only unadvisable but also prohibited. If somebody would try to follow the little movement of the basket he would surely miss the connection. It’s clear that we are talking of two completely different ways of refuelling.

When the refuelling probe of the Gripen was designed they chose the completely retractable one. I told him, that I thought this solution with four telescopic elements without any backed would be a very instable one. He reassured me that it was perfectly proportioned, and that they chose this version in order not to change the radar reflection of the plane, and so that the generated air flow wouldn’t disturb the manoeuvrability of the plane.

After this short theory part let’s get back to a more practical on the concrete of the Vidsel air field. At the far side of the take-off field the planes are waiting to fly, among them the double seated SAAB 105 and the Viggen JAS- 37. The preparation of the planes before take-off takes place here. Because the service buildings only had a roof they only protected the planes and the maintenance installations against the weather. It could also serve against the watching eyes of the satellites, because earlier the testing of the weapons developed by the Swedes also happened here, but maybe the great powers were interested only in each others’ novelties. There’s nothing to wonder about the fact that here in Sweden the secrecy is still taken seriously. No tourist is advised to take pictures of the landing or taking-off aircraft, at the fences of military facilities or air bases because he could find himself in trouble with the police or military security.

Our appointed place was about 50 metres away from the launching site, so that our ears were put to test by the lumber of the Gripens hitting the accelerator at take-off. Those who used the ear-plugs which were given, could enjoy only half of the excitement. The plane in full armament demonstrated convincingly its manoeuvrability with external hangers. He proved that its applicability wasn’t restrained even in such harsh conditions. After the demonstration my escort asked me whether I would like to see the cockpit of the C type Gripen in function. My answer was short and definite, but he could’ve read the answer in my eyes. The plane was detached by cordons, but now using the opportunity of taking pictures, I walked around the plane several times, and although there are yellow and blue emblems on the plane, it is already a bit our plane too, and from 2006 Hungarian pilots will also fly it. The installations in the cockpit were powered by APU (Auxiliary Power Unit), but even here on the concrete the smell of the kerosene and the lumber of the jet engine meant an unforgettable experience for those who love flying.

The dashboard of the plane looks very different in the picture as in reality. To my surprise the pilot encouraged me to grab the joystick… It has no strong spring mechanisms that give the pilot equal physical information to the force of the deflection of the rudders.

Stig Helmström, the pilot who flew the Gripen prototype for the first time, told me on one of our meetings that it turned out on the initial testing that the joystick was uncomfortable to hold if the pilots pulled it towards themselves and to the right. This didn’t mean that it disturbed them a lot, but a longer version fit better into the pilot’s hands. Test flights are made exactly in order to sort out this kind of problems. The so-called traditional instruments disappeared almost completely from the cockpit, instead three large MFD („Multi Functional Display”) rule the dashboard. The HUD (Head-Up-Display) fits perfectly into the pilot’s field of vision. The stiffener and holder metal frames disappeared. The better view is more obvious if we compare two pictures made from the same perspective in a MIG-29 and a C type Gripen showing the air space seen by the pilot.

Earlier I thought that the HUD had a flat surface but now I could observe its convexity. The data shown by HUD can be changed by the pilot according to his task. The marketing specialists of Gripen International can be proud to say that their fighter is the first to enter service with completely digitalised cockpit.

The smaller displays, switches with an ergonomically perfect and pilot-orientated performance make sure that with help of the HOTAS (Hand On Throttle And Stick) system the pilot can exploit the full potential of the weaponry and can fulfil his task perfectly. With the help of the HOTAS system the pilot doesn’t need to take off his hands from the throttle and the joystick during flight, because these contain all the buttons and switches needed to control the airplane. That’s how a perfect union between man and machine is possible. There’s no need to be afraid that the plane will do everything by itself and all the pilot will have to do is to take off, to land and to hit some switches. Without a detailed knowledge of the whole system, the modern fighters and their pilots can only be doves of peace in the sky.

Being a former fighter pilot myself, I’m sure that after the system settings and the adding of the Hungarian wedge-roundel to the Gripens in Kecskemét, the Hungarian pilots will prove that they are competent masters of the fourth generation griffins.


The article above appeared in the 8. issue of Aranysas magazine in 2003.


Translated by Schönberger Edmond