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Austrian Draken in demonstration team colors.
This is the best jet you've probably never heard of. Saab's jets are a lot like their cars: highly advanced and just a bit "different".

What's that? You didn't know that Saab built jets? They actually were making aircraft years before they started building cars.

The Draken ("Dragon" or "Kite") was Saab's first attempt at a supersonic jet. For a first try they got an awful lot right. First flown in 1955, it had an incredibly long career, serving until 1998 in Sweden and all the way to 2005 in Austria.

Plus it looks really cool. I personally consider it one of the best looking jets ever built.

A delta of deltas. Austrian Drakens in a diamond formation.

Sweden is an interesting case. They were officially neutral during the Cold War, but their sympathies lay with the West. They also know they live in tough neighborhood, being as close to Russia as they are. I'd best describe their defense posture as "We're neutral but you'd better not come in here if you know what's good for you."

Sweden's first jet fighter. The Saab 29 Tunnan (Barrel).
It's obvious where the name came from.
Military aircraft generally begin life with a set of specifications. Somebody decides "We need a plane that can do this, this and this." One or more manufacturers then get into the act and try to design a plane to meet the specification.
Next in line was the Saab 32 Lansen (Lance). These served all the way from 1956 to 1997.
Sweden decided that they needed a supersonic interceptor, but unlike some western interceptors, it couldn't be a pure "bomber killer". It also had to be able to hold its own against fighters. Oh, and it needs to be able to takeoff and land from roads because we want to hide them in the woods. While you're at it, we need to be able to refuel and rearm it in ten minutes using poorly trained conscripts.

That would be a tall order for any aircraft company but Saab came through.

Saab's designers came up with a small (30 ft wingspan), lightweight (17,000 lbs), single-engine fighter with a revolutionary wing design.

The Saab 35 Draken prototype. Imagine how futuristic this must have looked in 1955.
The first prototype flew in 1955 but didn't yet have an afterburner.

The second prototype was the "full up" version. The little Saab turned out be a real hot-rod. It broke the sound barrier on its first flight unintentionally - plus it was climbing at the time.

The Draken uses a "double delta" wing. Sometimes called a "Compound Delta" or a "Cranked Arrow". It's essentially two wings in one. The forward half is very sharply swept, giving excellent high-speed capabilities. The rear half has relatively little sweep for good low-speed handling.

Swedish Draken showing off its unique compound-delta wing.
With its unique wing the Draken could achieve Mach 2 speeds and land in 2,200 feet with the help of a braking parachute.

The other cool thing about Swedish jets is that they're a hodgepodge of parts from different countries. The Draken used a British engine, the Rolls Royce Avon, produced under license. The RAF's Lightning used two of these engines while the Saab achieved comparable performance (and better range) with just one. That should tell you just how good the design was. The Draken used the excellent (for the time) Cyrano radar and fire-control system from the French Mirage III. Its missiles were American AIM-9 Sidewinders, license-built as the RB24.

The Rolls Royce Avon gave excellent performance. Note the Falcon missiles on this one.
The Draken was also armed with two internal 30mm cannons. Later models gave up one cannon for the ability to carry Hughes AIM-4 Falcon and AIM-26 (improved) Falcon missiles. I'm a little curious as to why they wanted the Falcons, which were generally not a very good missile. It may have been to give the Draken a radar-guided missile capability. Never the less, for a small plane the Draken packed a lot of firepower. One or two 30mm cannon plus 4-6 missiles. Saabs have always been efficient.
Austrian Draken in full afterburner.
Let's look at the other numbers. Wiki claims a service ceiling of 59,000 feet, initial rate of climb 34,450 feet-per-minute and a range of 2,000 miles with external tanks. I would guess that's "ferry range" and not combat radius.

It had all the qualities of a great interceptor: speed, rate of climb, ceiling plus the ability to turn. The delta wing reportedly gave great instantaneous turn capability but probably bled airspeed quickly.

All in all excellent performance for a plane designed in the mid 50's and built in the early 60's. Quite comparable to its peers but with the added ability to operate from a short stretch of highway.

How would it do in a dogfight? Hey, I'm a bomber guy, what do I know? My guess is it would have held its own. It was faster than a MiG-21 and could certainly out turn a MiG-23 (most things would). In the end it comes down to the pilot and the tactics. I would say advantage Sweden.

Sweden's requirements are somewhat unique.
The cockpit is cleanly laid out with a mix of round dials and vertical taped instruments. The French Cyrano radar is in the center.
By most accounts the Draken was considered to be a good handling aircraft. Early on  Flygvapnet (Swedish Air Force) pilots found the Draken to be a "hot ship". Eventually a two-seat trainer version was developed to help pilots transition to the Draken. After several complaints about the flight controls being too pitch-sensitive a fix was incorporated.

Otherwise it had few vices. In typical delta-wing fashion the landing attitude is fairly nose-high. Eventually a set of "roller-skate wheels" were added to the tail to prevent dragging the tail on landing.

This shows the "roller-skate" wheels that were added to prevent tail-strikes.
The Draken had an admirably long service life. In total 650 were built with production running until 1974. They were exported to Finland, Austria and Denmark. The Danish version was the only one built as an air-to-ground attack aircraft. The others were all air-to-air versions. Austria kept theirs flying all the way until 2005.

Oddly enough the Austrian Drakens didn't get missiles until 1993. By treaty they weren't allowed to have them. That was dropped when Yugoslavia started violating their airspace.

Look familiar? That's not a Saab from 1955. That's an F-16XL prototype from the 1980s.
There are still a handful flying. Eight of them are flown by civilian owners in the United States. The National Test Pilot School has six that were purchased from Denmark.

Sweden replaced theirs with the excellent Saab Viggen (Lightning) and Gripen (Griffin). The Viggen will get its own diary at some future date.

Saab family portrait. In front is a Tunnan, followed by a pair of Drakens with a Viggen in the "slot" position.
I've never driven a Saab, but if I did this would be the one. Way ahead of its time, the Draken is one of the best designs to come out of the Cold War.

Originally posted to Major Kong on Sat Jul 26, 2014 at 08:11 AM PDT.

Also republished by Kossack Air Force and Central Ohio Kossacks.

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