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The Saab 35 Had Just 1 Mission: Win a War Against Russia in the Sky

Saab 35
Saab 35 fighter, also from Sweden. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The Saab 35 is not a household name or well known in any generalist military or aviation circles. And yet, during the Cold War, it seems clear Sweden once again locked in its reputation as a top designer and operator of fighter jets. And the Saab 35 needed to be: The Saab 35 Draken was one of the first fully supersonic aircraft to have been deployed in Western Europe. It was developed as a replacement for the first generation of Swedish fighter jets including the Saab J29 Tunnan and Saab 32 Lansen. It was a combat aircraft that could intercept bombers at high altitudes, yet still, be able to engage enemy fighters.

It proved to be one of the most capable dogfighters of its era, even if it never actually saw combat. Here are the key facts you need to know and remember:

Post War Fighter

Development of the interceptor began soon after the Second World War, and it was actually a radical leap forward in aviation technology. Engineers at Saab had a radical idea for a new all-weather supersonic jet fighter, which was to become the Saab 35 Draken.

Slow Development

While designed for speed, the development of the Saab 35 was slow going for the era. Design work began in the late 1940s, but the first flight didn’t occur until 1955, and it wasn’t until 1960 that the aircraft was ready for frontline service with the Swedish Air Force.

The main reason was that it took more than any jet fighter of the era to complete the first prototype for flight. But in the end, good things come to those who wait.

Delta Wing

The Saab 35 proved to be a radical design, and the Draken was the first aircraft to successfully employ a double delta wing design. Recognizable as the large, triangle-shaped wings are widest at the rear and taper inwards closer to the nose of the plane, it offered numerous benefits. The first was that delta wings have more internal volume for fuel than conventional wings, while the wings proved to be structurally stronger.

The tradeoff was higher amounts of drag compared to typical swept-wing aircraft.

Big Design Team

Development of the Draken was quite the affair. Led by aircraft engineer Erik Bratt, a team of more than 500 technicians worked on the design, including the unique wing shape after studying different ways of packaging the fuel and equipment.

Bratt and his team worked for three years on the double delta wing concept with the Saab 210, a sub-scale test aircraft. Such scale prototypes were needed in the era before computer-aided design (CAD) and advanced flight simulations.

Dragon or Kite?

The name of the aircraft had a dual meaning. “Draken” translates to “dragon” but was actually meant as “kite” for the shape of the wings. The Saab 210– which had first flown in 1952 to pioneer Saab’s still-unique double-delta wing form – was unofficially nicknamed “Lilldraken” or “little kite.”

Rear Landing Gear

Due to the thrusters of the aircraft being placed so far back, engineers opted to add an additional diminutive set of landing wheels along the aft portion of one of the early production models. That new landing gear arrangement helped address the fact that the Draken’s large wings created inherent drag, and allowed for “tail down” landings.

In addition, a chute was also installed, and could be deployed in case the aircraft had to make shorter landings.
Speedy Dragon

In 1955, the Draken was the first European aircraft to have reached the supersonic speed of Mach 1, equal to the speed of sound. The original requirement specified a top speed of Mach 1.4 to 1.5, but it was revised upwards in 1956 to Mach 1.7 to 1.8, and yet again in 1959 to Mach 2.0.

Inventing the Cobra Maneuver

The first Saab-35A prototype finally took to the skies on October 25, 1955, and the J35A became the early production model. Because of the then-historically unproven tailless design, the aircraft experienced a number of problems at the start of its service life – including a number of super stalls.

However, pilots were trained to prevent that from happening, and out of the extensive pilot training came what is known as a “cobra maneuver,” where the plane flying at a moderate speed can abruptly raise its nose to a vertical and slightly past vertical attitude, momentarily stalling the plane, before making a full-body air brake and then dropping back to normal position.

It is now considered to be one of the most dramatic and demanding maneuvers and is typically only performed at air shows.

The Saab 35 Was a Defensive Aircraft (Mostly)

As it was designed as a supersonic interceptor, the Draken was always intended to be a defensive aircraft – one that could stop bombers and fighters alike in the case of an invasion. It was equipped with either a single or dual 30mm cannon for close-in action and could be armed with a variety of air-to-air missiles and air-to-ground rockets. While the aircraft never saw actual combat, it would have likely performed well in its interceptor role against an enemy’s bombers and more than held its own against most fighters of the era.

The aircraft was adopted by the Swedish Air Force and was later exported to Finland, Austria, and Denmark. In fact, while all of the Swedish Drakens were interceptors with limited air-to-ground capability, the Danish Drakens could have been deployed as strike aircraft capable of carrying AGM-12 Bullpup missiles, advanced “jammers,” and increased internal and external fuel stores.

Saab 35

Image: Creative Commons.

Saab 35

Image: Creative Commons

Saab 35 Long Service History

The Saab 35 went through a series of upgrades, and in total 651 were produced. Even after the Swedish Air Force adopted the Saab 37 Viggen, the Draken remained in active service for almost 40 years after its introduction. The final Saab 35 Draken, in service with the Austrian Air Force, was only retired in 2005 – a testament to its effective design and capabilities.

Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.