Sweden’s Flying Barrel

by Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing historian

Most associate the Swedish company SAAB with automobiles, but SAAB is the acronym for Svenska Aeroplan A.B., and for many years it produced high tech jet fighter aircraft, in many ways the equivalent of any fighter in the world, certainly in Europe.

This jet development began in 1945 with the end of World War II. It was clear to the Swedish government that for the successful air defense of its neutrality, future fighters would be jet powered, so all propeller-driven fighter projects were cancelled and development focused on jet engines and airframes.

Because of its neutrality, Sweden had experienced a degree of technical isolation in World War II, and the Swedish aircraft engine industry could not deliver a jet engine until 1952.

For its first fighter, the Swedish government purchased British de Havilland Vampire fighters and, as a result, were allowed to begin license production of the Vampire’s Goblin engine, and later, the much improved de Havilland Ghost engine. SAAB was commissioned to investigate the most suitable configuration for a jet-propelled fighter, and seeing that America’s straight wing Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star was superior to any straight wing fighter they could design the Swedes opted for a more advanced swept wing design.

How the Swedes got access to the German data on swept wing is something of a mystery; Since they were neutral in the war, they could not share in the information captured by the Allies. Some sources say the data came from Switzerland, while others say from Finland. In the event, the new aircraft had a swept wing. The optimum sweep of 45 degrees was thought to be too extreme from a standpoint of stability and weight, so a 25 degree sweep back was selected, together with leading edge slots like the Messerschmitt 262.

The Ghost engine was a centrifugal flow engine that was short and wide, and the large cross section of the engine with the pilot seated in a bubble canopy above a single, straight air duct made the fuselage large and round.

Additionally, in order to keep the high speed wing thin, the retractable landing gear was located in the fuselage sides, making it even deeper. The aircraft was officially named the J.29, but was quickly dubbed the “Flygande tunnan” (the Flying Barrel).
The conventional tail was mounted on a boom above the exhaust, which kept it clear of the ground when the nose was up on takeoff and landing. All fighter J.29s carried four 20 millimeter cannons in the nose and could carry 16 rockets and two external fuel tanks under the wings.

On the ground, the J.29 looked short and squat, but SAAB estimated it would be capable of a speed of more than 600 mph. The prototype flew for the first time Sept. 1, 1948, and its initial tests showed the J.29 was faster and more maneuverable than expected.

The test pilot said, “On the ground, it was an ugly duckling, but in the air, a swift.”
It went into production and became the first European, post World War II swept-wing jet fighter in service. Because of the J.29, for much of the 1950s the Swedish Air Force, Flygvapnet, was ranked as the fourth most powerful air force in the world behind the Soviets, the United States and the Royal Air Force.
The J.29 soon proved to be a world class fighter. On May 6, 1954, a J.29 took the world speed record on a closed 500 kilometer circuit, and on March 23, 1955, a pair of J.29s set a world speed record for a 1,000 kilometer closed circuit.

Late model J.29s had a wing with a “dog tooth” leading edge, afterburner and carried American Sidewinder infrared seeking missiles – one under each wing. While it had high performance, the safety record of the J.29 was poor because of its high landing speed. More than 200 of the 661 SAAB 29s built were lost in crashes, and 99 pilots were killed.

In 1962 the J.29 became the only Swedish aircraft to see combat. In response to a request from the United Nations, the Swedish government sent five J.29s of the F 22 Voluntary Air Component to the Congo to provide support and cover for the UN ground forces. The J.29s carried the legend “UN” written in black on a large, white, square background. The aircraft and its personnel arrived at Leopoldville on Oct. 4.
Seven more were sent over the next few months, and for the next year, the J.29s conducted ground attack missions until the UN mandate expired. Four of the 11 aircraft returned to Sweden in 1963, while the others were destroyed in the Congo because it was deemed too costly to bring them back.

(For questions or comments, contact Dr. Michel at marshall.michel@ramstein.af.mil)