The Flying Barrel and the Cold War

The Flying Barrel would show that it is not its name that proves whether an aircraft is capable or not. When “The Flying Barrel” entered Swedish Air Force service in 1951 it aroused a certain amount of international commotion. Little Sweden had gone ahead and produced its own fighter aircraft that was in the same class as the world’s best, in other words the American F-86 Sabre and the soviet MiG-15.

Which of this trio of jet fighters that are today famous really was “the best” was never determined. It is now considered that they were more or less equal, with each having its own particular advantages and disadvantages. However the fact that the Swedish aircraft industry had moved on from the war years to at least produce an adequate aircraft which could bear comparison with the world’s foremost was in itself an achievement.

The F-86 Sabre and the MiG-15 would meet in the air over Korea during the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953 and ended with an armistice between the two halves of the peninsula. Even today the armistice is still holding, so the war is technically not over.

The result of the air battles was not conclusive, even though the Americans gradually took command. The American pilot, later General, Chuck Yeager said that the decisive factor was the skill of the pilots, and that the US had plenty of access to pilots with battle experience. The aircraft themselves were more or less comparable, with different strengths and weaknesses.

A high price

In international terms the Swedish Air Force was very powerful, especially considering its population. The J29 also meant that Sweden possessed a fleet of first class aircraft. However, the Korean War showed that the skill of the pilots was decisive. Unlike the USA, Sweden could not rely on a cadre of experienced and battle-hardened pilots. Instead, a programme of intensive training took place.  The Swedish pilots trained in conditions that were as close as possible to those they would probably experience if the country was at war. Unfortunately this meant that accidents were not uncommon, and many pilots were killed. A total of 242 Flying Barrels crashed, and 99 pilots died.

It was later realised that these losses were not only due to tough training exercises and previously unknown problems with the aircraft. Some of those selected to be pilots were more inclined to take risks than they should have been. Eventually this led to new selection procedures when recruiting fighter pilot candidates.

However the 1950s was a decade when the world was afflicted by enormous tension. Hence it was not at all improbable that during what appeared to be a routine mission could suddenly turn into a life or death struggle. In 1952 a specially equipped Douglas DC-3 engaged in gathering radio and radar signal data over international waters was shot down by a Soviet MiG-15 fighter. However, for several years the Swedish Authorities were unaware if what exactly had happened, even though it was suspected that the aircraft must either have been shot down or forced to land on Soviet soil. It was only in the 1990s that it was confirmed from the Soviet side that it had been deliberately shot down. Shortly after the DC-3 had disappeared, a Catalina rescue amphibian was shot down, by a MiG-15 fighter. Fortunately a German cargo ship was able to quickly pick up the Swedish Catalina crew from the water.

A J29 meets a MiG-15

According to the newly published memoirs of Swedish fighter pilot Roy Fröjdh a J29 also came to the attention of a MiG. A group of J29s were practising formation flying over international waters off the Baltic coast in 1953. This was probably in order to assist the personnel operating a newly installed radar station on the island of Gotland to calibrate their equipment. Roy Fröjdh and his colleagues were concerned at the time that in the same way as the DC-3 and the Catalina they could be attacked by Soviet fighters, so they had prepared a plan for what to do if the same thing happened to them.

The idea was to us the “scissors” manoeuvre, whereby the aircraft in the formation would swing inwards and pass each other very closely. This would enable them to protect each other from an attack from the rear. However this was a dangerous procedure, that even Swedish Air Force fighter pilots were not supposed to practice in peacetime. Roy’s group decided to practice it anyway. They just wanted to be ready in case the worst fears of any Swedish pilot came true.

And on this day the fears came true. A group of MiG-15 fighters had been sent up and managed to surprise the Swedish aircraft by using the classic attack, a dive from high above out of the sun. Roy quickly radioed the order “scissors” and the Swedes swung in towards each other, and then repeated the manoeuvre. The Soviet pilots were probably surprised by this daring defence, and while trying to catch up, two of them collided in mid-air.

The J29s turned for home and flew back as quickly as possible.

Sweden’s most numerous aircraft

The Flying Barrel came to be built in several versions and was steadily improved, not leased by adding an afterburner and new wings providing better stability while landing. Most of the that caused the many crashes were identified and rectified. This aircraft held several world records. The Flying Barrel also became the first Swedish-built aircraft to be equipped with the heat-seeking AIM-9 Sidewinder missile from the USA, known in Sweden as the RB24. However aviation technology progressed rapidly in the 1950s and already, by the time the Tunnan was entering squadron service SAAB had started to design the far more advanced J35 Draken. Nevertheless about 660 Flying Barrels were built before production ceased and some were even exported to Austria.