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AHF↑Inside: The Czech Prize Fighter

Sahara sand. It’s not what you’d expect to hear at 07:45hrs on a February morning at the Czech Republic’s airbase of Čáslav. Yet, it’s exactly what the assembled Gripen pilots are told during their morning briefing. The airbase is covered by a fine layer of Sahara sand, brought by yesterday’s rain. The crew smile, because they know their equipment will have no problem with a bit of sand. Nearing a decade of flying the Gripen, the Czech are confident but also looking for further ways to get the maximum out of their prize fighter.

In fact, in some ways the Czech are already getting the max out of their twelve Saab JAS 39C single seaters and two JAS 39D dual-seat Gripens. The Czech Air Force (Vzdušné síly Armády České republiky) has proven to be the type’s most extensive user. The leased aircraft spend more hours in the air than their Swedish brethren.

“We took the lead last year with some of our aircraft passing 1,400 hours of flying time”, says major Jaroslav Tomaňa (38), commander of 211. taktické letky (tactical squadron) during an exclusive interview with AIRheads↑FLY. “We are at the forefront of JAS 39C/D Gripen operations. In 2015 we’ll celebrate ten years of flying this aircraft.” Up to now, the Čáslav Gripens spent 16,840 hours in the air in total.

The Czech have had a steep learning curve behind them, says Tomaňa, who himself has 1,100 hours on the type. Last year, he took command of 211 ‘Gripen’ squadron. “I first flew the JAS 39A Gripen in Sweden in 2005, flying the L-159 ALCA before that. The Gripen immediately proved an amazing, smooth aircraft to fly. But transitioning from the JAS 39A to the C-model was initially quite hard, since we had no two-seat operational trainer available at the time. However, it all worked out.”

About Čáslav

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The military airfield of Čáslav is
officially known as the 21st Tactical Air Force Base Zvolenská.
It is located just north of the city of Čáslav, about an hour drive (45 mls / 75 km)
east of the Czech capital of Prague. Čáslav is home to the Czech Republic’s only
frontline multi-role fighter unit: 211. taktické letky (tactical squadron)
flying the Swedish made SAAB JAS 39C/D Gripen.

The Czech Air Force is now an almost independent user, with only three staff personnel of the Swedish Armed Forces Materiel Agency (Försvarets Materielverk; FMV) still present at Čáslav.  “We have gained a lot of experience over the years, flying and maintaining this machine”, says Tomaňa while just outside the squadron building, preparations for the first sorties of the day are ongoing. Usually during this time of year, an old, truck mounted L-29 Delfin engine is used to clear the runway of ice. Now it is used for clearing the apron of Sahara sand.

The F404-GE-400 turbofan of this JAS 39D Gripen kicks into life. (Image © Dennis Spronk)

The 211 squadron consists of 127 professionals, including 17 qualified Gripen pilots. A further five Czech Gripen pilots are stationed elsewhere – like with the general staff in Prague. 211’s mission is to protect the airspace of the Czech Republic and its NATO allies. Tomaňa: “We have two aircraft on a constant Quick Reaction Alert or QRA, ready to be in the air within 15 minutes. A third aircraft is on standby. This puts quite a lot of stress on the rest of the fleet. Usually we have seven to eight aircraft ready to fly, including those on QRA. The other 4 to 5 aircraft are available for our regular flying program, which should give each pilot 120 hours in the air yearly. They also spend another 40 hours on the simulator.”

But the most fun part is spending time up high above the Czech countryside, practising defensive counter air (DCA) or offensive counter air (OCA) manoeuvres. Sometimes, a bit of dissimilar air combat tactics (DACT) is needed, with L-159 ALCAs acting as opponents, or even better, German EF2000 Eurofighters. Tomaňa: “We occasionally meet up with them somewhere over Germany, because the temporarily reserved airspaces (TRAs) over our country are somewhat limited. It’s good training, and despite the Typhoons better thrust-to-weight ratio, our Gripen performs well. Its smaller size is an advantage in close range air combat. I’m not afraid of the Typhoon”, smiles the squadron boss.

Maintenance is an ongoing thing. Generally, 60 percent of the Czech Gripen fleet is available for flying.
(Image © Dennis Spronk)

Hooking up
Hooking up with various tankers such as French C-135s or a Swedish tanker C-130 equipped with an in-flight refueling system, is another thing that keeps 211 squadron busy. Fueling up in mid-air requires careful planning and a lot of verification and certification before hook-ups can actually take place.

“It involves a serious amount of work, as tankers are high value assets in peacetime as well”, says Tomaňa, who himself was actually the first Czech pilot ever to perform air-to-air refueling (AAR). “We have to be creative in our planning. For example, last year we flew several AAR-sorties with a Swedish Hercules that visited a Czech airshow. The French tankers we usually meet over France, making these 3.5 hour missions the longest we fly. If along the way we have to land somewhere, it’s no problem because our pilots know how to cross service their own aircraft. It’s a perfect example of the flexibility of Saab Gripen.”

Tiger Meet

During the traditional Tiger Meet, the yearly gathering of NATO member squadrons that fly the big cat emblem, the Czechs show their flexibility even more. In 2010, number 211 squadron became a full member and immediately took home the silver trophy for best overall tiger squadron. Next June, the Czech will meet their fellow tigers at Schleswig-Jagel in northern Germany. In the not-to-distant future, Czech Gripen pilots will further enhance their performance during these large scale exercise with the addition of real-time data exchange option Link 16.

Tiger details are to be found everywhere around the 211. taktické letky area at Čáslav. The Tiger marks on this fuel tank are among the more obvious ones. (Image © Dennis Spronk)

Thoughts of organizing a Tiger Meet back home at Čáslav are cut short by a lack of funds. Major Tomaňa: “Our resources don’t allow this, but we have come up with a innovative alternative in the shape of a virtual Tiger Meet. This exercise was first held last autumn and proved to be very successful.” Several Tiger squadrons sent delegations to LOM Praha‘s hi-tech Tactical Simulation Centre (TSC) in Pardubice, where pilots and Ground Controlled Intercept (GCI) operators practised tactical simulations with the help of eight interlinked cockpit simulators and two GCI stations. The TSC provides full NATO standard briefing and debriefing facilities.

Air Policing
During AIRheads↑FLY’s visit at Čáslav, the daily program had several training flights, a tango (training) scramble – with squadron boss Tomaňa himself taking part – and a display practice for the upcoming airshow season.  “We have a busy schedule this year. Apart from the QRA task here at Čáslav, we will take on the Iceland Air Policing mission in the second half of 2014. That means running two QRA operations at a time, stretching our resources. In 2016 we will provide the Iceland Air Policing mission once more. We are also planning the Baltic Air Policing mission in 2019, like we did in 2009 and 2012.”

Air policing in either Iceland or the Baltics also means bringing along maintenance equipment such as the engine boroscoping tool used by this technician. (Image © Dennis Spronk)

Gripen User Group
Besides the Czech meeting NATO obligations, they contribute to the Gripen User Group (GuG). This co-operation of air forces currently flying the JAS 39 fighter is aimed at sharing logistics and experiences. The GuG’s member nations are Sweden, the Czech Republic, Hungary, South Africa and Thailand. The number of flying hours give the Czech an experience advantage, which they share with the other Gripen users.

The Saab aircraft is bound to serve the Czech Air Force for another 14 years, although finalization of the lease extension has been delayed somewhat by a change of government. Major Tomaňa is confident: “It’s a matter of time. The Gripen was and still is the best choice for our country.”

His words are punctuated by the first Gripens to take to the skies on this spring like day in February. The roar of their F404-GE-400 turbofans fills the air as they take off from Čáslav’s single runway, clearing it of whatever Sahara sand may have been left. The Czech government okayed the new Gripen lease deal on 13 March 2014.

© 2014 AIRheads’ editor Elmer van Hest

The Gripens roar over Čáslav. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

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