The Flying Barrel – Sweden’s leap into the jet age

During the Second World War the Swedish aircraft industry strove to be able to manufacture aircraft comparable to those made by the warring nations. Those aircraft which could be bought from overseas were restricted to types that were not considered to be any longer suitable for front line service.

The lesson from this was that if Sweden was to remain neutral it would be forced to itself produce aircraft that would be able to compete with those of the larger nations. In addition, they would have to produce all the types of advanced systems needed by such modern aircraft.

At the end of the war Sweden could finally purchase the P-51D fighter from the USA, which at the time was one of the best propeller-drive aircraft that was available. Sweden’s best indigenous aircraft, the J22, was outclassed in most respects, even though it had 3 years previously been a very good aircraft- Development had proceeded apace.

However during the war new aircraft engine technology was making a breakthrough. Gas turbine engines enabled higher speeds to be achieved than would ever be possible using propellers. Thus the Swedish aircraft manufacturers came to an important decision. The gas turbine engine would be the future for military aircraft. All development now concentrated on jet aircraft.

A first attempt was to rebuild the new J21 propeller aircraft to utilise a jet engine. This became the J21R, where the ”R” stood for ”reamotor” (the Swedish name at the time for a jet engine). The ”R” survives today in Sweden for jet engines built ever since in Sweden, such as the RM12, which powers the JAS 39 Gripen.

The J21R was not a great success, although it provided valuable jet aircraft experience for both the designers and pilots.  The first Swedish-owned aircraft to be constructed from the start as a jet aircraft was the British de Havilland Vampire which received the Swedish designation J28.

Sweden takes its own direction

However SAAB was working feverishly on a completely new aircraft, right at the forefront of aviation technology. This aircraft was powered by a British gas turbine engine, the centrifugal de Havilland Ghost, called in Sweden the RM2. This engine was gradually improved.

The aircraft was equipped with swept-back wings to allow for increased speed. Both the USA and Soviet Union had started to use swept wings for their fighter aircraft at this time also. At the end of the Second World War it was discovered that Germany had been intensively researching the development of new aircraft, and the rocket-powered Me 163 Komet fighter had swept wings. The Germans had several jet aircraft under development. The Soviets, Great Britain and the USA had all obtained information concerning the German programme. This comprised of documentation, drawings and aircraft prototypes. It is still not clear whether the Swedish intelligence services were also able to obtain top secret German material that could assist the Swedish manufacturers to build a fighter jet of absolute world class.

What we do however know today is that Sweden managed to recover a completely modern German submarine that had been scuttled by its crew in Swedish waters. This event would be very important for Swedish submarine development and paved the way for today’s world class Swedish submarines.

Anyway, the first flight of the J29 aircraft took place on the first of September 1948. It came to be called ”the Flying Barrel”, or ”Tunnan” (”Barrel” in Swedish). Considering its tubby shape this was also a suitable name that was very different from those such as the Sabre, Vampire and Meteor adopted by other countries.