Austrian Tiger -endangered species
Ronald de Roij pays an operational visit to 2 Überwachungsgeschwader at Graz-Thalerhof as the F-5E draws down in the Austrian Air Force
With the withdrawal of the Saab J-35 'Draken' and the consequent lack of capacity to protect Austrian airspace against possible attackers, the Austrian Air Force was forced to lease twelve Northrop F-5E 'Tiger IIs' from the Swiss Air Force during 2004 to fill the gap in air defence between the Draken period and the delivery of the Eurofighter in 2007-2008. Currently the twelve F-5Es are based at Nittner Air Base at Graz-Thalerhof with the second squadron of the Surveillance Wing (2 Überwachungsgeschwader), also known as the Panther Squadron, as clearly shown on the door of the ops room of the squadron. Before the deal could be finalised, approval of US authorities was necessary, since the F-5E carries American armament.
Initial pilot training started in early June 2004 at Dübendorf air base in Switzerland when the first four pilots started their conversion under the project name 'Aquila'. Draken pilots needed four to five weeks for conversion to the F-5E while Saab 105 pilots needed eight weeks to appreciate new sensations such as the use of afterburner and to fly at supersonic speed. Most of the training was done in Switzerland, including the use of weapons against ground targets as well as airborne targets. The only part of the training to be conducted in Austria was night operations, as the Swiss Air Force no longer used the F-5E for night operations. All in all eighteen pilots were trained on the F-5E in four 'Aquila' classes.
Austrian pilots would visit Switzerland at regular intervals when specific live training exercises were on the programme, like dogfight instruction against Swiss F-5Es and air-to-air gunnery exercises - the reason to deploy the aircraft to Switzerland is that there are no gunnery ranges in Austria. In the Draken era, pilots got the opportunity to hone their skills in Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) at Payerne against Swiss F-18s or participate in complex air-to-air scenarios at the now defunct ACMI range at Waddington in the UK. Some pilots gained experience with modern, partly glass cockpits in the Swedish Air Force Viggens at Angelholm. The pilots of 2 Squadron can not forget the Swedish Viggen training lightly as a complete front section of a Viggen was presented to the squadron afterwards, with the nosecone now protruding in a dramatic pose in the stairway of their squadron building.
About a year before Austrian QRA duties were handed over to the F-5E, the first four Tigers became operational with the Austrian Air Force upon arrival at Graz-Thalerhof on 7 July 2004. On 9 July there was a small event celebrating the arrival of the new aircraft, the F-5s involved being J-3005, J-3030, J-3033 and J-3065. The other eight aircraft were delivered over the course of the next few months and comprised of J-3052, J-3004, J-3038, J-3057, J-3014, J-3036, J-3041 and J-3056. All retained their Swiss serial, with only an Austrian roundel added, a small squadron logo being added to the tailplane at a later stage.
The twelve Tigers were leased for four years at a value of 75 million Euros - this amount contains the lease rate per jet (at 4.4 million Euros) as well as the costs of the re-education of the pilots and technicians, maintenance in Switzerland, armament, plus the necessary documentation and all taxes. The maintenance schedule is undertaken by the Swiss Air Force with most of the work done at RUAG in Emmen - maintenance in Austria is essentially only the flight line and pre and post-flight work, the technical staff of Fliegerwerft 2 (the Austrian maintenance base at Graz) being trained in flightline and second-line maintenance.
In Exercise 'Bubble 04' the leased F-5Es were used for the first time, with Saab 105s and Drakens also participating from the air bases at Zeltweg and Linz. An air traffic control exercise, 'Bubble 04' trained intensively for the protection of Austrian air space - background to the exercise was that Austria was going to lead the presidency in the European Union council in 2006 and host the European football championships in 2008.
With both events protection from the air represents a substantial part of the safety precautions. All elements of air traffic control worked together in order to ensure the unimpaired proceeding of the events, the exercise centre coordinating with mobile radar stations and operations centres with deployment of the fighters, helicopters and ground to air defensive weapons.
While the basic task is defending Austrian air space via Quick Reaction Alert (QRA), the squadron must also train intercepting techniques - as an adversary force, the Air Force operates the Saab 105OE, which is also based at Nittner Air Base. This gives pilots an opportunity to become more skilled in 'dogfighting'. At present, twenty-one pilots are active at Nittner, of which eighteen operate the F-5E and three on the Saab 105OE.
QRA with the F-5E became operational in Spring 2005. While the aircraft and crew are capable of executing sustained defensive counter air operations day and night, QRA is only carried out from sunrise to sunset because of the limited number of pilots and aircraft. When situations require, for example important summits with prominent European or world leaders, or during the visit of the Pope to Austria last year, the QRA level was raised to twenty-four hours a day. In such cases there are continuous combat air patrols in the air; normally two F-5Es are on alert, armed with cannons and Sidewinder missiles, with two pilots ready to go. One aircraft can be in the air in five minutes, and both in seven minutes. For a Combat Air Patrol an immediate response might be required- for these two pilots and eight technicians are on standby duty to respond.
Unlike Swiss airbases, most of the Austrian military airfields are equipped with an ILS system, so all Austrian F-5Es have some modifications following regulations to comply with civil rules in Austrian airspace, therefore ILS, both separate UHF and VHF transponders and a combined backup are required. In comparison Swiss F-5Es only use UHF communications.
On average in the four-year period the F-5Es performed one live scramble per week, mostly concerning aircraft where no radio communication could be established ('norac'). In these cases part of the cost of the scramble will be billed to the private person or airline, a practice getting more common with the increasing cost of these operations. Other missions included the visual checks of military aircraft overflying Austria to verify the standing regulations prohibiting the carrying of live armament during these overflights.
Operational flying during the week is two morning missions and another two missions in the afternoon. In certain periods of the year there may also be night flying, with two missions in the evening. Due to noise restrictions at Graz airport, the last landing has to be before 22:00. The total hours of flying was a fixed amount in the lease agreement, therefore flying would be limited before and after special events, like the visit of the Pope. In the three years of operational flying only one major accident was reported when F-5E J-3052 suffered a landing gear failure and made a wheels-up landing on 18 June 2007. This airframe was quickly repaired and put back into service.
The F-5E lacks a modern cockpit layout like the Eurofighter; for example, it doesn't have a HUD, making the transition to the Eurofighter a big step-up for the Austrian pilots. Initial familiarisation with the Eurofighter is done in Germany - pilots have to go to Laage Air Base in Germany to train on Luftwaffe Eurofighters and become familiar with the environment of the latest avionics. Fifteen Eurofighters will be divided over the two squadrons of the Surveillance Wing at Zeltweg Air Base within the air defence brigade (due to logistical aspects and cost effectiveness the choice has been made to base all the Eurofighters at one air base). Four Saab 105s will also be located at Zeltweg to represent training counterparts. Austria has also signed up to send two pilots each year to the Canadian NFTC where fast jet training is performed on the Hawk 115 jet trainer, allowing for a smoother transition to the Eurofighter. A recent political promise to deliver new jet trainers to the Austrian Air Force (to replace the Saab 105) has yet to be cashed in by the military leadership.
Deliveries of the fifteen Eurofighters from Tranche 1, Block 5 started in the second quarter of 2007 with four aircraft. Another nine will be delivered in 2008, and delivery completed in 2009 with the final two aircraft. The Air Force would like to upgrade the aircraft to Block 8, but no funding is available at the moment. Zeltweg is undergoing massive construction works preparing for the full complement of Eurofighters.
At the end of the lease on 30 June, the F-5Es will be returned to Switzerland. The last operational flights are scheduled for 29 June, coinciding with the final game of the Euro 2008 football championships. With the departure of the Tigers and the choice of Zeltweg to be the main fighter base, Nittner Air Base at Graz-Thalerhof will close to operational flying on 1 October 2008. Maintenance on the Saab 105 will still continue, however.
We would like to thank the following for their help in arranging the visit; the Public Relations Office of the Austrian Air Force and the officers who escorted us during our visit.