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Saab 29: How the Flying Barrel Fighter Was Built to Fight Russia

Meer the Saab 29: Nicknamed the “Flying Barrel” for its portly, almost comical appearance, the Saab S29 or Saab 29 Tunnan in fact was a fast and maneuverable dual fighter-bomber that served the Swedish Air Force for over two decades. Although these airframes no longer fly the skies, the three remaining Tunnans can be viewed in museums across Europe. 

The Origin Story of the Saab 29

At the end of the Second World War, it was clear that the jet aircraft was the way of the future. As nations scrambled to research and build their own jet fighters, Sweden felt that it was falling behind. As the 1940s drew to a close, the only jet fighter fielded by the Swedish Air Force was the Saab S21R, a straight-wing turboprop aircraft modified to accommodate a jet engine. 

The initial development process included two designs, one being the round basis for the Saab 29. Its aerodynamics were heavily influenced by information from abroad, most notably Nazi scientists who fled to Sweden at the end of the war.

These aerodynamic designers unequivocally demonstrated that a swept wing was superior at high speeds. Consequently, designers of the S29 included a 25-degree sweep in the wings. 

The development of the S29 was greatly aided in that the British company de Havilland had just finished the production of its Ghost engine. Originally, Saab had planned to use another de Havilland engine, the Goblin.

However, the Ghost was not only more powerful, but it was also designed to be used with a circular air intake such as the one on the front of the Saab 29. 

From Duckling to Swift

The efforts of Swedish engineers paid off with the S29 making its maiden flight on September 1st, 1948. After the flight, the test pilot, a Brit by the name of ‘Bob’ Moore recounted that the S29 was: “on the ground an ugly duckling – in the air, a swift.”

And swift it was.

In 1954, the Tunnan set the world speed record at 607 mph over a 500 km course. Later, in 1955, two reconnaissance variants, the S 29C set another speed record at almost 560 mph over a 1000 km course.

Why the Tunnans Were Considered Peacekeepers

Although it never saw air-to-air combat against a peer in a major conflict, the S29 served admirably in UN peacekeeping operations in the Congo as part of ONUC in 1962. During their time in the Congo, the S29s performed ground attack missions with cannon and unguided rockets.

They were the only combat aircraft employed by the UN in this fight. Pilots, aircrew, and foreign observers all agreed that the Tunnan performed exceptionally in challenging conditions.

Sadly, not all would make it back from this deployment. Although none were lost to enemy action – despite heavy ground fire – one was lost to a crash during an aborted test flight and some were deliberately destroyed in the Congo when the mission ended in 1964.

Sweden had by then developed and fielded newer fighters and it was deemed too expensive to fly or ship them home.

Saab 29. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Saab 29

Saab 29. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Saab 29

Saab 29. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Saab 29

Saab S 29C Tunnan on permanent display at the Swedish Air Force Museum in Linköping, Sweden.

Maya Carlin is a Senior Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.



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