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Austrian F-5E’s at Graz-Thalerhof

On Base

leased-in air defences for Austria- an operational visit to the 2. Überwachungsgeschwader

With the withdrawal of the Saab J-35 "Draken" and the then no-longer existing capacity to protect the Austrian Airspace against possible attackers, the Austrian Air Force was forced to lease 12 Northrop F-5E "Tiger II" from the Swiss Air Force during 2004. The F-5’s were to fill the gap in air defence between the Draken period and the delivery of the Eurofighter in 2007-2008. Currently the 12 F-5E are based at Nittner Air Base at Graz Thalerhof with the 2nd 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 effectuated approval of U.S. authorities was necessary, since the F-5E carries American armament.

Initial pilot training started in early June 2004 at Dübendorf air base (Switzerland) when the first four pilots started their conversion. This was done under the project name "Aquila". Draken pilots needed 4-5 weeks for conversion to the F-5E while Saab 105 pilots needed 8 weeks, to appreciate the new sensations like the use of an 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 "Tiger II" for these operations. All in all 18 pilots were trained on the F-5E in four Aquila classes.

Austrian pilots were accustomed to visit Switzerland with regular intervals when specific live training exercises were on the program, like dogfight instruction against Swiss F-5E's 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-18’s or participate in complex air-to-air scenarios at the now defunct ACMI range in Waddington (UK). Some pilots gained experience at modern, partly glass cockpits in the Swedish Air Force Viggens at Angelholm. The pilots of 2 squadron can not oversee the Swedish Viggen training lightly as a complete front section of a Viggen was presented to the squadron afterwards, with the nosecone 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 July 7, 2004. On the July 9,2004 there was a small event celebrating the arrival of the new aircraft. The F-5’s involved where J-3005, J-3030, J-3033 and J-3065.
The other eight where 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 was added to the tailplane at a later stage.

The 12 single-seat F-5E of the Swiss Air Force were leased for four years. This was contracted at a value of 75 million euro altogether. This amount contains the lease rate per jet (at 4.4 million euro) as well as the costs of the re-education of the pilots and technicians, maintenance in Switzerland, the maintenance and logistics, the armament, the necessary documentation and all taxes. The maintenance schedule is adhered from the Swiss Air Force with most of the work done at RUAG in Emmen. The maintenance in Austria was essentially only the flight line and pre- and postflight work. The technical staff of Fliegerwerft 2 (the Austrian maintenance base at Graz) was trained in flightline and 2nd line maintenance. All other work was performed in Emmen.

From the panorama deck

In the exercise "Bubble 04" for the first time the leased F-5E "Tiger II" where used from Graz. From the air bases in Zeltweg and Linz also Saab 105 and Draken did participate in this event. The air traffic control exercise "Bubble 04" trained intensively the protection of the Austrian air space. Background of the project 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 the protection from the air represent a substantial part of safety precautions. All elements of the air traffic control cooperated in order to ensure the unimpaired proceeding of the events. The exercise center coordinates together with mobile radar stations and operations centers with deployment of the fighters, helicopters and ground to air defensive weapons.

While the basic tasks is defending the Austrian air space via a QRA line-up, the squadron must also train intercepting techniques. As an adversary force the Air force operates the Saab 105, which are also based at Nittner Air Base. This gives pilots an opportunity to become more skilled in 'dogfighting'. At one moment 21 pilots where active at Nittner of which 18 on the F-5E and 3 on the Saab 105OE.

The QRA on the F-5E became operational from spring 2005. While the aircraft and crew are capable of executing sustained defensive counter air operations day and night, the QRA is only carried out from sunrise to sunset because of the limited number of pilots and aircraft. When situations require a different level like 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 24 hours a day.

In such cases there are continuously combat air patrol's in the air. Normally two F-5E's are on alert armed with cannons and Sidewinder missiles with two pilots ready to go and one spare F-5E. One aircraft is in the air in 5 minutes and both in 7 minutes. In a CAP an immediate response might be required. For this 2 pilots and 8 technicians are on standby duty to respond.

Unlike the Swiss airbases, most of the Austrian military airfields are equipped with an ILS system, so all Austrian F-5s have some modifications following regulations to comply with civil rules in Austrian airspace and therefore ILS, both separate UHF and VHF transponders and a combined backup are required. In comparison Swiss F-5E's only use UHF communications.

On average in the four-year period the F-5E’s performed one live scramble per week. Mostly concerning aircraft where no radio communication could be established (norac). In this case 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 would be two morning missions and another two missions in the afternoon. In certain periods of the year there would also be night flying with two missions in the evening. Due to noise restrictions at Graz airport, the last landing had 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 there 3 years of operational flying only one major accident was reported when F-5E J-3052 suffered a landing gear failure (... or was not down at all?) and made a wheels up landing on June 18, 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 2 squadrons (no’s 1. and 2.) of the Surveillance Wing at Zeltweg Air Base within the air defence brigade. Due to logistic aspects and cost effectiveness the choice has been made to base all the Eurofighters at one air base. Four Saab 105 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 transfer to the Eurofighter. A recent political promise to deliver new jet trainers to the Austrian air force (a.o. to replace the Saab 105) has yet to be cashed in by the military leadership.

Deliveries of 15 Eurofighters from Tranche I, Block 5 to Austria started in the second quarter of 2007, with four aircraft. Another 4 already delivered in 2008, and delivery being completed in 2009 with the final 2 aircaft. They will be based at Zeltweg which is still undergoing massive construction works preparing for the full complement of Eurofighters. The Air Force would like to upgrade the aircraft to block 8, but no funding is available at the moment.

At the end of there lease on June 30, 2008, the F-5E's will be returned to Switzerland. The last operational flights are scheduled on June 29, 2008, coinciding with the final game of the Euro 2008 football championships. With the departure of the ‘Tigers’ and the choice for Zeltweg to be the main fighter base, Nittner Air Base at Graz Thalerhof will be closing down for operational flying on the 1st October 2008. Maintenance on a.o. the Saab 105 will still be done at Nittner Air Base.

We would like to thank the following persons for their help in arranging the visit; the Public relation office of Austrian Air Force and the officers who escorted us during the visit.



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