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The civilian aircraft Flying in a Saab between Basel and Paris

The civilian aircraft: Flying in a Saab between Basel and Paris

8 min read

The dream of flying a Saab was long the preserve of military fighter pilots. But the general public did eventually get the chance to fly in a Saab aircraft. The development of military aircraft led to an investment in civilian commercial aircraft.

In the final stages of the Second World War Saab started to plan for a gradual transition to civilian production. One idea was the Saab car, a passing fancy that would prove to be a triumph. Another idea closer to home territory was that of developing civilian aircraft.

The design engineering department, headed up by A J Andersson, started to sketch out an aircraft for private use and as a trainer, which was given the designation Saab 91 Safir (Sapphire). Andersson had a background at Svensk Aero AB in Lidingö and was subsequently chief designer at Bücker Flugzeugbau in Germany, which had a number of successful trainer aircraft, including the Bücker Bestmann, which was very similar to

the Saab Safir.

The Safir took to the air for the first time on 20 November 1945 and a total of 323 Safir aircraft were manufactured in four versions. Most were supplied to military and civilian flying schools in Europe and Africa. The largest customer was the Swedish Air Force which took 74 Sk 50 aircraft for basic air flight training. Other military customers were Ethiopia, Norway, Finland, Austria and Tunisia.

It is worth noting that several civilian airlines also used the Safir, such as the Dutch RLS (for training KLM pilots), the Belgian Sabena, German Lufthansa and Air France.

When the production of the Flygande Tunnan (Flying Barrel) started in earnest, Linköping did not have sufficient capacity. A large proportion of the production of the Safir, 120 aircraft, was therefore outsourced to the De Schelde shipyard in the Netherlands. The entire Sk 50 series for the Swedish Air Force was produced there.

The non-stop flight of the well-known aviator Carl Gustaf von Rosen between Stockholm and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia attracted a great deal of attention and publicity. The flight, which was carried out in a Saab 91A (three-seater version) in May 1947, took 30 hours and 52 minutes. Another assignment in which attention was drawn to the Safir was the Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition in 1951.

The civilian aircraft Flying in a Saab between Basel and Paris
The civilian aircraft Flying in a Saab between Basel and Paris
The civilian aircraft Flying in a Saab between Basel and Paris

First commercial aircraft

As early as 1943, in the middle of the war, Saab managing director Ragnar Wahrgren had a conversation with Carl Florman, the managing director of the Swedish airline, ABA, about a new project. The idea was to build a Swedish passenger aircraft that could replace that faithful old servant the DC-3 Dakota.

What was required was an aircraft that could take around 25-30 passengers distances of around 1,000 kilometres. The design engineering work got under way in spring 1944 with Bror Bjurströmer as chief designer and Tord Lidmalm as project manager.

A plane now started to emerge on drawing boards and in models with clean lines, which was given the designation Saab 90 Scandia. However, the work took longer than expected and the plane was only ready for flight testing in November 1946. It was then realised that the engines were not powerful enough and that the three-blade propellers would have to be replaced by four-blade propellers.

On 20 April 1948 the airline ABA (which subsequently became part of SAS) signed a firm order for ten aircraft. But despite a great deal of marketing, the Scania was not a commercial success. Only 18 aircraft in total were sold. Apart from the first ten, eight went to the Brazilian airlines VASP and Aerovias Brasil. Production of the Scania was moved to Fokker so as not to disrupt the production of the Tunnan, which was strategically vital.

All 18 Scandia planes ultimately ended up at VASP. The last flight with a Scandia on a regular service took place as late as 22 July 1969.

The Scandia was considered to be an extremely good aircraft but it was still not a success. One important reason for this was that the plane lacked a pressurised cabin. Another disadvantage was the passenger capacity, which according to analyses would have needed to rise to around 40 in order for the plane to hold its own against the competition. But the main problem was that the post-war market was awash with cheap, second-hand transport planes, mainly DC-3s.

The civilian aircraft Flying in a Saab between Basel and Paris
Saab CEO Georg Karnsund at the new Saab 900 Turbo and in the background the new civil aircraft, Saab-Fairchild 340. Photo: Nils-Göran Widh.

Unique cooperation with USA

After the Scania project was wound up in 1954, Saab did not abandon its attempts to develop a new civilian aviation project. Some ambitious studies were carried out and in some cases the entire project work was completed. However, the development of military aircraft drained most of the resources, both in terms of capital and staff.

In the 1970s the time was ripe again for new ideas. A new project took shape – the Saab Transporter. This was a further evolution of a proposal that was initially quite modest and which went under the name of MULAS (Multi Utility Light Aircraft System), a ‘bush aircraft’ with four piston engines.

Work progressed and soon there was not much left of the original proposal. Instead, a passenger plane with room for about 30 people emerged. The four piston engines were also replaced by two turboprop engines. However, the high-mounted wing was retained so that the plane could be used for military purposes if required.

But there was limited expertise in marketing a civilian plane at Saab. The new project manager Ulf Edlund was therefore given the task in 1979 of investigating whether it would be possible to cooperate with a company in the largest market, the USA. This coincided with deregulation of the US aviation market and there was great interest in this class of aircraft.

Saab found an interested partner in Texas, the aircraft manufacturer Swearingen which was part of Fairchild Industries. The Americans had been successful with their 19-seater Metro and now wanted to take a step forwards and produce a larger machine. A joint venture agreement was signed in January 1980, the first of its kind between the European and US aviation industry: the companies would jointly develop a new low-wing commercial aircraft. In the standard design it could carry 34 passengers, which gave rise to the name Saab-Fairchild 340.

For Saab in Linköping the project involved a large investment of some SEK 250 million. During 1981 to 1982 a completely new factory was built for civilian aircraft manufacturing. Further annexes were added later.

In November 1982 it was time for one of the most impressive ceremonies in the company’s history. The new aircraft was demonstrated in front of 600 invited guests with the King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, as the guest of honour. The Saab-Fairchild 340 had its maiden flight on 25 January 1983 and in summer 1984 it went into regular service on the Basel-Paris route with its first customer, the Swiss airline Crossair.

In 1985 Saab-Scania took over full responsibility for the 340 programme since Fairchild Industries had got into financial difficulties. The aircraft was renamed the Saab 340. When production ceased in 1999, 459 planes had been produced and the Saab 340 was the biggest selling plane in its size category.

The largest individual customer was the US regional airline American Eagle, which for a period had 115 aircraft. A modified version of the Saab 340 was used in the Swedish Armed Forces for radar reconnaissance, when equipped with Saab Microwave’s airborne radar system Erieye, PS 890.

The civilian aircraft Flying in a Saab between Basel and Paris
Saab Fairchild 340 (later Saab 340) became a popular plane. Here it is seen delivering Pope John Paul II to Lugano in Switzerland.

An aircraft for the 21st century

In the late 1980s a development of the Saab 340 was presented, with a longer body for 50 passengers, a larger wingspan and in particular a much increased cruising speed in order to compete with jet aircraft. The aircraft was given the name Saab 2000 and went into production in 1990. The first flight took place in 1992.

Here again Crossair was the first customer. On 30 August 1994 Crossair CEO Moritz Suter took delivery of the first Saab 2000 aircraft at a ceremony in Linköping. Since then the aircraft has gone into service in more than a dozen countries.

The Saab 2000 is the fastest turboprop-powered passenger aircraft on the market with a top speed of more than 670 km/h. However, there was a reduction in demand for turboprop aircraft during the 1990s, which was one of the reasons that the Saab board of directors decided to cease production of regional aircraft in December 1997. A total of 63 Saab 2000s were manufactured.

Saab’s regional aircraft have a good reputation and are popular with pilots and passengers. Nevertheless production never achieved full profitability. Without the investment in the Viggen and JAS the civilian project would probably never have got off the ground. The state also placed a requirement for greater civilian production as a condition for investment in the JAS 39 Gripen.

The civilian aircraft Flying in a Saab between Basel and Paris
During the latter part of the 1980s an evolution of the Saab 340 was presented, with longer body and larger span. The plane was named the Saab 2000 and it was first produced in 1990. The image from 1995. Photo: Norman Pealing.