Saab 91 Safir – A Classroom in the Clouds

A Saab Safir preserved at Zeltweg, Austria in 2013.
A Saab Safir preserved at Zeltweg, Austria in 2013.

To Tour, To Train

In November of 1945, as the clouds of war were clearing, the Saab 91 Safir took to the air for the first time. Designed primarily for the civil market as a touring and training aircraft, the aircraft also found favour in post war air forces looking for a modern training aircraft for the post World War Two generation of pilots.

Produced for a period of 20 years starting in 1946, approximately 320 Safirs were built between the Saab assembly lines in Sweden and the De Schelde factory in the Netherlands. The Safir quickly gained popularity among pilots for its responsive and forgiving flying characteristics, ease of access for maintenance, rugged construction, aerobatic abilities and range.

Early versions of the aircraft had three seats and space for passenger baggage while later versions incorporated a fourth seat. Four seat versions could be converted to air ambulance configuration by removing the front and rear right side seats and replacing them with a stretcher.

Ultimately, the Safir was built in five versions and flew in military and civilian hands in at least twenty countries.

Notable civilian operators who used the Safir for pilot training were Air France, Lufthansa and the State Flying School of the Netherlands. Military operators included: Austria, Ethiopia, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Tunisia.

Another Safir preserved at Zeltweg.
Another Safir preserved at Zeltweg.

Reaching Back to Reach Forward

The mind behind the Safir was Anders J. Anderson; a Swedish aircraft designer who had made a name for himself designing training aircraft for the Bucker company in Germany during the 1930s.

After leaving Germany before the outbreak of the Second World War; Anderson started designing the Safir for his new employer, Saab. The new machine bore more than a passing resemblance to the Bu-181 Bestmann, the last aircraft Anderson had designed for Bucker before returning to his native Sweden.

The Safir and the Bestmann had more in common than physical resemblance; both were very popular due to their pilot friendly handling qualities, both had the same basic purposes envisioned for them, both had excellent visibility from the cockpit and both were taken into service primarily as trainers but ended up doing a lot of liaison and courier work on the side.

Also similar between the Safir and the Bestmann was that neither of them were subject to any radical developments after their initial entry to service and only had a modest number of sub variants, most of which were distinguished by internal rather than external changes.

The Safir family can be summarized as follows:

Model 91A: De Havilland Gipsy Major engines of 125 or 145 horsepower. Three seats.
Model 91B: Lycoming engine of 190 horsepower. Three seats.
Model 91B-2: Minor modification of 91B to Royal Norwegian Air Force specifications
Model 91C: Four seat variation of 91B with fuselage fuel tanks relocated to the wings.
Model 91D: Lycoming engine of 180 horsepower. Four seats.

Another angle on the outdoor Safir at Zeltweg.
Another angle on the outdoor Safir at Zeltweg.

Not Done Yet

As of 2009, approximately 75 Safirs were known to be airworthy and on active registries in the world. A quick look around some aircraft spotting and photography web sites during the writing of this entry showed several are still heading skyward on a regular basis these days.

While the Safir is old enough to qualify as a vintage aircraft, its qualities as a touring machine still give it some practicality in today’s general aviation circles and it is still considered a pleasant flying machine in contemporary contexts.

it’s not the kind of aircraft you typically see getting wrung out at airshows and competitions; as such, those Safirs which remain airworthy will likely stay airworthy for some time to come yet.

Learning More

Good reading on the Safir is a bit tricky to find on the internet, but there is some out there. These links are all quite interesting:

These articles, from 1947 and 1954 respectively, give some very good insights into how the Safir was received upon its introduction to the market and how it compared to its contemporaries:

http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1947/1947%20-%201819.html?tracked=1

http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1954/1954%20-%200008.html

Here is an article about the only Safir ever to make it to Australia:

http://www.goodall.com.au/australian-aviation/narratives/saabsafir.pdf

Last, but certainly not least, a good write up on the type by fellow blogger – Short Finals:

http://shortfinals.wordpress.com/2011/07/02/the-saab-safir-a-gem-of-a-trainer/

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