The Unassuming Equal
As the American F-86 Sabre and Soviet MiG-15 jet fighters tangled and became legends in the skies of the Korean War in the early 1950s, it is easy to overlook the fact that there was another jet fighter in service at the time which was equal in performance to both. That aircraft was the Saab J-29 Tunnan (Barrel) from Sweden.
Entering service in 1950, the J-29 never equaled it’s American and Soviet counterparts in production numbers or enjoyed their widespread popularity. However, in the truest spirit of “Quality over Quantity” the Tunnans which were built served their users well and earned the respect of those who were associated with it.
The smaller production quantities of the J-29 had more to do with Sweden’s, as a neutral nation, strict policies on who they would sell military gear to and Saab being so busy meeting Sweden’s own demand for the aircraft that they couldn’t possibly build any for anyone else than it did with any negative qualities the J-29 may have possessed.
If not equal to the F-86 and MiG-15 in fame and numbers; then certainly their equal in performance, technology and design. Let’s spend some time with the Saab J-29 Tunnan:
Like any developed industrial nation in the immediate Post World War Two era, Sweden quickly recognised the requirement for a jet powered fighter aircraft to protect its territory. Like other developed nations, Sweden’s first steps into the jet age were tenuous ones which reflected war time design aspects.
The first jet powered fighter aircraft in Swedish service were the Saab J-21R, a piston powered design retrofitted with a jet engine, and the primative DeHavilland Vampire. neither were ideal and better had to be found.
This situation was not unique to Sweden, other western jet aircraft designs of the period such as the Gloster Meteor, DeHavilland Vampire and Supermarine Attacker from Great Britain as well as France’s Dassault MS.450 Ouragan and the Republic F-84 Thunderjet from America, which would equip many European NATO nations, were all decidedly unadventurous in their straight wing designs and hampered by the limitations of such wing designs.
Initially, the Tunnan was designed with straight wings. However, Saab engineers gained access to war time studies done by Germany into the value of swept wing designs and tested swept wings on a modified variant of their own model 91 Safir aircraft and adjusted the J-29’s wings accordingly as a result of those studies. The J-29 prototype took to the air for the first time in September of 1948 with swept wings and the Tunnan became one of the world’s first production swept wing aircraft.
Due to minimal experience with swept wing aircraft and their higher performance compared to straight wing types, the Tunnan had an initially high accident rate after entering service in 1950. This situation was not peculiar to Sweden, most early jet aircraft did not have dedicated two seat training variants made for them and accident rates for most early swept wing types were on the high side at first.
Of course, a modern aircraft requires a modern engine. In the case of the Tunnan, the DeHavilland Ghost engine was selected and produced in Sweden as the RM 2B by Svenska Flygmotor.
The J-29 was produced between 1950 and 1956, a total of 665 were built in five major versions:
Baseline fighter version built between 1951 and 1954.
J-29B / A-29B
Upgraded fighter introduced in 1953. It featured greater fuel capacity and accommodation for wing mounted weapons and fuel tanks. The A-29B designation was used for J-29B aircraft which served in dedicated attack units.
The dedicated reconnaissance version introduced in 1954. Changes included a redesigned forward fuselage housing cameras in place of the standard cannon armament.
A small number built in 1955. The E variant introduced a refined and more efficient wing design.
This designation denoted approximately 300 B and E versions which were modernised between 1954 and 1956 to include the E style wing and an afterburner equipped version of the Ghost engine. Remaining F models were modified to use the American designed Sidewinder air to air missile in the early 1960s.
The Tunnan on Duty
In service, the J-29 was used only by the air forces of Sweden and Austria. The last military flight of a Tunnan took place in Sweden in 1976.
Austria took the first of a total of thirty J-29F models into service in 1961 and retired the last in 1972. An interesting side note to the Austrian usage of the type was a reconnaissance variant peculiar to them. A handful of Austrian aircraft were ordered with a modification which allowed the two cannons on the left side of the nose to be replaced with a camera module, this was rather in contrast to the dedicated S-29C reconnaissance version used by the Swedes.
The closest the Tunnan ever got to combat was during the Congo Crisis of the early 1960s. From 1961 to 1963, a squadron of Swedish air force Tunnans wearing United Nations markings were deployed to the Republic of Congo and performed ground attack and reconnaissance missions.
The J-29 Today and Learning More
The Tunnan has done very well in retirement with several preserved in museums and one kept in flying condition by the Swedish Air Force Historic Flight.
The following link is to a pdf file of a 1950 magazine article that gives good insight into how the type was viewed early on: