On a sunny afternoon at the Czech Republic’s Čáslav military air base, Captain Jan Ducha stands beside the runway awaiting the return of one of the 14 Saab Gripen that he swears he loves and nurtures like his own children.
“Beautiful, no?” smiles the commander of Čáslav’s Maintenance Operational Centre, as the Gripen’s grey delta wing and canard silhouette finally materialises against the green of the surrounding countryside. “We’ve had these planes for over a decade now, but watching them come in still gives me pleasure.”
In June 2004 the Czech and the Swedish government signed a 10-year, leasing agreement for 12 single-seat Gripen C and two twin-seat Gripen D. The first flight took place less than a year later, in April 2005.
“Apart from the Swedes themselves, the Czech air force was the first to fly the Gripen,” notes Lieutenant Colonel Jaroslav Míka, Commander of Čáslav’s 211 Squadron. “It was we Czechs who proved that the Gripen was fully NATO-compatible.”
Today the Czech Gripen fighters play their part in European Union Battle Group exercises and NATO’s integrated air and missile defence system. For example, the 211 Squadron has twice supplied the main muscle for NATO’s Icelandic Air Policing taskforce. It has provided similar protection for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Between missions, Míka’s team are regulars in the annual ‘Tiger Meet’ exercises that are designed to promote solidarity between NATO air forces. In 2015, Čáslav air base hosted the latest triennial multinational Lion Effort exercise, which saw Gripen visiting from Hungary and Sweden while Gripen pilots from the Royal Thai Air Force flew the Czech two-seater aircraft.
“We swap tips and compare notes on how to improve even further on the astonishing 10-minute refuelling/turnaround time,” says Lieutenant Colonel Jörgen Axelsson, who led the Swedish contingent at Lion Effort. “Most of all, we thank our lucky stars for the honour of being paid to fly such a wonderful aircraft!”
The Czech government has extended the lease on their Gripen until 2027 (with an additional two-year option). The Hungarian government has reached the same conclusion and extended the lease on its own 14-strong fleet of NATO-compatible Gripen C/Ds until 2026.
The Čáslav airbase’s Gripen pilots are looking forward to a series of scheduled hardware and software upgrades. “I’ve said this many times: we can and will make improvements and updates as technology advances,” says Lieutenant Colonel Míka, “but the C/D version of the Gripen constitutes the core of our capability. We are co-passengers on a very exciting journey, and we have no intention of getting off any time soon!”