The Czech Republic has been using the Gripen system for over ten years to protect its' airspace. With the Gripen the country is also a successful contributor to the NATO QRA system in the Baltic States and in Iceland. It is a system that is very easy to use that produces relatively few errors. It also requires less staff compared with other similar systems. Other countries need to pay more for the same effect says Jan Ducha, Ground Personnel commanding officer of the Czech Air Force.
It's 10:25 am and sun is fighting the lingering morning fog outside the town Čáslav in central Czech Republic. There is no wind and the only thing you hear is the whistling sound of two Gripen planes leaving their shelter for a Quick Reaction Alert mission, or QRA mission. They move quickly across the taxiway from the hangars at the southern end of the runway. The sound increases to a roar when the two aircraft accelerates and lifts together against the gray-blue sky.
The Čáslav Air Base in central Czech Republic is the home base for the country's 14 Gripen planes. Since 2005 they have been used to defend the Czech's airspace.
"The Gripen QRA system has been in operation every minute since it's inception in July 2005. We have aircraft on standby that can lift to identify, escort, and if necessary fight the infringement of our airspace. In addition, we support civil aviation, including escort and guided landing of aircraft that have problems with their own technical equipment, for instance in bad weather," says Jan Ducha, Ground Personnel commanding officer at the Čáslav Air Force Base. He is responsible for the aircraft's technical status and director of all ground staff.
Fully operational with all NATO air units
Czech Republic are full members of the NATO Tiger Association and fully operational with all NATO air units. With Gripen, the Czech Air Force has full interoperability with all Partnership for Peace countries, and is a full member of European Sky.
"We are at the forefront and has no weaknesses in capacity compared with other member countries," says Jan Ducha.
Although Gripen is a multirole aircraft, able to carry out fighter-, attack- and reconnaissance mission, the Czech Air Force has so far mainly been using the system for defending the country's airspace and contributes to the NATO QRA system in the Baltic States and Iceland. Five aircrafts and a 65 person force, of which 30 was pilots, technicians and mechanics, recently returned to Čáslav after completing a mission in Iceland.
"We had planned for flying 170 hours in Iceland and the outcome was 166, so we are happy with that. We have a saying that the aircraft detects when it is away from home and automatically goes into 'foreign location mode'. In that 'mode' the aircraft produces a even less errors compared to when we fly in our own airspace. When we were in Iceland recently we flew an average of 26 flight hours between errors. And they were all minor errors, which we could fix on the spot. It is an incredibly good figure that also shows how robust the system is", Jan Ducha says.
The Czech Air Force works closely with other Gripen operators. "We are members of the Gripen family and have close contact with Sweden and Hungary, but also in Thailand and to some extent South Africa, we are a big family. In our contact with our supplier FMV, we are obviously critical of each other when there is a reason, but always in a friendly and professional manner. The focus is always on the common goal of improving the system," says Jan Ducha, Ground Personnel commanding officer at Čáslav Air Force Base.
Proud Gripen users
In addition of participating in the NATO QRA system in the Baltic States and Iceland the Czech Air Force also participate with the Gripen in international exercises.
"We are proud users of the Gripen system. It is a system that is very easy to use. It produces relatively few errors and requires less staff compared with other similar systems."
At this year's NATO Tiger Meet exercise in Saragosa, Spain, the Czech Air Force participated with four Gripen and a total of 30 people. That's 7,5 persons per aircraft.
"Other participants, operating other aircrafts, had up to 25 persons per aircraft to perform the same kind of missions. All we need to fly a Gripen unit is one pilot, one technician and one mechanic. If we must, we can manage with just the pilot and the technician. It is much cheaper and fortunate too because of the difficulties to recruit technicians today."
In some situations, pilots can even do the turn around themselves.
"We added that to the pilot training program in 2008, so that they can turn around the plane on their own and take off again if they had to land at temporary air bases during a mission. That way they do not need to wait for the technicians to get the plane ready for take off. It is very useful for QRA missions." Says Jan Ducha.
"On it's own, the airplane is just a piece of metal"
But as Jan Ducha points, the efficiency of the Gripen system is not only a result of the Czech handling skills.
The new Gripen aircraft hangar in Čáslav is inspired by the working environment in the Swedish Air Force. "During training in Sweden, we saw how we could improve the working environment for technicians with things like speakers and coffee machines in the hangar. It is difficult to obtain and retain good technicians, so even such small things are important," says Jan Ducha, Ground Personnel commanding officer at Čáslav Air Force Base. "It's not because of us the system is this easy to use and resource efficient. It's because the Gripen system is designed that way. What make it's so cool is that it really works the way it is designed. That is impressive. As a Swede, you should be proud of that."
The view of Gripen as a system is obvious on the Čáslav Air Force Base. The abilities is not just about the aircraft.
"On their own, the airplane is just a piece of metal. Ability is about excellence through the entire system of the aircraft, mission planning, simulation, training systems for pilots and ground crew," Jan Ducha says.
According to him, a well-functioning logistics is even more important than the aircraft itself.
"What use do you have of an aircraft if it is in the hangar, waiting for spare parts or if you need so much staff to handle it that you can not afford to fly? Based on my experience and discussions with colleagues from other countries, I believe that the Gripen system is the most economical flight system that we can use to protect our airspace. Those who use other aircraft systems need to pay more for the same effect." Jan Ducha says.