Saab J35 Draken: ‘The Cobra Maneuver’ Started With This Nordic Jet

Photo Credit: Blockhaj / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0
Photo Credit: Blockhaj / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

In the post-World War II world, the need for advanced jet fighter technology loomed large. In the soaring 1960s, the Saab J35 Draken was nothing more than a glimmer in the eye of ambitious Swedish engineers. As thrilling as the concept of a tail-less double-delta wing aircraft was, it was a leap into uncharted territory. However, just as a dragon breathes fire, Saab engineers embraced the challenge with determination – the kind legends are made of.

Development of the Saab J35 Draken

Man standing with a model of the Saab J35 Draken
Saab J35 Draken model, 1961. (Photo Credit: Harry Pot / Anefo / Wikimedia Commons CC0 1.0)

The Swedish Air Force, keen not to lag behind in the race for advanced jet fighter technology, began envisioning a supersonic fighter capable of intercepting bombers at high altitudes. A bold idea took root, and the Defence Materiel Administration announced a set of requirements for a state-of-the-art interceptor.

Unlike its contemporary, the US Air Force’s Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, this Nordic creation had a unique role to play; it was to operate from reinforced public roads, a strategy developed by the Swedish Ministry of Defence during the Cold War to protect against potential nuclear threats. It also had to be capable of conducting operations in all weather conditions.

Enter the Saab J35 Draken – the “Nordic Dragon” – which rose to the challenge.

The J35, a testament to innovative design and engineering prowess, was born from a daring decision to embrace the double-delta wing configuration. Despite being untested and potentially fraught with problems, it offered a solution to most critical issues. The delta wing, with its robust structure and large internal volume for fuel storage, seemed promising, albeit drag prone.

In the absence of modern aids like computer-aided testing and flight simulation, the Swedish engineers embarked on a slow and laborious undertaking. After extensive wind tunnel testing and test flights, they built a small but flyable prototype, the Saab 210 – or “Little Dragon.” Performing splendidly on its first flight over Stockholm in January 1952, the Little Dragon breathed life into the J35 Draken.

Saab J35 Draken specs

Two Saab J35A2 Drakens in flight
Saab J35A2 Drakens. (Photo Credit: Unknown Author / Digital Museum / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The J35 Draken’s design was unique, featuring a double-delta wing configuration – a pioneering concept. This structure, with its distinctively sharp angles, was instrumental in achieving the desired balance between high-speed performance and low-speed stability.

The J35’s aerodynamic design, optimized for high-speed flight, was complemented by an afterburner-equipped turbojet engine that granted it extraordinary speed capabilities. In fact, it was one of the first Western European-built aircraft to break Mach 2.

The aircraft’s body was meticulously designed, with the cockpit providing a wide field of view for the pilot. It was equipped with advanced radar and fire-control systems, which were state-of-the-art for its time. The J35’s fuselage was divided into front and rear sections, bolted together and housing various systems.

The J35’s primary armament was carried externally and consisted of up to four AIM-9 Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missiles. The aircraft could also carry various types of rockets and bombs internally, and it also allowed for the installation of either two 30 mm cannons or additional external fuel tanks.

A rather bouncy start

Saab J35 Draken taking off
Saab J35 Draken. (Photo Credit: Unknown Author / Svenska Dagbladet / IMS Vintage Photos / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The beginning of the Saab J35 Draken’s service life wasn’t exactly smooth sailing.

The double-delta wing configuration, a revolutionary idea at the time, proved to be a wicked beast to tame. With its unstable nature, landing the aircraft was a high-stakes game requiring manual stabilization – a tricky feat for any pilot. However, as the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining. In this case, the challenge presented an unexpected opportunity – the discovery of a maneuver unknown to any other nation at the time.

Cobra Maneuver

Diagram showing the steps of the Cobra Maneuver
Diagram of the Cobra Maneuver, as performed by a Mikoyan MiG-29. (Photo Credit: Nicola F. / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

In their quest to master the unpredictable beast, Swedish test pilots stumbled upon a secret weapon: the Cobra Maneuver. As the J35 Draken entered an uncontrollable stall at high alpha, they discovered they could control it by quickly negating the angle of attack to counter the suspension.

Voila! They’d turned the J35 into its own airbrake, reducing its speed instantaneously.

With its exceptional speed, range and complex systems, the J35 brought a new dimension to the term “super stall.” The Cobra Maneuver was a technically-challenging display of controlled stalling. It demonstrated the aircraft’s tremendous maneuverability, turning it into an enormous airbrake to slow down the aircraft as quickly as possible.

Saab J35 Draken’s legacy

Saab J35 Draken parked on the tarmac
Saab J35 Draken. (Photo Credit: Tommy Olsson / Wikimedia Commons CC0 1.0)

Not only was the J35 Draken a high-altitude interceptor, it also proved to be a capable dogfighter. With impressive quick-turn capability and its high speed, the Swedish fighter was twice as capable as other single-engine jets of the same era. The improved J35B model featured an enhanced power plant, an enlarged afterburner, a redesigned rear fuselage and integrated with the air defense control network, STRIL 60.

More from us: Why Did a Test Pilot Wear a Gorilla Mask In Flight?

While the Cobra Maneuver is now associated with more modern aircraft like the Sukhoi Su-27 and the Mikoyan MiG-29, it’s important to remember where it all began. The J35 Draken took the aviation world by storm and will be remembered as the aircraft that accidentally discovered the maneuver.

Damian Lucjan

Damian is a history geek that’s working for War History Online for almost a decade. He can talk about the history and its chain of events for hours and is 100% legit fun at parties. Aside of history, geography and etymology of all things are no less exciting for him! An avid video game player, meme distributor, and your comment section moderator all in one. Mythologies of all cultures are fascinating to him, Greek, Nordic, Slavic – you name it, and he’s in!

In his spare time, assuming he has some left, he gives it all to his family, enjoying morning walks, a good book, an exciting FPS, and a long nap…or a few. Definitely a cat person.