In Sweden, there are times when a dull rumble in the distance can be heard and suddenly, above the clouds, a Gripen flies past at twice the speed of sound. The person sitting in the cockpit, in front of the radar screens, could be Marcus Wandt, one of Saab’s test pilots.
“Sometimes I give myself a few seconds to look out and enjoy,” Wandt says. “But 99 per cent of the time I’m fully focused on the task and on what needs to be improved to optimise the aircraft.”
In the eyes of some, Wandt is living the ultimate childhood dream – being able to fly and manoeuvre one of the finest aircraft around. But being a test pilot involves so much more than just the art of flying.
“It’s my job to observe and analyse how the aircraft operates,” he says. “There’s a high degree of engineering thinking involved. When a fighter pilot finds that ‘it’s difficult to aim’, it’s the responsibility of the test pilot to go one step further and find out how many degrees the nose is swinging.”
Wandt has solid experience behind him. Over a period of one and a half years at the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School (USNTPS) he flew a number of different types of aircraft – everything from gliders and 50-year-old taildraggers to seaplanes and modern fighter aircraft.
“My colleagues in the course were really sharp people, but I somehow ended up at the top of the class,” says Wandt with a modest smile.
The engineer, fighter pilot and former airborne ranger has been employed full time as a test pilot at Saab for a couple of years. Right now a lot of the work involves getting Gripen E flight-ready.
“It’s incredibly stimulating to go along on that journey,” he says. “I’ve never previously experienced the same subtle communication between a fighter aircraft and pilot. When I sit in the aircraft, I feel enormous respect for the engineers behind the system. Everyone who has toiled on their small part of the project is involved.”
He falls silent for a moment and then continues: “Even though we have far fewer resources than some of the other countries developing modern fighters, we are building a system that is at least as good. Sweden and Saab should be extremely proud.”