The Austrian Air Component today

By  Riccardo Niccoli

(Published on "Rivista Aeronautica" issue 6 - 2008)

Austria is a small neutral country, which for all the Cold War period found itself squeezed on the frontline between the two big political and military blocks, NATO and Warsaw Pact. Until 1955, Austria could not even build up its own armed forces, and had to undergo the military occupation of the allied forces. Later, Austria developed and mainteined a small and poor armed Air Force (the Oesterreichisches Luftstreitkraefte), whose front line aircraft have been, from 1961 to 1972, the Saab J-29 Tunnan fighter, and from 1970 to 1987, the armed trainer Saab J-105. In the second half of the 1980s, however, considering the political revolution that was becoming evident, Austria decided to adopt air defence aircraft more capable and credible; in 1987 arrived the first Saab J-35 Draken, finally the first supersonic fighter armed with air-to-air missiles.

These aircraft have been retired in 2005, when the Austrian Air Force was already in the process to receive a new and very advanced air defence fighter, the Eurofighter EF.2000, the first state-of-the-art Austrian jet.

In September 2006 the Austrian Armed Forces started a re-organisation and reform process which still is to be completed, and which led to the establishment of a single service, the l’Oesterreichs Bundesheer (Federal Army), into which the Air Force has been integrated. The new Joint Force Command, which is based near Salzburg, has been designated Streitkraeftefuehrungskommando. Within this body there is the Teilstab Luft, which is the Air Staff of the Air Component (Luftstreitkraefte); the chief is at present Brig. Gen. Karl Gruber, who is the Chief of the Air Staff, but also the Commander of the Joint Force Air Component, the Commander of the Air Defence, and the Authority of the Airspace Control.

The Air Component is divided into two major commands, at Brigade level: the Kommando Luftraumueberwachung (Air Defence Command), and the Kommando Luftunterstuetzung (Air Support Command).

The first unit is composed by one Radar Battalion, one Surveillance Wing (the Ueberwachungsgeschwader), two Anti-aircraft Regiments, one Technical and Logistic Centre, and one maintenance Centre (the Fliegerwerft 2).  The flying unit of the Air Defence Command is the Surveillance Wing, which has its Command and the Main Operating Base at Zeltweg, in Styria. Here operate the two flying squadrons with the EF.2000 (1. And 2. Staffel), while the third squadron (3. Staffel), designated Duesentrainerstaffel, (training squadron, but much more famous as “Tiger Staffel”) is based at Linz-Hoersching, and flies with the Saab J-105OE. At Zeltweg is located also the Ausbildung und Simulatorzentrum (ASSZ), the squadron destined to operate the ASTA simulator for the Eurofighter. The Fliegerwerft 2 is also based at Zeltweg, and is the maintenance centre for the aircraft EF.2000, J-105OE e PC-7. The Radar Battalion, on the contrary, is formed by three main sites on the mountains: Kolomansberg, Steinmandl e Koralpe, which are converting to the new RAT31DL radar systems of SELEX Sistemi Integrati, and the completion of this process is scheduled by 2011. Two companies operate mobile radar systems, and also systems dedicated to the low-level interception. The two anti-aircraft Regiments are equipped with Mistral missiles systems, and 35mm Oerlikon guns.

The Kommando Luftunterstuezung, which is located on the air base at Langenlebarn, near Vienna, manages all the transport and support aircraft, and also the helicopters. Disbanded the old Regiments, at Langenlebarn are base three flying squadrons, the 1. Staffel on Sikorsky S-70A Black Hawk, the 2. Staffel on Bell OH-58 Kiowa, and the 4. Staffel on Pilatus PC-6 Turbo Porter.

In addition, Langenlebarn is also home for the 1. Werft, the maintenance centre of the S-70, OH-58. AB.206 and PC-6 aircraft. The Luftaufkaerungs Kompanie, on the other hand, provides image gathering for photogrammetry, intelligence and promotion use, and to this end disposes of several camera systems and also of AAQ-22 Safire III FLIR systems, which are used for monitoring and surveillance of areas and events subjected to possible risks. These systems are fitted, when requested, on some helicopters and aircraft (Alouette III, OH-58 and PC-6) which have the necessary pre-fitting systems. On the airbase at Linz-Hoersching are located the Staffel 1 and 2, which operate Agusta-Bell AB.212 helicopters, plus Staffel 3, which flies on the Lockheed-Martin C-130K Hercules. On this base we can find also the 3. Werft, which takes care of the maintenance on the AB.212 and on all the aviation engines. Finally, on the base at Aigen are located the 1. e 2. Staffel, equipped with Alouette III helicopters.

The air training component does not depend to the Air Component, but reports to the Kommando Flieger und Fliegerabwehr Schule (Flying and Anti-aircraft School Command), which in turns reports to the Kommando Schule, a body controlled, like the military academies, directly by the Ministry of Defence. The flying school are formed by only two units: one Staffel at Langenlebarn for the helicopter training, which by now operates the Agusta-Bell AB.206, and one Staffel for the airplane training, which operates the Pilatus PC-7 from Zeltweg.

Pilot training starts after a first screening period destined to volunteers coming from the officers and NCOs ranks. Usually, NCOs are more numerous in the helicopter units, while few of them reach the jet lines. After a first phase of selection, carried out using civil Diamond DA40 light aircraft, there was a second training phase, which was performed on PC-7 for the fixed wing, and on AB.206 for the rotary wing. Since 2008, all the students undergo a common basic phase on PC-7, for a total 120 missions, about a similar numbers of flying hours, plus some 20 hours on the simulator. After some 80 VFR missions the students receive their military wings, the so-called Militaer Flugzeug Fuehrerschein. To this, another 40 IFR hours follow, and then there is the split between airplane and helicopter pilots. The firsts carry out an advanced training phase on the PC-7, including eight hours of aerobatics and 20 hours of formation flight. Those pilots destined to the fighter fleet are then assigned to a third phase, on the Saab J-105, for formation, aerobatics and IFR training, and a final fourth phase, which today is performed at the NATO flying school in Canada, on Hawk trainers, but which in the future could be carried out at Lecce, with the MB.339CD of the 61° Stormo of the Italian Air Force. The transition onto the EF.2000 is at the moment assigned to JG.73 of the German Luftwaffe, but for the future it is possible that also this phase, thanks to new agreements, could be performed by the Italian Air Force. Pilots destined to the support fleet, on the contrary, after the PC-7 are assigned directly to the 4. Staffel at Langenlebarn, to covert and start to operate on the PC-6. Later, some of them could be selected for the C-130 fleet.

Pilots selected for the rotary wing fleet are posted to Langenlebarn, for the basic training flight on the AB.206, which lasts about nine months, for a total of 85 flying hours of VFR and night VFR, without any simulator aid. Then there is an advanced phase on Alouette III, for some 40-50 hours. Finally, the pilots are assigned to the operational unit, flying on Alouette III, OH-58, or AB.212. Only the best pilots, after some three years of operational experience, can ask to be destined to the Black Hawk fleet. In 2009 the rotary wing training will be reformed as, in order to get economic savings, the AB.206 fleet will be retired, and one Alouette III Staffel will be moved from Aigen to Langenlebarn, to be transformed in training squadron. Every year, the Austrian Army trains some 4-6 pilots for the fixed wing, and some 6-8 pilots for the rotary wing.

Talking about the aircraft, the most important machine of the Austrian Bundesheer  is today the Eurofighter EF.2000, which was officially ordered in 2003, and which entered service on July 12, 2007. Following several political problems, the number of aircraft (in origin had to be 24) was reduced down to the current 15, all coming from the EADS Tranche 1 production line: nine are of new production, and all have been delivered by July 2008, and six are Block 2B ex-Luftwaffe aircraft, which EADS upgrade through R2 works in order to bring them to the same Block 5A standard. Deliveries are expected to be completed by 2009. The Block 5A configuration is the same of the German Block 5 (thus lacking of the IRST-FLIR Pirate and of the Missile Approach Warning System), but the Austrian aircraft lack also of the software for the AIM-120 AMRAAM missile. As a matter of fact, Austria decided not suitable for air policing duties the use of a Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile, and its Typhoon are armed just with the Mauser BK27 27mm gun and with the IRIS-T missile. The other jet in service is the now obsolete Saab J-105OE, purchased in 40 samples since 1970, and operated for air defence and attack. The 28 machines still in service are all grouped on the airbase at Linz-Hoersching, and used for air policing, training and continuation flights activity. However, this aircraft is no more suitable even only for the practice of the jet pilots (and the Luftwaffe does not accept J-105 pilots for the Typhoon training), and gives problems also under the maintenance aspect.  The Air Staff would like to replace it with an advanced trainer (which has been clearly indicated in the Alenia Aermacchi M-346), but the main problem is caused by the availability of funds. Up today, the J-105 still perform Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) duties, in turns with the EF.2000, armed with two 30mm Aden gun pods, the same system already in use with the Drakens. On the other hand, no more in service since June 30, 2008, are the 12 F-5E Tiger II leased from Switzerland in 2004, as stop gap measure for the period between the retirement of the Draken and the introduction into service on the EF.2000. The F-5E were operated by the 2. Staffel of the Surveillance Wing, and based at Graz-Thalerhof, today a base under closure.

The transport component has as more numerous aircraft the Pilatus PC-6/B2H2 Turbo Porter, purchased in 13 samples since 1976; one aircraft was lost in an accident in 1984, but was replaced by another machine coming from the Ministry of Interiors. The PC-6 are used for transport of persons and materials, airdrops, target towing, and photo-recce. With the installation of a ventral pod capable of 800 litres, they can be used also for fire-fighting missions, while in the Medical Evacuation role they can carry two stretchers. The transport fleet has been greatly increased since 2003, when Austria purchased three C-130K from the Royal Air Force, refurbished by Marshall Aviation in Cambridge. These aircraft are used above all for liaison and transport supply flights to support the Austrian military missions in Kosovo and Chad, under the United Nations flag.

For training, since 1983 the Bundesheer operates the Pilatus PC-7 turboprops, purchased in 16 samples. These airplanes also have a limited armament capability, and can operated with 12,7mm machine gun pods and with rocket pods, and are used for live firing training and for air policing against slow-mouvers.

The rotary wing fleet boast as best machine the Sikorsky S-70A-42 Black Hawk, introduced into service since 2003 after that a disaster struck Austria some years before. In that occasion, an avalanche cut off an entire Alpine valley, and the Government, lacking  suitable transport helicopters, was forced to ask for the help of other countries. The machines in use are all the nine delivered, as the option for three more helicopters, necessary to build up a full squadron, was never acted due to economical problems. The Black Hawks are fully operational since 2005, and they can carry up to 15 equipped soldiers, or 20 persons, or 4 tons of materials (at the baricentric hook). They are operated also in VIP and anti-terrorism missions and in support to the Special Forces (thanks also to the Night Vision Goggles), but they lack any type of armament. For civil protection duties they can also fly fire-fighting missions, thanks to the bucket capable of 3,000 litres. Since May 2008 two helicopters are permanently assigned to the UN Multinational Area Southwest in Kosovo. The pilots are among the most expert, as they must have minimum 1,000 flying hours before being selected for to the Black Hawk fleet. The workhorse of the Austrian Air Component however still is the Agusta-Bell AB.212, acquired in 24 samples since 1980, 23 of them being still in service. These machines are used for transport of materiel, troops and rescue teams, for fire-fighting, Special Operations support (airdrops and rapelling), training and urgent medical transport. Until May 2008 two AB.212 had been assigned to the UN forces in Kosovo. These helicopter are not yet capable of NVG operations, and do not have any armament, even if received self-protection ballistic armour for the crew. The oldest helicopter in service are the Agusta-Bell AB.206A, acquired in 13 sample in 1969, and since many years assigned to the only training activity; in spite of the low operating costs, and of the large amount of spare parts still in the depots, these aircraft will be retired in 2009, as cost saving measure. More recent are the Bell OH-58B Kiowa, in service since 1976 in 12 samples. These helicopters are destined to light transport, reconnaissance (also photo), fire support, anti-slow mouvers air policing, and scout missions; they are equipped with GPS with mouving map, ventral hook and NVG, and can be armed with 7,62mm M27 Gatling miniguns. Within the assigned tasks, there is also the training on behalf of the anti-aircraft units, simulating the mission profile of anti-tank helicopters. The final helicopter type of this list is the Sud Aviation SA.3160 Alouette III, purchased in 28 samples since 1967, and above all used for troop and rescue transport in the Alps. By 2015, depending on funds availability, the OH-58 and Alouette should be replaced by a new multi-role helicopter, in the three ton class.

The air policing capability of the Osterreichs Bundesheer have been recently tested by the “Euro 2008” European Football Championship, held in Switzerland and Austrian in June 2008. For this event, the Air Component Command arranged a plan capable to cover all the threats at all the altitudes, considering also that some matches were held in two different cities at the same time.  The apparatus was formed by EF.2000, F-5E and J-105 jets, PC-7 turboprops and OH-58 helicopters, all controlled and coordinated by the Air Defence integrated system, which in peacetime operates from Salzburg, and during real operations from a bunker into a mountain, near St. Johann. To this system were added also the anti-aircraft batteries, and missions of reconnaissance, transport and exercises of disaster relief. One Emergency Reaction Team Air (ERTA), composed by soldiers, fire-fighting men and medical operators, was build up, operating with a Black Hawk helicopter, capable to scramble H24 in case of disaster to recognize the type of emergency, limit the area and coordinate the first rescue and relief operations. During “Euro 2008” the Austrian Air Component flew some 422 sorties, 307 of them for the only air policing operations.


Osterreichs Bundesheer–Luftstreikraefte

 (flying units – September 2008)

  Kommando Luftraumueberwachung                  Zeltweg

           Ueberwachungsgeschwader                Zeltweg

1.      Staffel           EF.2000                  Zeltweg

2.      Staffel           EF.2000                  Zeltweg

3.      Staffel           J-105OE                  Linz-Hoersching


Kommando Luftunterstuezung                            Langenlebarn

1.      Staffel           S-70A                     Langenlebarn

2.      Staffel           OH-58B                   Langenlebarn

4.      Staffel           PC-6                       Langenlebarn


1.      Staffel           AB.212                   Linz-Hoersching

2.      Staffel           AB.212                   Linz-Hoersching

3.      Staffel           C-130K                   Linz-Hoersching


1.      Staffel           Alouette III             Aigen

2.      Staffel           Alouette III             Aigen


Kommando Flieger und Fliegerabwehr Schule                                                                                                                


          Staffel                    PC-7                       Zeltweg
          Staffel                    AB.206A                  Langenlebarn


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