The Jetstream has served the National Flying Laboratory Centre (NFLC) for nearly 50 years but by 2018, as the number of aircraft in service dwindled, support was becoming harder to secure. A replacement aircraft needed to be identified and modified to continue its important role.

Selecting the right aircraft is never simple, especially when the flying undertaken by the flying classroom and laboratory is somewhat unusual. Part of the very special educational experience provided by the aircraft is its ability to climb rapidly to its operating altitude, fly a range of manoeuvres, and operate in poor weather. We needed increased seating capacity than the Jetstream to cater for increasing student numbers, and capacity to carry research equipment without the need to reconfigure between flights. Affordability, maintainability and the rapid turnaround were also key factors. Most importantly, the aircraft needed to perform in a way that allowed the flight crew to execute unusual manoeuvres safely.

The global regional turboprop market contracted significantly in the 1990s and early 2000s so there was a limited number of aircraft that could be considered. The final choice was a Saab 340B as market research and simulator testing suggested its performance and flying characteristics were ideal, and the University already had a strong strategic partnership with Saab. Cranfield became the first UK airport to operate a digital air traffic control centre with innovative technology supplied by Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions, and Saab is also a partner in the Digital Aviation Research Technology Centre (DARTeC).

The Saab 340B is a popular regional aircraft. In 2018, over 240 of them were operated by 34 different operators, including Loganair in the UK. Excellent technical support is available from Saab in Linköping, where the aircraft was originally built and where aircraft are modified for special missions - such as the flying classroom and laboratory.

Cranfield chose an outright purchase rather than lease because of the required modifications and because Saab had a suitable aircraft for sale. It had previously operated as N456XJ for Meseba Airlines in the USA, operating regional routes until its retirement in late 2011. The aircraft was comparatively young – ship number 456 out of a total production run of 459 aircraft. However, as it had been operating in the US, modifications were needed to ensure it met European airworthiness requirements.

The freshly painted but unmodified aircraft was officially handed over to Cranfield University at a ceremony attended by Prof Graham Braithwaite and Prof Nick Lawson in Sweden on 14 November 2019 and at that point, the full modification programme could start under the watchful eye of Cranfield alumnus, Scott Carmichael (MSc Air Transport Management 2016), NFLC’s Project Manager.

Design work for the instrumentation and sensors was undertaken by Cranfield Aerospace Solutions and the functionality was designed in collaboration with the NFLC team including its lead demonstrator, Dr Alastair Cooke, who had amassed years of experience with the Jetstream 31. Software for the tablet computers that would relay information from the various sensors on board the aircraft was developed by Scitek - an engineering consultancy specialising in research and development software.

An aircraft modification programme is challenging, but the onset of the global pandemic meant teams of engineers needing to work remotely and components becoming harder to source. This inevitably caused delays, meaning that completion was unlikely before the UK left the EU and airworthiness responsibility moved from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). A ‘Supplemental Type Certificate’ (STC) was required and this needed the aircraft to be moved to the UK under a ‘Permit to Fly’ in July 2021. This meant approval was required from each of the countries to be overflown so a routing was designed from Sweden, over Norway and the North Sea to Scotland and on to Cranfield. The Saab Test Pilots completed a shakedown flight and commissioning flight before it was ready to head for its new home. The aircraft behaved beautifully and NFLC’s Captains Robert Harrison and Tim Kinvig were given the green light to bring the aircraft back to Cranfield on Friday 9 July.

The arrival was kept low key, but the Cranfield team excitedly tracked the aircraft throughout its trip and it touched down safely at 1236 marking a new era for the NFLC. Once at Cranfield, the modifications were tested and approval gained from the CAA for the aircraft to operate. Then freshly upholstered seats with mounting points for the tablet computers were fitted, and in August the crew were able to start their line training in the aircraft before flying students in October 2021.

Learn more about Cranfield's campaign for a new flying classroom and laboratory.