Pilot of Swedish fighter likens it to Sukhoi Su-30

The Saab JAS 39 is a systems-driven plane, and that makes it easy for those who fly it, says Musa Themba Mbhokota.

Pilot Musa Themba Mbhokota is of South African origin.

He patiently explains the intricacies of his advanced fighter jet in the simplest terms possible to curious visitors, and smilingly obliges for handshakes and pictures.

Fighter pilot Musa Themba Mbhokota, of South African descent, is one of the test pilots for Saab JAS 39 Gripen, a light single-engine aircraft manufactured by the Swedish aerospace company Saab. Metrolife spoke to him about the roles and responsibilities that come with his job.

What makes Gripen unique?

Gripen provides capabilities that no other fighter aircraft provides today, for this price. It provides network-centric warfare capabilities and can launch weapons, air-to-air or air-to-ground missions.

What training is required to be a Gripen pilot?

Gripen is easy to fly with very little training required. It is a systems-driven aircraft which gives you situational awareness. It has a system where all the information is fused. There’s less pressure which allows you to focus on important things.

Which has been your toughest mission so far?

We were at a high visibility event in South Africa in 2010. I have never seen so much rain and such bad weather. The conditions were tough for any aircraft to sustain. It was a Germany vs USA game where even the Vice president of the United States was present; it was important for us to provide security. We managed to do that in extremely bad weather amid heavy air traffic.

How did you get into flying?

I developed an interest in flying because of the many jets that kept flying around the place where I grew up. I never met a pilot then but I always wanted to be one. This feeling was heightened when I visited an air show like this as a child. I saw the aircraft on display and told myself, “One day, I want to do that.”

Are there women fighter pilots in your team?

There are but we don’t see them differently. I have been a fighter pilot instructor and I have trained many female fighter pilots myself.

What are the requisites to becoming a fighter pilot?

One, you need to be fairly aggressive by nature. You need to have the willingness and the courage to fight. Secondly, you need to be independent in your thought but must be willing to work as a team. Thirdly, fighter pilots mostly fly alone so you must have the ability to self-evaluate and improve yourself. Lastly, fighter pilots are competitive. If you put two fighter pilots together, they will race until they have a heart attack because there must be a winner (laughs).

If you were to compare the Gripen to an aircraft here…

The Sukhoi Su-30 would be my choice but I feel we can beat it any day.

South Africans are also known for their music and dance culture. What kind of music do you listen to?

My favourite band is ‘The Eagles’, which is an unconventional choice. When I am bored at home, I put on their music.

Do you have children?

Yes, I have three kids, aged five, six and a half and eight years. They know what I do and they ask me a lot of questions. However, it’s interesting how, when you grow up with airplanes, all this becomes so normal. When I fly over their school sometimes, everyone thinks it’s a big deal but they just shrug and say, ‘Oh, it’s just dad!’ (laughs). He has just come to say hello.”

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Pilot of Swedish fighter likens it to Sukhoi Su-30

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