Gripen 39 C/D squadron commander Wg Cdr Jackkrit Thammavichai poses in front of a Gripen fighter. He will lead the air force’s newest aircraft line in an airshow before Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to mark the centennial year of Thai aviation today. KRIT PROMSAKA NA SAKONNAKORN
The air force has not had the chance to demonstrate the performance of the jets _ which were commissioned on July 7 last year _ in an official show as the aircraft's systems needed testing. However, the "Centennial of Royal Thai Air Force Forefathers'Aviation" exhibition today will be a magnificent opportunity for pilots to show the full potential of the Gripen jets. The air force will hold an airshow to demonstrate several types of aircraft, including Gripens, F-16s and Alpha Jets at Don Mueang airport today. The event marks a significant day for Thai aviation 100 years ago. On July 2, 1912, Maj Luang Sanlayawut and Capt Luang Sikikorn became the first two Thai nationals to undergo pilot training courses in France. They were followed by 1st Lt Tip Ketuthat, who started the course on July 29. On their return to Thailand, the three officers helped foster the country's aviation establishment, which progressed to cover both military and commercial services. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra will preside over the opening ceremony today, while the show will also be watched by military chiefs. The airshow will be a chance for Gripen squadron commander Wg Cdr Jackkrit Thammavichai, who will lead the newest aircraft line of the air force, to demonstrate his ability to control the fighter jet. "Gripen has performed [in test flights] in front of the crowds in Chiang Mai, Ubon Ratchathani, Udon Thani and Nakhon Sawan," Wg Cdr Jackkrit said. On one flight test, a Gripen jet caused a sonic boom while flying on Samui island, shattering windows in many homes and frightening tourists. "As the squadron commander, I apologise for that incident. The aircraft must fly at a higher altitude, or the air force will have to review the training areas," Wg Cdr Jackkrit said. The air force has procured 12 Gripen fighter jets. The six jets for the first phase have been in service since 2011 together with a Saab 340 AEW airborne early warning aircraft, equipped with radar, as well as another Saab 340 transport plane. The remaining six jets will be delivered to the air force in the middle of 2013. This second phase will include another Saab 340 AEW aircraft in order to control the network-centric system used to operate the fighter jets. (Continued after graphic) "Gripen is a high performance aircraft and requires pilots to learn its system," Wg Cdr Jackkrit said. The Gripen commander previously dreamed of being a pilot for Thai Airways International. He decided to study at the air force's cadet school in the hope that he would become an air force officer and then a THAI pilot. Wg Cdr Jackkrit began his studies at the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School's class 29 in 1998 before moving on to study at the Royal Thai Air Force Academy. His dream, however, has changed. "I realised then that I no longer wanted to be a THAI pilot. I would like to become an air force officer and a jet fighter pilot," Wg Cdr Jackkrit said. After completing his first year at the Royal Thai Air Force Academy, he moved to study at Virginia Military School in the US for one year, where he obtained the highest score in the school's exam. Following this he enrolled at the United States Air Force Academy, where only 10 foreign students are allowed to study each year. There he took courses on engineering and aeronautical engineering, emerging first out of 1,008 students at the academy in 1994. He was the first foreign cadet to earn the academy's top honour and his name was commemorated in the school's hall of fame. He then pursued his master's degree in aeronautical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After graduating he served in the Thai air force. Wg Cdr Jackkrit is accustomed to being No 1. He reached the top spot again when studying at the Air Command and Staff College in 2006. His air force career started with flying the L-39 fighter jet in Nakhon Ratchasima air base for two years before being selected to fly an F-16. A significant moment came in 2010, when he was chosen to command the 702 squadron at Wing 7, Surat Thani air force base before being asked to command the Gripen squadron. He had to study the Gripen's system and undergo training in Sweden for more than one year. Wg Cdr Jackkrit also piloted one of the first batch of Gripens from Sweden to Thailand on July 7, 2010. "I am aware that I am not good at studying," he said. "In primary and high school at Debsirin School, my behavioural records were not so good. It was an all-boys school. "Perhaps my good brain helped me through to the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School. "At the academy, I had plenty of time for studying and reading, not only about military affairs, but also about other things. That, perhaps, helped ensure I was always at the top." Wg Cdr Jackkrit is short-sighted. He nearly gave up flying jets as short-sighted people are not permitted to fly. However, an exception was made for him because of his versatility. He is one of a few F-16 pilots in the world who wears glasses, and the only pilot in the Thai air force who wears glasses while flying. "I used to think that my short-sightedness was a weakness. But since the air force's supervisors gave me a chance, I will do my best," he said. Although Wg Cdr Jackkrit has always been No 1 in many things, he was humble when asked whether he wished to be the air force commander-in-chief in the future. "I just hope to have a good family and take good care of my two daughters. That is all." he said. "As for my work, it depends on my destiny. No one can control their fortune. I am satisfied with and proud to be responsible for the air force's newest aircraft. And I will do my best."