WASHINGTON — Saab's next generation Gripen made its first flight on Thursday, marking a huge milestone for the aircraft on its way toward the 2019 delivery of the first jet.

According to Saab, the Gripen E took off at 10:32 a.m. local time from Saab's airfield in Linköping, Sweden, and flew over Östergötland for about 40 minutes before landing. During the flight, the company pilot tested a number of systems, including the ability to raise and lower its landing gear.

"The flight was just as expected, with the aircraft performance matching the experience in our simulations. Its acceleration performance is impressive with smooth handling. Needless to say, I'm very happy to have piloted this maiden flight," said Marcus Wandt, the Saab test pilot who flew the aircraft.

Gripen E’s first flight comes just before the start of Paris Air Show, which runs from June 19-25. Saab currently has customers for the aircraft in the Swedish and Brazilian air forces, but today’s flight could help create further confidence in the jet as Saab meets with potential buyers at Le Bourget. Richard Smith, Saab’s head of Gripen marketing, told reporters in May that ongoing fighter competitions in Belgium and Finland are considered to be potential opportunities for the Gripen E.

The Gripen E’s first flight was initially scheduled to occur in 2016, however Saab delayed it for six months to allow it to qualify its software. Company officials in May noted that they believed the decision was the right one and would help remove risk from the flight test plan.

Jonas Hjelm, Saab’s head of its aeronautics business unit, reiterated the importance of finishing software qualification in a written statement.

"Today we have flown this world class fighter aircraft for the first time. We achieved it with the fully qualified software for the revolutionary avionics system," he said. "This is about giving our customers a smart fighter system with the future designed in from the start."

The Swedish Air Force has committed to a purchase of 60 E models, and Brazil is on order for 36 jets, including eight twin-seat F versions. Officials from both nations have acknowledged the potential for further buys. Deliveries for both Sweden and Brazil start in 2019.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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