Aside from concept cars, some believe that the last Saabs to leave the factory with only two seats was the Sonett III in the early 1970's. However, for many years, a few two seat Saabs have quietly left the workshop of a company formerly affiliated with Saab. The Port of Seattle has one of those cars.
The Port of Seattle operates both harbor facilities in Seattle and the Seattle Tacoma International Airport. The airport has a specially modified Saab 9-5 SportCombi commonly referred to as the Saab Friction Tester but more precisely called the SARSYS Friction Tester. The Port of Seattle was kind enough to give permission to publish several photographs of areas that are off limits to the public. These photographs, taken specially for this article, have never previously published until now. Among the photographs is a rare look at the inside of the friction tester.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration requires friction measuring surveys of airfields. There are eight FAA approved systems. Some companies have designed trailers that are towed and have specialized friction measuring equipment. One of the FAA approved systems is the SARSYS Friction Tester. The specially designed Saab is used after snow is plowed from the runway and at least daily during rainfall. Aircraft performance data, including predicted braking behavior, is calculated and reported to the airlines.
In 1989, the Port of Seattle bought a Saab 900 Friction Tester for airport use. This was replaced in August, 2006 with a Saab 9-5 friction tester which uses a SportCombi bodystyle and marketed under the SARSYS Friction Tester (SFT) name. SARSYS, originally the Scandinavian Airport and Road Systems AB, is a Swedish company that was founded in 1998 and is the successor company to Safegate AB, which was spunoff as a separate company from Saab Automobile AB.
The current SARSYS system uses a Saab 9-5 SportCombi. The Saab 99 was first used as a Saab friction tester. The dynamics of testing make it only practical to use a front wheel drive car as a friction tester. The Saab 9-5 has a wireless system to transmit computer data to airport operations. There is an approximately 100 gallon water tank in the cargo compartment used to take standardized measurements on dry runways. This tank, seen in the photo below, replaces the rear seat. A 5th wheel is mounted in the cargo area. The wheel can be forced down at 300 lbs. of downforce to take friction measurements. The photo shows an unmounted 5th wheel. Prior to making runway measurements, the brown colored lid of the yellow box structure is opened and the wheel is attached inside the box. The box is actually much deeper than can be seen in the photo. The wheel is then lowered to take measurements, almost like an aircraft's landing gear.
There are standardized parameters for taking measurements. These standards include taking measurements at 40 mph and 60 mph. The 40 mph reading is taken 500 feet from the threshold (end) of the runway while the 60 mph is measured at 1,000 feet. A car with slow acceleration would be incapable of making these friction measurements.
Michael Ehl, Director of Airport Operations at Seattle Tacoma International Airport wrote in an internal report that "no other SFT (surface friction tester) combines the reliability of the SARSYS SFT (Saab 9-5) with the new wireless technology that will allow direct connectivity between the airfield and Airport Operations." The airport in Seattle purchased their current Saab friction tester in 2006 at a cost of US$153,000 (€110 175, £95,215) plus $8,550 for related equipment and other costs.
Many airports use the Saab friction tester including John F. Kennedy International Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport, LaGuardia Airport, Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport, Dallas Love Field, Will Rogers World Airport (Oklahoma City), Tromsø Airport (Norway), Kunsan AFB (Korea), etc.
Some airports service their Saab friction testers at local Saab dealers. The friction tester in Seattle, however, is serviced by the Port of Seattle. The photographs were taken just as the friction tester returned to service after being taken out of service for a few days for maintenance. Saab extends the usual warranty for the car portion of the friction tester. The suspension, brakes, and fuel system of the car is stock.
In late February, there was only the second snowfall of the winter season in Seattle that was of any significance. One local television station started the newscast with weather related stories, one of which was how the airport was coping with the weather. Snow plowing and aircraft deicing were covered but there was a mere sentence or two about the Saab friction tester. Such lack of appreciation of the Saab is commonplace among the general public. However, the Port of Seattle knows better. It is presumably appreciative of Saab's capability being a repeat buyer of the SARSYS Friction Tester.
Thanks to the Port of Seattle, Michael Ehl, Director of Airport Operations, Perry Cooper, Media Officer, and Sarah Demory for their cooperation and assistance.