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Supermarine Swift

The troubled aircraft withdrawn from its primary role a year into service 

WHEN you think of the Supermarine company you probably remember one of the most iconic of aircraft in aviation history, the Spitfire.

The number of people who think Swift when you mention Supermarine is likely limited to RAF personnel who flew or serviced that infamous jet, or anyone who served at RAF Waterbeach in the early 1950s.

The word troubled doesn’t do the issues with the Swift justice – it was, to put it simply, incapable of carrying out the interceptor job the RAF required of it.

The single-seat jet fighter that could fly at speeds around 700mph eventually found a limited role as a successful reconnaissance aircraft, but by then its fate was sealed. A prototype was first flown in 1948, three years after the end of the Second World War, its development following the Air Ministry’s request for a swept-wing aircraft with the first design, Type 510, heavily based on the short-lived Supermarine Attacker, a jet used by the Fleet Air Arm.

Six Supermarine Swifts in close formation in 1956

(Six Supermarine Swifts in close formation in 1956)

Various modifications were made in the years following, but its production was raised to the category of ‘super-priority’ following Winston Churchill’s return to the role of Prime Minister in 1951; the project was considered to be of vital military importance with the Korean War heightening the mood of fear that was permeating throughout the world.

The Swift was joined by the Hawker Hunter as fighter aircraft required for immediate service, with their development deemed to be of the highest importance. While the Air Ministry was likely hoping the rivalry may spur both companies to quickly produce working models suitable for service, the two projects were beset by technical challenges.

Renowned aviation author, Derek Wood, described the requirements of the Swift like “an attempt to squeeze a quart into a pint pot, with 30mm Aden guns, afterburner, power controls, adequate fuel and respectable high subsonic performance”.

Manufacture was commenced even before modifications were made following the results of test flights, and on August 25, 1952, a production standard Swift F.1 was flown, pilots noting it had unusual handling qualities, as well as a troublesome engine – the axial flow Rolls-Royce Avon engine replacing the centrifugal flow Rolls-Royce Nene engine.

It was hardly an overwhelming vote of confidence but, nevertheless, a Swift F Mk2 was built, the only changes being the fitting of two extra Adens and minor wing alterations – the additional artillery, however, lead to further issues with aircraft handling: it was decided they could address these by increasing thrust so further modifications were ordered.

There followed Mk3s and Mk 4s, the latter including a variable incidence tailplane that solved the handling issue, but further problems were encountered with the reheat (afterburner) not igniting at high altitudes. There was positive news for the Swift, however, with an F.4 prototype, WK198, piloted by Supermarine chief test pilot, Commander Mike Lithgow, breaking the speed record, registering 737.7mph at Aziza in Libya in September 1953.

56 Sqn Supermarine Swift

(56 Sqn Supermarine Swift)

On February 13, 1954, the Swift entered service as an interceptor with No. 56 Squadron at RAF Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire, becoming the first squadron to operate a swept-wing aircraft. In the same month the F.2 entered service, however, it wasn’t long before it became clear that both versions were not up to the job, and in August, following a series of accidents, the F.1 was grounded, shortly followed by the F.2.

The grounding arrived after a Swift crashed soon after take-off from Waterbeach in August 1954 at Stretham Fen, the pilot from No. 56 Squadron killed on only his second-ever flight with the aircraft. The initial cause given was “aileron reversal”, the pilot losing control of the jet, with Air Ministry investigators identifying a failure in an electrical circuit connected to the powered-control system.

It was decided that improvements in the design could still produce models that would serve the RAF effectively, with F.3 and F.4s manufactured, the F.4 the last variant the RAF accepted in the interceptor role. But it was clear confidence in the Swift was rapidly diminishing, with media reports that the cancellation of the project was imminent, not helped by Government Minister Sir George Ward stating in the House of Commons: “Aerodynamic difficulties have been encountered and it is not possible to say, with certainty, if they can be overcome in the version under development.”

All fighter variants were soon withdrawn and replaced by the Hawker Hunter, and by early 1955 the project had become a national scandal – according to Fleet Street. The major problem was that it was incapable of combat at altitudes beyond 40,000ft, unable to offer the endurance, manoeuvrability or reliability demanded.

An FR.5 was developed with a lengthened nose housing cameras and utilised in a low-level reconnaissance role assigned to the RAF in Germany, Squadron Nos. 2, 4 and 79 operating the aircraft. The FR.5 proved effective enough to claim the NATO ‘Royal Flush’ prize in both 1957 and 1959, awarded to the best reconnaissance aircraft – beating, amongst other planes, the US RF-84 Thunderflash.

Swift FR.5 in 1955

(Swift FR.5 in 1955)

There were further models with the F.7 the final produced, the first fighter aircraft armed with air-to-air guided missiles, and while not used in RAF squadron service, the 14 models built provided valuable information to the Guided Weapon Development squadron. By this time, early problems with the Hawker Hunter had been ironed out and it was performing well and meeting the needs of the RAF, the Swift becoming surplus to requirements.

There appears some truth in the belief that there was an effective interceptor aircraft in the Swift project, but it wasn’t allowed to develop at its natural pace. It was speeded up for political expedience and a genuine need to supply the RAF with fighter aircraft able to counter the threat of Soviet forces, but the haste led to a range of problems, notably caused by changing the engine from the Nene to the Avon. In the end the cost of remedying the Swift’s problems was deemed one not worth paying.

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