Thunder & Lightnings

Supermarine Swift


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While Hawker worked on the Sea Hawk and the Hunter, Supermarine were working on their type 510. This was to be basically an Attacker with swept wings. First flight was on the 29th of December 1948. Flown by M J Lithgow, it was the first British jet aircraft with swept wings and tailplane. Powered by the large Rolls Royce Nene engine (as used in the Vampire), this meant that the fuselage of the type 510 was larger than that of the Hunter. VV106, the first type 510, underwent various carrier trials. In the process it became the first swept-wing jet to both land and take-off from an aircraft carrier (the Americans, for once, were two years behind on this score). After these trials, and with the Admiralty losing interest, modifications were made to improve the aircraft's performance at high speeds and altitudes; greater stability was badly needed.

At the time, Handley Page were designing their Victor V-Bomber and decided to test their wing and tail design on a smaller aircraft. A type 510 fuselage (basically an Attacker fuselage with Swift wingroots, then designated type 521 by Supermarine) was bought from Supermarine and after a brief stay at General Aircraft, moved onto Blackburn where it was married to appropriate crescent-shaped wings and a T-tail, becoming known as the YB.2, or HP.88. Coded VX330, it actually flew too late to be of much use in the Victor programme and was lost in an accident on August 26th, 1951, killing HP pilot, Duggie Broomfield.

Moving back to the Swift programme proper, the second of the real Swift ancestors was VV119, the type 528. Very soon after its first flight on the 27th of March 1950, it was modified to change the hated tailwheel undercarriage to a nosewheel arrangement (though the twin tailwheels were retained as bumpers). Other modifications were carried out; longer, pointed nose; kinked wing leading edge, larger fuselage diameter (to accommodate an afterburning tailpipe), greater fuel capacity and provision for four cannon in the wings. In this form the aircraft was known as the type 535, and this variation first flew on the 23rd of August 1950. Type 535 VV119
VV119, the Type 535; Vickers-Armstrong
1st prototype WJ960
WJ970, the first Swift prototype in April 1952; Ministry of Supply
By this time the Air Ministry had become interested in the type 535 as a back-up plan for the Hunter programme; obviously someone was worried about Hawker's ability to produce a useable aircraft! The Korean war also concentrated ministry minds on the quickest possible production of a useable fighter. Supermarine were given the contract to produce 100 aircraft, to be named Swift. These were to be the type 541, and would use Rolls Royce AJ.65 Avon engines instead of the less powerful Nenes used previously. While the Avon, also to be used in the Hunter, was a much slimmer design than the Nene, it was considered too late to redesign the fuselage (and would no doubt have proved too expensive) so the wide fuselage remained. The armament provision was changed from four in the wings to two under the intakes. WJ960, the first true Swift prototype, flew on the 1st of August 1951. The second, WJ965, flew in July the next year but two forced landings caused a delay in the programme.
After the DH.110 disaster at Farnborough, more modifications were carried out on the Swift prototypes and they resumed flying in February 1953. In March that year the first production Swift F.1 flew. While the first of the F.1s were in production, armament was increased to four 30mm Aden cannon (after the Hunter had shown this to be possible), and the Swift F.2 was born. Unfortunately the extra room required for the extra ammunition was made by extending the wings forward at the fuselage join, and this caused a problem whereby the Swift could go into an abrupt pitch-up attitude, flipping onto its back in a matter of seconds. A number of fixes were made but none fully solved the problem until extra ballast was added to the nose of the aircraft. Obviously, this had the effect of making the aircraft rather less sprightly! 1st F.3 WK247
WK247, the first F.3; MoD
WK198 in Libya in 1953
WK198 making a low pass over spectators in Libya, 1953 - note the black band on the nose for photographic reference purposes
An F.3 variant was in the process of being produced, these being reheat-capable. These, however, were destined never to be flown by the RAF, being used as instructional airframes only. Meanwhile Supermarine continued working on a further improved variant, still battling to fix the pitch-up problem, and produced the F.4 (Type 546) as a result; the fix being a variable incidence tailplane which did indeed seem to cure the problem.

The F.4, which had first flown in May 1953, soon made its name by breaking the world absolute speed record over Libya on 26th September 1953 with Mike Lithgow at the controls - 735 miles per hour, beating Neville Duke's record of 727 mph set using a Hunter F.3 three weeks earlier. The record only lasted a matter of days, though, before the American's Douglas Skyray pushed it up to over 753 miles per hour.
56 squadron received their first Swift F.1s on the 13th of February 1954, though the aircraft had numerous restrictions placed upon them with regards to gun firing, top speed and service ceiling. In spite of this, the Swift still holds the honour of being the first swept-wing jet fighter into RAF service. Numerous accidents resulted in the grounding of all Swifts in late August. When F.2s replaced the F.1s a few days later (30th August), the restrictions were relaxed, but two aircraft were then lost in pitch-up accidents and the Swift fleet was once again grounded. By March the following year the RAF had had quite enough of the Swift and the order was given to withdraw them from service. While initial impressions had been favourable, with performance not far removed from the American's much more well-funded F-86 Sabre, the stability problems meant that the early marks of Swift was near-useless in service. Swift F.1s of 56 squadron in 1954
Swift F.1s of 56 squadron in 1954; M. J. F. Bowyer
WK200 FR.5 prototype
Swift FR.5 prototype WK200; Flight
While the problems of the F.2/3 had finally been fixed, and it must have delighted the Supermarine team to have beaten the Hawker Hunter's speed record, all was not well with the F.4. It turned out that the F.4's reheat could not be lit at high altitude, which, for an interceptor, was not a wonderful feature! Only nine were built, and production then switched to the FR.5 (type 549), a low-level reconaissance variant.
The RAF had decided that the Swift was a dead-end as a fighter, and with the Hunter now in widespread service in this role, were no longer interested in an additional fighter type. The FR.5 was fitted with a lengthened nose housing cameras and this was finally a useful aircraft, and as it operated at medium to low level, the high altitude reheat problem did not matter. From March 1956 2 squadron (and later 79 squadron) operated the FR.5 in Germany. Swift FR.5 plans; 5,659
Swift FR.5 plans; The British Fighter
Swift F.7
Swift F.7 with Fireflash AAMs; via Zvi Kreisler
The Swift FR.5 actually did very well in the reconaissance role; in 1957 and 1959 Swifts actually won the NATO 'Royal Flush' reconaissance competition, conclusively beating off the best types other nations could offer, including the American's RF-84 Thunderflash. The punishing low-level reconaissance role proved to be no problem for the strong Swift airframe, and no fatigue problems were encountered. It even became a popular aircraft with crews, something that would have amazed the crews of earlier variants. FR.5s were eventually replaced by the Hunter FR.10. A proposed unarmed PR.6 variant (the type 550) never went anywhere because of the reheat at altitude problems, but fourteen F.7s were built; these being equipped with radar in an extended nose cone and Blue Sky (Fairey Fireflash) beam-riding air-to-air missiles. While not used in RAF squadron service, they provided valuable information to the Guided Weapon Development squadron and were the first RAF fighters to employ AAMs.
Often regarded as an abysmal failure, the Swift programme was from the start hampered by the problems of changing the engine from Nene to Avon and the lack of time to develop the aircraft. It was, after all, only ever intended as back-up in case the Hunter programme failed. However, operation of the Swift did at least give the RAF some experience of a heavier and more advanced aircraft than the Meteor and stood them in good stead for the adoption of ever more advanced aircraft such as the Lightning. Further production or development of the Swift did not happen due in large part to the end of the Korean war - the need for large numbers of fighters simply disappeared. In addition, the amount of money needed to develop the design fully could not be justified in the face of the ever-increasing success of the Hawker Hunter. Two Swift FR.5s and two Hunters
Two FR.5s of 79 squadron accompanying two Hunters; MoD

Leading Particulars

VariantType 510Type 528Type 535Type 541F.1F.2F.3F.4FR.5F.7
First flight28 Dec 194827 Mar 195023 Aug 19501 Aug 195125 Aug 1952??27 May 195327 May 1955Apr 1956
ArmamentNoneTwo 30mm cannonFour 30mm cannon, 8 unguided rocketsNoneAs F.2As F.1Two Fairey Fireflash AAMs
PowerplantRolls-Royce NeneRolls-Royce AJ.65 Avon7,500 lb Rolls-Royce Avon RA77500 lb Rolls-Royce Avon RA7R7,175 lb (9,450 lb reheat) Rolls-Royce Avon 1149,950 lb (reheat) Rolls-Royce Avon 116
Max. speed?660 mph709 mph??713 mph700 mph
Service ceiling?45,500 ft39,000 ft??45,800 ft41,600 ft
Range?730 miles493 miles??630 miles864 miles
Empty weight?11,892 lb13,136 lb??13,435 lb13,735 lb
Max. take off weight?15,800 lb19,764 lb??21,673 lb21,400 lb
Wing span?32 ft 4 in??As F.235 ft
Wing area?306 sq ft321 sq ft??328 sq ft348 sq ft
Length?41 ft 5.5 in??42 ft 3 in43 ft 9 in
Height?12 ft 6 in12 ft 6 in*13 ft 6 in

*Some F.4s appeared to have higher fins than others; does anybody have any further information on this?

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Site contents copyright © 2016 Damien Burke/Handmade by Machine Ltd.
This page last updated on Thursday 12th April 2012

Visitor Comments

43 people have commented on this page. This is comment section 1 of 5.

John Hickford from Netherlands

Postd at 9:33pm on Sunday, February 15th, 2015

i worked on swifts camberas hunters javelins when i was posted to CMU RAF LAARBRUCH. i have still got a scaar on my head going under the wing of a leaking SWIFT in the hanger.this was between 1961-1963

John Hickford from Netherlands

Postd at 9:32pm on Sunday, February 15th, 2015

i worked on swifts camberas hunters javelins when i was posted to CMU RAF LAARBRUCH. i have still got a scaar on my head going under the wing of a leaking SWIFT in the hanger

George Humberston from Dereham Norfolk

Postd at 3:37pm on Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

As a school boy I watched the Swift fly from Chilbolton.A few years later some of the airframes were at RAF St Athan being used for trade training.

R Nash from Cornwall

Postd at 9:53pm on Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

Back in, I think, 1956, s a teenager, I had the priviledge of working on the Swift at the Supermarine factory at Trowbridge. My job was to paint some evil smelling white solution inside the tailpipe. We also used compressed air drills. Since I was (and am) 'keen'on aircraft, the job was a pleasure. A beautiful 'plane'.


Postd at 8:03pm on Sunday, March 9th, 2014


Louis Doherty from Thurles

Postd at 8:31am on Monday, February 10th, 2014

Swift and Javelin come to mind. Favourite aircraft :)

John Perkin from Taunton

Postd at 8:56am on Friday, January 3rd, 2014

Swifts were always an inspiration at school in the early 1950's.

First seen at RAF Halton in April 1957 and then at RAF Church Fenton in early 1961 when they had been flown back from West Germany for disposal.

I went to see the FR5 at Tangmere last year.

Frank Beck from cheshire

Postd at 8:10pm on Sunday, October 13th, 2013

Never seen a Swift fly but i believe there was
2 swifts mounted at RAF Cardington when I went into the mob as a recruit at Cardington, before I went to Bridenorth

Paul Scott from London

Postd at 10:11am on Thursday, September 12th, 2013

A fine-looking aircraft among the first generation of UK swept wing models, overshadowed by the Hunter. I heard that it had 'spring-tabbed' ailerons which caused the instability problems above 25,000 feet.

Tony Smith from gloucester

Postd at 6:20pm on Saturday, July 6th, 2013


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