On 22nd September 1953, Mike Lithgow, Supermarine’s chief test pilot, took off in Swift F4 WK198 from the company’s airfield at Chilbolton bound for Tripoli, Libya. Three days later, four successful low-level runs were achieved over the North African desert resulting in an average speed of 735.7 mph and a new World Airspeed Record – thereby wresting from Neville Duke the record established in Hunter WB188 just 18 days earlier. These were heady days – it was little more than a week later that Lieutenant Commander James Verdin USN took the record to the United States with a speed of 753 mph while flying a Douglas Skyray.
The Swift evolved from several prototypes based on the Supermarine Attacker. The final variant of these, the Type 541 (of which two were built), first flew in1951 and to all intents and purposes constituted the pre-production Swift – an aircraft designed to fulfil a requirement by the Air Ministry to replace the Meteor in the air defence role and to ensure a fall back option should the Hawker Hunter programme fail.
The first production Swift F1 took to the air in 1953 and the aircraft entered service as a fighter with No 56 Squadron, RAF Waterbeach, in February 1954. A total of 21 were built. Armed with 2 x 30mm Aden cannon, it was powered by a Rolls Royce Avon 109 turbojet engine developing 7,900 lbs static thrust and was the RAF’s first swept wing aircraft. Almost immediately thereafter came the F2, of which 16 were built; the only difference from the F1 was the addition of and extra 2 x Aden cannon but, unfortunately, the airframe modifications needed to enable this enhancement caused handling problems. Later fighter variants, the F3 (powered by an Avon 114 engine with reheat), and the F4 (which incorporated a variable incidence tail-plane), never saw front-line service. Whilst the new tail-plane alleviated the handling problems, the reheat was almost impossible to ignite at high level – something of a drawback for a potential air defence aircraft. And so it was that after just 14 months, the Swift fighter was withdrawn from RAF service and replaced by the superior Hunter.
It was now, however, that the Swift came into its own as a fighter-reconnaissance aircraft, the FR5, which first flew in 1955 and entered service the following year with Nos 2 and 79 Squadrons in Germany. Operating in the low-level reconnaissance role, the Swift FR5 proved extremely capable and was much admired; indeed, the aircraft and its pilots won numerous reconnaissance competitions, including first place in their class during NATO’s Royal Flush in both 1957 and 1959. The FR5 filled a vital function on the central European front during a critical period of the Cold War, but it was never intended to be more than a stop-gap pending the introduction of the Hunter FR10; therefore, when the latter became available, the Swift gave way and in 1961 departed Germany and front line service. In total, over all marks, there were 193 Swifts produced (plus 4 prototypes), which compares with almost 2000 Hunters.
Supermarine Swift FR5 WK281 served with No 79 Squadron and is on loan to the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum from the RAF Museum.