Time off for good behaviour

A while back, I shared Indicator’s impressions of flying the De Havilland Mosquito – and promised to bring you more from that Flight magazine series. Time to make good on the offer… So, following our recent jaunt across America in four Fairey Swordfish, it seems most relevant to share a quick sketch of the venerable ‘Stringbag’.

Time off for good behaviour

Formation flying has long been one of the RAF's great strengths (Black Arrows, Red Arrows). Here, Swordfish Mk.1s fly over the Solent, out of RAF Gosport, likely in summer 1939. (IWM MH 60)
Formation flying has long been one of the RAF’s great strengths (Black Arrows, Red Arrows). Here, Swordfish Mk.1s fly over the Solent, out of RAF Gosport, likely in summer 1939. (IWM MH 60)

One of the more pleasant wartime holidays from the normal military aircraft flying routine – during the short periods of summer, at least – was that of being given a delivery or test job on a Fairey Swordfish.

The routine at the average maintenance unit involved more or less continuous concentration, since we were habitually leaping from one then-modern aircraft to another, with a choice of anything up to a score of different types.

So the Swordfish’s rest-cure effect was simply that of flying something with which there was no need to concentrate on ‘drill-sequence’ or on memorising different positions of the hydraulic and other controls, as well as all the revolution and boost figures for take-off, climbing and cruising flight.

Evocative study of a Swordfish Mk.1, K5660, (IWM ATP 87501)
Evocative study of a Swordfish Mk.1, K5660, (IWM ATP 87501)

A pilot’s holiday

The U-Boat view? Actually, a Swordfish circling over the destroyer HMS Kelvin before landing aboard HMS Ark Royal, during Mediterranean convoy duty in November 1940. (IWM A 2362)
The U-Boat view? Actually, a Swordfish circling over the destroyer HMS Kelvin before landing aboard HMS Ark Royal, during Mediterranean convoy duty in November 1940. (IWM A 2362)

With its fixed-pitch airscrew, fixed undercarriage, and unflapped wings, the Swordfish was virtually a one-control aircraft—discounting the movements of the rudder pedals and control column which, in any complicated aircraft, are pushed around quite without conscious thought.

What’s more, the Swordfish felt so safe that the only real personal risk involved in flying this airship seemed to be incurred in climbing up to or out of its pulpit-like cockpit.

Twisting the tail

A Swordfish pilot climbs down from his "pulpit-like cockpit" on board HMS Tracker (D24), during North Atlantic convoy duty in October 1943. (IWM A19730)
A Swordfish pilot climbs down from his “pulpit-like cockpit” on board HMS Tracker (D24), during North Atlantic convoy duty in October 1943. (IWM A19730)

Despite having any of the normal complications, however, the Swordfish did possess one or two rather strange controls – including a means of increasing the droop of the ailerons so they would provide something in the way of mildly flap-like characteristics. I don’t remember this control ever being used on our ordinary flights.

Also, and unlike any other aircraft at the time, the Swordfish’s fore and aft trimmer was a genuine incidence-changing gear – an early all-flying tailplane – and the rudder-bias, which was adjusted by a little wheel on the right-hand side of the cockpit, was ‘powered’ by an elastic cord. This turned out to be a good deal more effective than the similar system used in Tiger Moths, and it was a good idea to remove as much of the tension as possible before throttling right back for landing.

A disarming quirk or two

'The office' in question... that of Swordfish stationed at Arbroath in September 1943. (IWM A 19540)
‘The office’ in question… that of Swordfish stationed at Arbroath in September 1943. (IWM A 19540)

During my first trip in a Swordfish, I remember being somewhat disturbed because I couldn’t find any obvious way to check the fuel level. Even the fact that I felt an unbound (if misguided) confidence in my ability to put the Swordfish down in any of the open fields below didn’t remove the anxiety. It was only after the flight that I learned the fuel gauge was viewed through a hole in the dashboard, and only then after it had been illuminated by switching on a special electric light.

The particular Swordfish which our unit held ran at quite alarmingly high oil temperatures too. This was another source of minor anxiety, as I progressively reduced the already low boost in an effort to keep the figure below a supposed danger mark. Evidently our Swordfish was one that had had its oil cooler modified for Arctic flying conditions. Either that, or someone had simply failed to connect up the oil cooler properly.

In touch with the elements

Swordfish Mk.1 L7701, from 'The RAF In Pictures, Including Aircraft Of The Fleet Air Arm, 1941, prepared by Major Oliver Stewart. (Courtesy Jenny Scott | flickr.com CC BY-NC 2.0)
Swordfish Mk.1 L7701, from The RAF In Pictures, Including Aircraft Of The Fleet Air Arm, 1941, prepared by Major Oliver Stewart. (Courtesy Jenny Scott | flickr.com CC BY-NC 2.0)

Accustomed as we were to rushing around the sky in little transparent canopies, within which there were no particular sensations of either motion or connection with the outside world, you truly felt as if you were airborne when you were sitting in the open cockpit of a Swordfish.

Not only could the air be almost seen as it passed over the wings, but the continuous draught was a reminder that even speeds as low as 90 knots could produce quite a gale.

And up front, beneath the narrow-chord engine cowling, the valve gear could clearly be seen in action, while the metal airscrew flailed around quietly to the accompaniment of a very typical reduction-gear rattle from the trusty Bristol Pegasus engine.

This review first appeared in Flight magazine of August 29th, 1946,
as part of their  
In The Air series by ‘Indicator’.

Next post, I’ll step things up eight-fold – in terms of engines; if not weight, power, speed, armament, crew numbers, etc – with Indicator’s comparison of the B-17 and B-24 in RAF service. Two heavies for the price of one! (And then I think we’ll leave the 1940s for a while…)

8 thoughts on “Time off for good behaviour

  1. The mention of an “air screw”reminded me that someone once gave me a DeHavilland airscrew maintenance book which predates WWII. Full color pull out pages of all the internals, etc. The book is almost as impressive as the mechanical items it describes.

    Quality.

    1. Wow. That would be quite the artefact… I’m always fascinated by the Fairey-Reed airscrews that “we” (as in the South Australian Aviation Museum) have on the Armstrong-Siddeley radials – as fitted to the museum’s Anson project. They are literally “air screws” – a billet of aluminium about 3/4″ thick with a big old twist in the middle and some aerofoil shaping out toward the ends. I’ll send you a picture next time I’m down there.

      1. That would be awesome thanks. I’d love to have a look through it. YOu’ve left me thinking about what a marvellously descriptive term ‘air screw’ is. ‘Propeller’, by comparison, is a bit nautical and really reflects the pusher configuration that dominated early aircraft designs – with the most notable exception of Louis Bleriot, plus a few others. We’ve done a similar thing to the meaning of ‘jet’: These days, ‘jet’ is freely accepted as meaning a gas turbine engine, as well as the aircraft it’s mounted on. In reality, only the efflux comes out in a jet; and a ramjet is the only true ‘jet’ engine… Ah! language and aviation, together at last. This could be the best day ever!

      2. Yes, the British really know their way around the language. There are still parts on the Gulfstreams I fly which have that flavor. For example, the lever which introduces fuel into the engines is called a “fuel cock”

      3. Wow, I didn’t think “fuel cock” was still in use anywhere. I think a lot of those English terms were Americanised by the tide of Cessnas and Pipers that made the ‘golden years of GA’, through the 50s and 60s.

      4. Yep, fuel cock is alive and well on the Gulfstream IV. Once they started building the V, they moved to a FADEC-controlled engine, so that went away in favor of a toggle switch. Everything designed and built since then is computer-controlled, but if you look at the comment thread on my most recent post you’ll see some rationale for the manual control being superior in specific instances.

        Re the airscrew manual, if you email me your address I’ll fedex it to ya!

      5. Indeed, we can lose more than language through automation. Sure it can have big benefits in terms of safety, reliability and reduced workload; but as your post and the comments point out, sometimes you need the flexibility of an (informed) override.

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