Supermarine Swift

The Supermarine Swift was the first British swept wing jet to enter service, the first RAF aircraft to use power-operated ailerons and the first to be armed with guided missiles, but it wasn't a great success in its original role as a fighter, only performing that role for about a year. It was then converted into a low level reconnaissance aircraft, and performed well in the new role, operating in the central European theatre during the Cold War.


The Swift was the result of a series of experiments with swept winged aircraft. These started with the Supermarine Type 510, which was developed to Specification E.41/46. This aircraft was a Supermarine Attacker, with 40 degree swept back wings and tail surfaces. The first made its maiden flight on 28 December 1948, and was powered by the centrifugal Nene engine. The Type 510 (VV106) was used to test the performance of the swept wings at high but subsonic speeds, up to 610kts. In tests the Type 510 reached speeds of up to Mach 0.9, and demonstrated the advantages of the swept wing system. VV106 used the standard tailwheel landing gear of the Attacker, but Supermarine modified VV119 to use a nosewheel system. The Type 510 was used for extensive tests, before in 1950 it was modified to a naval standard, and made its first deck landing on HMS Illustrious on 8 November 1950.

In 1953, in an attempt to improve controllability at high speeds, the aircraft was given a movable rear section, covering the fuselage and jet pipe aft of the tail fin. In this version it became the Type 517. High speed tests continued until early in 1955, when it became a ground trainer.

A second prototype of the Type 510 had been ordered (VV119), but this was completed as the Type 528, and included an afterburner for the Nene engine. This aircraft made its maiden flight on 27 March 1950, with Mike Lithgow at the controls.

At first it had a tailwheel undercarriage, but this was soon changed to a nosewheel design (with a longer nose). At the same time the jet pipe, air intakes, cockpit canopy and fuel system were changed and the ability to carry guns was added, and the aircraft became the Type 535. This version made its maiden flight on 23 August 1950 and its first flight with reheat one week later. The Type 525 was used for flight tests into September 1955.

Next came the Type 541. This model used the axial flow Rolls Royce Avon RA7 engine, with 7,500lb of thrust. No reheat equipment was installed, as the new engine was already more powerful than the reheated Nene. The Type 541 (WJ960) made its maiden flight on 1 August 1951, and showed a significant improvement in performance. Problems with the engine caused some delays, but development work continued, and the aircraft remained in use for trials until 1959. A second Type 541, WK965, made its maiden flight on 18 July 1952, and had a shorter nose, improved cockpit, new fin, modified air intakes and a new fin. This version got power operated ailerons, which solved many control problems that had plagued the entire programme.

In the meantime Supermarine had been awarded a production order for 2 pre-production prototypes and 100 Swift F1s, placed in November 1950, possibly to provide a safeguard against any failure of the Hawker Hunter, which had been ordered into production in October 1950. After the maiden flight of WJ960 this was increased to 150 aircraft. The first two of these aircraft (WK194 and WK195) were built at Supermarine's experimental department at Hursley Park, but after that production moved to their factor at South Marston.

The first production aircraft, Swift F.1 WK194, made its maiden flight on 25 August 1952 and then went to Boscombe Down for service trials.

The first factory produced aircraft, WK196, made its maiden flight in March 1953.

Operational History

The prototype Type 541 Swift set one speed record. On 10 July 1952 Lieut D.W. Morgan set a record for the 200.38 mile flight from London to Brussels of 18min 3.3sec at an average speed of 665.89 mph. This also won him the 1952 Geoffrey de Havilland Trophy for the fastest officially timed speed during a record attempt or race.

Five F.1s and the second prototype took part in the massed flypast of 600 RAF aircraft for the Coronation Review at Odiham 15 July 1953

The Swift entered service with No.56 Squadron at Waterbeach on 20 February 1954, becoming the first swept wing jet fighter to enter RAF service. Its service entry didn’t go smoothly – two aircraft were lost in May, with the loss of one pilot (the only fatal accident suffered by No.56 Squadron in the Swift). The Swift was grounded to have the aileron control system improved. The modifications weren't terribly successful, and the F.1 was grounded again in August.

The squadron received its first F.2 on 30 August, and enough were available for five to take part in the Battle of Britain Flyby of 1954. This came towards the end of the Swift's brief time as a front line fighter, and on 15 March 1955 the RAF ordered that they should be withdraw from service. Even the pilots of No.56 Squadron were unconvinced that the Swift was suited for use as a high altitude fighter, but did consider that it might make a good low level reconnaissance aircraft.

The prototype of the F.4 set a number of records. On 5 July 1953 Lieut. Cdr. M.J. Lithgow, Supermarine's chief test pilot, set the London to Paris Record (213 miles) with a time of 19min 5.3sec at 669.3mph, then on his return set the Paris to London record in 19min 14.3sec at 664.3mph. On this occasion the aircraft was powered by the standard 7,500lb thrust Rolls-Royce Avon R.A.7.

On 25 September 1953 Lithgow set the World Air Speed Record, reaching 737.3mph over a 3km course at Azizia in Libya, flying the same F.4, but this time using a 9,500lb thrust Avon R.A.7R. This record didn't stand for long, and was taken by the Douglas Skyray with a speed of 753mph before the British team had even returned home. The British had known that this was almost inevitable, and the whole idea of the attempt had been to set a record before the new American designs put it out of reach. 

The FR.5 entered service with No.2 Squadron of the 2nd Tactical Air Force at Geilenkirchen in Germany in January 1956. It became the first jet aircraft with reheat to enter RAF service (and the only one until the Javelin F.A.W.7 and 8 entered service). The squadron moved to Jever in October 1957, taking its Swifts with it. In April 1961 the Swift FR.5 began to be replaced by the Hunter FR.10.

Later in 1956 No.79 Squadron also received the FR.5, at Guterslöh. This squadron was merged into No.4 Squadron in January 1961, and the enlarged No.4 Squadron briefly used the FR.5 while converting to the Hunter FR.10.

Swifts from No.79 Squadron took first and second place in the 1957 Nato reconnaissance competition (Royal Flush) and won the contest again in 1959.


Swift F.1

The first F.1, WK195, made its maiden flight on 25 August 1952. The F.1 was armed with two 30mm Aden cannon, carried under the cockpit. It had no re-heat on the Avon engines. Twenty were built (WK194 to WK213).

Swift F.2

Work quickly moved onto the Swift F.2, which was armed with four 30mm Aden guns. Only 16 of these were completed, in the range WK214 to WK246. The new guns caused an unexpected problem – the wing root was modified to carry more ammo, but this caused the aircraft to flick over onto its back if the pilot attempted to pull up at high speeds. In an attempt to solve this problem the leading edge was moved forward slightly at about half way along the wing. 

Swift F.3

The second production aircraft, WK195, was used as the prototype of the F.3. The F.3 was similar to the F.2, but had reheat installed on the engine. Twenty five were built, but none entered squadron service. Production began with WK247, which took part in the 1953 Farnborough Air Show.

Swift F.4 (Type 546)

The Swift F.4 kept the reheat of the F.3, and added a variable incidence tailplane, in an attempt to solve the problems with the aircraft pitching up in flight. Development work was carried out using the early Swift WK198, and it made its maiden flight in the new configuration on 27 May 1953.

A large number of F.4s were ordered, with serial numbers in the range WK272 to WK315. Of these only nine were completed as F.4s, and most of the rest were built as the Swift FR.5. Of the nine F.4s five were converted to the FR.5 standard. The F.4 was a perfectly acceptable fighter, but the Hawker Hunter was now in service in large numbers and the Swift was no longer needed in that role.

Swift FR.5 (Type 549)

The Swift FR.5 was the most successful version of the aircraft. It was developed to replace the Meteor FR.9, and gave the design an extra lease of life after its failure as a fighter.

The FR.5 was based on the F.4, so had the reheat on the engine and variable incidence tailplane. It had a longer nose which carried three cameras – one in the tip of the nose and mounted on the sides just ahead of the air intakes, for oblique photography.

The Swift F.1 WK200 was used to test the camera installation. Service trials with the new version took place at Boscombe Down in July 1953. The first production FR.5, XD903, made its maiden flight on 27 May 1955. Most aircraft got clear view canopies and a 220 gallon ventral drop tank, giving it a total of 998 gallons of fuel. The FR.5 had a modified wing with the leading edge on the outer section pushed forward to give it a saw tooth shape. 

Five of the nine F.4s were converted to the FR.5 standard. A total of 100 FR.5s were ordered, but eleven were cancelled, so production stopped at 89. Aircraft  XD903-XD930 (28 aircraft) and XD948 to XD977 (30 aircraft) were built as FR.5s from new. WK281, WK287 to WK315 (29 aircraft) and WN124 were started as F.4s but delivered as FR.5s, giving the total of 89 completed as FR.5s and an overall total of 94 aircraft.

The FR.5 was used for low level reconnaissance, operating under enemy radar cover. It performed well in this demanding role, and played a part in the development of terrain following techniques.

Swift PR.6 (Type 559)

The PR.6 saw suggested as an unarmed strategic reconnaissance aircraft, to replace the Meteor PR.10. One airframe, SD943, was allocated to the project, but work was abandoned during the development phase.

Swift F.7

The F.7 was produced for developmental work with guided missiles. The idea was first suggested in August 1952, but at this stage only as a design study. The first aircraft, XF774, made its maiden flight in April 1956, followed by the second prototype, XF778, in June 1956. Twelve production aircraft were built, starting with XF113 in August 1956.

The F.7 was similar to the FR.5, but with a longer fuselage and an increased wign span. They could carry missiles under the wings, carrying the Fairey Fireflash (originally called the Blue Sky). The F.7 entered service with No.1 Guided Weapon Development Squadron at RAF Valley on Anglesey in the spring of 1957. This unit used ten of the twelve production aircraft. The others were used at Boscombe Down and by Bristol Siddeley Engines as test aircraft.


Swift F.1 (Supermarine Type 541)
Engine: Rolls-Royce Avon R.A.7
Power: 7,500lb thrust
Crew: 1
Span: 32ft 4in
Length: 41ft 5.5ibn
Height: 12ft 6in
Empty weight: 11,892lb
Loaded weight: 15,800lb
Max speed: 660mph
Climb Rate: 12,300ft/ min
Service ceiling: 45,500ft
Range: 730 miles
Armament: Two 30mm Aden guns

Swift F.R.5 (Supermarine Type 549)
Engine: Rolls-Royce Avon 114 turbojet
Power: 9,450lb thrust with re-heat
Span: 32ft 4in
Length: 42ft 3in
Height: 13ft 6in
Empty weight: 13,435lb
Loaded weight: 21,400lb
Max speed: 685mph at sea-level
Climb Rate: 14,660ft/ min
Service ceiling: 45,800ft
Range: 630 miles
Armament: Two 30mm Aden guns, could carry bombs or rockets under wings

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (2 June 2017), Supermarine Swift,

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