Owner Report: The BA Swallow
- Credit: Archant
Just three owners in eighty years have all cherished this Swallow, which Pilot already called a ‘great antique’ back in 1973
Nineteen seventy-three was a long time ago. US troops were still leaving Vietnam, Skylab was launched, Concorde was not yet in service, the three-day week was introduced, and we joined the Common Market (EU). I was a primary school kid, oblivious to much of this, feverishly scraping my pocket money together each month to buy Pilot, costing 25p. The front cover of the December 1973 issue asked if licences were cheaper to obtain in America (yes; they were) and promised flight tests on the new Enstrom F-28 helicopter, and what it described as a ‘Great antique: the gentle old BA Swallow’ with a picture of G-AFGE over the waters off the Isle of Wight.
Fast-forward forty-four years. Technology has transformed the world, Concorde is grounded, Skylab has crashed, and we’re leaving the EU. Almost nothing is recognisable but two constants remain: both Pilot and the old Swallow ’GE are still going strong, and reunited. It must be something of a record.
Pilot’s survival is testament to its appeal and to be expected but a huge number of aircraft have come and gone meantime. That the 1937 wood and fabric Swallow is still going is nothing short of a minor miracle (and two rebuilds) and evidence of the design’s great charm and appeal. Between Don Ellis, who owned it then, and me (something I definitely didn’t foresee back then) there has only been one other custodian. This is testament to the allure of this now ancient machine, and ancient it must be if it was a ‘great antique’ back then.
Owning and operating an ancient flying machine is not for the faint-hearted. If you want modern comfort, technology, reliability, visibility and simple usability buy an RV or a Eurostar. The Swallow has none of it. I used to own an RV-8 and about an hour after arriving at the airfield I could be almost 200 miles away. With the Swallow if I’m sat letting the oil warm up after an hour I consider it a slick departure!
So what’s the appeal? To answer this is difficult. It has an extremely rare engine, a Pobjoy Niagara. A seven-cylinder geared radial, totally bereft of the (relatively) carefree handling of a modern motor. Open it up too quickly and it’ll stop (rich cut), leave it at idle too long and it’ll definitely oil up (and possibly ice up too?no carb heater); it only has a few speeds at which it’s truly smooth. It uses nearly a litre of oil an hour and the gearbox simply will not accept the prop being driven by the airflow. The airframe is also far removed from a modern craft. It is uncoordinated to handle, difficult to trim, slow to respond in roll and far from fast. But the combination of the two is quite simply brilliant.
I have flown numerous aircraft better in almost every respect, but none?absolutely none?has come anywhere close in imparting such pleasure. The air is an unnatural environment for a machine, but the Swallow seems so at home there that the pure joy of flying rubs off on anyone lucky enough to be involved. That this machine has been giving this sort of pleasure for eighty years is quite remarkable and just adds to the overall package. In the 1973 article ’GE was described as the last of the breed. Now there are four flying in the UK and one in Spain, with another three nearing the end of restorations worldwide. This resurgence in numbers is directly because the Swallow offers the best in vintage aviation.
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Unlike the others ’GE has been continually active since 1937, imparting pure pleasure for its entire life. It must be one of the most historically important inter-war light aircraft still in private hands. In the late 1930s it flew at Witney near Oxford as part of the Civil Air Guard, an organisation formed to train a cadre of qualified pilots ahead of the looming war.
Such was the need that ’GE flew 400 hours in just six months in 1939, training many who then formed the backbone of the RAF pilots in the war’s early days. During the war ’GE was impressed into the RAF like most private aeroplanes, and allocated the military serial BK894. Her pedigree (and a few of her sisters) meant that it was not simply worn out as a squadron hack, or left outside to rot as a decoy, as befell most impressed machines. Rather the Swallow played a vital part in the war effort.
At the outbreak of the war nothing was really understood in the UK about towing gliders. Thus, with prop removed to convert it to a glider, a variety of towing arrangements were tried on ’GE. The Royal Aircraft Establishment experimented with many different towing arrangements and techniques, culminating in as many as four Swallows being towed simultaneously behind Heyfords and Whitleys.
Radar experiments were also conducted using the Swallow, both for offensive and defensive purposes, the idea being to establish the possible radar return from a glider.
I still have the original logbooks detailing this wartime activity. Without this contribution, none of the Assault Glider operations so pivotal to the outcome of the war would have been possible, and ’GE certainly earned its place in history.
Post-war it took decades for the aircraft to do another 400 hours and nowadays it only really comes out on high days and holidays, but ’GE is still far from a museum piece, probably flying as much as the rest of the world’s Pobjoy-powered machines combined.
With that more modern machine, a quick check for water in the fuel, a wander around looking for damage and you’re off. Not so the Swallow. With a span of 43 feet it has to live in the hangar with the wings folded, and has more than a few areas vulnerable to pushing and pulling. Consequently I keep it at the back of the hangar if possible so others do not have to move it.
Once extracted from the hangar, the first job is to spread the wings. This can be done solo but is much easier with two?one unhooking the wing from the tailplane and then operating the lever that engages the locking pins, whilst the other actually spreads the wing. Once the wing is spread the inboard portions of the trailing edge, which hinge up can be lowered and locked into position. Lastly the gap seal?a plywood band?is clipped over the gap between wing and root.
This gap seal is more than just decorative: I heard of someone who years ago flew without one, only to find the elevators useless at approach speeds! Unlike many more modern aircraft with supposed folding wings, ailerons and pitot tubes remain connected when folded so there are no controls or other items to link up. Consequently spreading the wings really is only a five-minute job?but our RV is already taxying.
Then comes the engine. It will need oil?a lot if you’ve done more than a quick hop on the last flight, as it is a total loss system. (The RV is now leaving the circuit.) You will also need to remove the rocker covers on the upper cylinders to oil the rockers, as the lubrication system here is barely adequate. Finding a ladder?the upper pot is too high to reach easily?and removing/replacing the covers all for a few strokes of an oilcan takes ages.
Perversely you then have to remove the inlet rocker covers from those pots just below the horizontal axis to drain out oil, as for these the automatic system is almost too vigorous and if not drained they will eventually spew the excess down the side. Thankfully the Pobjoy is uncowled, which also makes re-fitting the plugs in the lower cylinders easier?being a radial, these will have been removed at the end of the previous day’s flying to prevent hydraulic lock.
Now for fuel. True it’s much easier than a Moth (or indeed a Cessna) as the filler is at waist height in the left wing root. But the advantage of the high tank in the others is that you do not have to pump fuel up manually from the main tank to the little header tank that actually feeds the engine. You do this using a manual wobble pump low down on the left side of the rear cockpit.
With this little lot done you can think about starting (the RV guys are now joining a circuit 200 miles away!) You cannot over-prime a Pobjoy. There is a Ki-gas priming pump that protrudes through the port engine cowl. I give this a few good strokes, and then, with the throttle shut and switches off, pull through a good dozen blades. This means about double the number of crankshaft rotations, due to the gearbox. While sucking in I leave the Ki-gas pump out allowing a free flow of fuel, and look to see it almost pouring out of the carb intake?a dribble is not enough! Then with the pump locked again (and a final squirt of fuel), throttle set and switches on, it will go first swing?guaranteed.
It is an odd engine to swing and I will not let the uninitiated have a go, as the prop is higher than a Tiger’s, almost as high as the Fox Moth’s, and as you get several compressions per revolution it is the only engine I know where you actually feel the prop accelerate out of your hand. Once fired up and when the last wisps of blue smoke are clearing, you can pull the chocks and hop into the cockpit (just as our RV is shutting down). But this starting ritual is all part of the experience and enjoyment, and gives a taster of the pleasure and involvement that comes with Swallow ownership?something modern flyers are blissfully unaware of!
Once in, despite not being able to see directly ahead?only fuselage, engine and passenger?taxying itself is a doddle, so long as the wind is less than fifteen knots. The brakes work differentially with a few clicks on a lever and full rudder deflection like Fox Moth, Rapide and many other old British craft. To stop you simply apply a few more clicks on the lever to operate both brakes, which are surprisingly effective, although they take a bit of setting up to achieve this (also part of the fun). The Swallow is one of the earliest light aircraft I can think of with brakes as standard, and makes modern airfields and their small operating areas much easier to cope with.
One reason you rarely see a Swallow at an airport with hard runways and taxiways is that the geared prop produces so much thrust at slow rpm that you have to keep the throttle at, or close to idle to avoid taking off when taxying on smooth surfaces.
OK for short distances but anything longer means some of the plugs usually oil up. I keep the tailwheel fitted (as opposed to the skid) as there’s generally some concrete at any airfield, but the extra drag of operating on grass means I can keep rpm up during taxi, totally avoiding the oiling problem. Another reason is there’s no radio?there’s no power supply and handhelds won’t work with so many unscreened plugs. Thus the best place is a small strip with a short taxi on grass requiring only a quick glance around the circuit before lining up.
When lined up, open the throttle smoothly. There is a danger of rich cut with very rapid opening but far more serious is avoiding any ‘snatches’ in the gearbox that will occur with rapid acceleration. Forward stick usually gets the tail up before I’ve got full throttle on, and once you approach full power it’s the first time you could describe the old Pobjoy as anywhere near smooth.
With the significant prop-wash, rudder control is excellent during the roll and I have never needed any brake. Once the tail is up you can also see ahead and very shortly after, at about thirty knots, the Swallow just levitates into the air. It takes off very much like an early biplane, with very little attitude change. When I have tried to pull it off early?as you can in a Turbulent for example?all I’ve done is put the tail back on, totally defeating the idea of reducing the ground roll. If done properly you will be off in only 120 yards or so in still air.
Once clear the ground starts to drop away at an encouraging rate, and the climb gradient is always so good that you can bring the power off somewhat to prolong engine life. Normal max rpm is 3,250, but not with my prop. I rarely operate below 2,700rpm in the air though, as the Pobjoy operates very smoothly above that speed and I fear that long-term exposure to the vibration at lower speeds can’t be good (although it seems to have happily survived over eighty years with no ill effect).
In the climb it’s instantly apparent that the Swallow is from a different generation. Although far from difficult to fly, for someone only used to modern aircraft the Swallow’s 1920s handling will come as a shock.
Visibility ahead is now OK, but with the pilot positioned in the aft cockpit the view directly ahead is not as good as most people are used to. Consequently those new to the Swallow often side-slip a little without realising and only peer over one side. This comes from the very light initial breakout force on the rudder; people simply don’t appreciate they have some rudder on. It’s only when deflection increases markedly that the input becomes apparent as a load on your foot.
Allied to this, the inverted U tube with a bubble is anachronistic and unintelligible to many, thus they have no slip cues. The excellent windscreens also shield you from the final clue: both cockpits are entirely draught-free and you get no cross-cockpit flow until in a full-blown side-slip.
When starting to turn, you have to balance the turn using this low breakout rudder combined with really rather heavy ailerons. Again not difficult but certainly different. The rate of roll is best described as sedate; think glider and you won’t be disappointed. Once the turn is going you can take off the rudder, look down that huge wing and you will be turning on the proverbial sixpence. With its speed back a little, nothing that I’ve ever flown can out-turn a Swallow (including gliders and helicopters!). The elevator forces are also heavy, but as smaller deflections are usually required it’s not as noticeable to most pilots as the ailerons.
There is an elevator trimmer, a simple bungee operated by a small lever to offload stick force. When solo and with nothing in the boot (there is quite a sizeable luggage locker behind the rear seat, usually full of tools and oil if landing away anywhere), it’s just about adequate to hold the nose down in the cruise. I could increase its effectiveness with a thicker bungee but set up as it is it also stops people thrashing the motor. Higher speeds require an (eventually) tiring push on the stick and it’s a very effective way of keeping the engine rpm down.
I tend to operate at about 2,900rpm, well below the manufacturer’s suggested figures, hopefully prolonging engine life. At this rpm I’ll get about 73 knots solo, and 70 or so heavy. Not fast, but speed is not everything. Indeed it is at the other end of the spectrum that the Swallow excels. The stall occurs at 25kt heavy, lower if solo. One would expect significant position error at these speeds, but in the Swallow they do appear to be reasonably genuine. Using the term ‘stall’ for what the Swallow does is somewhat strong. True there is a nose drop, but it takes ages, and as soon as the nose is below the horizon it will unstall?even with the stick still hard back.
This gentle nodding will continue until the stick is moved forward, and with never a hint of a wing drop if you’re in balance. Indeed the 1930s sales bumph for the Swallow proclaimed it as the safest aeroplane in the world. And with slow speed handling like this and rarely enough speed to hurt at any phase (although Vne was originally 125kt?now reduced in deference to its age), it’s very easy to understand that claim.
The one negative point of the slow speed regime is that you cannot trim. As you cannot push a piece of string the bungee is redundant at lower speeds, and on the approach you are required to keep a reasonable back pressure on the stick. There is provision to alter the tailplane incidence to one of about five settings, so the designer was obviously well aware of this. For the average bloke this stick force on the approach is fine, but my wife, at several stones lighter (meaning the C of G moves forward), has to work harder?but the current setting is fine as a compromise.
By far the hardest aspect of flying a Swallow is getting slow enough on approach.
With a stall at 25kt it is easy to be too fast. You need to be coming in at 40kt or less, and target 35 over the hedge. In any sort of headwind this really does feel exceptionally slow and dangerously unnatural, and this has caught out more than a few people. If you come in anywhere near 45kt you can still wheel it on, but a three-pointer is obviously impossible without a huge float. Along with a very flat glide, I have seen people unable to get into a 700 yard strip! Done properly, and into a small headwind, the ground roll can be just a couple of fuselage lengths, something that never fails to impress. The actual landing is like collapsing onto a feather bed. The huge wing produces some significant ground effect and this, allied to one of the best-damped undercarriages of its era, means the gentlest of touchdowns and rapid deceleration.
The information I (or anyone else) have on handling is scant?indeed probably never published, so I always avoided crosswinds, and anything above about 15kt. However, a few years ago the weatherman got it wrong again and we arrived back in the overhead with 20kt straight across. I was wondering where to divert to with an into-wind runway but it seemed daft not to give it a go: the faff of diverting and associated lack of a car/hangar is huge.
If it looked at all dodgy, we would instantly divert rather than risk a valuable piece of aviation history. So nobody was more surprised than me when we pulled off a perfect three pointer! True a large chunk of the crosswind was removed by angling across the runway, but even so there must have been 12kt from the side. It greatly increased my respect for the Swallow as there are not many other 1930s aircraft that could have coped so well.
As I said earlier, there are much better aeroplanes than the Swallow, as there should be with over eighty years to develop the breed! But with those graceful long wings, and the evocative sound of the Pobjoy, Swallowing is vintage aviation, maybe even aviation at its very best. Rarely has a machine given me more enjoyment or satisfaction than the Swallow. I’m always being thanked for bringing it to fly-ins and surrounded by eager cameras. Seldom does an aeroplane create such enthusiasm.
It takes dedication to operate such a machine, and perhaps more than a dash of stupidity, but wiping down the hot oil after every flight I can’t stop feeling smug, as I’m sure people did in 1973, and indeed 1937. It’s a privilege conferred on very few today, and one worth every ounce of effort and money taken to get aloft in a Swallow.
Rebuild was a labour of love
Even with regular routine maintenance aircraft won’t last forever. Following the 1973 article ’GE was overhauled in the late 1970s and was showing some patina when I bought it in January 2006. We flew a lot, criss-crossing southern England going to all sorts of interesting places, but eventually accepted that no matter how conscientious the routine maintenance, we were losing the battle. Patina was turning scruffy, especially in the cockpit where much of the control assembly, although on view, was inaccessible without dismantling the whole machine. Thus Christmas 2014 saw me moving the flying surfaces from the hangar into the workshop. It felt odd dismantling a perfectly serviceable machine, but being the scruffiest machine at a fly-in was unacceptable!
’GE flew again in June 2016, eighteen months and some 2,000 hours of labour later. It was a considerable effort, over 25 hours a week, and became almost totally consuming. No holidays or other distractions, my other aircraft became ignored, bikes and cars unloved. I wore out three sets of overalls and two pairs of boots. Such a venture is not to be undertaken lightly, as restoration of an antique aircraft really is properly labour intensive. I didn’t actually spend vast sums on materials, largely as the start point was an airworthy machine with a good motor, and I already had many items from previous projects. Nevertheless it clearly goes to show that, despite seeming eye-watering, the bills charged by professional restorers are a bargain.
Simplistically, with a new build, all one does is make and assemble components. With a restoration you first have to dismantle a component, then clean it up and make an assessment as to its continued airworthiness. If scrap you then use this as a pattern for a new one, but if deemed usable it then needs overhauling, repainting etc and eventually refitting.
This means each individual activity takes twice as long as a new build. For example the wings are totally ply covered, Swallows were simply taped along the joints in the ply and then painted directly to the wood. Removing this old paint with MEK took months. If speedy, you could do a couple of square feet an hour, softening the paint with the MEK and then carefully scraping it off with a blunt Stanley knife blade; repetitive, unpleasant and, with over 440 square feet on the wings alone, a mammoth effort just to get to a point where we could assess the condition properly.
Thankfully they were in very good mechanical order and didn’t require massive amounts of woodwork, really only needing new fabric and paint. Some of the ply in the forward fuselage and on the leading edges of the centre section was replaced due to oil soaking but overall the airframe was in astonishing condition for its age, better than many newer machines, with no sign of glue failure. Thus work continued with the machine stripped almost to component form. I had four old kitchen units in the workshop full of bagged and labelled components.
Once apart I decided to cover the whole airframe, to better protect it for the next eighty years but I was worried I’d greatly increase the weight as, although I calculated the weight of the fabric I was going to use, fabric will carry much more dope and paint than just bare wood. Thankfully at the final weighing I’d saved 56 lb during the rebuild. But I had been fastidious on weight reduction throughout.
Madapolam and red dope were used; again labour intensive, but the ‘real’ way an old machine should be done. To be honest I had wished to use a modern covering system but had the decision made for me as the ply was impregnated with old red dope, incompatible with my preferred system. Moreover the traditional methods have produced fantastic results. I did everything myself, both airframe and engine and even managed to spray the whole thing with not a single run. The only items farmed out were a small welding job on the engine mount, as I couldn’t legally do it, and honing the cylinders.
In many respects the old Swallow is probably better now than when it was new. It was a huge undertaking, and not for the fainthearted, but in my opinion it’s all part of the package of preserving such important machines for the next generation. It was hugely fascinating uncovering previous paint schemes, including the wartime camouflage. As a pleasing aside it’s also added hugely to the value of the machine, but money’s not what it’s about. It’s being able to continue to operate and enjoy a unique bit of aeronautical history. Something I intend to do for as long as physically able.
Manufacturer: The British Aircraft Manufacturing Co Ltd, Hanworth, Middlesex
Powerplant: 90hp Pobjoy Niagara II
Dimensions: Span 48ft 8½in (16ft folded)
Length: 26ft 3in
Wing area: 219sq ft
Weights: Empty 960 lb. MAUW 1,500 lb
Performance: Max speed (VNE) 104kt (reduced from 125kt because of age) Cruising speed 75kt
Rate of climb: 700fpm
Cost new (1935): £725. From 1 June 1937: £875