Flight test: Globe Super Swift
- Credit: Keith Wilson
It has an unfortunate reputation but it’s fast, aerobatic and looks like a fighter. It’s time to reconsider the Globe Swift | Words & photos: Keith Wilson
The Globe Swift has, over the years, earned something of an unfortunate reputation. It has become one of a small but unique club of ‘don’t go near them’ aircraft. It is reputed to be one of the easiest of aircraft to groundloop, while exhibiting a vicious stall and wing-drop, a sink rate like the proverbial rock and an appalling takeoff performance.
That said, I wonder how much of this criticism has been generated by armchair pilots, and in particular whether the complaints are only justified against the early GC-1A and GC-1B versions, which came with just 85hp and 125hp respectively.
Sitting in the air-conditioned offices of Elite Aircraft, at the pleasant if somewhat grandiosely named Raleigh Executive Jetport near Sanford in North Carolina, I am awaiting the arrival of a lovely Globe ‘Super Swift’.
Outside, it is a typical North Carolina spring day; clear blue skies and temperatures already climbing into the eighties (Fahrenheit, of course). It is not often I question myself but today I’m thinking am I about to do the right thing? After all, what can possibly go wrong?
When it arrives on the ramp, having made the short journey on the taxiway from another hangar of the airfield, I am a little confused. It has often been said that ‘if it looks right, it will fly right’. Here, there is absolutely no debate: parked on the ramp, the Super Swift is a beautiful looking aircraft. Therefore, it should fly right, shouldn’t it?
Not your standard Swift
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Ren Babcock is a smart and affable thirty-something CFI with around 1,200-hours in his logbook who learned to fly on Cessnas. When he wanted to build up some tailwheel hours, his friend and fellow CFI Craig Winkelmann offered to check him out in his 1941 clipped-wing Cub, which he then shared with Ren.
Several years on, Craig had other plans. He’d always loved the idea of a Swift and decided to sell the Cub and buy one. He discussed this with Ren and offered to let him fly the Swift as well. Craig became fast friends with Bo Mabry, one of the most knowledgeable members of the Swift community. With Bo’s help in locating a suitable example, Craig purchased N7824S.
This aircraft received its Airworthiness Certificate on 14 October 1946 as a Globe GC-1B Swift, with serial number 2242. In those days it would have been powered by a four-cylinder 125hp Continental C125 powerplant and fitted with a somewhat strange cockpit arrangement, with side windows and the top section of the canopy opening forward.
I cannot imagine it would have been easy to get in and out, especially if the aeroplane was parked into a breeze with the top panel wanting to blow back onto your head! This window and hingeing canopy arrangement is a little bit like that used on the early P-51 Mustang Mark I and Mark II aircraft supplied to the RAF under a lend-lease arrangement ? a very different design from the later, sleek look of the bubble-canopy P-51D.
The Swift was first sold on 17 December 1947 to Safari Flying Service based at Teterboro, New Jersey with the registration N78242. It changed hands several times, including stints in Canada and California, receiving lots of modifications in the process, and finally being converted to ‘Super Swift’ spec in 2004.
As a consequence, it is one of the most modified Swifts in the fleet, and what I see now sitting on the ramp is such a contrast to that early 1940s design. This Swift now looks sleek and purposeful, almost fighter-like and definitely inviting.
The GC-1 Swift was designed in 1940 by R S ‘Pop’ Johnson. The design, featuring moulded plywood construction, was funded by John Kennedy, president of the Globe Medicine Company, who had set up a new firm called Globe Aircraft Company to manufacture the aircraft.
However, the US war effort interrupted the plan and the GC-1A Swift was redesigned by K H ‘Bud’ Knox and now advertised as the ‘All Metal Swift’, powered by a 85hp Continental C85. Two prototype aircraft were built and the aircraft received its Type Certificate on 7 May 1946. Eventually, 408 GC-1A aircraft would be built by Globe Aircraft.
After WWII, Pop Johnson went to work for the Globe Aircraft Company but soon became disillusioned with the major changes made to his original design. He moved back to Texas where he later designed and built the Texas Bullet and the Johnson Rocket, a few of which are still in existence today.
Later in 1946, the Swift was fitted with the more powerful 125hp Continental C125 engine, making it the GC-1B. The Globe Aircraft Company, together with the Texas Engineering and Manufacturing Company (TEMCO), built 833 GC-1B aircraft in the following six months. However, production very quickly outpaced sales and, as a result, Globe was forced into insolvency.
As the largest debtor, TEMCO paid $328,000 to obtain the Type Certificate, tooling, and inventory of airframes and parts. They went on to build a further 260 aircraft before production of the Swift ceased in August 1951.
In the late 1940s TEMCO also designed and built for USAF evaluation the tandem-seat TEMCO T-35 Buckaroo, a military trainer, but the design eventually lost out to the Beech T-34 Mentor. A few overseas sales of the type were made, including ten to the Royal Saudi Air Force.
The Type Certificate for the Swift was then obtained by Univair, along with production tooling and spare parts. Univair continued production until 1979 when the Swift Museum Foundation, under the leadership of President Charles Nelson, purchased the Type Certificate along with parts and tooling.
In the late 1980s, the Swift enjoyed a kind of revival when the Lopresti Fury appeared. Originally designed by Roy Lopresti when working at the Lopresti Piper Aircraft Engineering Company, the aeroplane was closely based on the Globe Swift.
The Fury was powered by a 200hp Lycoming IO-360-A1B6 engine, and had a maximum speed of 222mph. Lopresti secured the rights to the aircraft when the company went into bankruptcy.
There were then hopes that the aircraft, which had drawn a lot of attention, would be put back into production with Aviat, powered by a 180hp engine, but nothing seems to have come of it.
By the way, the title Super Swift is not an approved name: they all appear on the FAA register under the original designation. In reality, what now exists is a large community of Globe and TEMCO-manufactured Swifts with various levels of upgrades and modifications, although some of the purist owners still maintain their aircraft in a condition as close to ‘original’ as possible – including the beautiful polished metal finish.
In general, however, it seems that to qualify as a Super Swift, the aircraft must have been modified with an engine of 180hp (or more) a constant-speed or variable-pitch propeller and an improved engine cowling.
All of the above provide the aircraft with a significant increase in performance, however many owners have not stopped there. Some of the most common additional modifications include a significantly upgraded panel and instrumentation, modified fin and rudder, reprofiled wing tips, Cleveland disc brakes,and auxiliary fuel tanks. You get the picture!
Time to take the controls
After an enjoyable air-to-air photoshoot over nearby Jordan Lake and the post-flight coffee, I switch rôles from photographer to pilot, and walk out to N7824S with Ren. The Swift is of an era before the subtle art of stressed-skin construction had been refined.
If the designers and engineers had any doubts, they would beef parts of it up with extra rivets for additional strength. As a consequence, the aircraft was always heavy and had some areas of prolific riveting, something still obvious today – although the wings on this beautiful example have been rebuilt and are therefore much neater.
Also, this aeroplane does not show the tell-tale signs of a lifetime of mishandling, especially to the leading edges and wing tips.
The aircraft sits purposefully on a wide undercarriage whose track is thirty per cent of the span?a similar ratio to the PA-28’s. The distance between the spinner and rather small-looking fin and rudder, located not far back from the wing, suggests the aircraft is short coupled and may lack rudder authority, especially tail-down.
The nose and cowling are smooth and considerably more ‘aerodynamic’ than the original. Underneath is a six-cylinder Continental IO-360 producing 210hp, driving a two-blade McCauley metal constant-speed propeller.
The lovely main undercarriage legs look to have been scaled down from the P-51 Mustang, and feature neat and effective Cleveland disc brakes. I am hoping that the combination of a wide-track undercarriage and effective differential braking may go some way to taming the Swift’s reputed desire to groundloop on the unsuspecting pilot!
Swifts were built with either ELI oleo or Adel steel spring/hydraulic damper main undercarriage legs. N7824S came with the Adel units and retains its original electrohydraulic retraction system. Back-up is provided by a manual cable drive.
This aircraft features two auxiliary fuel tanks (each holding eleven US gallons) that were added to the wings when they were rebuilt. This brings the total capacity to forty-nine US gallons which, at an average burn of nine gallons per hour, gives you more than five hours of flying.
Finishing the sleek looks is a beautiful one-piece, sliding bubble canopy?one further upgrade on the original model. In addition to adding a few knots to the aircraft’s performance, it also improved the all-round view from the cockpit. At the very back is the fully-castoring, fixed tailwheel that looks like something out of an old Meccano construction set.
It too is hydraulically damped, which makes it feel very solid, but if you bounce on landing, or mishandle it, I am assured by Ren that this tailwheel is able to handle the pressure. Most Swift aircraft now have a fully castoring tailwheel fitted, although there is a supplemental type certificate (STC) for a retractable tailwheel?which, interestingly, this aircraft did have, until it was removed by Craig Winklemann a few years ago.
The walk around checks for the ‘Super Swift’ are much like any other single engine piston aeroplane, although there is one check specific to the Swift: checking the cable-driven emergency gear extension system, which is operated by a crank located between the seats.
The cable runs through to the gear-well, in front of the spars, and you need to check that it is correctly strung around the various pulleys, especially the big one on the centre. As part of the same check, you also want to give a quick tug on the cable to ensure there is tension in the system.
Keep in mind that the lowest point on the underside of the aircraft is the middle of the centre section, so a gear-up landing can leave some serious and expensive damage!
Sticks in place of yokes
I climb onto the cockpit by placing one foot on the seat cushion while being careful that I do not step or place any weight on the ledge ahead of the seat. This panel is actually the cover over the stick modification. (Originally, the aircraft was built with a pair of somewhat old-fashioned yokes, although many have now been modified like N7824S with a pair of sticks which allow the superb handling of the aircraft to be exploited to the full.)
The large, man-sized rudder pedals are placed quite close together and once again, Ren cautions against getting ‘tangle-feet’ with the pedals, although he assures me you get used to them very quickly. The toe brakes are similarly of the ‘heavy-duty’ variety and I will need to master these quickly to get the best from the differential braking.
Upon settling in the cockpit, I am greeted by an interesting mix of relatively modern analogue flight instruments and digital units, located to the right. A typical Garmin stack consisting of GMA340 Audio Panel, GNS430 GPS/Nav/Comm, GNC250XL GPS/Comm and GTX327 transponder sits in the middle, all very neatly laid out.
In the centre of the panel is the conventional throttle with black knob, along with vernier-type propeller and mixture controls, fitted with blue and red knobs respectively. These controls at least would appear to meet the exacting requirements of this magazine’s Flight Test Editor!
However, to their left and located just behind the P1 stick is a pair of rather strange-looking controls for the undercarriage and flaps: both are throwbacks from the aircraft’s original manufacture in 1946.
Ren explains that ahead of the panel, on the firewall is an hydraulic power pack comprising valves, a spring-loaded pressure accumulator, fluid reservoir and an electric motor which drives the pump. Gear and flap are selected via rods connected to red and blue taps on the panel.
When either tap is turned, the rod twists open or closes the relevant valve inside the power pack. This whole system was somewhat problematic when the aircraft was first acquired. However, owner Craig spent time chasing the glitches until it was fixed. According to Ren ‘now it is working great’. I do hope so!
The undercarriage and flaps are powered by the one pump, which is activated by pressure sensors in the individual hydraulic lines. If the gear sensor fails to trigger the pump and it does not come down when selected, Ren assures me I will still be able to lower the wheels by dropping the flaps, as they should in turn trigger the pump and produce sufficient pressure to operate the gear, albeit in stages.
Cycling the flaps about ten times should eventually get the gear down. Interesting! And if that fails, there is always Plan C: the emergency cable operated manual undercarriage extension system in the cockpit, located between the seats. Very reassuring!
With all of that clarified and my four point harness in place and secured, I am comfortably positioned and ready to start. On the original 125hp engine installation, fuel pressure was built up with a hand pump located under the left seat. Today I start the 210hp Continental through careful use of the dual pressure boost pump, setting it to High and allowing it to run for a few seconds to prime the engine before switching it off.
It’s then mixture fully rich, throttle cracked open and boost pump set to low before engaging the starter. After just a couple of turns the engine fires and the sweet but powerful sound of a throaty six-cylinder roar fills the cockpit.
A hot start is conducted in the same way, although without the need for high pressure priming. Interestingly, with the 180hp four-cylinder Lycoming engine installation, starting commences instead with the mixture fully lean.
In the North Carolina heat, bringing the aircraft operating temperatures up to normal doesn’t take long and it is soon time to taxi. Some aircraft have a lockable or steerable tailwheel, while on this Swift it is free castoring. However, the wide stance of the undercarriage and excellent differential braking make taxying relatively easy.
The rather tall tailwheel mount provides a reasonable view over the nose, while to my side the field of view is also good. Keeping the stick back and gentle application of the brakes (which are more effective than the originals) are imperative to avoid nosing over.
When I reach the hold at the threshold of Runway 03, ready to do the checks, Ren provides a few more pearls of wisdom. With feet firmly on the brakes, we are to complete the power checks at around 1,500rpm, again with the stick all the way back. Cycling the prop is also conducted at this engine speed. The mag drop is small but noticeable, and the same on both sides.
Pre-takeoff checks include fuel on and main tank selected, mixture fully rich and prop all the way in (fine pitch, effectively). The original Swift had the trim control located in the roof of the cockpit but with a blown bubble, it had to be relocated. Like most Swift aircraft with this canopy conversion, the old manual trim has been replaced by an electric one, controlled by ‘coolie hat’ switches located on top of the sticks.
However, as there is no trim indication in the cockpit, the only way of confirming takeoff trim is for P1 to pull the stick all the way back so the elevator trailing edge is visible over his left shoulder and operate the switch until until the tab is “just above” the elevator.
Not such a bear on the ground
With a full-and-free check on the flight controls, a call on unicom and a short prayer, I taxy into position on Runway 03.
This is to be a flapless takeoff. In front of me I have 6,500ft of runway, 100ft in width. This should be enough! I slowly add power until the aircraft starts to pick up speed and quickly the rudder becomes effective.
With little, if any breeze, there is very little tendency to wander, so no braking is required to keep the Swift on the centreline. At around 40mph on the ASI and with the rudder in play, I smoothly add full power and the noise level rises as the aircraft accelerates quickly. With gentle application of forward stick the tail lifts and the aircraft continues to accelerate until, at around sixty, it flies itself off the runway and heads skywards.
According to members of the US Swift community, directional control on the runway can be significantly affected if the undercarriage is not correctly set to approximately three degrees of toe-in. Clearly, it is spot-on on this aircraft! The takeoff all seems to happen very quickly so I am a little perplexed at some of the stories I had heard. Maybe they had occurred in strong crosswind conditions?
Not the only one with a reputation
In the history of aviation, there are quite a few aeroplanes that earned something of a reputation. These include the Cessna Bird Dog – which was renowned for its ground looping tendencies – and the Beech Bonanza.
The latter became known as the ‘Doctor Killer’, although this was generally down to owners, many of them medical professionals, operating in conditions beyond their capabilities rather than any deficiency of the aircraft itself.
There are also aeroplanes that started life with a problem but were then suitably modified to correct their deficiencies. For example, the de Havilland DH.87 Hornet Moth was born with pointed wing tips.
It was test flown by Sir Geoffrey de Havilland himself and two further prototype aircraft joined the flight test schedule to eradicate a number of teething problems. When production of the DH.87A began, the aircraft featured even more sharply tapered mainplanes, which were of the same area but two feet wider in span.
During the first three years of production around 165 were delivered before it was discovered that, in certain circumstance, the aircraft demanded more skill than was possessed by the average private pilot. In 1936, the mainplanes were redesigned once again with square wing tips, to eliminate a vicious wing drop at the stall.
Existing owners of the DH.87A were able to return their aircraft and have the wings replaced. Interestingly, the DH.88 Comet has similarly tapered wings and is said to possess similar stall characteristics to the DH.87A.
With the noise up front continuing assuredly, I want to get the gear up before we reach 80mph?another Swift Community recommendation, as the air pressure in the gear wells can slow or even prevent full retraction.
As I had seen from the earlier air-to-air photoshoot, the left gear starts to retract ahead of the right, causing a little yaw. I continue to climb at 80mph, its best climb speed, and we are going up at almost 1,800fpm?impressive!
With the gear safely tucked away, I lower the nose, reduce power and propeller rpm at around 800ft (circuit height) and continue upwards in a cruise climb in this hot ship. The view over the nose in the climb is good.
For a short field takeoff, Ren advises that half flap can be used to shorten the run, although the technique does not seem to be widely used within the Swift community. That said, the takeoff I had just experienced was pretty short.
Nine gph cruise
I continue up to 4,000ft before levelling off at ‘24 squared’ (24in manifold pressure and 2,400rpm) and closing the cowl flap. Next, I follow Ren’s instruction to lean the mixture to ‘lean of peak’. Correctly trimmed, the Swift is now charging across the skies at around 160mph TAS (142kt) while burning just nine US gph (34 lph).
All very impressive for a seventy-year-old aircraft. Keep in mind that, for cross country flying, Ren prefers 6,000ft or 7,000ft in order to gain maximum performance where the engine is operating most efficiently, and where smoother air is to be found.
With an element of relaxation introduced into the cockpit, there is an opportunity to examine the Super Swift in a little more detail. The flight controls are all nicely coordinated but, and especially with the big engine up front, the small rudder lacks power.
When I experiment with flying on rudder alone, it offers poor lateral control, and inducing roll causes the aircraft to descend. Another observation from the break-away shots taken during the air-to-air shoot is that, as the aircraft was banked hard left, it started to descend quite rapidly.
However, with a combination of ailerons and rudder, it handles beautifully. All turns and manoeuvres are smooth and effortless, with an excellent rate of roll. It feels like a small, sporty little fighter (dare I say something of a hooligan machine?)
Next on the card is an examination of its low speed capabilities and before we start, Ren reminds me that the aircraft is not cleared for intentional spinning?not really surprising with that little rudder. The aircraft is slippery and not easy to slow down, something I need to bear in mind when approaching the circuit later.
The aircraft has no stall warning system but N7824S has been fitted with leading edge stall strips. The clean stall, with power off, produces a light but very brief buffet before the break at 53mph, with no tendency to drop a wing in either direction.
I then try stalling in circuit configuration?power on, gear and flaps down. The pitch angle is very nose high and the aircraft wants to hang on the prop with its clear surplus of power. Eventually, with a little patience, the wing produces a little buffet and then stalls at around 42mph, dropping the nose but, once again, without any tendency to drop a wing.
That’s another myth dispelled then! Perhaps the stall strips have assisted with this example’s improved characteristics? I think, the fitting of an electric stall warning device would make it better still, and provide a couple more seconds of advance warning.
In the USA the Swift is deemed to be semi-aerobatic, with limitations of +4.2/-1.9g. However, both Ren and Craig limit the aircraft to performing ‘gentlemen’s aerobatics’ only, in deference to its seventy year age.
I was allowed to play the somewhat restrained hooligan with a number of leisurely sweeping and swooping manoeuvres, all without placing any excess stress on the old lady’s structure.
Few members within the Swift community actually fly aerobatics in the aircraft. That said, the Swift Foundation does have its own formation display team?the Swift Formation Aerobatic Team?and at the numerous Swift gatherings around the USA some owners get together and practice formation flying. Formation flying is also taught by some of the more experienced and qualified members within the community.
Some readers, in fact, may remember the spectacular ‘Swift Magic Aerobatic Team’ that performed formation aerobatics in the USA with three smoke-equipped Swifts, flown by Lowell Sterchi, Dewayne Upton and Michael Kennedy in the 1990s.
I was lucky enough to see them display their tight routine at both Sun ’n Fun and Oshkosh on various occasions.
Having learned during the low speed flight just how slippery the Swift is, you would think I would get it right this time. No, I still struggle to slow this beautiful lady down as we approach Raleigh Executive Jetport while descending to circuit height.
At this stage of proceedings, the Swift reminds me of the Mooney (although not as fast in the cruise) with its slick handling. Although, it seems to me that the Mooney has significantly reduced parasitic drag during its years of development, while the Swift still struggles with some of the original draggy aspects of the airframe.
I arrive overhead the airfield at 130mph and start the ‘let’s try and slow this down’ process. In attempting to expedite this, I make the rookie error and pull the power all the way back, and am rewarded by the loud and annoying gear warning, set to alert the pilot at less than sixteen inches of manifold pressure, gear-up.
No chance of missing that one, then! I increase power to eliminate the noise, pitch the nose up and wait for the speed to bleed off. Limiting speeds are just 100mph for gear and ninety for flaps.
Approaching the start of the downwind leg, the speed is just below 100mph and I lower the gear using that quaint red tap, and it takes a few seconds to lock down. During the air-to-air photoshoot I had seen the left leg travel down first, with the right leg eventually catching up.
Both are down now as the single ‘unsafe’ warning light goes out. Once the gear is down, the speed starts to reduce too and very soon I lower full flap. This is accomplished by turning the rather strange round blue knob on the panel to the right, all the way.
There is no flap indicator so a quick check over the shoulder confirms that they are down, although you can clearly feel the pitch change anyway, with the aircraft starting to slow and pitching downwards. An increase in power arrests this and along with a change in trim I get the aircraft back where I want it to be. According to Ren, the only time where you want to use less than full flap on landing is in a particularly strong crosswind.
With the aircraft nicely trimmed and moving along at 80mph in a fairly flat attitude I position for a curved base leg and then onto final. Gradually reducing power for 75mph over the fence, I then pull the power back all of the way and gently flare before touching down for a wheeler landing, which is Ren’s strong recommendation.
The Swift touches down firmly, and a quick forward check on the stick keeps the main wheels planted. As it slows, the tailwheel meets the ground and I keep it straight, initially with gentle rudder application and then, with the stick all of the way back, with gentle braking?notice the emphasis on gentle.
Just one ‘gotcha’
As we taxi back to the hangar, Ren tells me the Super Swift does have one minor gotcha. If you try to hold off for a three-point landing the airflow allegedly gets into the wheel wells and tends to make the aircraft balloon. Hence, his suggestion to go for a wheeler. Ren also added that for a short-field landing, he would come over the numbers at 70mph, power off, and will normally stop well inside 1,000ft.
However, looking up this strange ballooning phenomenon on a Swift community forum, I also find another interesting opinion: ‘The stall strips on the leading edges of the centre section are the main culprit.
As the nose is raised in a three-point flare, they spoil too much lift causing an abrupt increase in sink. Many Swifts have the C of G too far forward – they land much easier with an aft C of G. Most Swift pilots approach at too high a speed for a three-point landing.
The secret is using 1.3 times the indicated stall speed. If the aircraft stalls at 50mph indicated then 65mph is the number. Also, the flaps create a ground cushion, tending to balloon the airplane up. Then, as it stalls, it is too high up and drops in, hard.’
High insurance costs
Swift aircraft rarely come up for sale as owners tend to hang onto them, especially with the Swift community able to support them. Most appear to be sold by word of mouth. During my research I was able to locate an old, unmodified example with a C-90 engine for sale at $49,500 while a similar, slightly tired example powered by an 0-300 was down at $38,000.
However, the highly modified Super Swift examples seem to start around $75,000 and rise up to $120,000 for an award-winning example.
The biggest operating cost on the Swift is insurance, especially for the low-time pilot. Less than one hundred hours of time on type and it will set you back over $3,000. Get more than one hundred hours in your logbook and it comes down by half.
Cruise fuel burn is around nine US gallons per hour, while maintenance is budgeted at around fifty US dollars per hour, which usually covers the routine and annual maintenance.
Obviously, there is a trade-off with having the larger 210hp six cylinder engine in place of the 180hp four cylinder one. Although the six offers a better performance, flies more smoothly and sounds so much nicer, it does cost more to maintain.
So, all in all, does the Super Swift deserve the sometimes unfortunate reputation it inherits from the original Swift? Absolutely not! Quite simply, the aircraft is a veritable ‘pocket rocket’. It is an excellent cross-country machine with a baggage space for up to one hundred pounds.
Ren recently flew his wife Taylor to the Bahamas for a week’s holiday. After loading the aircraft with two large duffel bags and some gear, they still had plenty of room for oil, chocks and the aircraft cover.
In addition, the Super Swift is capable of sports aerobatics, although few owners actually fly such manouvers on their seventy year old airframes.
And, finally, it is an aeroplane with a fighter-like attitude! Aside from its somewhat idiosyncratic flap and undercarriage hydraulic systems, what is there not to like about this lovely ‘antique airplane’?
Personally, I loved flying it and my grateful thanks are due to Ren and Craig for allowing me the opportunity.