"Who Are You Little Swift"

by
Richard Bach

I had owned the airplane six months. I had flown it in clear sky and on instruments, in the local area and coast-to-coast cross-country, in level flight and in aerobatics, from farm strips and international airports, in winter and in summer. Yet the hours gave me only a basic beginner's experience from which to ask one question of my airplane. After all this flying, aloft over Idaho between Seattle and New York, the question reached out and asked itself: Who are you, little Swift? The engine toned steady about me, the lowest note of a giant pipe organ, pedal held down now two hours thirty minutes. To my question, after a long time,

I heard one answer.

I am who you make of me, pilot.

I am who you make of me.

What the Swift is, I had known long ago. All metal. Two place. Low wing. Retractable gear. Design G 7.35 positive, 3 negative. Continental engine, 125 to 145-hp. Gross weight 1,710 pounds. Wingspan just under 30 feet, height just over six . . .

But still, answer all these whats, fly the airplane a dozen times around the world, and the important rises at last to ask itself.  Who are you, little Swift?  A Swift, for me, was that silver thing that I polished at age 15, an airplane with a square mile of sheet aluminum to buff upon, and a Swift was the reward for the reward for buffing - one single flight, first time off the ground in any airplane, the world pulling down from me, and away, and this sudden education that flight exists, that a man could spend his life flying and never yawn at it, or sigh; he could never learn all there is to know! For me, a Swift was that little taperwing blur diving down on my biplane, years later, roaring by at double my cruising speed, streaking near in a long bright flash then lifting her nose high up and rolling, pulling up into a long lazy slow roll into the sun. A Swift was also sudden death. I knew rafts of stories of pilots caught by the beauty of the airplane, who paid for them in cash, only to sell them a month later in fear, startled by a machine gone wild when it's held in a stall, or veering out of control on takeoff into a left crosswind, or ballooning and bouncing crazily after a gentle attempt at a three-point landing.

"This guy got him a Swift and after twenty hours dual the instructor told him that if he didn't sell it he'd kill himself in it before the week was up..." The stories are repeated and improved with no small glee by the owners who have themselves faced wild Swifts and controlled them. One major joy of owning the airplane is the fun of qualifying as pilot where others have failed to qualify, of taming an airplane that others call vicious and untamable. The owners exaggerate, the stories exaggerate. Still the Swift is an airplane that is never rented, is never loaned, is never flown solo by any man but its owner.

When I discovered that I needed a cross-country airplane, and one for aerobatics as well, one with speed and challenge and elan, yet one that can fly for an hour on four dollars of gas and oil, I remembered the Swift, and 1 began searching across the country for one of my own. I found Swifts in one of two states of care:

1) Loved.

2) Abandoned.

Loved, the airplane sparkles, engine starts at once, electric and hydraulic systems work, and the thing moves in the air like a silver falcon. Abandoned, the silver goes white in corrosion, hydraulic fluid seeps away, hard rubber tailwheels, never moving all summer, sink down into hot asphalt. Prices ranged from over six thousand dollars for the one to less than two thousand for the other.

The man I bought my Swift from sat in the left seat, when I came to test-fly it. He started the engine, he taxied the airplane, he made the takeoff and the climb to 2,500 feet. Only then did he allow me to touch the controls. I flew some turns, left and right. some shallow climbs and dives. "Mind if I try a couple of stalls?" I asked. "Stalls?  Just a minute." He took the controls again, climbed the airplane another thousand feet higher, leveled, and reluctantly let me fly the stalls, his hands poised like talons to grab the wheel the instant the Swift snapped out of control from under me. Power on or power off, I found, the stall is not fearsome unless one does not recover after the first stall break, and to my friend's relief I did not experiment at that moment with the folly of holding the airplane hard into her stall. After a while he relaxed a little and let me fly the airplane down to a thousand feet. Then he took the controls again, flew the pattern and landed very smoothly on the main gear, explaining as he did so that the Swift wasn't at all difficult to land, whatever the stories I might have heard. I did notice, though, that he had not suggested that I follow through on the controls during landing. I noticed, too, that at no time did he mention three-point landings in the airplane. It was later, after I owned the aircraft, that I learned why he had not mentioned this. Papers signed, money transferred, I began to know first-hand who it was that the Swift would become for me; beyond the rumors and stories and secondhand adventures, who this airplane would become in my own life.

I taxied out for takeoff, then, and found my new airplane a docile creature. easy to control on the ground. Sitting tall in the seat gave me a reasonably good view forward, and the airplane was practically unaffected by a stiff surface wind. But taxiing is not takeoff, and one of the remarkable features about this airplane is the speed at which a perfectly comfortable situation can get completely out of control. Aimed carefully down the center of the runway stripe, I eased on full throttle and the little machine lunged gently ahead. The tail came up at about 40 miles per hour, and as it did the nose swung rather sharply to the left, and needed hard right rudder to keep the airplane straight on the runway. At 65-mph we were flying, and after a moment I turned the landing gear level to RETRACT. Lights danced on the instrument panel, the ammeter sagged with discharge and the airspeed needle leaped ahead. For the first time I watched the view that I've seen on every flight since, in the Swift. I twist that lever to RETRACT and all at once I'm watching from outside the airplane, seeing the main landing gear fold slow and smoothly inward to bury in the wings. It's a handsome sight, every time. The gear UP light flashed on, the hydraulic pump light winked out, the ammeter needle flicked back to normal.

In spite of my wish to hold them steady, the wings rocked. They rocked, because the Swift has the most sensitive aileron control of any production lightplane in the country. Lay one finger on the control wheel and the little plane banks like a scared bird. If one does not wish to bank the airplane, one does not move the control wheel even the slightest fraction of an inch. It takes a long time to learn this. and fly without rocking the wings.  The Swift, cruising, is not nearly as fast as it looks. Full throttle on my airplane gives me 145-mph, whether at sea level or at 9,500 feet. It cruises between 130 and 135, yet all the while it looks as if it is doing something over 200. One does not buy a Swift, I found, unless one can live with an all-metal swashbuckler with a passion for center stage. Like it or not, your airplane will be labelled "a little fighter plane"...she labels herself that way, not only in the shape of her body, but the shape of her flight.

I flew forty hours cross-country in the Swift before I cleared out the clothesbags and briefcases, caged the gyros and went up to fly aerobatics. It is true. What the look of the airplane suggests, it can actually fly. The Swift handles remarkably like a propeller-driven F-84F, a propeller-driven fighter-bomber. That first try at a loop told me that this airplane does not fly on the small scale of other light planes. A quick entry, as one uses for Cubs and Champs, left the Swift hanging inverted at loop-top with zero airspeed...clearly not the right technique for this airplane. But fly it like a fighter-bomber, pull out from a 140-mph dive and ease the nose gracefully straight up and then to inverted flight, and you have as lovely a loop as can be traced in flight.

The Swift is the only production lightplane I've flown that can do a real aileron roll. From level flight at a fair airspeed, press that control wheel hard to the left and the Swift will turn the world all the way around your head in three seconds flat. In a four-point hesitation roll the airplane can stop so suddenly at the points that you hear the sound of it in the cockpit: FOM . . . FOM . . .FOM...FOM. The eight-point roll isn't quite so sharp and Loud: fom-fom-fom-fom-fom-fom-fom-fom . The airplane is restricted from spins, since the spin, they say, tends to go flat after two turns or so. But it is approved for snap rolls, at a relatively low entry speed. Even so not many Swift owners snap their machines-the tail is the weakest point of the airplane and repeated snaps do it no good. Loops, immelmanns, cuban eights, slow rolls, barrel rolls, point rolls, hammerhead turns...I came down from the aerobatic flight delighted with my new airplane. Then it was cross-country time again, and back went the clothesbags and briefcases, main tank filled to 26 gallons of 80 octane, auxiliary tank filled to 17 gallons. That's an especially large aux tank for a Swift, and gives it just over five hours' flying. It's a comfortable airplane for long flights, with room to stretch your legs across the cockpit if you're flying alone.

One time I flew the airplane some 270 pounds overgross from a Wyoming airport with a density altitude of 8,200 feet. The Swift needed about 2,000 feet of runway and a 15 knot breeze to get airborne, and climbed thereafter at 300 feet per minute-not very good performance at all. But the Swift is not even remotely in the running as a short-field airplane. A sea-level 1,800 foot strip with trees at the end is a short field indeed for a full-gross Swift, and the only pilots who don't think twice about the takeoff there are the ones who have installed the 180-hp engine. The original Swift had 85 horsepower, and according to tale, used every inch of every runway it ever flew from. Cross-country, the Swift has the feeling that any aerobatic airplane has, the same feeling that an Old West cowpuncher had with his Colt revolver at his side: Probably never need the strength of this iron, he thought but if I need it, it's there. Once a Swift is level and accelerated to 120-mph or so, it's as maneuverable as a deerfly. If you need to break sharply left or right. to suddenly climb straight up or dive straight down, the airplane can do it quick as you can blink. But at low speeds, at 70 and 80 miles per hour, the buoyancy is gone from the controls and it's a sullen airplane, for only the foolish to handle abruptly.

The Swift does not pretend to be forgiving, or the flying machine for everyman. Neither is it tricky or devious or even unforgiving. It is strong enough to forgive small errors. Swifts are like those few people alive who themselves, aware of their weaknesses, aware of their strength, apologizing for neither. If they must be abandoned by the world for being what they are, so shall it be. If they must be loved for being what they are, that's fine, too, but either way they will never do anything uncharacteristic of themselves. I could, for instance, ask a Cub or a Champ to take off from a field that I felt was a little too short for it, and most likely make it out on the sheer good nature of the airplane. I would no more ask a Swift to take off from a field too short for it than I would ask it to stand on its tail and bark... it would be an unthinkable thing to do. The airplane would much rather crash to flinders than do anything unSwiftlike. The friendship that a pilot has with this airplane is a friendship in which each respects the other on the ground of performance alone; no false sentiment allowed, no mollycoddling of one by the other in flight. When you step into that cockpit, you have the very clear idea that the airplane expects you to know how to fly it well.

Consider landing. A wheel landing in the Swift, flying in with full flaps and power, is absolute child's play, it's so easy. On a calm day one can consistently wheel the airplane so gently to the ground that he can scarcely feel the wheels touch. A few of those landings and you feel that every Swift rumor and story has been pure myth, grown from fiction and cotton-fluff. I felt this for a short while. And then I considered that a tailwheel airplane is built to land on three wheels, after all, and any pilot worth his feed should be able to bring any tailwheel airplane in to a three-point landing. So I tried my first power-off full-flap three-point landing. It was distilled terror. I flared normally, over a concrete runway, held the airplane off the ground in the conventional way. It settled normally...and then all at once it was five feet in the air again, and fully stalled, wobbling to one side, dropping like an iron pig. I got the throttle full open, but still we struck the ground with a great pile-driver smash, careened back into the air again full power, sluggish, mushing, slammed the ground once more, faltered at last back up into the sky where I could tremble safely and think it over, the three-point landing. My theory of the problem was that ground cushion is the culprit. The Swift, with full flaps. has only a ten inch cushion of air between the ground and the trailing edge of the wing, compared to a 20 inch cushion and more of other low wing airplanes. I think it sinks three-point onto that high-pressure cushion and bounces off that before the wheels even touch the ground, which sets it back in the air again just in time to go fully stalled and iron-piggish. Add to this the welded-stiff landing of the airplane and you have a major crash waiting, just to get on the ground. When you see a good three-point landing in a Swift, however, you can safely bet that the pilot is not a complete newcomer to flying.

The rest of the Swift stories are true. The airplane does need more preventive maintenance than other lightplanes. Many of them have had distressing problems getting the wheels to come up and down at the right time. There is not enough rudder on the aircraft to overcome a left crosswind of any magnitude on takeoff. Forget this latter and you are treated to that completely helpless feeling of stomping hard down on full right rudder while your airplane veers murderously left, toward all those runway lights. The identity of a Swift, its personality, is like that of no other airplane I've flown. I consider mine a close personal friend, but one of whom I never ask favors. I do expect it to respond in flight with sharp precision performance, but this is no favor at all, it is the character of a Swift, which it gives without being asked. Not infrequently the airplane is looked upon in fear by those who know it not; in fierce proud loyal friendship by those who do. For pilots who cross its path it is comrade or enemy, sport or killer, saint or demon.

A Swift objectively, though, without the personal involvement of its pilot, what is it? Why, a Swift is all-metal, two-place, low-wing, retracting-gear monoplane. Design G 7.35 positive, 3 negative. Gross weight 1.710 pounds, wingspan just under 30 feet, height just over six ...

 

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