The Fairey Swordfish was designed in 1934 as a carrier-based torpedo / spotter / reconnaissance aircraft. Its two cockpits carried either a crew of two, for torpedo strikes, or three when employed in its reconnaissance role. 2,391 Swordfish were built between 1934 and 1944, most at the Blackburn Aircraft Factory in Brough, Yorkshire.
At the peak of W.W.II there were 25 front line Swordfish squadrons. In an eventful and successful career it out-lived two types of its proposed replacement, was the last biplane to see active service and was one of the few aircraft to serve throughout the war. A surprising fact is that Swordfish sank more enemy shipping than any other allied aircraft. It was known affectionately as the ‘Stringbag’ because you could put anything in it, or on it – not, as is commonly believed, because of its many rigging wires.

One of the aeroplane’s many famous roles during W.W.II was the sinking of the Italian fleet at Taranto, an event that changed the balance of power in the Mediterranean. It could also be said that the Swordfish assured British survival through the war, since many authorities believe that the successful Swordfish attack on Taranto gave the Japanese the blueprint for their attack on Pearl Harbor. Thus, it is argued, changing the course of the war by bringing in the Americans when Britain was otherwise standing alone.

W5856 was built at the Blackburn Factory in 1941, and then spent a year with the Navy in the Mediterranean. It returned to the UK and served at Advanced Flying Unit, RAF Errol, before being transferred to Manston for tactical trials. After being damaged it was sent back to RAF Errol and was then shipped to Canada where it flew with the Telegraphist Air Gunners School, the famous TAGS. Thereafter, the aeroplane was stored in a field at Mount Hope, Ontario.
In 1980 the dilapidated Swordfish 5856 was returned to the Strathallan Collection in Scotland where restoration proceeded slowly. Then, in 1990 it was purchased by the Swordfish Heritage trust, and British Aerospace commenced restoration. It flew again in 1993, in the colour scheme of 810 Squadron, and is now proudly operated by the Royal Navy Historic Flight.

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This museum-quality flying model was built by noted Nats competitor Richard Crapp, from a plan drawn by Len Ashdown of Ontario, and is based on a second TAG school aircraft, which was also being restored to flying condition. Powered by a Laser 300, 50cc ‘V’ four-stroke and guided by 9-channel Futaba radio, Richard’s superb example weighs in at 33 lb. In keeping with the full-size it has folding wings, employing a faithful scale mechanism. It contains many specially made parts, such as tyres, hubs, oil cooler and a complete Bristol Pegasus engine! All 3000 rivets in the front panels are reproduced, the stitching and taping on the wings is completely accurate, and the model has a full complement of streamline wires. The cockpit is totally complete, right down to the writing on the flare cartridge! Richard’s Swordfish is a real labour of love, taking about 5000 hours of dedication over a five-year period to complete.

Although you might expect such a model to have entirely traditional construction, a lot of carbon fibre has been employed, to add strength and reduce weight. For example, all the struts are carbon tubes, faired with balsa, though the wings are mostly traditional balsa construction. Throughout the model, where one would expect plywood, Richard has used his own lightweight high strength balsa / carbon sandwich technique: as an example, the firewall is a balsa end-grain / carbon sandwich bulkhead, conferring immense strength for very low weight.

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The scale wing folding mechanism took nine months to organise, and has universal joints terminating all the stays. Richard reports that making the wheels was ‘a hell of a job’, particularly the raised lettering on the Dunlop tyres, which in the end was achieved by a complex mould, tooled in wood. The authentic hubs are sand cast items. Covering is Profitex from Tony Clarke’s Practical Scale which, Richard reports, sticks well and is very stable in the sun. The scale pilot shares the same leather luxury on his derrière as the full-size pilot, a detail made possible when Richard acquired some leather from the full-size during its restoration at Yeovilton.

In a chance encounter at a model show, a spectator revealed that W5856’s pilot was his next-door neighbour, and so Richard was introduced to Mr. Stanley Brand. Since that time Stanley, now 83, has written a book Achtung! Swordfish!, recounting his wartime experiences in the aircraft. Going full circle, proceeds from this book now go towards keeping the full-size W5856 in the air. It’s a fascinating read, with a number of previously unpublished illustrations, and comes highly recommended.

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  • This feature first appeared in RCM&E, May 2006.

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