News, WW2

The Oldest Swordfish Takes to the Air After Restoration

  • Navy Wings restored a Swordfish W5856 to make it airworthy again.
  • The restored aircraft received its flying permit on November 17th, 2022.
  • ‘Swordfish Mk. I’ is the brainchild of Fairey Aviation.
  • It passed through the hands of several organizations like the Royal Navy Historic Flight and the Peter Harrison Heritage Foundation.

Fairey Swordfish, Mk. I W5856 is back in action after a successful restoration. The plane was made airworthy once again by none other than the Navy Wings’ team.

Manufactured in 1941, this Swordfish took part in many missions and endured battle damage on several occasions. Undoubtedly, it is the world’s oldest aircraft used on the front line by the Allies during World War Two.

Swordfish W5856 took to the skies once again

Fairey Swordfish.
Three rocket-armed Swordfish on a training flight, August 1944. Note that the aircraft are painted with invasion stripes

On 17th November, 2022, the biplane torpedo bomber received its official permit to fly as G-BMGC on the UK civil register. The next day, the aircraft flew to Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose to attend the Wings Parade for the new Merlin aircrew at 824 Naval Air Squadron.

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However, the Swordfish still needed to obtain formal permission to fly. Although the plane made a successful post-restoration flight on Aug. 17, it had to undergo several trials. Once the biplane passed all the tests, authorities awarded it with the permit.

Origin of Swordfish W5856

W5856 is part of the first production series, Swordfish Mk. I.

The Swordfish was the brainchild of Fairey Aviation, a private company back in the 1930s. The initial design was TSR1 (Torpedo Spotter Reconnaissance), but it had room for improvement. Thus, the manufacturers re-designed it as TSR2 and re-engined it with the Bristol Pegasus. Eventually, the aircraft proved satisfactory in all tests.

The W5856 had its first flight in 1934. After two years, the bomber became part of the Royal Navy as Swordfish Mk.I. Excitingly, it is also the oldest surviving Mk. I torpedo bomber, capable of flying even today.

The British aircraft manufacturer, Blackburn Aircraft, built it at Sherburn-in-Elmet, located in North Yorkshire, England. Later, 82 MU-RAF Lichfield received the aircraft on October 20th, 1941. The Swordfish Mk.I. undertook its maiden voyage on Trafalgar Day (October 21st) of the same year.

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With its ability to perform various functions, the aircraft remained  part of the British fleet for years. One of its most significant roles was accommodating massive amounts of battle damage, earning the nickname ‘String Bag.’ The String Bag could carry a 1,610-pound torpedo or anti-ship mines, bombs, flares, or depth charges. Moreover, the plane was equally at home during land and sea reconnaissance missions, escort duties, and bombing enemy harbours.

Swordfish W5856
Built in 1941, W5856 is now operated by the Royal Navy Historic Flight based at Yeovilton.

Owners of Swordfish W5856 (1934-2022)

The Mk. I aircraft passed through the hands of several individuals and organizations. Initially, it remained part of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet for one year, patrolling over the Straits at North Front, Gibraltar.

For training and trials, the Royal Canadian Navy received the Swordfish in 1944. After being used in a training capacity, the navy stored it in reserve following World War Two.

Interestingly, two civilians temporarily owned the aircraft at some point in its history. One was a farmer who planned to convert it into a crop sprayer, while the other was Sir William Roberts who added it to his Strathallan Collection in Scotland. Unluckily for Sir Roberts, when the aircraft reached Scotland in August 1977, it was severely eroded.

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In 1990, British Aerospace purchased the biplane to make it airworthy again. Again, the aerospace company was successful. Later, Royal Navy Historic Flight received the bomber as a gift after it completed a test flight at Brough in May 1993.

However, W5856’s journey continued further. It then went to Leeds in 1996. The city took it to honour local manufacturers who built Swordfish components during World War Two. Later, the aircraft was grounded for seven years because of corrosion in its wing spars.

At that point, the future of the Swordfish seemed dark.

In 2012, BAE Systems restored the vintage aircraft and installed new wings.

After that, the Peter Harrison Heritage Foundation adopted the bomber to preserve it for the nation. Then, in 2015, it re-joined the display circuit with a new paint scheme resembling the Swordfish that participated in the attack on the Bismarck in 1941.

Besides W5856, the Navy Wings have two other Swordfish, viz. Mk. II LS326 and Mk.III, NF389. Once in possession of Royal Navy Historic Flight, now the Navy Wings charity foundation takes care of these war relics for future generations.