Heritage grant returns legendary Swordfish to the air

Following an intensive weekend of successful test flights and display work-ups, the oldest surviving Fairey Swordfish Mk 1 bi-plane in the world, which saw active service with the Royal Navy in the Second World War, took to the skies again for the first time since 2003.

Built in 1941 by Blackburn Aircraft at Sherburn-in-Elmet, Swordfish W5856 has undergone a lengthy rebuild over the last ten years and was finally saved for the nation and restored to full flying condition with the support of a £200,000 grant from the Peter Harrison Heritage Foundation. 

“To see this venerable and historic aircraft flying again 74 years after she was built is incredible” said Rear Admiral Tom Cunningham, Chairman of the Fly Navy Heritage Trust.

“It is a very emotional and moving sight and we are deeply indebted to Sir Peter Harrison. The aircraft is a national treasure – a real gem and Sir Peter’s generosity has brought history back to life!” 

The theatrics of starting her up and taxying out are probably the trickiest part but once she is flying it is just amazing!

Lieutenant Commander Chris Götke RN

He continued, “We are also extremely grateful to BAE Systems for their longstanding support and expertise over many years,” continued Admiral Cunningham.

“The aircraft was originally restored by BAE Systems in 1990 and gifted to the Royal Navy. When corrosion was found in the wing spars in 2003, BAE Systems stepped in again and skilled craftsmen and apprentices at Brough lovingly and painstakingly built a new set of wings.”

Most of the work has been done by the small, dedicated team of engineers on the Royal Navy Historic Flight based at RNAS Yeovilton.

“Restoring a beautiful old aircraft to full flying condition with very limited resources is a great achievement” said Howard Read, Chief Engineer on the Flight.

“We are passionate about our heritage and it was a sheer joy to do.”   

Speaking of the challenges of getting W5856 back in the air, Lieutenant Commander Chris Götke AFC Royal Navy, Commanding Officer of the Royal Navy Historic Flight said “We have had to overcome many difficulties along the way but problem solving and finding innovative solutions is very much the ethos of the Fleet Air Arm.

“We could not have done it without the support of a great many people including BAE Systems, Cosworth, Deltair, the Rolls Royce Project Team, the airworthiness authorities, everyone at RNAS Yeovilton and of course Sir Peter Harrison.

“Without the heritage grant from Sir Peter’s foundation we would not be flying this magnificent aircraft today.”

Chris, who recently converted to the Swordfish, described the thrill of flying such an iconic and rare aircraft.

“She is a 1930s design and the cockpit controls are in all manner of nooks and crannies! But what an absolute delight to fly!

“The theatrics of starting her up and taxying out are probably the trickiest part but once she is flying it is just amazing!”

Speaking of his grant to restore Swordfish W5856, Sir Peter Harrison said: “Returning a beautiful old aircraft of such national and historical importance to full flying condition has given me great personal satisfaction reflecting my love of naval history.

“I am looking forward to seeing her fly at RNAS Yeovilton Air Day on 11 July and could not be more delighted that her long term future is now secure.

“I hope that all those who see her flying will be inspired by the courage of the naval aviators who flew these fine and trustworthy aircraft against the odds.”

Swordfish W5856 is expected to take part in the VJ day celebrations in August.

The aircraft which was adopted by the City of Leeds in 1996 in tribute to the local companies who built Swordfish components during WW2 will also be re-dedicated in Leeds in September.

Photography by Lee Howard.