Okay, right up front, in an attempt to stop short any angry letters from Swift owners, I loved my little Swift. It was, in many respects, the best airplane I’ve owned, cheapest to buy, cheapest to operate, and all in all, a fairly simple machine to fly.
I knew I wanted a Swift early on. I saw my first Swift in Alaska at age 13 and instantly fell in love with the airplane’s simple lines and sporty demeanor. The type was a low-wing, retractable taildragger, reminiscent in configuration of the WWII surplus fighters that seemed to be everywhere in the ’50s and ’60s. I tried to be logical about my airplane search and consider the pros and cons of a number of types, but somehow, the Swift always won out.
Finally, at the age of 26, after renting for far too long, the Swift seemed like a good first airplane in my quest to someday own a P51 Mustang or an F8F Bearcat. I had saved about $5,000 toward my first airplane, and I paid $3,750 for the N3309K, a fortune to me in 1966, but the airplane seemed a pristine example of its type.
I had the typical arrogance of youth. I was convinced I knew everything, and that nothing could hurt me. I was obviously invincible, and when I signed up for the U.S. Army a year later, I volunteered for the Warrant Officers Flight Training Program, hoping to fly Cobra gun ships. I knew that probably would involve a trip to Vietnam, but I was positive nothing could bring me down.
In a similar sense, I was aware of the Globe Swift’s reputation as a squirrelly little taildragger, but I was, after all, a federally licensed private pilot, a rank only slightly below that of Superman. My catch-as-catch-can flight training with a half-dozen instructors had exposed me to a variety of trainers, a Champion Tri-Traveler, a Cherokee 140, a Cessna 150 and a Piper Colt—all nosewheel airplanes, all gentle, forgiving machines without an evil bone in their steel-tube, aluminum and fabric bodies.
I had about 75 hours in my logbook when I bought my Swift from an A&P mechanic who had treated it like his favorite Siberian husky. The airplane had its own house at the airport, and the owner gave it regular baths, petted it and took it for walks on weekends. The GC-1B was pampered in every possible way, never flown IFR, never outside California, serviced meticulously; and every instrument and system in the airplane had been overhauled at least once.
It was still a handful for me. In those days, there weren’t many instructors current in Swifts, and I had to wait two weeks after delivery before getting checked out in the short-coupled little taildragger. I snuck in several hours of taxiing all over Long Beach Airport, much to the chagrin of the KLGB controllers. In one instance, during a too-enthusiastic high-speed taxi test, I lifted off and clumsily put the airplane back on the ground without the benefit of experience or ability. Fortunately, I didn’t break anything.
When the instructor finally showed up for my semi-official checkout, he quizzed me on systems and flew around the pattern with me three times. When I expressed concern that I didn’t really feel comfortable in the airplane, he smiled, signed my logbook and wished me luck.
I needed it. Within a month, I had a dog run in front of me while taxiing, stomped the brakes and put the Swift on its nose, digging the fixed-pitch McCauley’s prop tips into the dirt. Fortunately, no one seemed to notice or care. I climbed down, tailed the airplane back to its tiedown spot, had the prop straightened and tried again.
I made every other mistake possible in the Swift. I flew it into a high-density-altitude situation at Big Bear and had to stay overnight for the cool temperatures of morning, lost control in a nasty crosswind at Apple Valley and left the runway. (Fortunately, I recovered and lifted off before I hit anything but sagebrush.)
Gradually, I overcame. In the next five years, the Swift and I became good friends, though the airplane certainly taught me the meaning of humility. The Swift’s systems were a combination of the good, the bad and the ugly. Control harmony was wonderful, and the GC-1B was the quickest handling of the half-dozen airplanes I’ve owned. A 60-degree bank was only a flick of the wrist away, and a full roll was a simple matter of holding full aileron for three or four seconds. Loops and Immelmans were equally unchallenging, especially if you didn’t know what you were doing. Aerobatics were questionably legal under the old CAR regulations, and the surplus parachute I bought was never repacked for the five years I owned it, so I’m happy I never had to pull the D-ring.
Flaps were either full up or full down in about one second either way. The landing gear used the world’s smallest lightweight power pack, and the result on a hot day was retraction times as long as a minute—or never. Sometimes, the wheels would simply stop halfway up and refuse to retract any farther. Fortunately, the gear always came down with either the electro-hydraulic system or the cable emergency crank.
Fuel went aboard through a single filler on the left wing, and you waited for the petrol to cross-feed to the opposite side. Total capacity was 14 gallons per wing tank, if you waited long enough. (Some Swifts feature a nine-gallon aux tank in the cabin—mine wasn’t so blessed.)
The C125 Continental engine proved durable and reliable, but it wasn’t quite up to the job of lifting two folks and fuel to anything above about 10,000 feet. No matter. With careful route selection, the Swift transported my lady and me pretty much anywhere we wanted to go.
I flew that little airplane all over the country for five years and 600 hours, mostly by dead-reckoning and pilotage. My only radio was a crystal-controlled Narco VHT-3 com with eight frequencies that worked. There also was a tired Bendix T12D ADF that worked on alternate Saturdays in April and September. The Bendix was the limit of my radio navaids. Still, the Swift and I visited Canada, Mexico and the Bahamas, and I don’t recall being lost more than two- or three-dozen times.
As I look back on the succession of airplanes since then, a couple of Bellancas, a pair of Mooneys and a Seneca II, I can’t help reflecting that the Swift was easily the most fun machine of them all. It definitely wasn’t as fast as it looked—maybe 110 knots on a good day—but all my friends wanted to fly in it, and it contributed to my continuing education, helping to make me, today, one of the world’s oldest student pilots.
Bill Cox is in his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot. He provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide. E-mail him at [email protected].