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EAA AirVenture Oshkosh RSS Feed Swordfish lands at Oshkosh after monumental effort

By MARK PHELPS
Swordfish
The Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber of the British Royal Navy sallied into combat at a frighteningly slow 85 knots—with nothing to shield the crew but its fabric cover. Vintage Wings of Canada operates one of only two flying examples in the world, and it’s on display here at AirVenture. PHOTO BY PETER HANDLEY

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They were known as “Stringbags” and the origin of the nickname is uncertain. Some fans of the Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber say it refers to the mass of flying wires and leather stitching that held it all together. The Royal navy’s Swordfish dropped not only torpedoes, but bombs, rockets—even leaflets—when they flew interdiction missions over occupied France. There are only two Swordfish still flying, and Rob’s is the only one on this side of the Atlantic. It took a monumental effort to get it here to AirVenture.

They were known as “Stringbags” and the origin of the nickname is uncertain. Some fans of the Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber say it refers to the mass of flying wires and leather stitching that held it all together.

“But I like the other story,” said Rob Fleck, president of Vintage Wings of Canada, which brought the Swordfish here to AirVenture yesterday. “They say the name refers to the oversize string bags British housewives used to carry groceries, sundries—or just about anything. The Royal navy’s Swordfish dropped not only torpedoes, but bombs, rockets—even leaflets—when they flew interdiction missions over occupied France. So they were known for being able to carry just about anything, like a ‘string bag.’”

There are only two Swordfish still flying, and Rob’s is the only one on this side of the Atlantic. It took a monumental effort to get it here to AirVenture and Rob spreads the credit out among his entire staff at Vintage Wings (www.vintagewings.ca). Located in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada (near Ottawa), the organization fields an enviable collection of World War II aircraft. Also on display here this week, just west of the Warbirds in Review area where the Swordfish sits, is a full complement of trainers used by the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II.

“We had to cannibalize our poor [Westland] Lysander for parts to get the Swordfish flying,” said Rob. The pneumatic brake system was among the most troublesome—with a fluid bladder and several other parts needing replacement up to the last minute throughout this past hectic week. Its arrival was questionable even up to the last day.

On the final day’s flight from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, overnight rain soaked the ignition system and Vintage Wings chief mechanic Andrej Janik was forced to dismember the system to address problems with the booster coil. As it was, it took five tries to get it started—each one requiring 50 punishing turns of the inertia starter crank. That upper body workout went to Austin Childerhose, son of veteran Vintage Wings pilot Bob Childerhose, who flew the Stringbag on its trip here to Oshkosh. At least Austin got to ride in the back seat.

The Swordfish is also suffering from ignition shielding problems, so even with a portable radio onboard, it required an escort to get into Wittman Field yesterday afternoon. It flew the last leg from a stop in Menominee, Michigan, under clear skies. “The weather couldn’t have been better today,” said pilot Childerhose.

Rob Fleck is quick to point out that all the work done so far by Vintage Wings has served just to get the airplane airworthy. It was originally restored over a 12-year period, finished in 1992 by Bob Spence after he acquired it at an auction. Vintage Wings got the Stringbag in 2006, and sent the Bristol Pegasus engine off to Deltair in England for rebuild. It took more than four years, partly due to the difficulties associated with its sodium filled exhaust valves.

To add to the frustration of a four-and-a-half-year rebuild, the engine was damaged in shipping back to Canada, and many parts such as the exhaust collector ring and manifold had to be recreated at Vintage Wings. Problems followed with fuel pressure and the wing-folding mechanism, further delaying the airworthiness of the airplane, Rob said.

John Aitken, a military test pilot and veteran of Canada’s National Research Council (their NASA) flew the initial test flights after the engine rebuild. But Bob Childerhose, a commercial pilot with more than 20,000 hours got the honors for the journey here.

It took an hour and 51 minutes to fly from Sault Ste. Marie to Menominee; then 51 minutes from there to Oshkosh. They flew at 2,500 feet at an airspeed of 85 knots. It burned 36 gallons per hour of fuel, and consumed (or dripped) one gallon of oil per hour. Total time on the overhauled Bristol Pegasus radial is less than 10 hours, including the flight here.

“I can’t imagine flying this into combat,” said Childerhose. “For one thing, you had to get so close—about 1,000 yards—to deliver the weapon. Then you had to break away. It’s difficult to comprehend doing that with people shooting at you. It’s like attacking the enemy in a cardboard box.”

Rob stresses that the airplane on the ramp has not been restored—but it will be. It just has to wait its turn behind a pair of Spitfires and a Hurricane already in the queue at Vintage Wings—about three years’ work right there. He expects the rebuild to take two years after that.

An unfortunate consequence of the current North American heat wave is that the man for whom the Swordfish is dedicated cannot be here at Oshkosh. Commander Terry Goddard participated in some of the more illustrious missions involving the Swordfish, such as the attack on the German pocket battleship Bismarck and the infamous “Channel dash” in which the German navy brazenly escaped through the English Channel under cover of bad weather. Cdr. Goddard intended to come, but at age 90-plus, the hot weather was just too much for him to risk.

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