Vickers Swallow aircraft is a tale of innovative design and ambitious engineering during the mid-20th century.
Following the war, Barnes Wallis set up his office in the former clubhouse of the Brooklands racetrack at Weybridge.
Here, in his newly formed Research and Development Department, Wallis delved into the challenges of supersonic aircraft. This period marked a return to one of his lifelong passions – the imperative for Britain to develop and position itself at the heart of a comprehensive global communication network.
“Our central position in the World of Trade upon which our superiority at sea depends, should confer upon us a similar superiority in the air. England’s position might well be described as that of the ‘Clapham Junction’ of the air world, for from China to Peru, from Viadivostok to Buenos Aires, from Vancouver to Cape Town, from Sydney to New York, all routes pass over or close to England”
In practicality, Wallis’s focus on long-range capabilities translated to a need for speed. To address this, he concentrated on the complexities of attaining supersonic flight efficiently.
Early in his research, he deduced that wing-controlled aerodynes offered the most effective solution for managing shifts in the center of gravity when transitioning between subsonic and supersonic speeds.
Groundbreaking Vickers Swallow
The Vickers Swallow was a groundbreaking supersonic aircraft initiative led by Barnes Wallis at Vickers-Armstrongs, a prominent British aircraft manufacturer.
Characterized as a wing-controlled aerodyne, it utilized the entire wing for in-flight control. This project was a direct advancement from the Wild Goose project, moving into the realm of supersonic design.
The development process included the construction and flight of several remotely piloted vehicles for research, along with extensive ground testing using static models.
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The vision for the full-scale version of the Swallow was to serve as a long-haul airliner and potentially replace the Vickers Valiant, a subsonic V bomber then operational with the Royal Air Force, as a supersonic alternative. However, the project met its end in 1957 when the government withdrew its financial support.
The Wild Goose Paper
In 1946, Barnes Wallis authored an influential engineering paper titled “The Application of the Aerodynamic Properties to the Stabilisation and Control of Aerodynes.” In this paper, he integrated his concepts on swing wings with studies on laminar flow.
Wallis initially experimented with small, hand-launched models and then progressed to larger prototypes that were catapult-launched at speeds of 100mph. His designs featured slender, oval-shaped fuselages, rear-mounted swing wings, and a single, steeply swept fin.
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Post-war, the British government, keen to catch up with the research advancements made by the Americans, awarded Vickers a substantial contract of half a million pounds to explore supersonic flight.
Following the discontinuation of the Miles M.52 supersonic research aircraft, some of Vickers’ funding was redirected to Wallis’ project, known as Wild Goose.
The Wild Goose project continued until 1954, employing increasingly larger radio-controlled models based on Wallis’ designs.
The later models included rocket engines within the fuselage. The Royal Air Force showed interest in these developments, considering the Wild Goose design as a foundation for a long-range surface-to-air missile aimed at intercepting Soviet bombers before they could enter UK airspace.
Though eventually terminated, the research from the Wild Goose project was transferred to a secretive initiative called Green Lizard.
This project focused on developing a compact missile, launched from a storable tube with deployable wings, for which Wallis’ supersonic design principles were relevant.
Green Lizard was conceptualized to function both as a surface-to-surface missile capable of deploying sub-munitions and as a surface-to-air missile equipped with turbojet engines for long-range interception of Soviet bombers
From his research, Wallis conceptualized a novel aircraft design featuring a movable delta wing configuration, which was notably larger than the conventional long-distance aircraft of that time.
Vickers Swallow Long-Range Airliner
This design was popularly known as the Swallow. The Swallow was initially considered ideal for a very long-range airliner, with its projected range potentially allowing for direct flights from England to Australia. Later, it was also seen as a prospective supersonic replacement for the Vickers Valiant, one of the RAF’s subsonic V bombers.
In 1951, the Ministry of Supply introduced Specification ER.110T, calling for a piloted, variable-geometry aircraft for research purposes.
However, this specification was eventually cancelled due to other urgent operational needs, without any orders being placed. Around the same period, Specification OR.330 emerged, seeking a supersonic reconnaissance/strategic bomber for the RAF.
By the summer of 1956, various flying models of the Swallow had been tested, providing data that reportedly solved all technical issues.
Mutual Weapons Development Programme
However, the government’s interest waned due to other priorities, and Vickers couldn’t fund the development to a full-size aircraft on its own. In June 1957, the Ministry withdrew its funding, leading to the project’s cessation that year.
Despite its termination, the Swallow project continued to garner international interest. In late 1958, efforts were briefly reinvigorated through the Mutual Weapons Development Programme of NATO, during which Wallis’ research on variable geometry was shared with American partners.
James R. Hansen, an aviation author, noted that American aerospace engineer John Stack and several NASA engineers showed enthusiasm for the concept, though the U.S. Department of Defense did not commit any resources to it.
The Swallow research led to various new designs aimed at enhancing performance, including a compact folding tail section, canards, an expanded fuselage, and repositioned engines. While the concept caught the attention of the United States Navy, the presence of competing programs like the supersonic transport (SST) meant that no concrete commitments were made, and the Swallow project did not advance further.