Given the success of the Spitfire in World War II many people had high hopes for Supermarine in the post war years that they could follow up this success but with a jet powered design. The Swift can trace its origins to the Type 510 which first flew in 1948 and after a series of redesigns the first true Swift F.1 was ordered in to production in 1951 at the height of the Korean War. Experience in Korea against the MiG-15 had shown the Swift would struggle with its unreliable engine and it’s troublesome handling. In fact it would not have even entered production in its F.1 guise had it not been for the government’s insistence that a British swept wing jet fighter be put in to service as soon as possible.
Efforts were made to address these problems in the succeeding versions. The F.2 featured an additional pair of ADEN guns bringing the total to four but this exacerbated the problems further with the weapons’ additional weight. To give the engine more guts compared to the MiG-15 a primitive afterburner was fitted to the Rolls-Royce Avon engine producing the F.3. This was never adopted operationally but served as an instructional airframe for ground crews to gain experience with afterburner technology. The afterburner equipped Swift F.4 did enter operational service with the RAF and featured a number of improvements but the aircraft’s handling was still quite lacklustre especially at high altitudes.
By 1957 the concept of using the Swift as a fighter was falling out of favour especially as the Hawker Hunter (an aircraft ordered in to production as a fail-safe against the Swift which everyone wrongly assumed would be superior) was proving a far more vice-less and more capable design. Therefore the aircraft’s nose was lengthened to accommodate cameras giving birth to the Swift FR.5 tactical reconnaissance aircraft. Many would argue that this version exonerated the design as it proved quite adept in the role and is best remembered for it even winning a major NATO reconnaissance competition in 1959 against aircraft from every member nation. The FR.5 equipped three squadrons in RAF Germany in preparation for a Soviet advance across the Rhine.
Two further variants were built but neither entered frontline service. One was an unarmed reconnaissance version designated PR.6 but was cancelled because of development problems with the engine. Perhaps the most optimistic variant was the Swift F.7 which featured an air intercept radar in the nose and was armed with four Fairey Fireflash air-to-air missiles. Neither the F.7 nor the Fireflash entered service but both went a long way to developing the technology that would lead to the Firestreak and Red Top missiles.
This was never a great aircraft and will forever sit in the shadow of the near-universally loved Hawker Hunter. It did provide a useful low level reconnaissance capability however and would lay the foundation for a number of more successful ventures in aerospace defence technology. It did make a brief cameo in the 1954 British film Conflict of Wings where it visits an air base in Norfolk that is the setting for the movie. The pilot of the Swift openly mocks the home squadrons De Havilland Vampires calling them antiques compared to his new mount. The last aircraft served as ground instructional airframes in the early 70s.