Fairey story

Wednesday, April 19th, 2006

Life is full of strange moments: today I was followed in a traffic jam by a Fairey Swordfish.

For those whose childhoods did not involve Airfix kits and glue fumes, I should explain that the Swordfish was a prime candidate for wartime aviation's least likely success story.

Already hopelessly outdated by the start of World War Two, the Swordfish was nevertheless the Fleet Air Arm's main torpedo bomber. Its crews nicknamed it the Stringbag, because it seemed to be held together with the stuff. It was a three-seater open-cockpit biplane, with a top speed slow enough to make getting out and pushing an attractive proposition at times of stress.

Despite these disadvantages Swordfish crews sank more enemy shipping than any other allied aircraft, including on one memorable occasion a significant proportion of the Italian Navy. And this is the aircraft that was following me up the road.

To avoid confusion, I should make it clear that it wasn't flying, and nor was it trundling along the ground under its own power – it was on the back of a lorry. Since Swordfishes flew from aircraft carriers, they were designed with wings that folded back along their body to cut down on storage space. Trucks are, of course, narrower than carriers and, even in its emasculated state, the aircraft stuck out on both sides, necessitating a police escort.

As I say, it was behind me in the traffic so I didn't get a proper look at it or the chance to grab a photo before it disappeared down the A4. I guess it must have been the Royal Navy Historic Flight's aircraft, on its way to the London Air Show at Earl's Court. It's not as if the roof comes off to allow it to fly there, I suppose.

So there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for it. But it was still odd, and a bit special.

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I'm Andy Darley. Sometimes I want to say things. This is where I do it.