The Shuttleworth Trust at Old Warden, Bedfordshire is a truly remarkable place. The grass airfield – with possibly a few visiting aircraft and microlights parked up - and the shop and cafe near the entrance give no indication whatsoever of the treasures contained in the series of plain hangars in front of the visitor. In one of the hangars you will find a rare racer – the Comper C.L.A. 7 Swift, G-ACTF.
Nicholas Comper got his start in aviation with the Aircraft Manufacturing Company Ltd (or Airco), the manufacturers of the famous World War One DH4 bomber. He left to join the fledgling Royal Flying Corps in 1915, and was posted to France to fly B.E.2c aircraft with No. 9 Squadron, RFC. Amazingly for a B.E.2c pilot, he survived the war and eventually joined the staff of the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell. Whilst at Cranwell he designed several light aircraft for the Cranwell Light Aircraft Club, one of which he named the C.L.A.2, an ungainly biplane powered by a 32 hp Bristol Cherub engine. Registered G-EBKC, it was built for the famous 1924 Air Ministry Two-Seat Dual Control Light Aeroplane Competition at Lympne (known to many as the ‘Light Aircraft Trials’). He left the RAF as a Flight Lieutenant, and formed the Comper Aircraft Company Ltd. at Hooton in Cheshire. Comper’s very first aircraft was the C.L.A. 7 Swift, a tiny single-seater built for racing. Its first public appearance was on the 17th May, 1930, at the iconic British airfield of Brooklands on the outskirts of London, when it was flown by Sydney St. Barke. The aircraft consisted of a wooden framework covered in fabric, with the rear decking (which formed the locker) made of plywood. The prototype, G-AARX, was powered by a 35 hp A.B.C. Scorpion two-cylinder engine. The first change of engine type came with the next 6 aircraft, which were fitted with the 50 hp Salmson radial, but the Swift really became successful when Douglas Rudolf Pobjoy established his Pobjoy Airmotors and Aircraft Company Ltd. next to the Comper works in Hooton. The light, efficient Pobjoy ’P’ was fitted to the 7th Swift, and many Swifts were converted to, or built with, the next Pobjoy, the ‘R’ of 85 hp. Swifts flew in the King’s Cup Air Race from 1930 to 1937, as well as making some amazing long-distance flights for such a small aircraft. For example, in 1932, R.A. Butler flew from Lympne, Kent to Darwin, Australia in 9 days, 2 hours and 20 minutes – a new record. Only 41 aircraft of the type being built, but Swifts were exported to Argentina (one flew across the Andes at 18,000 feet), Tanganyika, India, Australia, Egypt, Switzerland, Italy and France.
Despite the company having ceased trading in June 1934, Swifts continued to be raced post-war, in the Folkestone Trophy and the Goodyear Trophy Races, for example. An old friend of mine, the renowned pilot and aviation authority, David Ogilvy, placed second in the 1956 Goodyear Trophy in G-ABUS.
The Swift shown here was initially owned by a wealthy Indian tea planter, Alban Ali, and was placed on the Indian Register as VT-ADO, painted bright scarlet, and named ‘Scarlet Angel’. The ‘Angel’ was damaged in Egypt during an India – England flight - and sent to its destination in a crate! The aircraft was placed on the British Register as G-ACTF and survived its wartime storage to be raced in the U.K. in the 1950s, when it was powered by a Pobjoy Niagara II of 90 hp. G-ACTF was bought by the Shuttleworth Trust in 1966 (Richard Shuttleworth had been a director of Comper Aircraft, and had owned two Swifts); it has had some engine problems – Pobjoy spares are notoriously difficult to obtain – but G-ACTF should be back in the air soon.
The Swift had an impact on the air racing and records world far greater than its diminutive size and small production run would seem to warrant. For something so small, it really was a giant.