Skip to content
Recruiting now.Explore navy careers

Happy 75th Birthday to the oldest Fairey Swordfish in the world

25 October 2016
On Trafalgar day 75 years ago Fairey Swordfish W5856 with the Royal Naval Historic Flight 9RNHF) took her maiden flight.

Members of the Royal Navy Historic Flight came together to celebrate this aircrafts significant birthday on this historic date that marks the victory won by the Royal Navy at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 2016 , Commanded by Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson

Commanding Officer of RNHF Lieutenant Commander Chris Gotke AFC said;

"It is a great honour and privilege to be the Commanding Officer of Royal Navy Historic Flight." 

It means a lot to me working on her keeping the aircraft in the air and remembering the people that actually flew them in times of conflict.

Tug Wilson

We are very privileged to be able to celebrate the oldest and only flying Mark 1 Swordfish Birthday today.  She is 75 years old and fittingly flew first on Trafalgar Day.”

W5856 is the oldest surviving flying Fairey Swordfish in the world.

She first flew on Trafalgar Day (21 October) 1941 and was a “Blackfish”, built by Blackburn Aircraft at Sherburn-in-Elmet and delivered to 82 MU (Lichfield) on 20 October 1941 for overseas transport to Gibraltar.

Tug Wilson Mechanical Supervisor on the Historic Flight added; “It means a lot to me working on her keeping the aircraft in the air and remembering the people that actually flew them in times of conflict.”

W5856 served with the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet for a year. Little is known of her role while on active Service in the Mediterranean after which she was then returned to Fairey’s Stockport factory for refurbishment during winter 1942/43.

Used for advanced flying training and trials, the aircraft was transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy in 1944 for training and then stored in reserve after the War’s end.

Passing through the hands of at least two civilian operators after disposal, she was purchased by Sir William Roberts and brought to Scotland to join his Strathallan Collection, arriving in crates in August 1977 in a badly corroded condition.

In 1990, the aircraft was bought by British Aerospace and completely restored to flying condition.

Following a successful test flight at Brough in May 1993 she was gifted to the Royal Navy Historic Flight and three years later was adopted by the City of Leeds, in tribute to the local companies that built Swordfish components during World War II.

She now wears the City’s coat of arms and name on her port side just forward of the pilot’s cockpit.

In 2003 and her future looked uncertain when grounded with corrosion however BAE Systems came to her rescue and constructed a new set of wings which were delivered to the Royal Navy Historic Flight in 2012 where W5856 was finally restored to full flying condition.

Dave Skiddy a Senior Mechanical Supervisor on the Historic Flight said; “It’s an absolute privilege to maintain our naval history for the next generation of Fleet Air Arm Engineers.”

With a major grant from the Peter Harrison Heritage Foundation W5856 aircraft re-joined the display circuit in 2015, painted in the pre-war colours of 810 Squadron embarked in HMS Ark Royal.

Lt Cdr Chris Gotke highlighted the importance of today in terms of our heritage and future saying; “The Royal Navy has some of the world’s most cutting edge technology coming into service in the next few years in the form of Queen Elizabeth Class Carriers and the 5th Generation Lightning II multi-role fighter.”

However, when looking to the future you must reflect on History.  A little known aircraft that entered service in the Royal Navy was the Swordfish. 

She first operated on 825 NAS in 1936 and whilst being out of date then served as one of a few aircraft types all the way through the Second World War!

She operated in the longest battle of the war, the battle of the Atlantic. 

This lasted for 6 years as was basically the Battle for Britain, if we had lost the Atlantic convoys then the war would have ended. 

The Swordfish also carried out strategic attacks such as the Raid on Taranto removing the Italian fleet from the Second World War and allowed the Royal Navy to manoeuvre in the Mediterranean. 

Crews showed phenomenal heroism during the attack on the Bismarck and on the Channel Dash in an aircraft that only flies as fast as a car!

W5856 has a few more events this year including Remembrance at the Fleet Air Arm Memorial Church in Yeovilton before being taken down for Winter Servicing before the 2017 season begins.

Happy Birthday W5856!

Related articles

Navy News Magazine

We bring you the latest news, features and award-winning photographs from the front-line. Navy News has been reporting on all that happens in the Royal Navy and its wider community since 1954.