2010 UK Airshows

JAN 12 2010
Airshows >> UK: The Swift Aerobatic Display Team

The Swift Aerobatic Display Team, as the name implies, comprises a Marganski Swift S-1 glider (G-IZII), normally flown by Guy Westgate; an appropriate 'tug' to aero-tow the glider into the air - usually Piper PA25 Pawnee G-BDPJ flown by either Ian Gallacher or Paul Moslin, and, finally, the newest addition to the line-up, the Silence Twister (G-TWST early in the season and G-RIOT in the latter part), owned and flown by Pete Wells.

Responsibility for leading the team falls to regular Swift pilot, Guy Westgate. Guy's day job involves flying the Boeing 747-400 for British Airways, long-hauling his way around the globe - a far cry from the type of flying he undertakes during each Swift Team performance.

So where did the story of this remarkable display act begin? Guy explains:

"Gliding Aerobatics in the UK was given a kick start in the 1980s when a Polish instructor, Josef Solski, ran a few courses at Lasham. His interest and enthusiasm spawned several local aerobatic instructors including Peter Mallinson, and I was lucky enough to watch Peter rolling a Puchacz glider in 1993. My feeling of amazement soon gave way to a determination that it was something I had to learn to do for myself!

"Over the next few years we tried to analyse the black art of rolling the cumbersome two seater gliders like ASK21, DG500 and Puchacz - culminating in Peter's book 'The Handbook on Glider Aerobatics', still the only reference on the subject in print.

"I had started gliding a few years before, aged 18, first at RAE Farnborough and then Husbands Bosworth whilst at University, until my BA Commercial flight training course in 1991. Glider training tends to be targeted towards soaring and cross country flying, so aerobatics in gliders felt like a forbidden (and expensive) pleasure.

"My airshow début was at Shoreham in 1996, when Peter Eager took a punt with an unknown act and the UK unveiling of the MDM-1'Fox'. With subsequent aerobatic competition success and glider displays becoming more popular during the following decade, I moved on from the Fox and, in 2006, found an S-1 Swift for sale in America and set about developing the best possible display act."

What was it about the Swift glider that prompted Guy to buy it in the first place?

"The Swift is a very specialised machine and positioned in such a niche market that it was always destined to have a very small production run. Only the Poles had the glider know-how and low cost base to justify R&D costs spread over only 30 production aircraft. To put that into some sort of context, the most popular soaring gliders can expect to sell in their hundreds.

"That said, there has never been much profit in making gliders, and there was apparently some financial skulduggery surrounding the production of the Swift. I believe Swift Ltd morphed into the company that went on to build the Swift's sister ship, the two-seat MDM-1 'Fox'. Although these gliders are unique, they both draw much of their design from their wooden vintage predecessor, the SZD-21 'Kobuz' 3.

"What sets the Swift apart from other composite gliders is its design spec. It's the only 'plastic' single seat production glider built for aerobatics. It is a compromise - like everything else in design - but the design choices make it suited to both competition and display flying. The roll rate is very fast and the wing is strong enough. The biggest compromise is the wing section that is not great inverted, but it makes up for it with a fairly low drag profile pulling positive 'g'."

And so the Swift Team was born...

"It certainly helped that we had the best tug you could wish for - an Extra300L - but tragically, just when we were pushing the boundaries a bit and things were beginning to look really interesting with some unique formation manoeuvres, it crashed in poor weather and we had to start re-inventing the display act again.

"So often in life, when one door closes, another opens - the secret is to keep your eyes and mind open to spot the new opportunity - and in this case we didn't have to wait long for a chance meeting with Peter Wells at Abingdon Airshow in 2008."

Pete describes that first meeting at Abingdon:

"I knew Ian and Paul as they both serve at RAF Halton and have had dealings with them through work, as I did a lot of repairs for them and supplied gliders and parts. I didn't know anybody else at Abingdon, so naturally migrated towards them, and they introduced me to Guy, who I liked instantly! We shared a lot of similar views, and he suggested getting together later in the year.

"I was very happy that he asked, as being an unknown solo act is very difficult in the UK airshow industry.

"So, we met at Halton and practiced, got our Display Authorisations (DAs) and I joined the team for the first weekend of displays in June - we did Yeovilton and London City. It was quite a baptism of fire as we had 30 knot crosswinds at both! Since then we've tried to improve the routine as time has gone on by making small refinements."

Pete's aviation background also lies in the gliding sphere where he started flying at age 15, and, having passed 1000 hours in gliders, made the transition to powered aircraft, initially accumulating hours flying tow-planes like Piper Cubs and the Pawnee, before moving on to the RF4 which he operated for 13 years. It was during this period that he started to fly aerobatic manoeuvres, and that ultimately led to the progression on to the Vans RV8 and later the Silence Twister he'd bought in kit-form.

Despite this change of focus in Pete's flying activities, gliding still plays an integral part in his life. Back in 1989 he setup Zulu Glasstek, a highly successful composite glider maintenance and repair service that also acts as the agent for Schleicher gliders in the UK, and he still takes an active role in the running of the company today.

Paul Moslin flew over thirty displays as the tug pilot in 2009, and when he's not on the airshow circuit he can be found at RAF Halton where he's the RAF Gliding and Soaring Association (RAFGSA) Chief Engineer and a professional gliding instructor.

The tugging responsibilities are shared with Ian "Gally" Gallacher. Gally originally flew the tug and solo displayed the ASK 21 for the Royal Air Force Gliding & Soaring Association's Team Condor. He shared a vintage aerobatic glider Lo100 with Paul and decided to combine resources with the Swift Team to showcase both gliders.

"Paul and I already had glider DAs, but after the Lo100 syndicate dissolved last year, I moved on to fly the Swift and Pawnee tug. Guy has pushed the role of the tug pilot to be far more than just a way to get the glider to 4000ft. For the first part of the show, we lead the formation and are responsible for getting the display in the right place, at the right time and correct energy for Guy's roll-on-tow manoeuvres."

Since retiring from the RAF Ian lectures on Human Factors (Engineering) at RAF Cosford. He says he's looking forward to the 2010 display season and the ever-increasing challenges as team leader Guy strives for perfection.

With such an innovative display, at least so far as the UK airshow scene is concerned, I wonder if the CAA has paid any special attention to what the Swift Team is doing?

"We have drawn interest from everybody in the last few years, most very positive and some negative, but life is like that...." Guy concedes.

"There are a few 'experts' on the airshow circuit and on the many 'forums' that proliferate the internet who are prepared to be quite critical, but the cyber-space egos can be too quick to express their opinions and often only see one side of the story. In my experience, most true experts have a narrow field of expertise that does not necessarily cross over into engine-less flight! They think they know about safe gliding, but applying powered rules is not always 'best practice'.

"Having said that, we try and listen to every opinion and operate with an open culture to 'fessing up' to mistakes so that we can learn from them. The role of the CAA is to regulate all display flying and we have had some very valuable feedback from them too.

"Like any newish concept, we have spent some time finding our feet. Display flying is a delicate mix of pushing some boundaries to make the display dramatic and dynamic, whilst respecting the rules - that are ultimately there to protect us - and finding ways of flying to thrill not frighten!

"We have made some mistakes that have caused interest from the CAA and, I dare say, will continue to make small mistakes, but we have learnt from every flight and we are constantly modifying things as we learn and grow. We all strive to make airshow flying less risky and ultimately safer."

From talking to Guy at various times during the season I know he's always looking for ways to take the spectacle to a new level - to keep it challenging and interesting, not just for the public but also for himself. Pete explains the progression:

"I think we initially thought of the Swift combo routine as having a shelf life of just one year or so, so I anticipated the Twister would be axed at the end of 2008, but it became so popular that we carried on throughout 2009 and now have more bookings for 2010, so we will present both the Swift Team and the 'Duo' during the coming season when possible."

The 'Duo' to which Pete refers is the "Twister Duo" - a brand new act for the 2010 season. Utilising both of Pete's Twister aircraft, Pete (who will lead the new team) will be joined by Andy Preece, the 2007/08 Royal Air Force Tutor Display Pilot, as the regular pairing. Guy will fill in as and when circumstances dictate.

Guy continues: "The Twister Duo is an entirely separate act to showcase Pete's stunning aeroplanes. With the Swift Team Pete has to play second fiddle to the glider - now he will have his chance to really shine!

"One of the successes of the Swift Team has been our evolution, and I see no reason why this should not continue. One of my biggest fears is getting stale, and I'm always looking for new ways to do things that will add drama or some more theatre to our performance."

Sharing some of the glider flying duties with Guy is Mike Newman, a former racing driving who's since been crowned Unlimited UK National Glider Aerobatic Champion in 2008 and 2009, following his success in the Intermediate category in 2006.

"Mike is a key member of the Team, and I hope to give him more opportunities to fly the Swift in 2010. We plan to have some training sessions early in the year - to consolidate some of the skills required to perform aerobatics on aerotow at low level."

Mike adds, "I'm the luckiest glider pilot in the UK to have had Guy mentor my transition from contest flying to display flying. His priorities for a good display are perfect positioning and a seamless flow of manoeuvres - quite different from a contest flight. Guy's experienced input accelerated that work-up and the Team's profile provided me with an immediate entry into the airshow world.

"Focus over the 2009 season and particularly this winter has been directed towards my 'roll-on-tow' work-up. I was surprised to learn my 1000+ rolls in the Swift and Fox gliders counted for very little once the energy of a tow-rope was introduced into the manoeuvre, so I've had to treat it as a completely new figure. I can safely say Guy makes it look 20 times easier than it actually is!"

Back at London-City in July, Guy had commented on how he thought the Team's focus may move away from the seaside shows in 2010. Have his thoughts changed since then?

"As yet, I have no fixed ideas about seaside shows for 2010 but recognise that every venue has its own risks, and the risks to our team are often different to other teams. One of the skills in leading a display team is managing risk, so we will look at every venue individually in terms of not just the threats, but also our availability and the best utilisation of our resources - there will be plenty of clashes in 2010.

"Our display with the Extra 300L was very popular a few years ago, and we are talking with Frank Verstegh about working together in Europe for 2010. Frank is a larger than life character, and, although Mike was towed behind his Extra for a display in 2009, there is a lot of work ahead of us before we can jump from the 'great idea' to a formation display. We have a spring practice week in mind... so watch this space…!"

I always think a good barometer by which to judge the popularity of an act is to look at how far and wide their wings have been spread. The Swift Team can already boast a CV containing entries from seven countries, with Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates the furthest distance from home that they've performed, though in terms of travel time, Guy says none will come close to Dala Jarna (Sweden) - a mammoth journey by car taking almost 60 hours for a single show!

Pete adds, "I think Team Swift has become like Team Guinot, as they were, because every show needs them and us - with both being very popular with the public."

I don't think I could argue with that sentiment either. What the Swift Team have brought to the airshow circuit already is so different to what everyone else is doing - and in a very positive way - that for many organisers they have simply become a must-book act, and I for one look forward to their next evolution.

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