Preservation at Work: Digitizing at the Swift Museum

Just off highway 30 outside Athens, Tennessee, a well-informed individual can take the turn toward the McMinn County Airport and find themselves at the Swift Museum Foundation, or SMF. The airport is small, but provides services such as hangar leasing, flight instruction, and a cozy passenger lounge. A short stroll to the east across the tarmac brings one to the newly constructed hangar that houses the SMF. Once inside, and out of the sticky Tennessee heat, visitors have entered a world that revolves around all things Swift. The museum has items such as the shovel used to break ground on the Swift factory, and of course several Swift airframes! In early September I was lucky enough to spend 7 days in the museum to assist in a digitizing effort and learning more about this fascinating airframe – but more about that later.


For the unfamiliar reader, the Swift has an interesting history that fits neatly into the WWII era that we are accustomed to here at AirCorps. The initial idea for the two seat, civilian aircraft was developed by R.S. “Pop” Johnson in 1940. His original prototype (the red airframe pictured below) is the first thing visitors see at the SMF when entering the hangar, and proudly bears the name “The Rocket”. It is important to note that the prototype lacks the signature front grill that would later make the Swift so iconic. John Kennedy, the president of Globe Medicine Company took an interest in Pop’s airframe and created the Globe Aircraft Company, based in Fort Worth, Texas. WWII intervened and put the development of the Swift on hold, but the plant was still bustling. Globe manufactured AT-10’s during the war years, and as I learned during my time at the museum, the engineers always had the Swift at the back of their minds.

After the war, K.H. “Bud” Knox, the lead engineer for Globe, re-designed Pop’s plane into what we know today as the Swift GC-1A, and in 1946 Globe received the type certificate for the airframe. The original GC-1A had an 85 horsepower Continental C85-12 engine, that would be later upgraded to the 125 horsepower C-125-2 Continental engine that would make it the GC-1B. The SMF has the first GC-1A that came off the assembly line, right beside Pop’s prototype, along with the final GC-1B that ended production in 1951. The image below illustrates several of the changes between The Rocket and the GC-1A, in the cockpit enclosure with the addition of blue glass, and the art deco front grill that has been called the “Cheshire grin”.

Post-war, Globe started a massive marketing campaign touting the benefits of the “all metal Swift”, a private civilian aircraft for both work and pleasure. The Swift was said to have seats that were comfortable enough to sit in all day (a fact that many Swift owners today might disagree with!), and a roomy cockpit that sat 2 men with ease (as long as they were thin, and less than 6 feet tall). The success of their marketing was indisputable, because soon Globe had over 1 million dollars in pre-ordered planes. In an attempt to meet the demand, the factory was running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, employing not only general laborers, but engineers and draftsmen as well.

Restructuring & Change

The excitement and cash flow were short lived however, when during the 1946 production run it was discovered that Globe was selling Swifts for less than it took to manufacture them. It was in 1947 that Globe went bankrupt and Temco purchased the company, becoming Globe/Temco, and attempted to keep production flowing. Temco changed several aspects of the Swift, such as the color and design of the blue used on the exterior striping,  replacing the curved hat shelf with a flat one, slightly altering the rollover structure, and swapping the blue rear window with a clear D model variation. The image below also shows the slight changes in the front grill from the original GC-1A. Globe/Temco continued to produce the GC-1B until 1951 when the company stopped Swift production. The type certificate for the Swift was later bought by Univair who continued to manufacture replacement parts until 1979.  

In 1968 the International Swift Association was formed (later becoming the SMF), and in 1979 bought back the type certificate from Univair, along with all the tooling and any spare parts that were available at the time. Today, the SMF sells PMA Swift parts to its members, and continues to work to keep the legacy of this art deco airframe alive and flying. A new hangar and museum building were completed several months ago, but the original museum space is currently being used to house the tooling purchased from Univair. The pictures below give an idea of the scope and amount of tooling that the SMF currently owns.

Document Preservation Begins

Members of the SMF, and Swift owners, are not only passionate about the technical aspects of their airframes, but also about the history that goes along with them. Earlier this year a member of the SMF approached AirCorps Library, a division of AirCorps Aviation (learn more about AirCorps Library by clicking here) about digitizing their collection of original engineering drawings and historical materials. AirCorps Library is always excited about preserving any aspect of WWII aviation history, so we jumped at the chance, and before long I found myself driving a rental car 18 hours south-east with a 42 inch wide-format scanner in the trunk.

After arriving at the museum, it became clear that the scope of the project was much larger than we had initially imagined. Two sets of flat file drawers were packed with large format rolled drawings, with 4 additional bays of file cabinets holding serial number-specific information, change orders, and manuals. Never one to shy away from a challenge, I set up my scanners and got to work.

7 days and 65 hours later, myself, Scott Anderson, and Ken Coughlin (both volunteers at the SMF) had finished scanning all of the drawings, manuals, and change orders – no small feat considering our total came to 4,776 documents scanned. Other than the feeling of accomplishment that came from finishing that portion of the digitization, the three of us shared the feeling that we knew the Swift on a more personal level. Of the 4,776 documents, 2,953 of them were original drawings, hand drawn in pencil on vellum. While all of us appreciated the incredible craftsmanship of the Globe draftsmen, we were surprised to learn something that none of us had expected.

Of the 2,953 original drawings, only about half of those represented an assembly or part that went into production. The other half can only be described as the dreams, trials, and fantasies straight from the minds of the engineers and draftsmen that worked at the Globe and Temco factories. During the scanning process we came across drawings that accommodated different engine models, retractable tail wheels, sticks rather than yolks for steering, wood variations of the spars and ribs (someone must have thought that all-metal was not the way to go), and easily over 100 drawings specifically related to that oh-so-comfortable seat back and cushion. We even found a drawing from 1947 with 2 men in uniform in the cockpit labeled “Two Place Military Trainer” (see below). This drawing most likely relates to the T-35 Buckaroo that Temco later designed to compete with the Beech T-34 as the new military trainer for a contract issued by the Air Force.

Reward & Connection

Under normal circumstances it is easy to get caught up in the technical information that is necessary to perform repairs or maintenance, but this opportunity gave Scott, Ken, and I the opportunity to see beyond the everyday routines. Sorting through piles of half finished, and completed, drawings that most likely never left the drafting room, transported us back to the late 40’s and the dreams that were attempting to keep a small company afloat.

Working at the SMF was rewarding in ways that I could not have imagined, not only did I learn about an airframe that I was completely unfamiliar with, but I was lucky enough to see and handle historical materials that had been basically unused for 35 years. It was a great feeling to help the SMF digitize this information so that it is preserved for the future, but also so that they and their members can use the high quality scans for repairs and restorations well into the future. And the great thing about this project is that it is not over – now I can look forward to phase 2 of the project which means another trip to Athens to work on digitizing all the serial number information on every Swift that was manufactured!

If you would like to learn more about the Swift, or the Swift Museum Foundation, you can visit their website: http://swiftmuseumfoundation.org/history/

Or better yet stop by the museum!


Swift Museum Foundation

223 County Road 552

Athens, TN  37303

(423) 745-9547

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