Ahhh, the sleek and racey Swift! Popular today in all of its various airframe and powerplant configurations and modifications, it has acquired a reputation for demanding full respect from its pilot.
If you’ve ever seen a Swift – or better yet, been aloft in one – you’ve more than likely been enamored with it.
If you’re intrigued by the Swift’s persona, be sure to stop by the Swift Museum Foundation’s top-notch and recently-completed museum. Conveniently located at the McMinn County Airport (KMMI) in Athens, Tennessee, the museum is equidistant between Knoxville and Chattanooga in the lush, rolling foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Exhibits and Displays
The Swift Museum has come a long way from its humble beginnings in an old, small hangar on the airport. The new museum facility is thoughtfully laid out, and formally highlights the evolution of the Swift from the first prototype to stock models and highly-modified 1946 to 1951 models.
Remarkably, the first and last production Swifts are in the museum.
A T-35 Buckaroo USAF trainer, which was tested by the USAF in the early 1950s, is on display. Notably, it is an armed version used and donated by the Saudi Arabian Air Force.
The Johnson Rocket is also on display, as there is an apparent and intriguing connection between it and the Globe GC-1 prototype.
These aircraft are handsomely exhibited in all their stunning, polished-aluminum or painted glory, in a well-lit and spacious hangar. Perhaps best of all, visitors can walk right up to these aircraft and behold them up close and personally.
The Swift was originally manufactured by the Globe Aircraft Company and then the Texas Engineering & Manufacturing Company (TEMCO), with more than 1,500 built. Two displays at the first phase of the museum neatly represent this history.
One is a display case featuring 150 antique “Groesbeck Reds” bricks salvaged from the original Globe Aircraft factory at Fort Worth. The bricks serve a unique fundraising role — donors can have a personalized plaque affixed to these bricks.
The other historical element is the original flagpole and base from Globe Aircraft. This artifact was originally presented to John Kennedy, owner of Globe Aircraft Company, in 1942 by his employees.
Phase one of the new facility was completed in 2013. This 40’ x 80’ building houses the main office and the extensive Swift Parts Department. The phase two 80’ x 80’ main museum hangar was finished in time for Swift Nationals 2016. The third and final phase was completed in time for Swift Nationals 2018, thanks to a significant financial contribution from Ken Coughlin (Swift member #310) of Oklahoma. This 40’ x 80’ building is primarily used for storage of tooling and large salvage parts, with space available for maintenance of museum aircraft.
Funding for the museum came from many generous donations. Additionally, a number of donated Swifts were sold outright or raffled, and a fundraising raffle is held annually. The museum helps sustain the organization’s growth from the last half century, as well as preserve its evolving historical collection for posterity.
“Hundreds of people visit each year, and many schools bring large groups fairly often,” says Scott Anderson, executive director of the Swift Museum Foundation. “The first thing I hear from visitors is ‘Wow, this is an amazing collection!’ We have just acquired the LoPresti Fury for museum display, and it will bring another chapter in the Swift history to light for everyone to see in person. Other people and members are continuing to donate personal Swift artifacts as they see that this museum is a worthy place for these things to be shared by many aviation enthusiasts.”
It’s rather unusual for a type club to have the wherewithal to build and maintain such an impressive facility. Naturally, that begs the question: How did the Swift group progress to this point?
Well, the genesis was in 1968, when native Tennessean Charlie Nelson placed an ad in Trade-A-Plane stating that a group was being formed for “mutual aid to owners and improvement of the Swift.” More than a hundred pilots responded, launching the Swift Association, later to be known as the International Swift Association.
Naturally, as founder and president of the Swift Association and Museum Foundation, Charlie became the paternal head of the Swift family. He was also the newsletter editor for 43 years – and that must be a record for a type club!
By 1977, the association evolved into the Swift Museum Foundation, a non-profit group whose purpose remains “dedicated to preserving the history and heritage of the Globe/TEMCO Swift and keeping them flying.”
The personalities making up the family of “Swifters” are as varied as their professions and the geographic areas where they live. Today, the organization has members from more than a dozen countries – and numerous loyal volunteers who contribute their time and talents to ensure the group’s ongoing success.
The “Swifters” are ardent admirers of the Swift and staunch supporters of the Swift Museum Foundation. For example, Honorary President Jim “Frog” Jones of Georgia bought his Swift, learned to fly in it, and joined the International Swift Association in 1974.
“My Swift has allowed me to come in contact with like-minded people and make lifelong friends. It has opened doors to many adventure opportunities, trips to Alaska, formation flying, and aerobatics,” said Jim, “and it has created a pride of ownership with its ramp appeal.”
You may have deduced by now that the museum and foundation are inseparable. It’s difficult to talk about one without including the other.
Jim elaborates that the organization bears the “responsibility of protecting the history, heritage and soul of the Swift. It supplies needed parts, drawings, engineering data, encouragement, and knowledge to preserve the Swifts in the museum, as well as member-owned Swifts. We assist those who are interested in Swift ownership by educating them on things to look for when inspecting one. Our members want to help protect the Swift and those who buy and fly them.”
To facilitate those efforts, the Swift Museum Foundation has available an Initial/Recurrent Pilot Training Handbook, Maintenance and Operation Information Handbook, Operators Handbook, and Hydraulic Manual. Engineering drawings have been digitized and are available to members for their specific Swifts.
Regarding archival material, Ken Coughlin has been the Swift Museum Foundation’s formal historian for 16-plus years. Ken bought his Swift in 1965 and has logged 3,960 hours in it to date. Additionally, Tennessean Pam Nunley, Charlie Nelson’s daughter, fulfilled an integral role in the organization for 30 years, particularly in the Parts Department.
50 Years and Counting
Around 700 Swifts are still listed on the FAA registry, and an estimated 350 are flown regularly. The organization celebrated its 50th anniversary during Swift Nationals in 2018. Among the attendees for that special occasion was Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) President Mark Baker. He was treated to the memorable experience of a Swift formation flight with Paul Mercandetti, Swift Museum Foundation Executive Committee member and longtime Swift owner.
The Swift Museum Foundation has been holding formation clinics for its members since 1999. The Swift Formation Committee was accepted as a signatory to the Formation and Safety Training (F.A.S.T.) organization in 2007 and now has two seats on the F.A.S.T. Board of Directors.
When asked what else sets the Swift organization apart from other type clubs, Jim responded: “The Swift Museum Foundation may be the only type club that owns the type certificate, engineering data, spare parts, and tooling to support owners in keeping their Swifts flying or restoring a Swift. The Swift Museum Foundation holds an annual convention/fly-in, has a monthly newsletter, has great representation at Oshkosh, SUN ‘n FUN, and other fly-ins around the country. The Swift Museum Foundation is probably the only type club that has a museum dedicated to one airplane.”
Location, Location, Location
A glimpse into the past reveals the provenance for the location of the museum.
Back in 2001, Charlie shared some of the history of the Swift Nationals with me: “The first one was held in 1969 at Ottumwa, Iowa. We adjourned at Kentucky Dam in 1981, and brought a formation flight of 48 airplanes down here — that’s the largest formation we’ve ever had to date — to do an air show for the local Chamber of Commerce. In 1982, when the World’s Fair was in Knoxville, we had a fly-in here at McMinn County Airport, and it’s been here ever since.” (Note that in recent years, the national convention has been held in rotating locations.)
“We have, through the efforts of many people over many years, been able to build a museum for a classic aircraft that is perhaps second only to the Beechcraft Heritage Museum in Tullahoma,” said Scott. “We have a strong membership base with around 600 members and new members are joining regularly. Last year we added more than 40 new members, which tells me the future of the Swift Museum Foundation is alive and healthy. I know Charlie Nelson would be proud to see what stands here today, and I am proud to have been a small part of it.”
Fly or drive, but either way, be sure to put the Swift Museum on your list of “go to” places. The Swift Museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday for tours and by special request on weekends. Due to limited staffing, visitors should call 423-745-9547 to ascertain tour guides will be available upon their arrival.