Obituary: Ed Swearingen

Washington DC
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If the fates had intervened only slightly differently, the surname of "Swearingen" might have been as ubiquitous a brand as iconic standards of American aviation such as Beech, Cessna and Lear.

Even so, the name of Ed Swearingen, who died on 18 May of complications from surgery at 88, still ranks with those formative masters of American general and business aviation.

In a career spanning eight decades, Swearingen established a track record consistent with a swiftly passing era of legendary aircraft designers – with names such as Piasecki, Robinson and Rutan – who could literally take something created in their own garage and turn it into a lasting industry.

The legacy of Swearingen’s career, however, still lives on. It even stands apart from many of his more celebrated – and trained – contemporaries.

In his time, many regarded Swearingen as more of a wizard than an aircraft designer. He was certainly no traditional engineer, as a self-described drop-out from grammar school. The US Army trained him as an aircraft mechanic during the Second World War and then he learned aircraft electronics in his first post-war job.

With those basic skills – and the son of a Texas farmer's knack for mechanical ingenuity – Swearingen set out in the 1950s to do more than repair or build aircraft. Instead, he possessed an audacity to look upon a successful aircraft design – such as the Beech Queen Air and the Bonanza – and visualise how it could be much better.

So began the remarkable rise of Swearingen as a branded aircraft manufacturer in the early 1960s.

It began with Swearingen building a twin-engined version of the Piper Comanche as a prototype. He then moved on to building improved versions of the Twin Bonanza – called the Excalibur – and the Beech Queen Air. In every case, Swearingen fiddled with an existing design to deliver more range and speed within the same package, as he discovered simple tweaks the original manufacturer had sometimes missed.

Upon this foundation Swearingen appropriated another reference to King Arthur’s court, unveiling the Merlin series. The Merlin 2 – combining a bespoke fuselage, the Beech Queen Air’s wing and at first the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 and later the Honeywell TPE331 – is still the only aircraft design that gave the market for several years a true competitor to the Beech King Air.

Swearingen’s next move – the Metro commuter airliner – may have served as a springboard to even bigger projects, had not an ill-timed economic recession crippled his balance sheet, forcing him to turn first to Piper – which declined an acquisition – and then to Fairchild for cash.

Working for others never seemed to suit Swearingen for long, and in the early 1980s, he broke out from Fairchild again to work on his own aircraft designs.

He started small – albeit skilfully – with the SX-300, a design for a kit-built aircraft with speed and range performance that impressed even the tough crowds at the Oshkosh experimental aircraft fly-in in 1983.

But Swearingen's next project would define the rest of his career, and frustratingly so. By the mid-1980s, the first generation of business jets that debuted in the 1960s already seemed obsolete. Equipped with engines intended for Mach 2.0 fighters, they were over-powered and inefficient as executive transport.

This was the market that Swearingen targeted with the Emivest SJ30, which was then among the first of a new class of turbofan-powered private jets.

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SyberJet

It says something – despite three decades of development, several ownership changes and a fatal crash in flight test – that Swearingen’s original concept is still relevant enough for the new owner, SyberJet, to have a hope of finding a market.