The true identity of the Merlin has got to be one of the most frustrating puzzles left by Johns for his readers. Why didn't he simply use a Beechcraft King Air and spare his readers years of research, speculation and confusion?
Many young readers of Biggles in the 1960s, leafing through their Jane's books, would have noticed that the Swearingen Merlin fitted Johns' description to a T, and there they would have rested content. Indeed, many illustrators of the Biggles editions in the 1970s also agreed and drew in the Swearingen Merlin. All would have been well until they look closely at the fine print. The Swearingen Merlin first flew in 1965. Biggles' Special Case where the Merlin first appears, was published in 1963! So how do we reconcile this?
Why the MerlinEdit
The mission planners for Biggles' Special Case needed an extraordinary piece of hardware. The destination was deep in Asia Minor, more than 400 miles east of Ankara. The aircraft needed to transit through Turkey, but it might not be a reliable source of fuel once Turkish authorities got wise to the true nature of the mission. Second, the aircraft needed to be fast to complete its mission quickly and then leave, and if necessary, evade hostiles. Third, Biggles' destination was a remote archaeological site--no airfield or hotels. Biggles and his crew essentially needed to live on the aircraft, and it had to be comfortable enough to carry a princess! Fourth, Biggles was going undercover as an air charter company. The aircraft had to suit the cover, so no military types.
As Johns looked around in the shoes of the mission planners, there really wasn't very much that was suitable. For example:
- Handley Page Hastings - a good range, but too big for landing on unprepared desert surfaces, not credible to claim it belongs to an air charter company.
- Handley Page Halifax - ex-military type, liable to arouse suspicions. Too big. Questionable comfort.
- Vickers Wellington - has the range, but ex-military. And can you seriously think it can be comfortable enough for a princess?
- De Havilland Dove - could be comfortable enough but too short a range.
- Percival Pembroke - better range than a Dove but perhaps still not enough, and slow.
- Lockheed Lodestar - actually why not? Good range, just slower than a Merlin, but an old design. It wouldn't be impressive enough to entice Biggles to take up the dangerous mission. Biggles did specify reliability, which implies something new.
There were many twin engine utility aircraft built by Piper, Cessna or Beechcraft. Most were either too small, too slow or didn't have enough range.
As noted above, the Beechcraft King Air might meet the requirements. After all the U.S. Air Force did use the King Air for V.I.P. transport. One was even used to carry the President!
Perhaps, just perhaps, (and this is a hypothesis that needs to be proven) there was advance information in some aviation magazine about Ed Swearingen wanting to develop a new project, an aircraft he called the Merlin that would beat the King Air. And Johns might have decided to feature it. Either that or it is an extraordinary coincidence or Johns had amazing prescience.
In Biggles' Special Case the aircraft is talked of as just entering production and was "the last word in air transportation".
The Swearingen MerlinEdit
By the late 1950s, aircraft engineer Ed Swearingen had become well-known for his modifications and upgrades of existing utility aircraft, with products such as the Piper Twin Comanche, the Excalibur 800 (a modification of the Beechcraft Twin Bonanza) and the Excalibur Queen Air. For his next project, he envisioned much more of a purpose built business aircraft, called the Merlin, with which to beat his main competition, the Beechcraft King Air.
Originally, the Merlin was envisaged as a project to build three aircraft out of one fuselage: a piston model, a turboprop and a jet. The fuselage was designed as a cylinder that could be mated to different nose and tail configurations and could be easily lengthened if necessary. A highly aerodynamic nose was also designed to give best performance.
The Merlin I was to be fitted with twin Lycoming piston engines and a four seat cabin but problems with the engines meant that no Merlin Is were ever built. The Merlin II had two Pratt & Whitney PT6 and later two Garrett TPE331 turboprops and these become the first of a series of successful variants. The Merlin II first flew in 1965 and entered production in 1966. It was a little faster than the King Air and had a slightly longer range. But it was a bit late for Biggles, even though it had all the attributes Biggles needed for his mission. Production of the Merlin culminated in the Merlin IV which ended production in 1987. Even today Merlins are considered by pilots to be superlative aircraft, combining speed, range and comfort.
Note that the Merlin in the infobox is that of a Merlin III as images of Merlin IIs are difficult to come by. The Merlin III was a later variant built in the 1970s. The Merlin II would have been nearer Biggles' time. The Merlin III differed by having a longer nose and differently shaped engine nacelles. The tail is also set higher up in a cruciform pattern. In a Merlin II, the tail was set along the midline of the fuselage. Interestingly, the illustrators of 1975 edition of Biggles' Special Case and the 1981 edition of Biggles Sorts It Out both drew a Merlin III!
Biggles and the MerlinEdit
Biggles' Special CaseEdit
The Merlin makes its debut and takes centrestage in Biggles' Special Case as it was the extraordinary circumstances and operational constraints of the case which led to the new aircraft being added to the Air Police inventory. In the event, Biggles and his crew made full use of the capabilities of the range and speed of the aircraft. Besides using the comfortable cabin to transport a princess, they also found the refrigerator very useful in the hot desert climate.
There is only one incongruity. During the take-off sequence in chapter 8, Johns says "the tail ploughed" and "Biggles felt the tail lift", all suggesting the Merlin was a tail-wheeler. Perhaps Johns was merely being careless. Almost all modern utility aircraft in the 1960s had tricycle undercarriages.
Biggles Sorts It OutEdit
The Merlin makes its second appearance in Biggles Sorts It Out where its range is put to good use in searching the Kalahari desert.
Biggles and the Penitent ThiefEdit
In Biggles and the Penitent Thief, the Merlin was the transatlantic conveyance for Biggles and co. to Labrador, Canada. With its range it might have just about done it non stop but Biggles took the precaution of doing it in stages, landing in Iceland and Greenland.
Biggles and the Little Green GodEdit
Biggles and the Little Green God was probably the last outing for the Merlin. The high altitude performance proved useful for scaling the Andes and the toilet, galley and larder were welcome facilities when Biggles, Algy and some survivors of an air crash were stranded by fog on a high mountain plateau. Again, there is the suggestion that the Merlin is a tail-wheeler in the description of the final breathtaking takeoff from the plateau in poor visibility and while under attack.
(figures are given for the Merlin II)
- Crew: 2
- Payload: up to 8 passengers (exactly as described in the books)
- Cruise speed: 295 mph (475 km/h)
- Maximum Range: 1,785 miles (2,872 km)