At the end of WW2, when the United States refused to share in the nuclear secrets that had enabled the USA to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki to such effect, Britain saw the need to develop its own nuclear bomb – and a fleet of bombers to deliver it. One of those was one of the most distinctive shapes in the sky – the Avro Vulcan, with its amazing delta shape and incredible performance and agility. As the last airworthy Vulcan approaches retirement this summer, let’s review this remarkable aircraft.
The Vulcan originated as one of three responses to a Royal Air Force (RAF) specification in 1947 for a bomber capable of carrying a single 10,000lb bomb at 580mph to a target up to 1,700 miles from base, and releasing it from a height of up to 50,000ft. Development was, until his death in a test flight of the Avro Tudor, led by Sir Roy Chadwick, architect of the war winning Avro Lancaster just 5 years earlier
The inspiration for the delta wing came from captured German rocket research, in the knowledge that existing technology was incapable of meeting the RAF’s needs.
The first Vulcan prototype, known then as Type 698 and serial VX770, flew in 1952 – already one year behind the original service date called for in 1947.
The wing shape was still work in progress, however, and VX770 had straight wing leading edges.
The distinctive Vulcan curved leading edge appeared on the production Vulcan B1 in 1955, along with 4 Bristol Olympus engines in place of the prototype’s Rolls-Royce Avons.
The Olympus was a mighty jet engine – it originated in 1946, as a product of the Bristol Aero Engines company; the Vulcan was its first and most prolific installation. The secret to the Olympus’ success was an innovative ‘two-spool’ design, which accelerated the process of compression and thus of the plane’s acceleration. Early versions were tested in an English Electric Canberra, which reached world record heights for a jet, at over 65,000ft, in 1955. An Olympus was first fitted to a Vulcan in 1953, producing 9,250lb/ft of thrust from each of four engines. The production Vulcan B1 used a further development with 11,000 lb/ft; the Olympus 202 fitted to the Vulcan B2 of 1959 gave 17,000 lb/ft.
Subsequently it was chosen for the proposed multi-purpose BAC TSR2 jet and ultimately powered Concorde to Mach 2, after Bristol was acquired by Rolls-Royce in 1966, who continued to develop the Olympus. For Concorde, Rolls-Royce and French partner SNECMA produced the Olympus 593 with 37,000 lb/ft and the only afterburners in commercial aviation. A Vulcan was used for test and development work of the Concorde installation.
Production of the Vulcan ran from 1952 to 1958; squadron service began in 1957. 134 Vulcans were built – all at the Avro factory in Woodford, Manchester, the home of the Lancaster. The 45 production Vulcan B1 were 97ft long, with a wingspan of 99ft, and a range of over 2,500 miles at up to 600mph. From 1959, Woodford produced 89 Vulcan B2, with larger, thinner wings, a still more powerful version of the Olympus and improved electronics; wingspan grew to 111ft, and length to 106ft.
A Victor refuels a Vulcan
The B2 also had the capability to receive fuel in flight, from a tanker trailing a drogue that engaged with a probe on the nose of the Vulcan after some delicate manoeuvring – not for the faint-hearted!
By May 1957, the first Vulcan squadron, no 83, was formed and in service at RAF Waddington, one of the many RAF WW2 bomber bases in Lincolnshire.
Alongside Avro, two of Britain’s many other plane builders submitted designs, which emerged as the Handley Page Victor and the Vickers Valiant – the RAF was not confident enough in the new technology to put all its eggs in one basket. The Victor was a huge and graceful crescent winged jet, with a great glassy nose, looking just as futuristic in 1955 as the Vulcan, and powered by 4 Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire jets. The Valiant was a more conventional bomber in appearance, with high wings concealing 4 Rolls-Royce Avon engines buried in the wing root. By 1964, 134 Vulcans, 107 Valiants and 86 Victors had been built, carrying a succession of British atomic bombs with names such as Blue Danube, Red Beard and Yellow Sun, and known across the country as the ‘V Force’.
The V bomber force took on the role of delivering NATO’s nuclear response to a ground invasion of West Germany, through precision bombing of Warsaw Pact air defences, command and control systems and reserve forces in East Germany and Poland – flying from the UK, they could be over these targets several hours before the USAF B52s.
This role meant the V bombers had to develop the precision navigation and bombing skills that had characterised RAF Bomber Command by the end of WW2. The Vulcan excelled in this role. It had phenomenal rates of climbing and acceleration, even by contemporary fighter standards, given the power in the four Olympus engines. Anyone who has ever seen a Vulcan take-off will attest to the steep , banking climb and ear splitting howl, caused by the complex curves needed for the jet’s plumbing.
You can’t do this in a B52!
The plane was also incredibly agile for a big bomber – on its first appearance at the Farnborough Air Show (Britain’s premier showcase for the aerospace industry), the Avro test pilot completed a full 360 degree barrel roll in front of amazed crowds. He then repeated the trick over the factory – and flew so low, all the factory windows were shattered! Avro had fitted a fighter plane joystick rather than a traditional bomber –style control yoke, to allow pilots to exploit this agility.
The Vulcan had a crew of 5 – a pilot and co-pilot, who were lucky enough to have ejector seats; a Navigator Plotter, responsible for long distance navigation; a Navigator Radar who managed the plane over the target and dropped the bombload; and an Air Electronics Officer (AEO), who oversaw the electronic systems used to block and confuse enemy radar and air defences – the Vulcan flew too high for conventional defensive weapons to be of any value. The 2 pilots worked in the cramped cockpit that gives the Vulcan its distinctive profile; the other 3 crewmen were behind and below, and dependent on jumping through the crew door in the underside of the fuselage and a parachutes if they needed to escape. The whole crew cabin was pressurised.
By the early 1960s, Britain had a fleet of 200 nuclear capable bombers on permanent alert for Warsaw Pact attack. Throughout its nuclear career, the Vulcan was the key component of Britain’s Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) force – bombers ready to react to any Soviet threat by taking off with nuclear weapons within two minutes of an alert. The huge jets stood at dispersal points on Lincolnshire and East Anglian airfields, with crews waiting in huts alongside, fully suited. The Vulcans were specifically designed for this role, and needed minimum ground crew support to start the engines. Within two minutes of an order to ‘scramble’, jets would be in the air. This needed training and practice, of course, and demonstrating the capability was a favourite RAF treat for visiting air forces and governments – including the Russians. Deterrence has to be real to be credible!
From 1963, the development of better Soviet air defences forced the RAF to switch from high level strikes, relying on speed and height for safety, to the other extreme – bombers would have to fly at below 200ft across Europe to deliver their nuclear bombloads. Increasingly, the bombs became stand-off missiles – the Vulcans would streak across Europe at low level, shoot up to 20,000 feet, fire the missile that would then head for a target up to 100miles away, while the bomber turned and dived for home. This was too much for the Valiants – their airframes could not cope with the stresses of low level flight, and they were withdrawn, and the less agile Victors were turned into air-to-air refuelling tankers (but, crucially as we shall see, tankers that could receive as well as provide fuel) – only the Vulcan had the strength, power and agility to adapt. This brought a change in paint scheme for the Vulcan, from anti-flash white (intended to protect the plane from the flash of a nuclear bomb) to green and brown camouflage.
From 1968, the V force was replaced by the Royal Navy’s 4 Resolution class nuclear submarines equipped with Polaris ICBM missiles purchased from the USA. Technology had moved on, and the submarine approach offered significant cost savings – in the early 1960s, Britain was spending an unsustainable 10% of GDP on defence; today we struggle to get to 2%. The RAF’s Vulcans were reassigned to a conventional bombing role, still at low level.
Of course, not everyone in Britain loved the Vulcan and its ilk. Right from the mid-1950s, Britain has had a vocal anti-nuclear lobby, focused on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The level of opposition peaked in the mid-1950s, with famous protest marches from the Aldermaston nuclear research base to London, 50 miles away, drawing large crowds (including my parents) and in the 1980s, when the Thatcher government was commissioning the Trident submarines to replace the life expired Polaris boats.
But the Yanks loved them! Vulcans were regular visitors to USAF airbases (such as this one at Bergstrom, near Austin, Texas), for exchange visits, NATO exercises and inter-force bombing competitions – in which they regularly beat the USAF. There are even anecdotes of Vulcans being flown along the Grand Canyon – below the rim!
Happily, Vulcans never saw conflict in Europe. And, by the early 1980s, they were obsolete and slated for withdrawal and replacement by the Panavia Tornado. But circumstances gave them a final chance to write history. In April 1982, Argentina seized control of the Falkland (or Malvinas) Islands in the south Atlantic from its nominal British garrison, and claimed sovereignty over the islands. We won’t take sides in the argument here on CC, but we will recount how a 30 year bomber designed to fly nuclear bombs to Leningrad ended up dropping conventional bombs on a simple airstrip at the other end of the world.
Before despatching the planes south, however, the RAF had to make good years of gentle neglect. Inflight refuelling equipment had to be sourced and refitted, and crews trained in its use, and engines overhauled and conventional bombing equipment installed. Navigation equipment and electronic counter measure pods were cannibalised from other aircraft such as Vickers VC10’s and Blackburn Buccaneers to enable the Vulcans to cross sea rather than land. Finally, on 28 April, 5 Vulcans were deployed to Ascension – a friend still recalls driving, by chance, past RAF Scampton near Lincoln one spring morning, and stopping to watch in awe as 5 Vulcans departed in turn for war in the South Atlantic – each 2.5 tons over its stated take-off weight with additional fuel and equipment, and a refuelling instructor added to the crew
Ascension Island, May 1982
On 30 April, Vulcans XM598 and XM607 took off from Ascension, supported by 11 Victors with 2 more in reserve, to support a complex refuelling plan that would take one Victor far enough south to give one Vulcan enough fuel to reach the Falklands and return northwards for more refuelling on the way home. XM598 returned immediately, with pressurisation problems, leaving XM607, nominally the reserve bomber, to lead the formation south. After 9 hours in the air, XM607 made a successful surprise attack on Part Stanley airfield, dropping to 300 ft over the South Atlantic to get under Argentine radar, then roaring up to 10,000 ft for the bombing run, and began a perilous return to Ascension, with fuel consumption running ahead of expectations and the challenge of finding a Victor tanker over the Atlantic. Overall, the mission took 15 hours. However despite hitting the target, the raid was of limited military value – Argentine Hercules C130’s could still use the airfield – and subsequent repeat raids failed to fully deny it to the Argentinians. It did however have great propaganda and morale value, both in Britain and in Argentina.
Today, only one Vulcan is still flying – the privately preserved and restored B2 XM558 – and she will retire to ground display only in September 2015. XH558 was completed in July 1960, and was the first B2 to enter RAF service, and the last Vulcan to leave. From 1986 to 1993, she led the RAF Vulcan Display Team, and then passed into private ownership in an unairworthy state. A period of fundraising from 1998 by the non-profit Vulcan to the Sky Trust, plus funds from the UK’s National Lottery, enabled restoration to flying condition to start in 2005, and in 2007, after 14 years on the ground and £7m, XH558 flew again.
Since then, she has been a regular on the British airshow circuit, and a hugely popular performer. Knowing her days were limited, the Trust made sterling efforts to ensure the Vulcan was seen all around the UK. And, on one memorable day last summer, she flew alongside the only 2 flying Lancasters in the world, over the city of Lincoln, spiritual home of the RAF bomber.
Finally, in 2014 it was confirmed that the airframe’s hours and the scarcity of key parts and expertise meant that summer 2015 would be the last time an Avro Vulcan would fly. She’s going out with a flourish, though, with a full schedule of displays right through the summer. Then, she will form the centrepiece of a new educational centre, focusing on technical and engineering skills that saw their finest flourish in the Vulcan, and which Britain has carelessly allowed to decay over the last 50 years.
We can be sure, however, that the Vulcan will not be allowed to decay in the same way.
And she certainly isn’t going quietly – but then the Vulcan doesn’t do quietly!