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Blackburn Buccaneer

The predecessor to the Harrier that served two arms of the military with distinction

WHEN it comes to aircraft operated by both the RAF and the Royal Navy, the first that springs to mind for those of a certain age is the Harrier.

But the Harrier was predominantly a land-based jet, its naval credentials burnished during the Falklands War in 1982 where it proved essential in offering protection to the troops of the Task Force sent to the South Atlantic to remove the Argentinean invaders.

It was more than 20 years before HMS Invincible or HMS Hermes had even seen a Harrier that the call went out to aircraft manufacturers to build a carrier-based strike aircraft.
Concerns were growing due to the rapid expansion of the Soviet navy, the requirement being for jets stationed and operating from Royal Navy vessels; aircraft flying at speeds in excess of 600mph with a combat radius approaching 500 miles.

A 700Z Sqn Buccaneer S.1 at RNAS Lossiemouth in 1961

(A 700Z Sqn Buccaneer S.1 at RNAS Lossiemouth in 1961)

The result was Yorkshire-based aircraft manufacturer Blackburn producing the two-crew Buccaneer as a replacement for the Supermarine Scimitar which had been operating from Royal Navy vessels since the early 1950s. But Blackburn had a wider usage planned for their new aircraft, bosses at the firm keen to see the RAF follow their naval counterparts and embrace the jet.

The new jet gained the nickname of the ‘banana bomber’ – Blackburn advanced naval aircraft, BANA – but despite the Buccaneer cementing its role with the Royal Navy once its de Havilland engines had been replaced with Rolls-Royce Speys, the RAF were resistant to its charms. They had initially rejected the Buccaneer as a potential replacement for the Canberra, instead opting BAC’s TSR.2, but when that project was cancelled and plans for the American F-111K proved overly expensive, the RAF effectively had the Buccaneers foisted upon them.

In 1968 it was decided that the RAF would adopt the Buccaneer, both new builds with massively increased fuel capacity and those retired from the Fleet Air Arm: the building of the new variants and the conversions of the former Navy versions was carried out by Hawker Siddeley, the firm having absorbed the Blackburn company in the early 1960s.
RAF Buccaneer S.2B of No. 12 Squadron in 1987

(RAF Buccaneer S.2B of No. 12 Squadron in 1987)

The first unit operating the ‘new’ jets was No. 12 Squadron based at RAF Honington in October 1969, with Nos. 15, 16, 208, 216, and No. 237 Operation Conversion Unit, OCU, following in the early 1970s, the Buccaneer’s strike role accompanied by a payload comprising WE.177 nuclear weapons. Assigned to Supreme Allied Commander Europe, SACEUR, their ultimate task to support the land forces opposing the Warsaw Pact military might – No. 12 Squadron was assigned separate maritime strike duties.

The Buccaneer’s qualities became evident in the 1970s during the US’s Red Flag operations, a programme that started in 1975 at Nellis Air Force base in Nevada – the USAF and its allies taking part in realistic air combat exercises. The RAF accepted an invitation in 1977, 10 Buccaneers and two Vulcans involved, the Buccaneer impressing with its accuracy in low level attacks and its ability to infiltrate ‘enemy’ defences.

The jet’s ability to fly so close to the ground was ideal on the desert terrain of Nevada, making it almost impossible for ‘enemy’ forces to get a ‘kill’ during the exercises; RAF crew regularly spent the debrief waiting for confirmation of how the Buccaneer had evaded all defensive artillery.

However, when taking part in February 1980, a Buccaneer crashed after losing its starboard outer wing mid-flight, both of the crew from XV Squadron, based at Laarbruch, killed. Investigations revealed that a fatigue crack in the front spar caused the wing to fail, resulting in the entire Buccaneer fleet being grounded – investigations revealed that many Buccaneer spars were similarly cracked requiring repair, a total of 60 receiving new spar rings.

Those with more severe issues regarding wing fatigue were scrapped, resulting in the disbandment of 216 Squadron, and it took until August 1980 for a full envelope clearance for the aircraft, with a number of modifications made. Later that year the Buccaneer squadrons moved to Lossiemouth, with Honington earmarked for Tornado squadrons.

With the Tornado being assigned most of the strike duties of the Buccaneer, the last two squadrons – 12 and 208 – switched to maritime operations, but No. 237 OCU remained on long-term assignment to SACEUR.

A Victor of 55 Squadron refuelling a Tornado GR1 and Buccaneer S2 on their way to a target during Operation Granby.

(A Victor of 55 Squadron refuelling a Tornado GR1 and Buccaneer S2 on their way to a target during Operation Granby)

The end of service for the jet came in the early 1990s but not before it was pressed into action in the first Gulf War, the Buccaneers departing from Scotland in January 1991. The fleet heading over to Iraq were famously given a makeover, sporting an ARTF (Akali Removal Temporary Finish) – best described as desert pink.

Attack formations of four Tornados and two Buccaneers were routinely deployed on missions, proving successful against targets such as bridges and airfields, with XX894 the only Buccaneer in the Gulf War to destroy another aircraft: returning home from a sortie over the Iraqi airfield, Shaykh Mazhar, an Antonov AN-12 taxiing was taken out.

The return home following Gulf War service coincided with the end of the Cold War, with the Buccaneer one of the victims as the tension between West and East greatly diminished. Extensive modernisation of the fleet had continued until 1989, but a decision was made to upgrade the role of the Tornado GR1s to carry the Sea Eagle missile, taking over the maritime strike mission.

Squadrons operating the Buccaneer were quickly re-equipped with the Tornado and by 1993, 208 Squadron became the sole remaining operator of the jet – the final Buccaneers withdrawn from service in March 1994.

There are many Buccaneers still available to view at aviation museums across the UK but none in flying condition, though three are believed to be in an airworthy state at the famous Thunder City company in Cape Town, South Africa. Gulf War veteran XX894 was carrying out taxi runs until recently, and is now housed at Cotswold Airport, located at Kemble near Cirencester.

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