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Vulcan

Eight years and counting since the famous Vulcan Howl was last heard

IN a recent engagement at Farnborough, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s speech made reference to an aircraft he remembered from his childhood, a titan of the skies that performed at the world-famous airshow, most notably back in 1955. 

Vulcan B.1 XA890 in early silver scheme landing at Farnborough in September 1955 after Roly Falk's "aerobatic" display

(Roly Falk landing Vulcan B.1 XA890 at Farnborough in September 1955 after the "aerobatic" display)

It was the world’s first delta-winged bomber, and the infamous barrel roll performed by Roly Falk announced the arrival of the aircraft into the public psyche, albeit three years after the first prototype had debuted at Farnborough in 1952.

The Vulcan was the stand-out design of the RAF’s V-force, the triumvirate of planes that carried Britain’s nuclear deterrent, with the Vickers Valiant and the Handley Page Victor serving alongside the Avro Vulcan.

Avro Vulcan - Last Flight over Farnborough 11th October 2015

(Avro Vulcan XH558 during the last flight over Farnborough on 11th October 2015)

Sixty years after that barrel roll, the Vulcan was back at Farnborough in 2015 wowing the crowds, but that would prove to be the swansong of XH558, currently in storage at Doncaster Sheffield Airport; its current home proving a fitting location, the site formerly RAF Finningley, one of several V-bomber stations located across the UK. 

The first Vulcan Farnborough flight in 1952 saw 698 Prototype VX770 piloted by the same Roly Falk, five years after work had begun to find what the Ministry of Supply requested: A medium range bomber landplane capable of carrying one 10,000lb bomb to a target 1500 nautical miles from a base which may be anywhere in the world.

The Avro company were the first out of the blocks, the firm founded in Manchester in 1910 by pilot and aviation pioneer, Alliott Verdon Roe. In the late 1940s, its technical director, Roy Chadwick, and chief designer, Stuart Davies, immediately saw a conventional design would not satisfy the requirements, with the delta wing pioneered by German aeronautical engineer Alex Lippisch the answer – Lippisch had been commandeered into service by the US after WW2.

The initial design submitted had four large turbojets stacked in pairs, two buried in the wings close to the fuselage, with the positioning of the engines and shortened fuselage allowing a larger space to be reserved for internal equipment and payload.

Tragedy struck with an early prototype, Chadwick killed when Tudor 2 G-AGSU crashed on takeoff from Woodford, Sir William Farren succeeding him. Work continued over several years to fine tune the design, culminating in Falk’s Farnborough barrel-roll, a stunt that saw him ordered to appear before civil aviation authorities where he was told not to repeat such a ‘dangerous’ manoeuvre.

 Vulcan B.2 XH534 of 230 Operational Conversion Unit in 1971

 (Vulcan B.2 XH534 of 230 Operational Conversion Unit in 1971)

Less than a year later, No. 230 Operational Conversion Unit, OCU, took delivery of the first Vulcans to enter RAF service. At full power, the aircraft could hit a top speed approaching 700mph, just short of Mach 1, and could cruise at 567mph. Its sleek aerodynamic profile gave it a small radar cross section, providing an impressive amount of stealth, and it was fitted with a comprehensive suite of avionics and electronic systems: H2S radar with nose-mounted scanner, the first-ever airborne ground scanning radar system. Later models were fitted with a flight refuelling probe which came in handy during its most famous operation in 1982.

An early setback occurred in October 1956 when the first Vulcan to be delivered crashed at London Heathrow after returning from a promotional tour of Australia and New Zealand. While attempting to land in bad weather, Vulcan B.1 XA897 was told it was coming in too high and over compensated, the tail hitting the ground around 700 metres short of the runway. An attempt to climb revealed it to be unresponsive so an order was given to abandon the aircraft, however, with only the pilots having ejector seats, they survived while the other four occupants were killed when the Vulcan broke up on impact.

From the late 1950s through to the 1980s, the Vulcan was integral to the RAF’s Cold War operations, providing an airborne nuclear deterrent, with an operational decision in the 1960s seeing nine of the aircraft adapted for maritime reconnaissance. The first Vulcan Squadron was No. 83, operating the aircraft until 1969; they were soon followed by No. 101 and No. 607 Squadrons, with the 60s seeing the aircraft operated by a further six squadrons – Vulcans were based at number of stations in the UK and also at Akrotiri in Cyprus from 1969-75. 

With its primary role to deliver nuclear bombs on enemy soil, it is perhaps reassuring that its only wartime operation was using conventional weapons during the Falklands conflict.

In April 1982, shortly after the Argentinean army had invaded the Falkland Islands, a decision was made to bomb Port Stanley airfield on the Islands, the Vulcan deemed the most suitable aircraft to carry out the mission. Unfortunately, as you couldn’t land a Vulcan on an aircraft carrier, the starting point was Wideawake Airfield, Ascension Island, a small matter of nearly 4,000 miles from the target.

A Vulcan flying over Ascension Island on 18 May 1982

(A Vulcan flying over Ascension Island on 18 May 1982)

With the help of a fleet of Victor tankers for refuelling, Operation Black Buck One was launched on April 30, 1982, the longest bombing mission in history at the time, dropping 21 1000lb bombs, one registering a direct hit. Seven Black Buck missions were carried out, only five being completed, with the RAF demonstrating that they were able to penetrate Argentinian defences with long range bombers, and any aircraft located on the island would be at risk of being destroyed.

It later emerged that the Argentinean military junta had approached the UK government in September 1981 requesting to buy 12 Vulcans, with consideration given to the proposal before it was pointed out that they could be used to attack the Falklands. 

In their later lives, six Vulcans were converted for tanker duties before sufficient VC10s were available to cover the role, and by 1984 their service was coming to a close, the last Vulcan squadron, No. 50, disbanded on March 31 that year. The RAF retained several aircraft for display purposes for several years, with XH558 proving to be the last airworthy example – fears now that the famous Vulcan ‘Howl’ will never be heard again.

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