When Tony once pointed out that my post on the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar generated more comments that any of the Grogflog reviews, I realised that it wasn’t culture you mob were interested in but punch-ups and war machines.
So with the kind of swift and decisive action characteristic of all great commanders, I now present three and half years later another post on military history and technology. A homage to the second most beautiful machine ever to take the skies – the Avro Vulcan.
It’s a remarkable aircraft and not just because of its looks. It represented an amazing technological leap forward, one of England’s greatest writers trained to fly it and its first combat missions were also its last.
However a certain operational research “Never mind the science Prof, how does it actually work?” attitude was never far away during the Vulcan’s development. Like strapping a photographer to the front landing gear to take photos during the brake-testing phase – while taxiing at full landing speed. Or like Roly Falk taking the Vulcan up for its first demonstration flights and rolling the 200,000 lbs, 100 ft wingspan monster while properly attired in tweed suit and tie.
Despite, or perhaps because of this, the chaps at Avro came up with an absolute masterpiece of a plane. Yes, the Vulcan’s V-bomber stable mates, the Handley Page Victor and Vickers Valiant also had an ineffable Dan Dare charm about them but neither could match the Vulcan for sheer futuristic beauty. Not to mention Avro had also unwittingly stumbled across one of the secrets of stealth technology twenty-five years before the yanks. The smooth delta profile proved to have an extremely low radar cross section, later echoed in the design of the B-2 Spirit.
Also worth noting here is that the Bristol Olympus jet engines developed for the Vulcan ended up also powering Concorde, the third most beautiful plane of all time.
The Vulcan also handled superbly, more like a fighter than a bomber with reports of it out-turning F-15 Eagles during exercises. An example of how well it flew was its famous leap off the runway like it was homesick for the sky.
Perhaps this was why J.G. Ballard joined the RAF to, as he said, fly a Vulcan “with a splinter of the sun in its belly”. However he dropped out after primary flight training at a NATO flying school in Canada. Interesting to think though that in an alternative world, the author of ‘Crash’, ‘High Rise’ and ‘Cocaine Nights’ could have been piloting one of these beasts across the Arctic wastes to vapourise Murmansk with a Blue Danube nuclear bomb. Could be a book in it Jim.
Another design peculiarity of the Vulcan was how the shape of the air intakes generated a distinctive wailing moan during takeoff. This may not have had much practical application but I bet it bucked the erks up no end as they watched their charges thunder down the runway. “Oh yeah baby!”
But during the fast evolving technological landscape of the cold war, the Vulcan struggled to find a lasting strategic application. Originally designed to fly high and fast (and painted white to help reflect the heat flash from its nuclear payload), the Vulcan performed so well that during the 1961 SKYSHIELD exercise to test the US’s air defence systems, one Vulcan, supported by some virtuoso ECM action by three of its mates, pulled off a completely undetected mock attack on New York. Undetected that is except by the presence of rowdy RAF bomber crews in local bars afterwards.
However the Vulcan soon became outmatched by new generations of high-altitude interceptors and missiles so the RAF reconfigured it as a low level bomber instead to scoot underneath the Russkie radar, camouflaged like its ancestor the Lancaster with an abstract evocation of a green and pleasant land. This role turned out to be a great fit for the Vulcan’s brilliant flying characteristics, to the point where bits of vegetation were found caught in control surfaces, where one brought down a powerline by flying up into it and where a photo was displayed at Nellis AFB after a RED FLAG exercise of the furrow left in the Nevada desert by the wingtip of a banking Vulcan that survived with no more than a touch up of paint. Try that with a B-52.
Once again though technology outstripped the Vulcan. The low-level penetration bomber role, lugging around a WE 177B nuke, could be better performed by aircraft like the Panavia Tornado while the Senior Service was now well tooled up for the deterrent role with their Chevaline-enhanced Polaris system.
(A fun diversion here. Chevaline was a UK project to boost the ability of Polaris missiles to evade Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile defences, masterminded by a British boffin who was also one of the world’s leading authorities on Morris dancing. A quote from Francis Spufford’s ‘Backroom Boys’ – “These Morris men came dancing up the street, led by this big fat bloke in a kind of Andy Pandy outfit, who was bopping people on the head with a pig’s bladder – and I said to my wife, “Sweetheart, you won’t believe me but that man is one of the brains behind Britain’s nuclear defence.”)
And by now the Vulcans were getting old, fatigued and a bit cranky and the decision was taken to retire the fleet in the early 80s without it ever having been used in anger. Then the Falklands War happened.
While the RN and the Army scrambled around assembling a taskforce, the RAF, feeling a wee bit left out, proposed some long range bombing raids. The arguments were a) cratering the Port Stanley runway and taking out radar systems would deprive the Argentineans of a lot of local air superiority and anti-craft capability, b) if the RAF could reach the Falklands, then it could also reach Argentina, which would provide some food for thought for Galtieri and co and c) the UK armed forces would be seen to be doing something at least while the taskforce got its shit together – Immediate action! Always a key issue for politicians.
So the RAF put together Operation Black Buck based around Britain’s last operational heavy bomber, the Vulcan. It was simple in concept. A bunch of Vulcans would fly from the UK to Ascension Island, load up with twenty-one 1000 lbs general-purpose bombs, drop them on the Argies and fly back.
Except for the fact the last leg would involve a return flight of around 12,000 kms through some of the world’s most inhospitable skies in planes well overdue for retirement and which learnt to shave before many of their crew.
Undaunted, and no doubt inspired by memories of Barnes-Wallis and Biggles, the RAF went ahead anyway. Under canvas on Ascension, blokes in Bombay bloomers (shorts, tropical, for use of, RAF) that exposed their knobbly knees developed intricate in-flight refueling plans that involved up to 11 Victor tankers per mission shifting kerosene between each other and the Vulcans in flight down the long stormy South Atlantic like some hi-octane version of pass the parcel while back in the UK, erks frantically worked to remove the speed governors from the Vulcan’s Bristol Olympus 301 engines, renovated bomb racks and reinstalled refueling systems, which involved at one point “foraging” for extra parts in stealthy raids on display Vulcans at museums and airparks. (I think that last sentence needed in-flight refueling too.)
And it worked. Sort of. Five Black Buck raids were conducted, the longest bombing missions to that time, with all targets being hit and without any loss of RAF personnel. Although one Vulcan had to divert to Rio after its in-flight refueling probe broke. There the plane and crew were interned for nine apparently very hospitable days before being returned by Brazilian authorities impressed by the RAF’s élan and amused by the discomfort of their belligerent Southern neighbour.
Tactically, the merits of Black Buck are debatable. Strategically it led to the Argentineans keeping some their best fighters on the mainland in case Vulcans appeared over Buenos Aires. And sent a clear message the Brits were taking the whole thing very seriously indeed.
And for the Vulcan, it was a fitting end. The fleet was retired shortly afterwards as a bunch of clapped-out old warhorses who showed at last they could do it when it mattered. Thank god though they never had to carry out the original mission for which they were designed.
But let us at least thank Sir Roy Chadwick and his Avro team for creating one of the most beautiful machines ever to slip the surly bonds of earth.
134 Vulcans were built and today only one remains flying.
One day I hope to see it personally roar overhead with a Supermarine Spitfire at its wingtip. The first most beautiful aircraft ever built. But that, as they say, is another story.