If you only know the name of one of the V-Bombers, it’s likely to be that of the Avro Vulcan. There are any number of solid, quantifiable reasons why this should be the case of course, but as is so often the case with machines that truly become part of the public conscious, the best one is far harder to quantify – presence. That might sound a bit abstract for a machine designed to rain down fiery death upon Soviet cities, but that’s the nature of the beast – literally.
Anyone who’s ever stood beneath a Vulcan, let alone anyone who’s had the good fortune of seeing one fly over, will attest to the mix of emotions conjured by this plane. It’s hard not to feel a little unnerved when stood beneath that massive delta wing, with the sunlight almost totally obscured and the cavernous bomb bay open, doors bared like a set of gnashing jaws; it really isn’t hard to see where the Vulcan’s nickname, the ‘tin triangle,’ arose.
The Vulcan was the most ambitious of the three V-Bombers and as such was the last to enter service, the first squadron (83) forming in 1956. The reason for this extended development period was, at least principally, that delta wing. While a fairly commonplace feature on jets these days this was emphatically not the case when the Vulcan was first sketched out in the 1950s, an era still defined by straight winged, first generation jets like the Gloster Meteor.
‘Belter Of A Delta’
The plane might have looked markedly different, but it was built to fulfil the same brief: it had to lug 10,000lb of ordnance a full 1,700 miles, with a cruising speed of 580mph and at heights of between 35,000 and 50,000 feet. Doing all this using early 1950s tech was no mean feat, which is why Avro went with its radical wing design.
There were a whole host of other, superb reasons for persevering with the delta wing however, not least its ability to mix immense lift while also promoting relatively low takeoff and landing speeds, both of crucial importance for a bomber intended to fly near the speed of sound while skirting the upper limit of the atmosphere.
The delta wing would come into its own when the V-Force was forced into a change of role in the mid ‘60s, where it was found that the Vulcan’s wing made it uniquely suited to low altitude work and far more resistant to the increased metal fatigue such flying entails. The Vulcan’s resistance to fatigue meant that it lived longer as a bomber than either of its V-Force siblings, the last planes being retired from active service in 1984!
Its operating window might have changed with the advancement of Soviet ground-to-air missiles but the Vulcan was still intended to be a nuclear strike aircraft, and as such it was equipped to carry the Yellow Sun and Red Beard freefall bombs, and later the Blue Steel stand-off missile. There was even a protracted discussion about the viability of the Phase Six ‘Heavy’ variant equipped with 6 of the aborted Skybolt missile from US, not to mention an increased size and wing area.
It might never have been used for its intended purpose (and thank god for that), but the Vulcan’s long career saw it notch up some impressive feats, not least its trips across the Atlantic to the USA.
‘Operation Sky Shield’
The first such instance occurred in 1961 and saw eight Vulcans taking part in Operation Sky Shield, a massive simulated strike against key targets in the USA. Half of these planes flew from Scotland, the other half from a British base in Bermuda, and while one aircraft was intercepted and ‘destroyed’ by an F101 Voodoo, all seven of the other Vulcans hit their targets and made it back to base. Needless to say, the patchy results of Sky Shield made for grim reading from as US perspective, and they were classified until 1997.
Then, in 1977, the RAF returned to the US to take part in a Red Flag exercise. Red Flag is effectively the US Air Force’s answer to the US Navy’s Top Gun, a programme setup following their sub-par performance against Russian MIG 21s in the early years of the Vietnam war. The RAF were the first air force of another nation invited to partake in a Red Flag exercise and as such the arrival of the British Vulcans and Blackburn Buccaneers was greeted with great interest by the Americans.
Not that the cordial welcome extended by the RAF’s hosts prevented them from eyeing up the British jets with something approaching scorn, especially those Americans fortunate enough to have been entrusted with the then new F15 Eagle. It was generally thought that the lumbering delta and the dumpy looking low-level strike bomber would be easy pickings for the box-fresh 4thgen fighter, but that’s not quite how it panned out.
The Buccaneers were able to give a good account of themselves right away thanks to their ability to fly incredibly close to the deck, far lower than the US airmen felt comfortable doing – or were even permitted to. The Vulcan’s proved equally troublesome for very much the same reason; Vulcan crews were rightly proud of their ability to skim the ‘tin triangle’ along the ground at tree-top height, and the result was that at least one scored a direct, simulated strike on the designated target. Not bad for a bomber penned a good 25 years previously.
The ultimate egg-on-face moment has since passed into RAF folklore and involved both British jets working in tandem to outfox an F5. The US jet had picked out a low flying Vulcan and had dived down to intercept, at which point a pair of ‘Bucs’ emerged from under its delta and sped off to strike the target!
‘Operation Black Buck’
Even without its grim purpose, its starring role at Red Flag 77-9 or its immense presence, the Vulcan was always destined to be an aero-icon, though this was put beyond doubt through its performance in the Falklands War and the infamous ‘Black Buck’ raids.
The geography of the Falklands presented the British armed forces with a challenge, namely how best to hit back at the Argentine forces despite being on the other side of the globe. Ark Royal and her contingent of harriers had already been dispatched to the South Atlantic but the distances involved meant that it would take the task force several weeks to arrive. This, and the need to knock out some of Argentina’s more potent defence measures, prompted ‘Black Buck,’ a long-haul strike against the strategically significant Port Stanley airfield, carried out by a Vulcan – XM607.
The logistics of such a mission were mind-boggling for any number of reasons, not least the need for the Vulcan to refuel several times on its long, 6,300km jaunt across the Atlantic from the RAF base at Ascension Island to the Falklands archipelago. The Vulcan had been designed with air-to-air inflight refuelling in mind, though it had lost this capability over a decade previously when its nuclear role was transferred to the Royal Navy.
Retrofitting the Vulcan to accommodate the drogue and probe refueling system was, if anything, the easy bit – the crew now had to re-learn, then perfect the skill. After all, they’d be required to carry out the procedure 8 times over the duration of the mission. Doing so would also tax the RAF’s fleet of Victor tankers and their crews, none of who had flown in the Southern Atlantic before and who were more accustomed to topping up Tornadoes defending the UK from Soviet bombers.
The complete story of how the first Black Buck raid came to pass is too long and winding a tale to recount here, but it’s worth pointing out that both the Vulcan and the Victor crews faced all manner of obstacles, not least the vagaries of the Southern Atlantic weather. In fact, the weather proved such a tricky thing to fly around that, midway through the outward journey, the pilot of XM607 had to make the executive decision to fly onto the target, well aware that they had nowhere near enough fuel to make it back to Ascension.
Skilful flying and navigation from both the Vulcan and Victor crews ultimately told, and the mission was deemed a success, at least in core terms. While one Vulcan was forced to return to base with cabin pressurization issues early on in the flight from Ascension, XM607 continued and made a strike on Port Stanley airfield. The raid took the Argentine defenders completely by surprise and badly cratering the runway, in the process rendering it useless for fast jets.
The actual effectiveness of the mission (and the handful of successive Black Buck raids) has been a top of heated discussion ever since, though it should be noted that the lack of a base suitable for their Mirage and Skyhawk jets undoubtedly hampered the Argentine cause, as did the psychological impact of being bombed from so far away. Either way, the mission was the longest distance bombing raid ever attempted at the time, a record only broken by the USA’s B 52s flights to and from the Middle East later in the decade.
Whether or not the Black Buck raids were a military success is up for debate, but the Vulcan’s role in it most certainly is not. The missions provided a fitting way for this most evocative of planes to conclude its RAF career (and also meant that it retired having actually dropped ordnance in anger) while proving the innate flexibility of its basic design. An aircraft penned in the late ’40s, a plane designed to drop nuclear weapons at high altitude and subsequently forced into an entirely different role well over a decade into its career, had flown halfway across the world…and it did it with the threat of imminent retirement dangling over it. It’s not hard to see why everyone loves the Vulcan.