In the latest in our series of features linked to the centenary of the Royal Air Force, we profile the most famous of Britain’s three V-Bombers, the delta-winged Avro Vulcan.
Bombers for the Atomic Age
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War the British Government, worried about the new Soviet threat, a possible return to U.S. isolationism and Britain’s dwindling status as a world power, decided to develop an independent nuclear deterrent.
At the time the RAF was equipped with the Avro Lincoln, a development of the famous piston-engined Lancaster, which lacked the necessary range to attack the Soviet Union and would be vulnerable to jet-powered interceptors. So new bomber aircraft would be needed to carry the atomic weapons to their targets.
In early 1947 the Air Ministry issued Specification B.35/46 to British aircraft manufacturers which effectively called for high speed (500 knots), high altitude (50,000 feet over the target) bomber designs that could carry an atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. The two designs ultimately selected were Handley Page’s crescent-winged Victor and Avro’s delta-winged Vulcan.
As both types were considered somewhat advanced, and therefore potentially risky choices, a cautious Air Ministry subsequently placed an order for a third aircraft type, the Vickers Valiant, which despite being a more conservative design nevertheless still had (for the time) a futuristic ‘Dan Dare’ look about it.
Although it might seem a bit extravagant (given the perilous state of Britain’s finances after the war) for the Air Ministry to order three new types to do basically the same job for the RAF, wartime experience had shown how difficult it could be to correctly select in advance the best performing bomber from several available options.
The Vulcan’s design was influenced by World War 2 German swept wing research, Avro lacking experience in high speed aerodynamics. The new bomber was certainly going to be a very different beast to the Lincolns and Yorks then on the production line.
Avro’s design concept evolved from a relatively conventional aircraft with a swept wing, to a ‘flying wing’ with vertical stabilisers at the wing tips, to a delta-winged aircraft with a large tail fin. Both the prototype aircraft had delta wings with straight leading edges, but production Vulcans were fitted with wings that had a kinked and drooped leading edge and vortex generators to improve flying characteristics at high speed.
The aircraft was powered by four Bristol (later Rolls Royce) Olympus engines, two in each wing root. These were the same powerplants that were later fitted (in uprated form) to Concorde. Due to the arrangement of the engine air intakes, the Vulcan often made a very distinctive howling noise when it was flying at close to full power.
The Vulcan was very manoeuvrable for its size and was fitted with fighter-style control sticks rather than steering yolks. This agility was demonstrated to dramatic effect at the 1955 Farnborough Air Show when the display aircraft was barrel-rolled at low level as part of its display routine.
The cavernous bomb bay of the Vulcan could accommodate a free fall nuclear weapon or, for conventional warfare, up to twenty one 1,000lb bombs. There was no defensive armament as such, but the aircraft did carry electronic counter measure (ECM) equipment, much of which was carried in a large extended tail cone.
And it transpired that the Vulcan’s unusual shape gave it a relatively low radar cross-section, making it more ‘stealthy’ than many contemporary aircraft.
The Vulcan first went into RAF operational service, with No.83 Squadron, at Waddington in 1957. In the high altitude strategic bomber role it was painted in ‘anti-flash’ white to reflect rather than absorb some of the thermal radiation from a nuclear explosion.
The British V-bomber force remained relatively invulnerable to interception until the early 1960s by which time Soviet missile and fighter technology had caught up.
In response, the Vulcan was adapted to carry an air to surface nuclear stand-off weapon, the ‘Blue Steel’ missile, which could be launched from the aircraft about 100 nautical miles from the target, to improve the chances of the aircraft completing its mission successfully.
That said, such ‘success’ in a Third World War scenario would be accompanied by the chilling knowledge amongst the Vulcan’s crew that their homeland would also have been targeted and most likely obliterated by Soviet nuclear strikes.
There was a plan to replace Blue Steel with the U.S. Skybolt stand-off missile system and indeed a number of later production Vulcans were fitted with underwing hardpoints to accommodate this weapon, but the Americans cancelled Skybolt in 1962.
At the end of the1960s responsibility for maintaining Britain’s nuclear deterrent switched to the Royal Navy and their Polaris submarines. The Vulcan, now painted in a camouflage scheme, was deployed in the low level tactical strike role and as a reconnaissance aircraft. A handful of Vulcans were adapted to serve as tanker aircraft.
In 1982 Vulcans were used in anger in the ultra long range ‘Black Buck’ missions, attacking targets in the Argentine-occupied Falkland Islands with conventional weapons. Although the damage to military targets on the ground was limited, ‘Black Buck’ spooked the Argentinians so much that they kept back their small Mirage-equipped interceptor force for homeland protection duties, a decision that effectively handed air superiority to British Harriers over the Falklands. The hardpoints originally fitted to the Vulcan for the cancelled Skybolt missiles were used for Shrike Anti-Radar missiles during the Falklands War.
The last Vulcans were withdrawn from RAF frontline service in 1984, the type having been replaced by the Panavia Tornado. Three Vulcans were however initially retained by the RAF for use by the Vulcan Display Flight (VDF).
One of these VDF aircraft, XH558, having not flown since the early 1990s was famously restored to airworthy condition by the ‘Vulcan to the Sky’ Trust in 2007, participating in airshows and flypasts until 2015. It completed a final national tour of the UK in October that year, giving many people across the country one last chance to experience the unforgettable sight of a mighty Vulcan thundering overhead.
Avro Vulcan key facts
- Avro originally wanted to call the Vulcan the ‘Ottawa’ in tribute to their sister company Avro Canada
- Although never produced, there were various proposals for Vulcan developments including a transporter, an airliner (the Avro Atlantic) and a fighter carrier (loaded with three Gnat jet aircraft).
- The RAF nicknamed the Vulcan ‘The Tin Triangle’. The gleaming white v-bombers were jokingly referred to as the ‘Detergent Force’.
- The Vulcan normally had a crew of five but only the pilot and co-pilot had ejector seats. In an emergency, the other crew members would have to make their escape via the cockpit entry hatch.
- Although no Vulcans remain in airworthy condition, three examples (all in the UK) are still capable of taxiing, including XH558.
For more information on the Vulcan and the historical context, check out these Haynes publications:Avro Vulcan Owners Workshop Manual, RAF V-Force Operations Manual, Cold War Operations Manual andNuclear Weapons Manual.