Written by George Colclough
To many the Vickers Valiant, Avro Vulcan, and the Handley Page Victor are simply the V Bombers; Britians family of cold war strategic nuclear bombers, and answer to the American Boeing B-52 and the Soviet Tupolev Tu-95, all three of them venerable and lauded designs that did their part in keeping the United Kingdom safe from nuclear annihilation during the early stages of the cold war.
And this indeed is true enough, all of the V Bombers did exactly that, and did it well, with two of them, the Vickers Valiant and the Avro Vulcan even dropping live (conventional) ordinance during the Suez Crisis, and Falklands War respectively.
But in reality there is significantly more to the V Bomber story than that of simple nuclear deterence, their story is one of the changing nature of warfare in the late 20th century, a harsh and critical environment in which advocates of the strategic bomber role had to fight for the V bombers very survival, against powerful groups convinced that the strategic bomber itself was redundant, and that ballistic rockets and smaller multi role aircraft were the future of bombing.
It is a fight that the V Bombers and their advocates ultimately lost, and today the United Kingdom maintains no strategic bombers at all.
Nevertheless, the V Bombers represent an important, and fascinating part of British aviation history, so lets waste no time, and get straight into their story!
Britain emerged from the Second World War as one of the big boys of the global aviation scene. Whether it be the super manoeuvrable and heavily armed Supermarine Spitfire, the absurd speed of the DeHavilland Mosquito, or the bane of the Panzer Korps in the Hawker Hunter – all over the world the deep, fearsome roar of a British Rolls Royce Merlin engine signalled the arrival of a high tech, world leading aircraft, an aircraft that had the occupied people’s of Europe screaming for joy, and the fascists of europe dashing for a change of underpants.
No truer is this sentiment than with Britains Bombers. Survey the ranks of British wartime bombers and you will find the plucky little Fairey Swordfish which sank a greater tonnage of axis shipping than any other aircraft in the war, the mighty Avro Lancaster, which droped 618,378,000 kg (1,363,290,127 lb) of bombs on the axis war machine during the war, and the Handley Page Halifax which provided the means for the free people’s of occupied Europe to stick the boot into their fascist occupiers.
But despite its phenomenal wartime record, in the ever changing post war world the United Kingdom could not afford to rest on its laurels. Technology was advancing quickly, and if the United Kingdom didn’t keep up the momentum, it would be left behind by the US and the USSR, both of whom were rapidly improving their own industries, and racing to gobble up as many German scientists and technological secrets as they could for their own exclusive use.
To complicate matters even further, not only was aviation technology advancing at a dizzying rate, but so was the sophistication of what fell out of their bomb bays, as with the jet age, came the nuclear age.
The story of the V Bombers is intertwinned and inseperable from that of the British Nuclear Weapons Program; afterall delivering Britains nuclear weapons was initially their primary function, so to truely understand the history of these fine aircraft, we have to sidetrack slightly and dip our toes into nuclear history, specifically Air Staff Operational Requirement OR.1001.
Issued in August of 1946, Air Staff Operational Requirement OR.1001 began, or rather resumed independent British nuclear technology research, after the passing of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1946, in which the USA, with its post war priorities realigned, expelled the British from the nuclear program they themselves founded, and attempted to monopolise nuclear technology for themselves.
OR.1001 aimed to side step this, and give the United Kingdom its own indigenously developed nuclear weapon. It called for an atomic weapon no longer than 24 feet 2 inches (7.37m), no wider than 5 feet (1.5m), no heavier than 10,000 pounds (4,500 kg), and able to be released from altitudes ranging from 20,000 feet (6,100m) to 50,000 feet (15,000m). Obviously the Avro Lincoln, the then piston powered pride of the RAF, with its service ceiling of 30,500 feet (9,300m) was not up to this task, and a new generation of aircraft was needed to carry this most formidable theoretical armament.
This need for an advanced new strategic bomber resulted in the Ministry of Supply issuing design specification B.35/46 on New Years day 1947. All British companies were welcomed to submit proposals, but it had to meet a very strict series of specifications, needing to be a four engine, swept wing jet bomber, with a cruising speed of 575mph (925.373 kph), a service ceiling of at least 55,000 feet (16764 metres), a range of 3,400 miles (5471 km), and be able to carry the aforementioned 10,000lb (4,500 kg) nuclear weapon.
In keeping with the radical departure from wartime designs that this specification represented, the aircraft would also carry no active defensive armaments, as it was predicted that the speed and service ceiling of the aircraft would be all the protection it would need from Soviet AA Guns and Interceptor Aircraft.
Three designs would ultimately be chosen to fill this requirement, which we already know to be the Vickers Valiant, the Avro Vulcan, and the Handley Page Victor, all of whom were in service by the close of the 1950s. Three different airframes may seem like an odd choice, particularly for cash strapped post war Britain, but there was some method to the madness; hedging bets in case any of the advanced new designs turned out to be a dud.
The Vickers Valiant was the first of the V Bombers introduced, and in many ways it is the black sheep of the V-Bomber family, as it occupies a significantly smaller space in popular legacy than both the Avro Vulcan and the Handley Page Victor, served for the smallest length of time out of the three, and also had the least glamorous and exciting service life. Nonetheless, as the first jet powered strategic bomber operated by the United Kingdom, it was a critically important aircraft, and is no less worthy of study.
The Vickers Valiant was always intended to be the “backup” aircraft of the V-Bomber family. It was a simple design, built from reliable and understood technologies. The initial drafting work was completed quickly, and Vickers proposal for specification B.35/46, referred to in house as the Vickers 660 series was submitted in early 1948.
Initially this approach to aircraft design was met with scepticism from the Ministry of Supply and the Air Ministry, the bulks of whoms bureaucrats favoured advanced, sexy designs that pushed the envelope on what was possible and were a good cause for a round of patrioritc chest beating to boot, but lobbying from Vickers made a good case for the obvious merits of a conservative approach to design: there was much less chance of hiccups and delays in the design and testing phase of a more simple aircraft utililising well understood technologies, so consequently they could get their proposal into the sky quicker than their competitors, and thus Britain would get the nuclear strategic bomber it desperately needed quicker, in a package that still satisfied specifications.
So confident was Vickers in its simple proposal, that Chief Designer Sir George Edwards promised that a prototype would be in the air by the end of 1951, that subsequent production aircraft would be flown prior to the end of 1953, and that serial deliveries would commence during early 1955. What’s more, he promised that the aircraft would come in under budget, and signed a waiver with the government that any cost overruns would be absorbed by Vickers.
An ever increasing awareness of Bomber Command’s fleets rapidly approaching obsolescence by the powers that be meant that Vickers’ pitch for a simple, and dependable aircraft was successful, and in February 1949, two prototypes of the Vickers 660 series were ordered The first of which, serial number WB210, flew on the 18th of May 1951, only 27 months since the contract had been issued.
The second prototype, serial number WB215 followed shortly after, and took its maiden flight on the 11th of April 1952.
Pleased with the progress of the prototypes, the Ministry of Supply placed a production order for 25 aircraft in the same configuration as prototype WB215 in April of 1952, and at this point the Vickers 660 nomenclature was dropped, and the aircraft finally received the name we all know and love it by today: the Vickers Valiant B.1
The Ministry of Supply also commissioned a third prototype from Vickers, dubbed the Type 673. The Type 673 served as a test bed for a proposed new iteration of the Valiant, dubbed the B.2. The Valiant B.2 was intended as a low level pathfinder – an aircraft to locate and mark targets with flares, and thus increase the accuracy of a main bomber force, rather than a high level strategic bomber like the Valiant B.1.
In preparation for this the Type 673 was painted jet black, given a much strengthened airframe, carried a far greater fuel load, and had a significantly higher speed than the Valiant B.1 at low altitudes. Type 673 was delivered in September 1953, and following several years of trials it was eventually scrapped in 1958 after the Air Ministry concluded that pathfinding was a redundant role on the modern battlefield.
While the Type 673 prototype proved to be unsuccesful, the same could not be said of the Valiant B.1 production aircraft, which delivered exactly what it promised, a reliable and dependable way of rapidly replacing the United Kingdom’s obsolete piston engined bomber fleet.
The Vickers Valiant B.1 had a number of interesting design features. Its wing used a so called “compound sweep” configuration, with a 37° sweepback for the inner third of the wing, and 21° for the remaining two thirds of the wing. Devised by Vickers aerodynamicist Elfyn Richards, this configuration reduced the maximum speed of the aircraft, but as a trade off significantly increased its low speed handling.
Power came from 4 Rolls Royce Avon engines, each delivering 2,690 pound feet of thrust. As with all the V-Bombers, these engines were buried in the wings. In the author’s humble opinion this is the single most important part of the Valiant’s design – as buried engines turn any plane into a work of art.
These engines could push the Valiant up to a maximum speed of 567 mph (912 kmh). Furthermore the valiant could reach a service ceiling of 54,000 feet (16459 metres), and had a range of 4,500 miles (7242 km). Armaments consisted of either a 15 kiloton Blue Danube nuclear bomb, a variable yield B28 nuclear bomb, a 1.1 megaton Yellow Sun thermonuclear bomb, or 21,000lbs (9525 kg) of conventional bombs. While not revolutionary, these specifications were a more than adequate attempt at B.35/46, with a significantly longer range, slightly higher top speed, slightly shorter service ceiling, and a near identical bomb load from that demanded by B.35/46.
What is shocking as a modern aviation enthusiast, is how as per Edwards’ earlier promise, all 107 Valiants were delivered on time and under budget, with the first Valiant off the production line being delivered to the RAF in February 1955. Shocking! A major military aircraft contract being completed without a 20 year delay and cost overruns equal to the GDP of a G8 country? A radical concept I know readers, if you need to pause and take a few moments to recover from the shock we understand.
The Valiant also proved to be a surprisingly versatile aircraft, and a number of different variants were built for various different combat roles. These included:
- The three aforementioned prototypes: WB210, WB215, and Type 673.
- 37 Valiant B.1 “Pure” Bombers
- 11 Valiant B(PR).1 modular bomber/photo-reconnaissance aircraft, which could have their bomb load replaced with a substantial photo reconnaissance suite.
- 14 Valiant B(PR)K.1: modular bomber/photo-reconnaissance/tanker aircraft, which were modular aircraft much like the B(PR)1 variant, except with the extra addition of inflight refuelling capability.
- 44 Valiant B(K).1: Another modular design, but just with bomber and tanker capabilities.
On full consideration, it is hard not to consider the Valiant a successful aircraft, as it did exactly what was intended of it: enormously upgrade the United Kingdom’s strategic bomber and nuclear capabilties, in a conservative and affordable package. Its service was hardly dull either, with the Valiant being a vital part of Britain’s independent nuclear program post World War Two.
It was a Valiant that had the honour of dropping the United Kingdon’s first free falling nuclear weapon on the 11th of October 1956, when at 3:27pm, flying at 30,000 feet (9144 metres), Flight Lieutenant Eric Stacey, secreted in the bombadiers bay of Valiant WZ366 pushed his big red button and released a Blue Danube atomic bomb over the Maralinga Test Range in South Australia.
The Valiant would also go on to drop the United Kingdom’s first hydrogen bomb on the 15th of May 1957, 45,000 feet (13716 metres) above the shore of Malden Island, when Valiant XD818, as part of Operation Grapple dropped the experimental “short granite” bomb, and continued to drop many more increasingly refined and sophisticated hydrogen bombs throughout the further course of the Operation.
The Valiant’s dropping of live ordinance was not just limited to atomic testing however, as the aircraft was deployed to live conflict zones, where it performed with reasonable success. The first combat use of the Valiant came during the 1956 Suez Crisis, when an Anglo, French, and Israeli coalition moved into Egypt to maintain control of the critically vital Suez Canal in the wake of the canal’s nationalisation by then Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Valiant’s operating from Malta dropped conventional bombs on Egyptian airfields, logistical centres, and communication hubs in support of a joint Airborne and Amphibious attack on the Suez Canal, dubbed Operation Musketeer.
The aircraft performed so-so, as while its high service ceiling placed it firmly out of reach of Egyptian AA batteries and its primary interceptor, ironically the British Gloster Meteor, the aircrafts accuracy during bombing runs was somewhat dissapointing, as Valiant crews were only able to render three out of the seven target airfields inoperable, despite multiple sorties being flown and many thousands of pounds of conventional ordnance being dropped.
Despite being the mainstay of the early British nuclear program, the Valiant itself was largely replaced in the nuclear bomber role by the Avro Vulcan and Handley Page Victor. It was afterall essentially an insurance option in case the aforementioned more advanced bombers proved unviable, were delayed, or otherwise cancelled for whatever reason, and with both of its more advanced brothers entering service with relative ease, it made little sense to allocate what was ultimately a more primitive aircraft to this vitally important strategic role.
The Valiant did however continue to be used extensively as a high altitude reconnaissance plane, aerial tanker, and tactical and low level bomber. Roles for which there was still plenty of demand by the Royal Air Force, and a seemingly perfectly viable airframe in the Valiant to fill them.
All was not as rosey as it appeared however for the Valiant, as in the tactical and low level bomber role it was severly lacking, primarily due to the simple fact that its airframe was not built strong enough to withstand repeated and consistent low level flying. As early as 1960 the Valiants were starting to show considerable wear and fatigue, and sure enough the accidents began in earnest.
On the 12th of August 1960, Valiant XD864 of 7 Squadron’s nosewheel failed to retract during takeoff. XD864 stalled, failed to recover, and slammed into the ground at RAF Spanhoe, with the loss of all hands. Another Valiant, WX363, of 148 Squadron was lost with all hands on the 6th of May 1964, when a stress crack completely failed, the wing separated from the airframe, and the Valiant impacted into the ground at Market Rasen.
And of course in addition to these hull loss accidents, there were numerous non-lethal accidents as the fatigue cracks began to take their toll on the Valiant fleet. One notable example came in August 1964, when Valiant WP217 suffered a crack along its wing spar, fortunately the wing stayed just about attached and the crew managed to nurse the Valiant home with its wing sagging anywhere from 5 to 40 degrees depending on who you ask.
With accidents and incidents piling up, the writing was on the wall for the Vickers Valiant. It was decided in January 1965 that the Valiant was not worth the cost of saving, and the whole fleet was decommissioned and scrapped by the British government.
One Vickers Valiant B.1, XD818, the same aircraft that dropped Britains first gravity nuclear bomb survives complete at the RAF Museum Cosford.
On fuller reflection, it is fair to say that the Vickers Valiant was a tremendous aircraft. It did exactly the role it was designed for well, and gave the United Kingdom a reliable and dependable modern strategic bomber during a very uncertain time.
Is it really fair to hold the accidents and incidents later in the Valiants service against it? Accidents occurred while performing roles it was never designed for? That Vickers Armstrong themselves warned it was not suited for?
If only there was another prototype version of the Valiant, one specifically strengthened and adapted for low level flying. They could have called it something fun like the Type 673, maybe painted it all black, yeah, that would have been good!
There can’t have been, however, because if there was, that would mean Whitehall bureaucrats totally failed to understand the evolving nature of warfare, and would have sent Britain’s brave fighting men to war with inferior equipment that wasn’t up to the task and got them unnecessarily killed.
And as anyone who has read my past posts on this website knows, that would NEVER happen.
Now we get to arguably the most famous of the V-Bombers, the Avro Vulcan.
Like all of the V-Bombers, the Avro Vulcan began as a submission to specification B.35/46. Like all of the United Kingdom’s aerospace corporations, the golden days of near bottomless funding and endless orders brought by the onset of World War II were in the past, and Avro, like all other manufacturers had to fight for survival by supplying limited, and much less lucrative contracts to the now very stingy British government.
Avro’s effort was led by legendary technical director Roy Chadwich, designer of the Avro Manchester and Avro Lancaster heavy bombers. Chadwich’s vision was to wow the Ministry of Supply with a hyper advanced aircraft, that incorporated many new cutting edge technologies and systems – after all, he reasoned, surely a government that is reducing its inventory of bombers from the thousands, to maybe a few hundred if they were feeling extravagant would want nothing but the best, and want maximum bang for their buck.
Chadwich’s key vision was the use of a delta wing design, which is to say a wing shaped in the form of a triangle. Although essentially untested on aircraft, the concept had a long history, going as far back as the 16th century, when Conrad Haas, an Austrian military engineer made use of triangular fin stabilised rockets. In more recent history one John Dunne had patented the wing design in 1909, but did not go on to practically test out his design.
So the idea of a high performance delta winged jet certainly had promise, but understandably Avro was unwilling to jump in the deep end without solid proof and extensive testing. To that end they built the Avro 707.
The Avro 707 was to all intents and purposes a one third scale flying prototype of the Vulcan, but development was far from smooth. The first 707, VX784, crashed on the 30th of September 1949, killing test pilot Squadron Leader Samuel Eric Esler. The 707 itself would go through three separate iterations, dubbed 707A, 707B, and 707C in the process of ironing out all of its kinks. Eventually in June 1951 the 707C was decided to be the winning design, and all that was left was the SMALL task of taking what they had learned and turning it into a working prototype for the Vulcan.
The methodic and cautious approach to testing and design was a blessing and a curse however. On one hand the team at Avro now had a solid vision for how their radical design was going to take shape, but on the other hand, their progress was significantly behind that of their rivals. The first prototype of the Vickers Valiant made its maiden flight on the 18th of May 1951, and granted the Valiant was a simpler aircraft by design, but the Handley Page Victor wasn’t exactly far behind it either, as it would make its maiden flight on the 24th of December 1952. Avro needed to pick up the pace and they needed to do it now, because god forbid, the government decide they didn’t need Avro’s sexy, cutting edge design after all and their contract be cancelled.
Fortunately however, the benefits of a well thought out, and sufficiently tested proof-of-concept model ended up vastly outweighing the negatives of a seemingly delayed development time, as when the 707c design was finalised in June 1951, many of its kinks had been ironed out, and it took only 15 months for the first full size prototype of Avro’s design, dubbed the Type 698, to make its first public appearance at the 1952 Farnborough Airshow.
Flying flanked by two 707’s, the futuristic sleek lines and curves of the Type 698 captured the imagination of both the public and the government, and with headlines and popular chatter filled with nothing but awe and praise for the game changing design, and subsequently all of Avro’s fears about being usurped by a simpler and more easily produced design were firmly put to bed.
The Avro 698 prototypes continued to wow the public at airshows for several years, as engineers behind the scenes toiled tirelessly to iron out the last few kinks in the design before it headed for serial production. With its distinctive howl at over 90% throttle, and acrobatic displays in which it was thrown around with the agility of a fighter, it isn’t hard to see why the public became so enamoured – and hopefully now our fine editor will cut to some footage of exactly that for our audiences’ pleasure!
After its Farnborough appearance, the future name of the Avro 698 was an intense subject of speculation. Avro had strongly recommended the name Ottawa, in honour of the company’s connection with Avro Canada. Aviation periodical Flight suggested Albion after its audience rejected Avenger, Apollo, and Assegai in polling. The chief of the Air Staff Sir John Baker preferred a V-class of bombers, and the Air Council announced in October of 1952 that the 698 would be called Vulcan after the Roman god of fire and destruction. After All – the RAF was footing the bill for the beast, so they got final naming rights!
By 1956, development on the Vulcan was complete, and finally, the first production model of the Vulcan, the Vulcan B.1, began to be delivered to Number 230 Operational Conversion Unit in July 1956. In this unit, the Vulcan, and its crew were able to become acquainted with one another, before finally entering frontline combat service one year later in July 1957 with Number 83 squadron out of RAF Waddington.
And what a beast of a machine the lucky boys at Number 83 Squadron had been given. Powered by four Bristol Siddeley Olympus turbojet engines, the same engine which would later go on to power TSR.2 and Concorde, which took it up to a top speed of 644 mph (1036 kph). Furthermore, it had an operational range of 2,600 miles (4184 km), and a service ceiling of 55,000 feet (16,764 metres).
The full splendour of the Avro Vulcan’s performance however lies in something which is much harder to quantify with facts and figures: its acrobatic handling. I’m going to be controversial now and make a bold claim: that the Avro Vulcan was the single most agile strategic bomber ever built. Veteran pilots of the Vulcan describe its near fighter like agility – being able to barrel roll and turn with shocking sharpness.
Like all of the V-Bombers, the Vulcan had no active defences, but made up for it with the fearsome array of munitions it could carry in its bomb bay: upto 21,000 lbs (9,525 kg) of conventional explosives, or one of many nuclear weapons, included to, but not limited to: a 15 kiloton Blue Danube nuclear gravity bomb, a 25 kiloton Red Beard nuclear gravity bomb, a 400 kiltoon Violet Club nuclear gravity bomb, a variable yield Mark 5 nuclear gravity bomb, a 1.1 megaton Yellow Sun Nuclear Gravity Bomb,
Much like the Vickers Valiant we reviewed earlier, the Vulcan strictly speaking didn’t meet every requirement of design specification B.35/46, as the Vulcan met the service ceiling and payload requirement perfectly, destroyed the speed requirement, but fell short, rather considerably on the maximum range requirement.
The Vulcan B.1’s were generally beloved by both the units that received them, and the government that paid for them, and they proved to be an excellent upgrade to the United Kingdom’s strategic bomber capability, and a dependable nuclear delivery system.
The Vulcan B.1 went on to become a vital component of NATO’s nuclear first strike capabilities. If the Cold War went hot, these early Vulcan B.1’s, being able to be launched rapidly from their bases in the UK, would have been responsible for carrying out debilitating nuclear strikes on key Soviet infrastructure and military formations in Europe, slowing down any Soviet military advance in Europe, and softening the Soviet heartland for a devastating retaliatory attack by US B-52’s in a second wave.
Shockingly, the nuclear capability of the Vulcan was very nearly put to the test many times during its service history. Leaf through any history of the Cold War, and on any page you happen to find a flashpoint where the Cold War nearly went hot, you will likely find Vulcan’s on standby, ready to be in the air and en route to the Soviet Union with two minutes notice.
Incredible though the Vulcan’s capabilities were, it didn’t take long until Avro had devised significant upgrades to the plane, and from July 1960 a new, even more advanced model of Vulcan was being delivered to the Royal Air Force.
This new model, dubbed the Vulcan B.2, had significant upgrades to its engines, electronic warfare suite, and offensive capabilities. Engine upgrades came from an improved version of the Vulcans original Olympus engines, the Olympus 6, which produced 16,000 pound feet of thrust each, for a total of 64,000 pound feet of thrust for every Vulcan B.2.
The new electronic warfare suite, crammed into a now extended tail section included a Red Steer tail warning radar, a Red Shrimp 2.5–3 GHz band jammer, a Blue Diver 250 to 500 MHz band jammer, a Green Palm 30 to 500 Mhz band jammer, and a blue saga radar lock warning system.
The B.2’s improved offensive capabilities came from the Blue Steel Nuclear Standoff Missile. A very different weapon to traditional gravity bombs, the Blue Steel Missile was designed to be launched from upto 56,000 feet (17068 metres) and 50 miles (80 km( from its target, keeping the launching Vulcan well out of harms way as the missile raced at Mach 3.0 to its target carrying its 1.1 megaton nuclear warhead.
These improvements would ultimately prove largely fruitless however, as while British bomber technology was advancing rapidly, Soviet anti aircraft technology was advancing faster. The U2 Incident, in which an American U2 spy plane piloted by Gary Powers was shot down by Soviet Air Defences on the 1st of May 1960, just two months before the delivery of the first Vulcan B.2 made it clear to the world that the type of mission for which the V-Bombers were designed, flying high out of reach to avoid enemy air defences, was no longer viable.
Consequently in 1963, after much debate and discussion between the UK and the US on the nature of future nuclear strategic bombing, the decision was made to retrain all V Bomber crews for low level bombing missions, which were seen as be more viable – with the Valiant, having already been committed to this role prior.
Although not what it was designed for, the Vulcan proved quite adept at its new role, with its quick turn around and take off time, extreme manoeuvrability, and strong airframe all proving most useful in the post 1960’s low level attack doctrine that had already proved to be the undoing of the Vickers Valiant.
Adept it may have proven itself in its new role, but the Vulcan was not without challengers and usurpers keen to see its replacement and scraping. The key threat came from the Royal Navy, which with its adoption of Resolution class nuclear ballistic missile submarines from 1968, each of which carried 16 Polaris inter continental ballistic missiles, was now without question the pre-eminent nuclear arm of the British military.
It would take more than some new toys from the senior service to kill the Vulcan however, and the six squadrons of Vulcans that had been modified and retrained for low level attacks would remain in this role until 1982 – because while Polaris undoubtedly represented and underpant browning prospect to Soviet defence planners, it was decided that the Vulcan still had merit in providing precise tactical bombing support to NATO forces in the event of a war with the USSR.
All good things must come to an end however, and with 1982 came the year the Vulcan was finally due to be scrapped. It could evolve and adapt no further. The airframes were showing their age, and no amount of modernisation or strategic restructuring could change the fact that the Vulcan was simply an obsolete aircraft left behind by the rapidly evolving nature of modern warfare.
Or at least that was the case until the 2nd of April 1982, when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, and the Vulcan was given the opportunity to literally, and figuratively go out with a bang as the keystone of Operation Black Buck.
Operations Black Buck 1 through Black Buck 7 were a series of seven extremely long range ground attack missions, in which Avro Vulcans flying from RAF Ascension Island conducted nearly 6,600 mile bombing runs to the occupied Falkland Islands. Then the longest bombing run in history.
Now if you know your geography, you’ll probably know that the span of ocean between the Ascension Island and the Falkland Islands isn’t exactly an area sprawling with handy airfields one could use for refuelling, and if you recall, the Vulcan was designed for slipping across Europe and dropping a cheeky nuclear weapon on the Red Army, its 2,600 mile (4184 km) range was simply not upto this kind of extreme feat of endurance.
So how did the RAF do it?
The answer, tankers, lots and lots and lots of tankers, 11 to be precise. In short, the operation saw tankers refuelling tankers, in order to further refuel tankers, in order to refuel the Vulcan a total of eight times across the entire length of the journey. Really the absurd logistics of Operation Black Buck more than warrant a post of their own, and luckily, we have one on Mega Projects, give it a watch, add another wrinkle to your brain, and give us on the team that sweet, sweet watch time.
But for today’s post, the key takeaway is that this successful and supposedly impossible bombing of the Falkland Islands by the British helped to contribute to a collapse of Argentinian Morale and a reigniting of British morale and pride, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the days of the Second World War 40 years prior, and for its part in it, the Vulcan was lauded to near mythical status by many aviation enthusiasts then and since.
Now you may think the Vulcan’s moment of glory may have bought extra time, further upgrades, so that this pride of the RAF could go on serving well into the future, but no amount of public good will was going to save the Vulcan. Quite simply, it’s time was up.
Operation Black Buck didn’t change the fact that the airframes were old, and the role they were intended for simply didn’t exist anymore. What’s more the airframes of the Falklands War were, to put it bluntly, scrapyard specials; hastily brought back up to operational readiness through the cannibalisation of older airframes, and the jury rigging of more modern systems. Even if the political will to keep them in frontline service existed, the parts and infrastructure needed to do so did not, and so the Vulcan’s, freshly draped in glory from the Falklands War of 1982, were removed from frontline service that same year.
A few airframes were hastily converted for tanker duty, but the long march of progress still gave no quarter to the Vulcan, and when the Lockheed Tristar, Vickers VC10, and Handley Page Victor tankers became available in greater numbers in 1984, the Vulcan was removed from service all together. Heritage duties kept the Vulcan on life support for a while longer, with the RAF display flight retaining a few examples until 1992.
Shockingly, this still was not the end for the Vulcan, as on the 18th of October 2008, a restored example, XH558 took to the skies once again after a herculean effort by volunteer engineers, and a gargantuan funding drive from the Vulcan’s many fans both in the United Kingdom and overseas.
All good things must come to an end however, and 7 years later in 2015, with many parts nearing the total end of their operational lifespin, and the cost to keep it flying reaching stratospheric heights, XH558, the last flying Vulcan landed at Doncaster Robin Hood Airport, from where it never left, and remains to this day, marking once and for all, the final end of the Avro Vulcan.
For those interested, XH558 is far from the only Vulcan to survive however, and many examples survive around the UK for your viewing pleasure, 19 in fact, so be sure to google for your nearest one and make a visit!
Handley Page Victor
Now ladies and gentleman in the audience, we get to the final V-Bomber, what the author of today’s post firmly believes is the single most beautiful aircraft ever made, the Handley Page Victor.
The Victor’s story, as with all V-Bombers starts with our old friend, specification B.35/46. Just like Vickers and Avro, Handley Page was keen to secure this highly lucrative contract for themselves.
They had every reason to be feeling confident in their prospects too, as Handley Page was a company with a fine pedigree for producing venerable and quality bomber aircraft in the piston propelled days of aviation.
The company’s extensive bomber resume included the plucky Hampden medium bomber; veteran of the first ever 1,000 bomber raid and first ever British raid on Berlin, the Halifax strategic bomber; the right arm of the free-air forces of occupied europe, and the Heyford; the last biplane heavy bomber to be operated by the Royal Air Force.
The aviation world was changing quickly however, the piston propelled glory days of World War II were a thing of the past, and Handley Page, an old school veteran of the industry would have to move with the times, and avoid resting on its laurels if it wanted to continue to survive in the jet-age. Handley Page heard and understood this message loud and clear, and like their rivals in Avro, went about creating a highly advanced and ground breaking aircraft.
Handley Page’s effort was led by head designer Reginald Stafford and head aerodynamicist Dr. Gustav Lachmann. It was decided that Handley Page’s bid for B.35/46, would be dubbed the HP.80. Much like Avro with their Vulcan, the team at Handley Page decided to try and secure the bid with a dizzying display of advanced technologies that would make the United Kingdom’s humble strategic bomber fleet the envy of the world.
Early in development many ideas were thrown around by the design team. The most interesting of these were tailless aircraft designs (think Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit or the Horton 229) which would have used wing-tip vertical control surfaces. This tailless design eventually fell out of vogue with Handley Page however, because as much as they wanted to push the technological envelope, it was decided that such a radical design had far too great a danger of cost overruns.
Eventually the designers and the accountants reached an accord, and the now familiar crescent wing, with a high-mounted, full tailplane design was favoured instead. With the shape finalised, development began to race ahead at a blistering speed. Development was advancing so quickly in fact, that in the time it took to manufacture a prototype crescent wing test bed, the Handley Page designers had completely changed the wing design, rendering the test bed all but useless.
Although not as revolutionary as a flying wing, the crescent wing proved to be quite the radical concept nonetheless, so let us now take a more in depth look at that wing design, which to this day remains exclusive to the Handley Page Victor.
It was predicted, correctly, that a crescent wing shape, that is to say a swept wing which has a greater sweep angle on the inboard section than the outboard would eliminate both handling and buffeting problems at high speed. The crescent wing’s high speed performance was so good, that a Victor could happily break the sound barrier in flight when manned by a suitably steel-testicled crew.
The crescent shaped wing also had an unintended bonus, in that it gave the aircraft a primitive form of self-landing capability; when lined up with the runway, the aircraft would naturally flare as the wing entered into ground effect while the tail continued to sink, giving a cushioned landing without any command or intervention by the pilot.
Despite all of these apparent positives to a crescent wing design, the Handley Page Victor was the only aircraft ever to use the shape, and with fair reasons. The shape suffers from significantly greater induced drag compared to more conventional wings, making aircraft with them inefficient, and very thirsty beasts at low speed. The design also has ergonomic issues, as its cosy dimensions do not leave much space for fuel tanks or landing gears.
None of these are disastrous downsides of course, that would condemn the Handley Page Victor to the realm of comic book absurdity, and by no means make it a bad aircraft, like all choices in aircraft design, it is simply a trade off. A crescent wing is great for a very specific situation, that situation just so happens to be a rather rare one.
By December 1952 two HP.80 prototypes, WB771 and WB775 were completed, and on Christmas Eve 1952, WB771, piloted by Handley Page’s chief test pilot Hedley Hazelden made its maiden flight.
The HP.80’s performed very well during testing, with plenty of power from their four Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire turbojet engines, each of which produced 7,500 lb of thrust. Test pilot John Allem describing the prototypes was particularly pleased with the test flights, commenting:
“Immediately it was a super piece of equipment to fly. It was comfortable and you felt at home with it straight away
After both Handley Page and the Air Ministry proved more than happy with the early flight tests, HP.80 was finally unveiled to the public on the 15th of July 1953 and HP.80 was given its official name, the much more catchy Victor. Its futuristic appearance, and surprisingly agile displays at air shows, where it performed manoeuvres such as loops and barrel rolls likewise made it an immediate hit with the British public.
It took a few more years for all of the kinks to be ironed out of the prototypes, but eventually the Victor finally entered service in 1958, with 10 Squadron, at RAF Cottesmore.
Powered by 4 Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire Turbojets, each capable of producing 11,000 lbs of thrust, the Victor certainly wasn’t lacking for power. These mighty engines gave the Victor a maximum speed of 627 mph (1,009 km/h), a service ceiling of 56,000 ft (17,000 m), and a range of 5,217 nmi (6,004 mi, 9,662 km). Safe to say this absolutely destroyed the specifications laid down by Specification B.35/46, which lest we forget called for a cruising speed of 575mph (1218 kph), a service ceiling of at least 55,000 feet (16764 metres), and a range of 3,400 miles (5471 km).
Like all of the V Bombers, the Victor ditched the dizzing array of active defenses that defined its forerunners, and the only weapons it carried were the ones in its bomb bay. It could carry a healthy complement of both conventional, and nuclear ordnance. In the former capacity it could carry upto 35 1,000 lb (453 kg) bombs, for a total bomb load of upto 35,000 lbs (15,875 kg), and in the latter capacity it a single 15 kiloton Blue Danube Nuclear Bomb, a single 25 kiloton Red Beard Nuclear Bomb, a single variable yield US Mark 5 Nuclear Bomb, and, on certain models a 1.1 Megaton Blue Steel Nuclear Standoff Missile.
The initial production Victors, dubbed the B.1’s proved satisfactory upon their introduction, but a number of notable variants were introduced throughout the aircraft’s service life.
The most notable variant, the Victor B.2 entered service in February 1962, and represented a significant upgrade over its B.1 forerunner. The Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire engine was dropped in favour of the Rolls Royce Conway engine, which upped its power to 20,600 lbf per engine, to help these powerful engines breath the B.2 also had enlarged air intakes. To increase its service ceiling the wings were extended 46 centimetres (18 inches) at the root and 1.07 metres (3 feet 6 inches) at the tip, for an overall stretch of 3.06 metres (10 feet). The wings were also upgraded with “Küchemann carrots”. These were anti-shock bodies; bulged fairings that reduced wave drag at transonic speeds. Finally, the B.2 was also fitted to carry the 1.1 Megaton Blue Steel Nuclear Standoff Missile.
Having reviewed the most interesting and pertinent models of Victor produced, let us follow up with a quick overview of all variants:
- The Victor B.1: The original, and unaltered design which we have already discussed. The B.1 was a pure strategic bomber aircraft of which 50 were built.
- The Victor B.1A: An upgraded version of the original B.1, the most significant alteration was a Red Steer tail warning radar, and a more comprehensive electronic warfare suite. A total of 24 were converted from Victor B.1s.
- The Victor K.1: A dedicated three point refuelling tanker. A total of 11 were converted from Victor B.1’s.
- The Victor K.2P: A hybrid strategic bomber and two point refuelling tanker. A total of six were converted from Victor B.1s.
- The Victor B.2: A new and significantly upgraded purely strategic bomber, which we have already discussed, it featured extended wings and enlarged air intakes for a increased service ceiling. A total of 34 were built.
- The Victor K.2: A dedicated three point refuelling tanker. A total of 21 were converted from B.2s.
- The Victor B(SR).2: A Strategic Reconnaissance variant. A total of 9 were converted from B.2’s.
The Handley Page Victor was certainly a most formidable aircraft, but in a twist of irony it would go on to be both the longest lived of the three V Bombers, but also the only one to never drop a bomb in anger.
In a story that may sound familiar at this point, it turns out that when the British government moved away from the high altitude bombing mission of the V Bombers, the Victors high altitude orientated airframe couldn’t take the punishment of low alltitude missions, and soon enough stress cracks began to be found on many Victors.
Unlike the Vickers Valiant however, whose fatigue cracks were deemed severe enough to warrant the total withdrawal of the aircraft, the Victor was deemed salvageable, if they were converted into tankers. So after being removed from frontline service in 1968, a total of 38 Victors were converted into aerial tankers.
As tankers, the Victor would see action twice. The first of these came in 1982 with the Falklands War, which we already hinted at in our Avro Vulcan chapter. It was Victor tankers, 11 per sortie to be precise which provided the fuel for the logistical miracle of Operation Blackbuck.
The second came in 1990, when Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait. Much like the Vulcan in the Falklands War, the ageing Victor would get one last moment of glory before its retirement. During Operation Granby (the RAF’s designation for Gulf War operations) eight Victors were deployed, and they performed perfectly, being allocated 299 refuelling sorties, and achieving a 100% availability rate, a figure not matched by any other RAF aircraft.
As a fun side note, it is during their Operation Granby deployment that the Victor’s picked up the… SAUCY nose art seen on many surviving examples, recieving names and ILLUSTRATIONS to commemorate the wives of their crew, such as Victor K.2 XH672: Maid Marian, Victor K.2 XL231: Lusty Lindy, and Victor K.2 XM715: Victor Meldrew, and if you don’t know what that last one is such an insult to someone’s wife, google the name.
Aircraft participating in Operation Granby also received appropriate mission markings also, a small fuel pump for every successful sortie, and one unusual “kill” mark on Victor K.2 XM715: a small illustration of a Ford Escort, to commemorate such a car which was accidentally run over during a fast taxi run.
Sadly, despite their excellent performance during Operation Granby, like the Vulcan before it, fresh young upstarts were emerging to dethrone the Victor, and send it to the scrapyard. The airframes were old, starting to show serious signs of wear and fatigue, and given the astronomical cost of refitting and upgrading the airframes, it simply made no economical sense to keep them flying when newer aircraft could be bought cheaper – aircraft that had a greater fuel capacity and a longer range to boot.
Retirement finally came on the 15th of October 1993, with the Victors being replaced in their tanker role by Vickers VC-10s and Lockheed Tri Stars.
The Victor wasn’t done just yet however, two Victors, XM715: Victor Meldrew and XL231: Lusty Lindy were both kept in taxiable condition, and on 3rd of May 2009 during a fast taxi run, XM715 Victor Meldrew decided she wanted to fly one last time, and made an unexpected take off during an airshow fast taxi display. Victor Meldrew’s break for freedom sadly only lasted the whole of 150 feet, before she was placed back down on the runway, well within safe distance of the end of the runway.
With Victor Meldrew’s safe return to the concrete, the flying life of the Victor was well and truly over, and the surviving airframes were relegated to live out their lives as gate guardians and museum pieces. As previously mentioned two, XM715: Victor Meldrew and XL231: Lusty Lindy, remain in taxiable condition, and regularly perform taxi runs at airshows. For those interested, they can be found at the The British Aviation Heritage Centre Bruntingthorpe and the Yorkshire Air Museum respectively. None operating examples are also held by the Imperial War Museum Duxford, and the Royal Air Force Museum Cosford, with the latter being the only example to survive in its original bomber configuration.
Decline of the V-Bombers :
Having now looked at the Vickers Valiant, the Avro Vulcan, and the Handley Page Victor in some depth, this is where our three separate stories merge and come together, because while the three V Bombers individually may have had very seperate and distinct fates and fortunes, in actuality their stories are all largely the same: highly advanced aircraft built to carry the United Kingdom’s independent nuclear arsenal to war, and propel the nations strategic bomber fleet into the future, only to be caste aside and scrapped when the changing nature of warfare in the later 20th century left them by the wayside.
All three V Bombers were built to fly high and fly fast, way out of the reach of Soviet anti air defences, and from their introduction in the 1950’s, this is exactly what they did. Their greatest winged adversary, the MiG-15 would all but burn out its turbines trying to intercept any of the aircraft, and with the Soviet air defences of the period still largely consisting of cannons, they were all but untouchable.
This pax altitudo however was short lived, VERY short lived. Old school ZU23 and 52K cannons were being mothballed, and replaced with advanced ballistic missiles, such as the S-25, which was combat ready in 1956. Primitive world war two vintage radars were being replaced with advanced B-200 Missile Targeting Radars, and the MiG 15 gave way to the significantly faster, and altogether more scary Mig 21. Almost as quick as they could be introduced, the role in which the V Bombers had been designed for was becoming redundant. As discussed during our Vulcan chapter, all of this was proven with devastating effect in 1960, when Gary Powers’ high altitude U2 spy plane was shot down by a Soviet made S-75 Dvina missile.
The British government was far from ignorant about this encroaching obsolescence however, as shown by the publishing of a whitepaper in 1957, which prioritised ballistic missiles as the nation’s primary nuclear delivery system.
Prioritising missiles was all well and good, but what about the brand new, cutting edge, and above all else, expensive fleet of V Bombers, how could further utility be rendered from them? The boffins at Whitehall gave it some thought, and calculated a new flight plan for them; rather than climbing high and fast, now V Bombers would climb to a high level across western europe, dive to almost tree top level when crossing the Eastern Satellite states, before climbing once again on approach to their targets, and if you recall from when we discussed the aircraft individually, every single one of the V Bombers was allocated to this low level bombing role.
You may also remember how this turned out for them… badly, is the answer. The problem with highly advanced, and incredibly specialised military equipment, is that it tends to not be particularly great at roles and tasks that fall beyond the original niche it was designed for, and sure enough the V Bombers were no exception, as in this case the increased turbulence and air resistance of continual low level flight put stress and fatigues on the airframes that were not designed to withstand.
The Vickers Valiant suffered from early fatigue cracks, and was completely withdrawn from service in 1965.
The Handley Page Victor also suffered from fatigue cracks, and were withdrawn from combat service in 1968, but did go on to a long and fruitful, if somewhat drab career as tanker until 1993.
The Avro Vulcan, through pure fluke of fate, and good foresight of design did have an airframe that could take the stresses and fatigue of low level flight, and it was successfully retained in the new low level bomber role until 1982.
Eventually however, even this bodged and jury rigged low level role was all but redundant. New smaller, more advanced, and above all else cheaper aircraft had appeared as dedicated platforms to fill the niche the surviving Vulcans had been crammed into – the government was simply waiting for parts to run out, and make sure they got their money’s worth out of the remaining airframes.
The SEPECAT Jaguar, a single seat, supersonic attack aircraft was first procured by the RAF in 1974. This advanced, and (comparatively) light aircraft was faster, more maneouravable, more versatile due to its range of cannons and rocket pods, and thanks to a bomb load in the tens of thousands of pounds, including laser guided munitions and the capability to carry two 450 kilton WE.177 nuclear bombs, was basically just as lethal as a Vulcan when bombing.
Similarly, the RAF also first procured the Panavia Tornado in 1980. This multirole strike craft, could excel in the sort of low level penetration missions the V Bombers were forced into, aswell as perform dedicated close air support, and attack other aircraft. Like the Jaguar its capabilities represented a significant upgrade compared to the V Bombers. It was capable of mach 2.2, could carry just under twenty thousand pounds of conventional munitions, four 450 kilton WE.177 nuclear bombs, and like the Jaugar, it could use advanced new laser guided munitions.
From this quick overview of the young new upstarts of the RAF, it is quite apprent to see how the V Bombers generally, and the Vulcan more specifically were starting to look rather archaic by the close the 1970’s. War had evolved, and there was simply no further place for the V Bombers, and so with the passing of the torch to these new aircraft, the V Bomber story came to an end.
We really have only had a cursory look at the history of the V Bombers today, but to anyone in the audience hungry for more, do not panic! Fortunately, the history of the V Bombers has been explored thoroughly and exhaustively, and many great works, both popular and scholarly are available for anyone wishing to set aside a few days and really explore every inch of these fine aircrafts histories.
In particular, I would thoroughly recommend Tony Blackman’s Victor Boys, Vulcan Boys, and Valiant Boys. In this series, Blackman focuses on the human side of the story, and focuses upon the experiences of the designers, the pilots, and the ground crews. It is an often overlooked, but by no means unimportant part of the story, that really helps round off a learning experience with a complement of human faces and personalities, when it otherwise may devolve into an absolute avalanche of faceless and soulless dates and figures. Similar I would also recommend the memoir of Roger Brooks and Peter Bunnet, The Handley Page Victor: Tales from a Crew Chief – 40 Years of Life with the Victor and The Avro Vulcan… and Me: A Former Royal Air Force Airframe Mechanic’s Recollections of a Classic Jet Bomber Aircraft respectively.
For those interested in a more traditional history, Barry Jones’ V-Bombers: Valiant, Vulcan and Victor is a fantastic place to start, but really there’s a plethora of quality traditional histories, find anything on Amazon with decent views and you can’t go wrong.
For anyone particularly enamoured with the evolving role of the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent discussed in today’s post, Robert Patersons Britain’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: From Before the V-Bomber to Beyond Trident is essential reading – its pricey, but such is life with niche and small volume scholarly works. His scholarship is top shelf, and well worth a read.
 I wish I was joking about the cost overruns being equal to the GDP of a G8 economy. The total program cost of the F35 is now projected to reach 1.7 TRILLION dollars. More than the GDP of Canada and Russia as of 2022.