The Avro Vulcan Bomber, the most famous of the British V bombers, is known for its distinctive howl and delta wing. Initially one of the delivery agents of Britain's independent nuclear deterrent during the Cold War, the Vulcan later fulfilled another role, undertaking the longest bombing raid in history for Operation Black Buck in Falklands Campaign of 1982. One of the first operational RAF aircraft with a delta wing, this impressive Cold War jet has never lost its appeal.
In this video, events and experiences coordinator Liam Shaw takes us through the extraordinary history and technological achievements of the Avro Vulcan. We go into the cockpit and hear first-hand from the people who flew this unique machine throughout its long and remarkable history.
Was the Vulcan the best V bomber?
Liam Shaw: "If you talk to someone about the Vulcan today they'll often associate its history with that of its use in the Falklands conflict of 1982, when it undertook the longest bombing raid of any RAF aircraft flying from Ascension Island.
The Vulcan however wasn't designed for that particular role. It was designed in the early stages of the Cold War as a nuclear high level bomber.
In Britain following the end of the Second World War thoughts turned to future conflict and the decision was made to tender the aircraft companies of the day to produce a bomber that would be able to fly fairly long range and to drop a nuclear weapon. What's particularly interesting is that that decision was made before the decision was made to proceed with Britain's independent nuclear weapon. The Vulcan was one of a number of designs, initially six aircraft companies tended for the idea; four of which went forward to prototype stage.
The first one is one that's not particularly well known the Short Sperrin. A fairly conventional looking aeroplane, albeit with four engines, with a pair mounted above each other in each wing. Two were made but it didn't go into production.
The first production bomber that came from that was the Vickers Valiant. Again, a fairly conventional aircraft and unfortunately it didn't progress very far due to a change in tactics and fatigue life.
The next aircraft to fly was the Vulcan; the second to carry the V name. By this point the air ministry had decided that their previous idea of naming bombers after famous towns and cities in the UK needed a little bit of a change as the aircraft became more dynamic so the Vulcan became the second of the V bombers. It was followed into service by the Hadley Page Victor: able to actually carry slightly more bombs than the Vulcan, it never went on to gain the same fame.
So, we're now in the pilot seat of Avro Vulcan. It's a very cramped area to be in but probably for the pilot and the co-pilot on my right they have at least got a fairly decent view outside - at least they can see outside unlike the three crew members sitting behind.
In this position we'll notice quite a few interesting features of the Vulcan, one of which is the control column in front unlike most bombers, it's not of the spectacle handle type but this is very much a fighter pilot style joystick, partly because of the handling of the aircraft and the modern technology that had gone into it, but it certainly gave the pilot and co-pilot when they were sitting in here a very different feel to most of the other bombers of the era.
In the centre we have four throttles, one each for each engine and that's represented by quadruple instruments in front of us for engine pressures, oil pressures and otherwise.
The Vulcan itself was able to be started in a conventional way with individual engines running but in the event of a scramble they could actually fast start which would involve firing all four engines simultaneously and that would allow a squadron to get into the air in less than four minutes.
A proportion of the crews that fly the V bombers is always on hand.
The Vulcan itself from the Avro aircraft company is an aircraft not too dissimilar in some respects to the aircraft that preceded it the Rolls-Royce merlin engine Avro Lancaster. I imagine a Lancaster pilot sitting in the cockpit of the Vulcan other than having to deal with a number of extra features caused by having jet engines probably would have noticed something very similar in the instrument panel here. When this aircraft first flew in the 1950s it really wasn't that far ahead in terms of what we're looking at from the Lancaster. Indeed through to the end of its service by the mid-80s things hadn't changed at all either, the system still worked, the dials still did what they needed to and they didn't really modernise it, so someone who flew a Vulcan at the early part of its service would have noticed very few changes by the end of its service life. One thing with the Vulcan was that it was a very electrical aircraft; it didn't have a lot of systems in it that were unnecessary and the electric function meant that if the electrical power to the aircraft was lost things like control on the control column would become very difficult, if not impossible. As a result just up in front of us on the instrument panel is a release for the ram air turbine. Underneath the wing is a small airflow generator that will drop and that will provide enough power for the pilot to gain control of the aircraft in the event of electrical system failure. The Vulcan control column will allow the aircraft to move to control the elevons on the rear surface of the wing but because of the forces required to move it they are inputted electronically and a real feel had to be put in to stop pilots over stressing the aircraft."
Interviewer: "What were your initial impressions of the Vulcan?"
Eric Denham: "Very impressed yes, with the power and the performance of it, the way it handled. It wasn't heavy, I mean it was very light on the controls because the feel was artificial. In fact there was no real feel of the aircraft - that had to be fed in to give the pilot the feeling that he was flying the airplane when it was electrics. It wasn't supersonic but it was very close to that and I suppose the swept wing of the delta made it possible to achieve these speeds."
Liam Shaw: "The Vulcan has a crew of five. Up front both the pilot and co-pilot are sitting on ejector seats underneath a jettisonable canopy. In the event of an emergency it's often the case that the co-pilot would have ejected that would have allowed the canopy to depart, the co-pilot would have followed but it would have allowed the aircraft itself to depressurise - very important because the three guys in the back all facing backwards - the air electronics officer, the navigator plotter and the navigator radar - weren't equipped with ejection seats. They would have had to open the crew access door, rotate their seats and physically move out of those seats aided by an inflating bag in the chair to push them towards the door and hopefully to safety.
Conditions in the cockpit of the Vulcan are very cramped. In terms of crew comforts they didn't have a huge amount. They were equipped with a pair of food heaters one of which is behind the pilot seat the other behind the co-pilot seat, neither of which were to be relied upon for actually warming up the can of soup that you may have put in there."
Eric Macey: "The original Vulcan design catered for just one pilot but Avro was asked to standardise by fitting two ejection seats side by side in the extremely small cockpit compared with the Valiant and the Victor which had a very tightly curved roof, and that is why many of us who flew the Vulcan for for many, many years have a virtual permanent crick in the neck. The head was either that way to the left or that way to the right to to cater for the combing."
Liam Shaw: "Flight time in the Vulcan: the crew in here could have been inside for eight or more hours in the case of the Falkland's mission that was possibly doubled to around 16 hours or so. The Vulcan was designed to carry conventional bombs but also nuclear weapons in the event of the cold war becoming hot. The Vulcan has four engines buried deep within the wing root of that massive delta wing. When the Vulcan was designed, the delta was a new concept, so new in fact that Avro actually built a number of one-third scale prototypes we could call them to test out the theory of the delta wing. It was certainly the first production aircraft in the RAF to adopt this shape and really the first combat aircraft anywhere in the world to do so. During the later stages of the Second World War the Germans had experimented with the delta shape but it was still a very new concept. It was the Vulcan's delta wing as well that enabled it to have longevity of service life. Preceding it into service was the Valiant but when the V Force was requested to fly at low level, the wings on the Valiant began to show signs of stress and they were withdrawn from service, but the Vulcan's big thick wing protected it when it reverted to that low level role.
But originally it was designed to go in at high level to drop nuclear weapons on Russian towns and cities in the event of that becoming a necessity. They would have been painted overall bright white, anti-flash white but when they reverted to the low-level role by which point they would probably have been carrying more tactical nuclear weapons in the case of something like the blue steel standoff weapon, they gained this camouflage surface to protect them in that environment."
Eric Macey: "With the switch to low level a dark green camouflage paint was introduced. But of course the boffins had quite failed to appreciate that to a fighter loitering above we now stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. Nor at low level could we use the the blackout curtains to protect against flash. Against nuclear flash, that's absolutely right. So we couldn't use these at low level we needed to look out to make sure we weren't going to fly into anything. And so we were issued with and were required to wear on operations a standard black medical eye patch and in the event of being blinded we were to lift it up switch it over and put it on the other eye. Not very scientific was it, certainly not very comforting, but that was the primary aid to protect against nuclear flash at that time."
Video footage reporter: "And so they slide past, the giants of the US strategic air command, following them the huge white shapes of Britain's long range heavies, their vast bulks making their speed appear deceptively slow."
James Harrison: "That wing alone about two wing that itself put 2000 feet on the cruise climb ceiling even without the bigger more powerful Olympus engines were fitted to the mark II so that you know with four times 20,000 pounds of thrust and for demonstration purposes you could get the weight down to about a hundred, hundred and ten thousand pounds. The thrust weight ratio was absolutely astronomical. The highest I ever had a Vulcan was sixty two and a half thousand feet. Not much fuel left I must admit. Critical Mach number, well of course in those days one was never absolutely certain of position errors, but I dare say the fastest we ever went was a in the region of nine six or nine seven."
Liam Shaw: "Our Vulcan x-ray Juliet 824 is a Vulcan B2. It's the second variant of the Vulcan, the second main production variant, and this particular one was used all of its life as a bomber. It flew with numerous squadrons all over the country and indeed around the world and was delivered to Duxford in March 1982. Very significantly it was delivered by a pilot by the name of Martin Withers who just a few weeks or months later when the Falkland's conflict began he undertakes the first of the Black Buck raids flying a Vulcan from Ascension island to the Falkland's where he drops bombs that crater the main runway. This particular mission was the longest bombing raid undertaken by the RAF and indeed by any country up to that point."
John Curtiss: "And so, very expensively, and with a great deal of effort we were able to mount some six attacks on the Falkland islands by Vulcans operating out of Ascensions. I say very expensively because in order to get one Vulcan over the Falkland islands we needed team tankers they had to actually refurbish the flight in-flight refuelling system to the Vulcan. There was a shortage of probes and the director of the Imperial War Museum was telling me that the RAF even borrowed a probe off a Vulcan bomber which they had in the museum. I'm told that they did return it after the war. They were extremely long and extremely difficult sorties for the crews involved. Flight refuelling is not perhaps it's quite as easy as it looks, the Vulcan speed and the tanker speed have to be coordinated they have a very small basket to aim for with their probe and of course only a small window in which they could do this refuelling."
Liam Shaw: "The Avro Vulcan is a truly amazing aircraft. It has a real affinity with the British public and being able to see one here at Duxford allows you to look at its immense size, it's immense presence that it must have had in the sky and to compare it to an aircraft that flew just 11 years before it in the shape of the piston-engined Avro Lancaster. The Vulcan of the three V bombers has gone down probably as the most famous partly because of its role in the Falkland's campaign, partly also because after that conflict it was retired as a bomber within the same year by December 1982. But the legacy of the Vulcan was such that the RAF themselves kept one airframe on as a display aircraft for a number of years allowing the public to continue seeing this aircraft long after it had gone out of service.
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