Flight Lieutenant Martin Withers throttled back at 10000 feet and put the aircraft in a shallow dive.
Two miles out from the runway at Port Stanley the onboard computer opened
the bomb bay doors and let out a string of 21 high explosive 250 pound bombs.
Twenty seconds later the ground in Port Stanley trembled from the bomb impacts. Black Buck 1 was a success.
The Argentinian soldiers on the ground and the generals in Buenos Aires had been sent a message.

You are not safe.

Background

It has been said that the military organisations around the world mostly prepares for the previous war. In January 1947 the RAF Air Staff did exactly that, issuing a specification for a bomber to fly 5000 miles out at 50000 feet at 500 knots and drop nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union. At the time it was common sense that flying at such heights would render an aircraft invulnerable to air defenses. RAF were like every other Air Force around the world not able to foresee the development of surface-to-air missiles during the 1950's.

In the 1940's and 1950's, heavy bombers were in vogue. The US B-36 Peacemaker, B-47 Stratojet, B-50 Superfortress, B-52 Stratofortress and B-58 Hustler were all designed for one thing only; fly as high and fast as possible to the Soviet Union and drop as many nuclear bombs as one could. The Vulcan was to be RAF's entry into the heavy jet-propelled nuclear deterrent bomber club.

A problem with the specification was that Britain simply had no usable atomic bomb, so plans for parallel development of the aircraft and the bomb it should carry was made.

Avro Type 698

The winner of the design contest became the A.V. Roe & Co. Ltd. Type 698 with Handley Page's HP.80 design as a runner-up. As an insurance, the HP.80 was selected for further development also. The HP.80 was later to become the Handley Page Victor.

Avro's Type 698 originally had a radical appearance of a flying wing with fins on the wingtips, not unlike today's B-2 Spirit bomber. However, the design changed quite a bit into the now familiar Vulcan shape. The wingtip fins were replaced with a single vertical tailfin, the nose was extended and a fuselage section was added. The design now had the shape of a "normal" aircraft except for its large delta wing, a design feature that later earned the Vulcan the nickname Tin Triangle.

The Type 698 had a five man crew: pilot, co-pilot, navigator, radar operator and Air Electronics Officer (AEO). Because of its intended cruising altitude and speed, defensive armament was deliberately left out of the design. Another radical feature of the Type 698 was its lack of switches and instruments in the cockpit ceiling. This and the fact that it had a joystick control gave the pilot the feeling of flying a fighter instead of a big 100-ton bomber.

In June 1948 an order for two Type 698 prototypes were placed with A.V. Roe & Co Ltd.

The British aircraft industry in the 1940's and 1950's were far ahead of their main competitors France and the USA. Instead of the "build it today and fly it tomorrow" method favoured by the gung-ho Americans - not to mention the bewildering array of prototypes that either never got airborne or were eventually scrapped in France, the British had a more meticulous approach to the art of engineering and building an aircraft.

First, Avro built three (two more in 1951) Avro Type 707 1/3 scale research aircraft. These were smaller versions of the Type 698 and was supposed to quantify the characteristics of the delta shaped wing. In 1948, large delta wings were unknown territory to aircraft designers. The Type 707's didn't contribute very much to the Type 698 design though, mostly for having technical problems on their own.

Second, an elaborate rig of cameras were set up in the prototype cockpit to shoot the instruments on film while the aircraft flew. The instrument readouts were transcribed to tabular format by film-readers and later plotted on graphs by design assistants. No highly advanced on-the-fly telemetry in those days!

On several occasions, the company photographer - a lucky fellow named Paul Culerne - was strapped to the undercarriage leg to take photos of the emergency brake system while the aircraft undertook an emergency brake test. This was done at normal landing speed - upwards of 140 knots. The next time you think you've had an exciting day on the job, think again.

On August 30, 1952 the first Avro type 698 prototype took to the air on its maiden flight. At the controls was Avro test pilot Roly Falk. Since the Bristol Olympus engines weren't ready, the flight was powered with four Rolls-Royce Avon RA3 engines. The second prototype got the Bristol Olympus Mk100 engines fitted for its September 3, 1953 maiden flight, again with Roly Falk behind the joystick. Both flights took place over Avro's base in Woodford, UK.

The name Vulcan was officially given to the Avro Type 698 the same year, and the Vulcan began appearing at public airshows. At the 1955 Farnborough International Airshow, the Vulcan made a spectacular appearance, including a slow full roll. Not quite the thing you would expect from a big bomber plane. The public loved the Vulcan with it's then futuristic looks and unbelievable performance compared to its size.

In 1956, delivery of the production Vulcan B.1's began. Because of a tendency of the wing to buffet in the high Mach flight regime, the delta wing had been changed somewhat from the prototype, giving the wing a distinctive kinked leading edge. On July 11, 1957, newly reactivated Waddington, Lincolnshire based No. 83 Squadron received their first Vulcan B.1 aircraft.

The B.1A and the B.2

It soon became apparent that dropping free fall bombs on the Soviet Union in the event of war would become nothing less than a suicide mission. Just as the B.1 variant began rolling off the assembly line at Avro's Woodford factory, development work on the B.2 (Bomber Mark 2) variant started. The Vulcan's tailcone was enlarged to house a suite of Electronic Counter Measures, it got more powerful engines and the wings were changed yet again. In-flight refuelling were also added. Some of these improvements were retrofitted to B.1's, giving them the variant designation B.1A.

The first Vulcans were painted bright white to aid in protecting the crew against the brilliant flash from the nuclear bombs it was supposed to drop. As low-level terrain-following capabilities were introduced in the Vulcan, the colour scheme changed from the aforementioned bright white to a camouflage pattern.

Nuclear capability

The nuclear bombs planned to sit in the B.1 and B.2's bomb bays were called Yellow Sun and Blue Danube. The Vulcan had room for two of these, although one was normally carried. In order to avoid the increasingly lethal Soviet air defenses, the Blue Steel standoff missile was developed. It could be fired 100 miles / 160 km from the target, allowing the Vulcan (or the Victor) a change to escape. The U.S. GAM-87 Skybolt missile was also planned for use on the Avro Vulcan and the B-52 Stratofortress, but the development programme was cancelled by the Americans in December 1962.

The British airborne nuclear deterrent force (otherwise known as the V-Force after the three bomber types named Handley-Page Victor, Vickers Valiant and Avro Vulcan) was replaced in 1969 by the Royal Navy's nuclear submarines and their Polaris ICBM missiles. Following this change, the Vulcan was converted to low-level conventional bombing only, a capability the B.1's and B.2's were equipped to do in 1963.

Odd Vulcans

With the Vulcan airframe as a basis, several unusual proposals were made. One of them was the Avro Atlantic, which was supposed to be an airliner version of the Vulcan. Another was the fighter support Vulcan. It would have carried three Folland Gnat fighters in the fuselage and under the wings. In line with the F-100 Barn Launch project, a vertical take-off Vulcan was also suggested. This one would have had ten rocket motors in the bomb bay, allowing the 113 ton Vulcan to do Space Shuttle-style take-offs. None of these project ever went anywhere, but a later proposal called Phase 6 was at least taken to the drawing board.

The Phase 6 Vulcan would have had a longer fuselage to accomodate a second crew for extremely long missions and provisions for bomb pods on the wings. Because of the cancellation of the Skybolt programme, nothing became of the Phase 6. Some B.2 Vulcans got the Skybolt/bomb pod attachment points fitted however.

The SR.2 and K.2

In 1973, nine Vulcan B.2's were converted to strategic reconnoissance variants. The terrain following radar (which allowed the Vulcan to fly at very low altitudes) was taken out and replaced with a LORAN C navigation system. Cameras and sensors were of course also put in. The SR.2 variant is sometimes also referred to as B2MRR (Maritime Radar Recon) because most of their missions took place over the sea.

The K.2 variant was a B.2 converted into a tanker. Fuel tanks were fitted in the bomb bay and the rear end ECM pod was replaced with a hose/drum unit. A total of six B.2's were converted, producing (according to contemporary pilots) a really ugly piece of flying equipment.

Squadron service

The Avro Vulcan served with the following RAF squadrons. Squadron number, service years and air base given.

Nicknames

  • Tin Triangle because of its triangle shape and the fact that a Vulcan consists of nearly 10000 square metres of sheet metal.
  • Iron Overcast because of its size. The Vulcan's wingspan was actually longer than it's fuselage length.

Engine trials

Once the Vulcan B.1 started leaving squadron service in favour of the updated B.2, several B.1's were allocated to aircraft engine testing. The ground clearance and high performance of the Vulcan made it an ideal testbed for engines destined for the Panavia Tornado, Concorde airliner and the ill-fated TSR.2 fighter-bomber. The Tornado would ironically replace the Vulcan in squadron service in the early eighties. The engine testing was done by fitting a pod containing the test engine in the bomb bay, doing the necessary plumbing for fuel lines and taking off.

Into harm's way

If it hadn't been for the 1982 Falklands War, the Vulcan would have entered service with the RAF, gone about its business and left without leaving any sort of impression on the general public. As it turned out, bombing the Port Stanley airport could only be done by an aircraft able to fly almost 4000 miles in one go: the Avro Vulcan. In a series of five raids named Black Buck 1 to 5, the RAF managed to punch a few holes in the Port Stanley runway, doing little in the way of physical damage but scaring the hell out of the resident Argentinian force.

Retirement

On March 31, 1984 the last K.2 tanker Vulcan left No. 50 Squadron and was withdrawn from active service. After its formal retirement, RAF operated two Vulcans for air display purposes. As a cost cutting measure, only one Vulcan toured the display circuit from 1987 onwards. In 1992 the last of the two display Vulcans was retired and sold to a private company. It was delivered by air on March 23, 1993, thus becoming the last airborne Vulcan so far.

A total of 136 Vulcans (including the two prototypes) were built by A.V. Roe & Co. Ltd. between 1948 and 1964. Several static (non-flying) structural test frames were also built. The idea behind these static aircraft was to give them artificial "flying hours" in order to disclose any structural weaknesses induced by landing cycles, g-pulling and bumpy low-level flying.

There's a total of 21 surviving Vulcans around the world, most of them in the UK (including one in the RAF Museum, Hendon, London). None of the 21 aircraft are airworthy, but at least two projects are underway to once again return the Tin Triangle to the display circuit.

A little bit of trivia: in November 2004, unarmed and non-flying Avro Vulcan XL391 was auctioned off on eBay, complete with engines.


Sources:
Avro Vulcan <http://members.tripod.com/~vambodelta/vulcan2.htm>
Avro Vulcan - History <http://www.thunder-and-lightnings.co.uk/vulcan/history.html>
Vulcan Technical Specifications <http://www.users.zetnet.co.uk/mongsoft/techspec.htm>
Locations of the remaining Vulcans in the U.K.<http://www.users.zetnet.co.uk/mongsoft/locat.htm>

An addendum and brief update to toalight's excellent writeup above - there is, once more, a flying Avro Vulcan! Aircraft XH558, which was the first Vulcan Mk. 2 delivered to the RAF and the last flying Vulcan retired, was sold in 1993 to a private family company. That company stored it in the hope of one day restoring it, and beginning in 1997, a team began to plan its return to flight. Starting in 2005 the aircraft was painstakingly restored, with RAF Vulcan veterans as well as civilian enthusiasts working on her. Over seven million UK pounds were raised and spent. On October 18, 2007, XH558 lit her Bristol Olympus engines and roared down the runway into the air, the characteristic thunder of a Vulcan once more ringing out across an airfield.

XH558 is now maintained by a charitable trust. You can read about her restoration and her ongoing airshow career (as well as donate for her care and upkeep) at Vulcan To The Sky. A bit of trivia - her chief pilot, as of 2010, is the same Martin Withers (DFC), who, as a Flight Lieutenant, captained the first of seven raids on Port Stanley airfield during The Falklands War - the only time the Vulcan was ever flown in anger.

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