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Avro Vulcan

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The Vulcan would be one of three aircraft that made up the Royal Air Force's V-Force, part of Britain's nuclear deterrent during the Cold War. With its distinct delta wing design the aircraft earned the nicknamed 'The Tin Triangle'. Scheduled to be removed from service during June 1982 the Falklands War during early 1982 saw the retirement of the Avro Vulcan delayed and it would take part in the 'Black Buck' raids during the conflict.

Quick Facts
Avro Vulcan side profile image
First flight
30th August 1952
Entered service
11th July 1957
Total built

Front view
Vulcan front view photo
Side view
Vulcan side view photo
Rear view
Vulcan rear view photo

When a Boeing B-29 Superfortress dropped the world's first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on the 6th August 1945 it was the culmination of the Manhattan Project, which had involved the United States and Britain alongside other countries working together. However the following year the US would pass the Atomic Energy Act, freezing Britain out of any joint development of nuclear weapons with the US, so Britain would have to produce its own nuclear deterrent.

In response to this on the 24th January 1947 Specification B.35/46 was issued by the Air Ministry calling for an aircraft able to carry either a H-bomb or a 20,000lb bomb load over a distance of 1,726 miles at a speed of 576 mph, whilst flying at 50,000 ft and ideally not weighing more than 100,000lb. Six designs would be received by the Air Ministry and it was to be the Avro Vulcan and Handley Page Victor aircraft that would be developed. A third aircraft by Vickers known as the Valiant would also be ordered into production. This aircraft was less complex, as the Handley Page and Avro aircraft were extremely advanced due to the specification requiring performance above and beyond anything attempted by British aircraft manufacturers. The V-Force was born.

Initial designs during February 1947 by Roy Chadwick and his design team involved a 45 degree swept wing. The next major decision in the development of the Vulcan was made three months later in May when it was decided to incorporate the engines, fuel and landing gear in the wing. The last tweak to the design saw the aircraft's rear filled in to make the famous Vulcan delta wing, and with its straight wing shape earning the aircraft the nickname 'The Tin Triangle'. Unfortunately tragedy would strike the project on the 23rd August 1947 when Roy Chadwick died in a plane crash. It would be left to his assistant Stuart Davis to continue development of Chadwick's design, known as the type 698, which on the 27th November 1947 was accepted by the Air Ministry.

Following a wait of just over a month Avro would be contracted to build two prototypes of their design on the 1st January 1948. However as the design of this new aircraft was very different to anything Avro had done before five smaller versions of the design, known as the Avro 707, would be built to test the concept and they would pave the way for the first Vulcan prototype and production of the type was ordered in July 1952.

The following month, on the 30th August 1952, flying from Woodford with Roly Falk at the controls the Avro Vulcan prototype made its maiden flight. Powered by four 6,500lb thrust Rolls-Royce Avon R.A.3 engines, as the original Bristol Olympus engines which were to be fitted weren't ready yet. Although the following year these were replaced by the 7,500lb thrust Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire A.5.5a 65 engines. Intended to have five crew members, which would consist of the pilot and co-pilot, who were the only crew members to have ejector seats, Air Electronics Officer and two navigators. Ten days later on the 9th September the public got their first taste of this new aircraft at the Farnborough airshow.

It would not be until the following year when the second Vulcan prototype would fly, when on the 3rd September 1953 it made its maiden flight with power supplied this time by Olympus engines. This would be followed less than two years later by the first flight of the first production B.Mk.1 on the 4th February 1955. This first example would be used for the purpose of engine development, testing the Olympus Mk 101, 102 and 104 engines. Development of the new aircraft continued and as a result of flight testing a kink was added to the wing. This was because the top speed of the Vulcan would have been affected by compressibility drag. This new wing would replace the swept wing already fitted to production aircraft and would be used going forward.

In preparation of the eventual service entry of the Vulcan No. 230 Operational Conversion Unit was formed at RAF Waddington on the 31st May 1956 so Bomber Command could train crews on the type. This would see the first graduates form No. 83 Squadron, also at RAF Waddington, the following year on the 11th July 1957.

The Vulcan B.Mk.1 would be powered by four Bristol Siddeley Olympus turbojets, either the 101, 102 or 104 which produced 11,000lb, 12,000lb and 13,000lb of thrust respectively, enabling a top speed of around 625 mph with a service ceiling of 55,000 ft and a range of 3,000 miles. The Vulcan would feature no defensive armament as the speed and height at which the aircraft could operate was considered its protection from enemy aircraft. As the type was to operate as a nuclear bomber it would feature an anti-flash white camouflage scheme designed to protect the aircraft from the heat produced by a nuclear explosion. To begin with the Vulcan's nuclear bomb load would be Blue Danube and Violet Club although these would both be replaced by Red Beard and Yellow Sun, and if required twenty one 1,000lb conventional bombs could be carried.

With the Cold War intensifying the need for both sides to outdo each other lead to the Vulcan B.Mk.2 which featured a range of improvements. One of the major changes was the fitting of new electronic countermeasures equipment, which would also be added to B.Mk.1s already in service which would be re-designated to B.Mk.1A. It was to be a new wing, which had been tested on the second prototype Vulcan B.Mk.1, and new more powerful Olympus engines that would show what the Vulcan could achieve. With the first B.Mk.2 production version making its maiden flight on the 19th August 1958 and like its predecessor was powered by three different types of Bristol Siddeley Olympus engines which were the 200, 201 or 301 providing 16,000lb, 17,000lb or 20,000lb of thrust respectively. These changes increased the Vulcan's range by 1,600 miles to 4,600 miles, even this range could be increased by air-to-air refuelling from either Valiant or Victor tankers, and an increase of 20 mph taking the aircraft's top speed to 645 mph. The service celling was also increased to 60,000 ft another 5,000 ft more than the B.Mk.1. With the introduction of the Avro developed Blue Steel nuclear missile a number of B.Mk.2s were converted to carry the missile and re-designated as B.Mk.2A. This new version entered service on the 1st July 1960 with No. 230 Operational Conversion Unit.

It was during the 1960s when the Vulcan was at the peak of its operational service with the Royal Air Force. This was when a number of incidents, most notably the Cuban Missile Crisis, intensified the Cold War so from 1962 to 1969 the V-Force was on a Quick Reaction Alert state of readiness. This meant one aircraft from each squadron, which would be increased to two, would be able to get airborne in 2 - 15 minutes depending on the situation. 1963 would see a change in tactics which saw the Vulcan change its anti-flash white camouflage scheme for a green and grey one as the type would now operate at low level. Although improved electronics decreased the chance of radar detection the effectiveness of Blue Steel was severely compromised. One of the reasons for this change in tactics was the shooting down of a Lockheed U-2 during 1960 which was flying at a height of 70,500 ft, more than 10,000 ft above the Vulcan B.Mk.2s service ceiling, showing that Soviet Union defences had improved to the point that height could no longer be used as a defence.

Despite all the improvements and tactical changes 1962 and 1963 would see events that would spell the beginning of the end of the RAF's role as Britain's main nuclear deterrent. Firstly in late 1962 the intended replacement for Blue Steel the American designed Skybolt was cancelled, the RAF operated Thor missile was withdrawn from service in September 1963 and in the same year the British Government signed the Polaris Sales Agreement. This meant that the nuclear deterrent would be handed over to the Royal Navy using submarines equipped with the Polaris ballistic missile. So on the 30th June 1969 the RN took responsibility for Britain's nuclear deterrent. The Vulcan would still serve with the RAF during the 1970s, after being converted they were used for long-range maritime radar reconnaissance and used for testing and developing engines.

As the type entered the 1980s its replacement the Panavia Tornado was starting to enter service and the decision was taken in November 1981 to remove the Vulcan from service the following June. But with just two months till the Vulcan was to retire, on the 2nd April 1982 Argentina invaded the Falklands Islands. This lead to a scramble to prepare the Vulcan's for service, which involved practising air-to-air refuelling with Victor tanker aircraft, fitting a Westinghouse AN.ALQ-101 jamming pod and an Inertial Navigation System. In fact so desperate for Vulcan parts museum examples were used as a source.

Flying from the Ascension Islands in the South Atlantic the first of seven 'Black Buck' raids took place on the 1st May 1982, the last occurring on the 12th June 1982 with the Falklands War (1982) ending two days later. Each of these missions lasted more than 15 hours and a round trip of 8,000 miles involving fourteen Handley Page Victor tankers, and at the time was the longest ever bombing raid undertaken. This would mean the final Vulcan B.Mk.2 wasn't retired until the 31st December 1982.

This still wasn't the end of the Vulcan story as six aircraft would be converted to K.Mk.2 tankers and stayed in service until the 31st March 1984, ending twenty eight years of service. With a total of 135 built the Vulcan is perhaps the most famous of the three V-Force aircraft.

Technical Details

Click on the aircraft image to view a larger version.

Top Speed Range Service Ceiling Armament
Vulcan B.Mk.1 625 mph 3,000 miles 55,000 ft nuclear warhead
or 21,000lb of bombs
Vulcan B.Mk.1A side profile image
Vulcan B.Mk.2 645 mph 4,600 miles 60,000 ft nuclear warhead
or 21,000lb of bombs
Vulcan B.Mk.2 side profile image


Click on a photo to view a larger version.
Vulcan B.Mk.2

See This Aircraft

(C) = Cockpit only exhibit. (F) = Fuselage only exhibit. (R) = Remains of an aircraft.

Vulcan B.Mk.2 Avro Heritage Museum
Vulcan B.Mk.2 (C)
Vulcan B.Mk.2 (C) Bournemouth Aviation Museum
Vulcan B.Mk.2 City of Norwich Aviation Museum
Vulcan B.Mk.2 East Midlands Aeropark
Vulcan B.Mk.2 Imperial War Museum, Duxford
Vulcan B.Mk.2 (C) Jet Age Museum
Vulcan B.Mk.2 London Southend Airport
Vulcan B.Mk.2 Midland Air Museum
Vulcan B.Mk.2 National Museum of Flight, Scotland
Vulcan B.Mk.2 Newark Air Museum
Vulcan K.Mk.2 (C) Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum
Vulcan B.Mk.2 North East Aircraft Museum
Vulcan B.Mk.2 Royal Air Force Museum, London
Vulcan B.Mk.2 Royal Air Force Museum, Midlands
Vulcan B.Mk.2 Solway Aviation Museum
Vulcan B.Mk.1 (C) Stoneykirk Aviation Museum
Vulcan B.Mk.2 Wellesbourne Airfield

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