Avro Vulcan origins and career

Glenn Sands described the Vulcan’s pedigree in the September 2011 issue of FlyPast

Height and speed constituted the Holy Grail of Bomber Command’s requirement for a new all-jet bomber following the end of World War Two. The philosophy was that the higher it flew, the harder it would be to catch. The faster it travelled, the less it would be exposed to detection and attack.

Only a streamlined jet could fly high and fast, which meant deleting gun turrets, armour, gangways and pressurised life-support facilities. Six designs were submitted to meet the specification; Avro’s project team put forward a large delta.

Satisfied that Avro had the track record to meet expectations, the Air Ministry placed a contract for two prototypes of the Avro 698 in March 1949. It was agreed that the design would be frozen until the following September, but this did not prove to be the case as air pressure distribution around the engine intakes proved to be troublesome, and was only resolved by increasing the width of the wing roots.

To provide data for the Vulcan project, a series of ‘mini’ deltas, the Avro 707s, were built. The first, VX784, had its maiden flight on September 4, 1949, in the hands of ‘Red’ Esler but it crashed 27 days later, killing him. By the time that the prototype Type 698 got airborne, another two 707s had flown, in 1950 and 1951, with two more following in 1953.

The dual control Avro 707C WZ744 was among the ‘mini’ deltas that preceded the full scale Vulcan.
The dual control Avro 707C WZ744 was among the ‘mini’ deltas that preceded the full scale Vulcan. AVRO

With early problems resolved, Avro received a contract for 25 production examples in June 1952, although this unexpected early order placed considerable pressure on Avro’s chief test pilot, Roly Falk, to get the all-white prototype, VX770, into the air. He first accomplished this on August 30, 1952.

Although it lacked many of the systems required for operational use, within days the prototype was leaving crowds at the SBAC Farnborough airshow spellbound with its agility and performance ‑ Falk casually rolled it! By October, the Air Council had decided to christen the Type 698, Vulcan, after the Roman god of fire and destruction.

Known affectionately as the ‘Flat-iron’, the Vulcan entered RAF service in 1956, 81/2 years after receipt of the Instruction to Proceed. No.230 Operational Conversion Unit at Waddington completed the service trials in December, prior to officially commencing training crews on February 22, 1957. The first graduates of this course went on to form ‘A’ Flight of 83 Squadron at Waddington.

All three V-Bomber types together. Left to right: Vulcan; Vickers Valiant and HP Victor. Several Blackburn Beverley C.1s are in the background.
All three V-Bomber types together. Left to right: Vulcan; Vickers Valiant and HP Victor. Several Blackburn Beverley C.1s are in the background. VIA GLENN SANDS

At the time a single Vulcan B.1 cost the British taxpayer around £750,000 ‑ a huge investment for what was still an unproven type in operational service. (In present-day values that would be around a cool £18,750,000.)

Forty-five production B.1s were built and were followed by 89 B.2s. The latter had a bigger wing, large intakes, a strengthened undercarriage, shortened nosewheel leg and a revised cockpit instrument layout.

By the beginning of 1960, there were three operational squadrons of B.1s: 83 Squadron at Waddington, 617 at Scampton and 101 at Finningley. With the arrival of the B.2 into service, a shuffling of units and aircraft took place. All the B.1s and improved B.1As were concentrated at Waddington with 44, 101 and, finally, 50 Squadrons. B.2s served with 83, 27 and 617 Squadrons and, later, as more came off the production line with 9, 12 and 35 Squadrons.

The fleet was concentrated on ten airfields and the nuclear weapons were kept nearby in special storage areas. In times of tension, the Vulcan force would be dispersed to 26 other airfields within the UK to ensure as many aircraft as possible would survive a first strike. Quick Reaction Alert was the order of the day, with two Vulcans on every main base ready for take-off 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. 

The nearest the Vulcan force ever came to nuclear Armageddon was during the Cuban crisis when, at its height, Bomber Command had 120 nuclear armed V-bombers awaiting the ‘scramble’ signal.

Vulcans went on to serve in several roles within the RAF. With the early withdrawal of the Vickers Valiant from low-level bombing, the Vulcan was found to be the most suitable replacement. Additional tasks included reconnaissance, tanker and engine test-bed for the Harrier and Concorde.

Vulcan K.2 XH560 refuelling B.2 XL426.
Vulcan K.2 XH560 refuelling B.2 XL426. VIA GLENN SANDS

It was the offensive bomber role for which the Vulcan was truly intended and it accomplished this key role right at the end of its operational career with the RAF in an epic conventional bombing strike on the Falkland Islands after they were invaded by the Argentine forces in 1982.

The Vulcan, then serving in the tanker role, was finally retired from operational RAF service with 50 Squadron on March 31, 1984. The final RAF sortie was an air display made by XH558 on March 23, 1993.

Vulcan B.1s under construction at Woodford.
Vulcan B.1s under construction at Woodford. VIA GLENN SANDS

Fast paced development

It is interesting to note that the B.2 production line was established before completion of the B.1 order. The last B.1, XH532, was issued to the RAF seven months after the first pre-production B.2, XH533, had taken to the air on August 19, 1958. The necessary improvements made to the B.2 were reflected in the rise in costs to over £1 million per aircraft.