The design genius of the Vulcan

What made the Avro Vulcan bomber so far ahead of its time? Designed just five years after the Lancaster, it’s incredible to understand the advancements that were made in such a short time

When Roy Chadwick saw the specification for a four-engined nuclear bomber in 1947, it’s doubtful that he would have been aware just how popular the preliminary designs he would go on to submit would be. As chief engineer of Avro, he had already gained notoriety throughout the aviation industry for his pioneering designs of the Avro Lancaster and Manchester.

The Avro Vulcan would be the final aircraft that Chadwick would be involved in before his untimely death in 1947. But what a legacy it would be.

One of the first elements that Roy Chadwick was certain should be involved in the design of his new nuclear bomber was a delta wing concept. At the time, advancements in aviation were showing the successes of delta wing aircraft, yet months after submitting the initial designs for the Vulcan, Chadwick was tragically killed in a plane crash. Fortunately, his assistant Stuart Davies survived the accident and continued as Avro’s chief designer with the development of the bomber, which in the early stages was simply named the ‘Avro Type 698’.

What many are unaware of when it comes to the design stages of the Vulcan is that in order to test the radical delta-wing design that Chadwick had so eagerly pursued, five ‘mini-Vulcans’ (or Avro Type 707s) were produced. At a scale of one-third the size of the eventual Vulcan, the Avro 707 was assigned the role of an experimental aircraft. Although research on the wing design was becoming more and more popular for high-speed, jet-powered aircraft, the low-speed characteristics of such a design were not well known at the time. It was down to the ‘proof-of-concept’ 707s to demonstrate just how viable the design might be. Never had the effectiveness of a bomber been quite so crucial; the aircraft might need to be capable of carrying nuclear weaponry one day.

The Vulcan had to be perfect.

With data gained from the experimental 707s, in 1952 the first prototype of the Vulcan was ready for its inaugural flight. To look at a glance, the two prototype aircraft were recognisably Vulcans: they were each a jet-powered, tailless delta wing aircraft that was unlike any other that had come before it. But there were crucial differences between the prototype aircraft and the Vulcan. Both of the two prototypes featured straight leading edges – none of the kinked, slightly curvature leading edges you may recognise today. It was concluded after testing that the need for a wing redesign was crucial in order to avoid compressibility drag, which would restrict the maximum speed of the aircraft and therefore affect efficiency. The solution was referred to as the ‘Phase 2’ wing and featured a kinked and drooped leading edge, with vortex generators on the upper surface.
Hence, the wing we all know and love was developed, providing lift as well as reduced drag.

While the Vulcan was a revolutionary piece of machinery that was well ahead of its time (it came just five years after the  Lancaster after all), it’s easy to forget that its production took place right at the start of the jet age. This meant that some design and engineering aspects of the bomber were primitive, to say the least. For example, only the pilot and co-pilot were fitted with ejection seats in case of an emergency. The remaining three crew members were all expected to learn how to manoeuvre themselves – mid-flight – through the aircraft door. This controversial decision was speculation for debate, especially following incidents in which the pilots were able to bail out of the aircraft while crew members were not so lucky.

Yet despite everything, it’s difficult to fathom that this Cold War icon was born from technological advancements made so soon after the Avro Lancaster. The Vulcan featured a design and several engineering elements that were simply space age in comparison to the piston-engined bombers of the past. It’s sad to think that Roy Chadwick never got to see it in action, but the enduring fascination with the Vulcan ensures that his legacy lives on.

A Vulcan, with unkinked wings and minus its nose section, is tested in the structural test rig at Woodford. Vulcan fuselages were built at Chadderton and mated to wings at Woodford, where the latter were made  
Showing to good effect the sheer size of the Vulcan, this picture, first published in the January 31, 1958, issue of The Aeroplane, depicts an Avro driller at work on a leading edge in its jig before its final riveting  
A portrait of a Vulcan rolling away to demonstrate the later kinked wing, which underwent several modifications to improve the aircraft’s handling. This B.2, XH536, was photographed while up from Farnborough during the 1959 SBAC show  
Avro designer Roy Chadwick in his office

To find out more about the Vulcan to the Sky Trust, visit

Vulcan to the Sky Trust