Vickers Valiant – a brief history

The origins and history of the Valiant

 Despite being overshadowed by its rivals, the Vickers Valiant was an aircraft well remembered by British aviation enthusiasts. It was the first of the so-called V-bombers – three contemporary designs that were, unusually, all put into production.

Being the first of the three to fly, it’s not surprising the Valiant was underdeveloped in comparison to the Avro Vulcan and the longest-lived of the trio (in terms of military service ‘life’), the Handley Page Victor. All three were designed as strategic bombers, but the shortcomings of the Valiant soon became clear, and many were soon converted to perform support roles, such as reconnaissance and aerial refuelling. Worse was to follow, when the discovery of premature structural fatigue led to the withdrawal of all Valiants in the mid-1960s.

 

Jet-age contender

With the advent of jet power and nuclear weapons, the RAF’s post-war Avro Lincolns were quickly becoming obsolete. In January 1947, the British Air Ministry issued a requirement for an advanced turbojet-powered bomber capable of carrying the latest ordnance. Avro, Vickers and Handley Page all responded with rival designs, but – perhaps influenced by a sense of urgency – the ministry opted to award contracts to all three as a safeguard in case one, or more, failed.

The second Vickers Valiant prototype, WB215, made its first flight on April 11, 1952.
The second Vickers Valiant prototype, WB215, made its first flight on April 11, 1952. Key Collection

Vickers’ chief designer George Edwards had initially seen his plan for the Valiant rejected, but he put in a successful appeal, arguing that his creation would be in the air sooner than the others. He was true to his word, Type 660 prototype WB210 flying on May 18, 1951, more than a year before either the Vulcan or Victor. The name Valiant was selected by Vickers employees.

Sadly, with the loss of one of the crew, WB210 crashed due to an in-flight fire in January 1952. After modifications to the fuel system, second prototype WB215 flew for the first time on April 11 that year, continuing the flight test programme. A third machine, WJ954 – the basis for the Valiant B.2 – flew on September 4, 1953.

 

Short life

The first RAF unit to receive the new Vickers bomber was 138 Squadron, based at Gaydon, Warks, in January 1955. Crews were converted onto the type by 232 OCU, which formed at Gaydon for the purpose. The white-painted Valiants were assigned to the strategic nuclear bombing role.

A Valiant from 49 Squadron was the first RAF aircraft to drop an atomic bomb, during trials at Maralinga, South Australia, in October 1956. Another from the same unit dropped the first British hydrogen bomb the following year over the Pacific. The tests ended in 1958, but the Valiants had performed successfully.

The type was also the first of the V-bombers to see combat, participating in the Anglo-French-Israeli Suez intervention in 1956. Jets operating from Malta dropped conventional bombs on targets inside Egypt. The results were disappointing, but no Valiants were lost.

A Valiant tanker deploying an aerial refuelling drogue.
A Valiant tanker deploying an aerial refuelling drogue. Key Collection

The superiority of Victors and Vulcans soon relegated the elder aircraft to secondary roles, some serving successfully as tankers. Owing to fatigue failures during low-level ‘ops’ (for which the aircraft had not been designed), the type was rapidly withdrawn from service. Inspections of the fleet in 1964 revealed wing spar fatigue levels at between 35% and 75% of the assessed safe ‘life’, an unpromising statistic that prompted Harold Wilson’s government to ground the type permanently the following year. Today, only Valiant B.1 XD818 survives intact, on display at the RAF Museum Cosford.

 

Vickers Valiant B.1

Construction: A total of 107 were built – 36 B.1s, 11 B(PR).1s, 13 B(PR)K.1s, 44 B(K)1s, one B.2 and two prototypes.

First Flight: The first of two George Edwards-designed Type 660 and 667 prototypes flew on May 18, 1951 in the hands of Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summers and co-pilot Gabe ‘Jock’ Bryce.

Powerplant: Four 10,000lb (44.6kN) Rolls-Royce Avon RA28 Mk 204 turbojets.

Dimension: Span 114ft 4in (34.85m). Length 108ft 3in. Height 32ft 2in. Wing area 2,362sq ft (219m2).

Weight: Empty 75,881lb (34,491kg). Loaded 140,000lb.

Performance: Max speed 567mph (913km/h) at 30,000ft (9,150m). Service ceiling 54,000ft. Range 4,500 miles (7,245km) with underwing tanks.

Armament: One 10,000lb (4,500kg) Blue Danube nuclear bomb or 21 1,000lb conventional bombs.

Crew: Five to seven, depending on role.

 

Note: performance and weights varied according to role and configuration.