The following story was written by Dave O’Malley and originally appeared on Vintage Wings of Canada website.
The name, sight and sound of the powerful, piscine and stingray-like Avro Vulcan, after all these years, still generates a thrill in my gut that starts somewhere down low below the belt and rises up to fill the heart. The chest-pounding concussion of its four Bristol Olympus engines was, to my young mind, a thunderous warning from the gods to think twice about messing with the British. Its name was so perfectly in sync with its role and its powerful beauty—Vulcan—the hammer-wielding Roman god of fire and volcanoes. The name Vulcan brought to mind the flaming apocalypse of thermonuclear warfare and the power of man to destroy his world—in an elegant way. Its power over the active imagination of a young boy survives to this day. The god-like Vulcan still resides in the pantheon of the most beautiful and iconic aircraft ever built—something the British are particularly good at as witnessed by the Spitfire, Mosquito, Lightning and Concorde. Its appearance at the beginning of the James Bond film Thunderball cemented its place as an icon of the Cold War and in the imaginations of pre-pubescent boys.
As late as 1975, I witnessed the flight of a Vulcan at the Ottawa Air Show, held at Uplands when that base was still a major and very active RCAF Station. I can still see its broad back glinting like burnished armour in the flat sunlight of that late spring day. Its demonstration that day would have been the perfect time to be a pickpocket, for there was not a single face among the throng that was not turned toward this thundering elasmobranch. Everything about the Vulcan evokes awe, not the least of which is its dramatic name. But, Vulcan was not the name first put forward to the Air Ministry by Avro. Not even close.
At the time of the construction of the first prototypes, the Royal Air Force had a long-standing tradition of naming their bombers after cities, dating back to the beginning of the Second World War. Many of these aircraft have come to stand for the finest men, women and machines that the Royal Air Force ever put into harm’s way—the mighty Handley Page Halifax and Avro Lancaster. While the cities that these aircraft were named after evoke little imagery in the minds of us Canadians, their names will forever represent the courage, tenacity and sacrifice of more than 10,000 Canadian men who went to war in them and did not return.
When the Royal Air Force took receipt of more than 80 Boeing B-29 Superfortresses in the early 1950s, they chose to rename them Washingtons after the American capital city in honour of their American roots. By the time the last of the Washingtons were being flown back to the USA, A.V. Roe and Company (Avro) was contemplating a new name for their new and massive delta-winged heavy jet bomber. Having flown for the first time in August of 1952, the new aircraft, temporarily called the Avro 698, did not yet have a name when it flew at the Farnborough Air Show the following September. Avro, thinking along more traditional lines, had the name of a city in mind—Ottawa. I kid you not! Avro of Great Britain strongly recommended the name of Canada’s sleepy capital city as a way of honouring the company’s corporate connection with the über-creative Avro Canada which, by this time, was developing some extremely advanced aircraft designs—the Avro Jetliner (the world’s second jet airliner after the Comet), the Avro Canuck all-weather interceptor and the truly magnificent Avro Arrow.
While I am extremely proud to call myself an Ottawan, I am the first person to say, “What were they thinking?” Ottawa was in those days a small city of some 280,000 civil servants, lumbermen, railroad people, office workers and their families. Though it was on Moscow’s target list to take receipt of a fistful of nuclear warheads, it was as far from representing the near-supersonic, fire-breathing white chariot of the apocalypse as, say, a squirrel might be. Like the Spitfire, this new flying nemesis of communism would need a name that inspired awe and fear. Ottawa was just not going to do it. As much as we Ottawans appreciate the honour, we are forever grateful (as is all of Great Britain I am sure) that Avro was convinced to let that name drop.
The British weekly magazine Flight threw out some ideas including Albion, Avenger, Apollo and Assegai (not a great name, but apparently a long, iron-tipped spear). Nice try Flight! The Chief of the Air Staff, Marshal of the Air Force Sir John Slessor stepped in with the idea of a V-Force of bombers and a month later, the Avro 698 became the Vulcan—the Roman God of Fire and Destruction. Appropriate indeed. Other members of the V-Force were the Handley Page Victor and the Vickers Valiant, but it was and still is the Avro Vulcan that captures the imagination of the world.
Perhaps the name Ottawa, if given half a chance, would have one day become synonymous with impending doom and mutually assured destruction. After all, a little old lady from Illinois by the name of Enola Gay Haggard is now and forever connected to the same Armageddon scenario. I doubt it though.
Special thanks to Dave O’Malley of Vintage Wings of Canada.
Photo credit: Avro and Imperial War Museum
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