The Avro Vulcan
The Vulcan was the second of the Royal Air Force’s ‘V bombers’ and like the Valiant and Victor provided part of Great Britain’s nuclear deterrent force for fifteen years, until the Royal Navy’s Polaris submarines took over that responsibility in 1969.
The prototype B1 first flew on Aug. 30, 1952; four years later work began on an improved B2 design. The increased performance offered by the Vulcan B2 made it ideal for modification to carry the Blue Steel nuclear stand-off bomb. This weapon allowed the aircraft to launch its attack from outside the immediate missile defences of a target and thereby extended the effectiveness of the Royal Air Force’s airborne deterrent.
By 1966 Soviet missile defences had become so effective that Vulcans switched from high- to low-level penetration. In 1970, following their withdrawal from the nuclear deterrent, Vulcans switched to the conventional bomber role in support of NATO forces in Europe.
The Vulcan’s range could be greatly increased by in-flight refuelling which was used to such good effect in the long range attacks on the Falkland Islands from Ascension Island in 1982. The last Vulcans retired from operational service in 1984.
The Vulcan proved to be a very reliable aircraft, enjoying an excellent safety record, probably as a direct result of Avro’s adherence to design simplicity and reliability.
Nevertheless, as the tragic video in this post shows, some doubt had certainly been cast over the Vulcan’s safety when the prototype 698 (VX770) was destroyed at Syerston near Nottingham on Sep. 20, 1958. As explained by Tim McLelland in his book The Avro Vulcan Revised Edition, the airframe broke up during a fast pass over the airfield during a Battle of Britain display in front of a crowd of horrified spectators.
Investigation revealed that structural failure of the wing had been the cause of the accident, but more detailed analysis confirmed that the aircraft had been flying outside the safe speed and ‘g’ flight envelope, so the aircraft’s design was clearly not at fault and the accident was a classic case of over-exuberance on the part of the pilot. Although the Vulcan was an astonishingly manoeuvrable machine it was often all too easy to forget that it was also a very big and bulky four-engined bomber, not a fighter, and like any other aircraft it could only be operated safely within clearly defined limits.