The controversial crash of Vulcan XA897, the first Vulcan B1 to be delivered to the Royal Air Force

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The controversial crash of Vulcan XA897, the first Vulcan B1 to be delivered to the Royal Air Force

A few hundred yards short of the runway, Vulcan XA897 hit the ground before bouncing back into the air… Although the Vulcan had a normal crew of five (two pilots, two navigators and an Air Electronics Operator), only the pilot and co-pilot were provided with ejection seats…

In September 1956, the Royal Air Force (RAF) received Vulcan XA897, its first Vulcan B 1, which immediately went on a fly-the-flag mission to New Zealand. On Oct. 1, while approaching Heathrow to complete the tour, XA897 crashed short of the runway in bad weather conditions, the two pilots ejecting successfully although the rear crew was killed.

The aircraft Captain was Squadron Leader “Podge” Howard and the co-pilot was Air Marshal Sir Harry Broadhurst.

Although the Vulcan had a normal crew of five (two pilots, two navigators and an Air Electronics Operator (AEO)), only the pilot and co-pilot were provided with ejection seats. As told by Jack Hamill in Robert Pike’s book Phantom Boys, this feature of the Vulcan has been the basis of significant criticism; there were several instances of the pilot and co-pilot ejecting in an emergency and the “rear crew” being killed because there was not time for them to bail out.

Hamill recalls: “I had been a pilot on the Avro Vulcan, the iconic delta wing strategic bomber which became the backbone of the United Kingdom’s airborne nuclear deterrent for much of the Cold War period. During my time on the Vulcan force, the policy of relying on high speed, high altitude flight to avoid interception was changed to one of low-level tactics, a move which, from the pilots’ point of view, made life a little more interesting. The two pilots sat on Martin Baker ejection seats, unlike the rear crew members who, in an emergency, had to abandon the aircraft through the entrance door.

“This highly controversial policy was maintained despite a practical scheme to fit ejection seats for the rear crew and despite, too, a tragic case in October 1956 during a ground-controlled approach to London’s Heathrow Airport. Vulcan XA897, the first Vulcan B1 to be delivered to the Royal Air Force, had been on a flag-waving round-the-world tour and had returned to Heathrow in foggy conditions.

“Instead of diverting to another airfield, the Vulcan continued to Heathrow where a reception party waited. A few hundred yards short of the runway, the Vulcan hit the ground before bouncing back into the air. The two pilots, Squadron Leader D R Howard and his co-pilot Air Marshal Sir Harry Broadhurst the commander-in-chief of Bomber Command, now had just seconds in which to decide whether to stay with the badly damaged aircraft and attempt an emergency landing, or whether to eject thus saving themselves but committing the rest of the crew to certain death.

“The pilots chose to eject. Perhaps, as the four rear crew members on that flight heard the firing mechanism of the pilots’ ejection seats, if the men perceived, then, a sudden and terrible instant of doom, maybe as they sat in their non-ejection seats ready to be thrust helplessly, pathetically, inevitably towards the abyss, perhaps, if time twisted to turn seconds into an eternity and, even with eyes tight shut, colours of red, white, blue, green and black flashed, flashed, flashed across the screens of those closed eyes, their final thoughts were less of mounting panic in the midst of reckless endangerment, more, one can only hope, of an ultimate, mysterious sense of concord beyond, in the imminence of death, the realms of normal conscious comprehension.”

The following video is the news footage of the aftermath of the crash at Heathrow Airport of one of the first Vulcan bombers, XA897.

Photo credit: Royal Air Force / Pinterest

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