The year was 1979, and I was being shown around a fleet of U S Marine Corps KC-130F tankers (some with corrosion problems) at NAS Glenview outside of Chicago. I had just spotted in the distance, at the end of a line of visiting aircraft, the distinctive shape of an RAF Avro Vulcan. The fin markings told me it was from No. 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron, RAF (Motto: Fulmina regis iustra – ‘The King’s thunderbolts are righteous’) an historic unit, the first to equip with the Vulcan’s illustrious predecessor, the Lancaster, during World War Two.
I enquired of my guide (a USN CPO) as to the whereabouts of the crew, and found out that they had landed off exercise the previous night (there were six crew, a spare engineer being carried) and scattered into Chicago, when a screech of brakes indicated the arrival of a Lieutenant Commander, USN (by his accent, he was a Texan). “What’s the danged Piper Cub on the end there, boy?” was demanded of me. “Well, sir, it’s an Avro Type 693 Vulcan B.2 strategic bomber, capable of high subsonic speed at a ceiling in excess of 60,000 ft; extremely manoeuverable, cleared down to a ‘war height’ of 300 ft agl, able to carry free-fall or stand-off nuclear weapons, or 21,000 lbs of ‘iron’ bombs, and full ECM and ECCM suites”. Suitably impressed, he said “Gawd, boy! You just phasin’ em in?” “No sir, actually, we’re just starting to phase them out.” (RAF 1 USN 0).
The prototype Vulcan first flew on 3rd August, 1952, and was preceded by 5 Avro Type 707 delta-winged scale research aircraft (one crashed). The B.1 had aerodynamic faults, which were sorted in the enlarged B.2 (first flight 31st August, 1957, 89 built) which had four of the much more powerful Rolls-Royce Olympus turbojet (eventually, the Olympus 301 of 20,000 lb st). Because Warsaw Pact air defences were considerably strengthened in the 1960s, the Vulcan fleet ceased to be planned to undertake high-level sorties with British built free-fall nuclear fission weapons, such as Blue Danube and the Yellow Sun Mk. 1. The Vulcans were tasked with lo-hi-lo profile missions, featuring the impressive Blue Steel stand-off rocket-powered weapon, armed with the 1.1 Megaton Red Snow thermonuclear warhead (you can see a Blue Steel -which is all white – in the photograph); the inertial navigation system of the Blue Steel was so accurate, that the navigators of the Vulcan and the Handley Page Victor bombers which carried it, used the bomb to update their position! The Vulcan’s main bombing radar was nothing less than the venerable H2S (as used on Lancasters), admittedly in the Mk. 9 form!
Towards the end of their service life Vulcans performed the longest bombing missions recorded - prior to the Gulf War, that is - (Operation Black Buck, flown in part by 44 Squadron personnel), during the 1982 Falklands War, dropping sticks of 1,000 lb bombs across Port Stanley’s main runway during the Argentine occupation and using AGM-45 Shrike anti-radiation missiles to strike at Argentinian radar.
Despite several high-profile crashes (one at London’s Heathrow Airport), and the fact that only the two pilots had ejection seats (the other three crew had little chance of parachuting to safety), the Vulcan was a much-loved aircraft. I can remember standing on the roof of a hangar annexe at RAF Finningley in 1993, as XH558 made a farewell display on her way from RAF Waddington to what we thought was retirement at Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome, Leicestershire. I remember the air seeming to shake under the thunderous roar from her Olympus engines as she made her famous spiral climb-out at the end of the display. Little did we know that it wasn’t the end of the story; XH558, courtesy of the Vulcan to the Sky Trust, still flies.
XM 594 is shown on the wartime dispersal pan at Newark Air Museum, Nottinghamshire, with a rare Blue Steel under her port wing. She was flown into this ex-RAF base, in February 1983, onto a VERY short runway, in between snow squalls. The wartime Nissen hut to the right is beautifully preserved, too!