by Nora Soto
All about the iconic cold-war bomber. The Delta winged Avro Vulcan B1 and B2 were the most recognizable members of the V-Force. With XH558 triumphantly returning to the air earlier this year, there has been renewed interest in this legendary aircraft. (She also appeared in the James bond film Thunderball, portraying the fictional Villiers Vindicator bomber.)
About the Avro Vulcan: The roles of the third and most famous V bomber.
The Avro Vulcan was the most successful of Britain’s iconic V-Force of cold war bombers. Along with the Vickers Valiant and the Handley-Paige Victor, the Vulcan formed the front line of nuclear defense during the fifties and sixties. When this role was taken by nuclear submarines, the Valiant was retired, and the Victor switched to refueling as neither could handle the stresses of low level flight.
The Vulcan was adapted to use as a conventional bomber, a role in which it served until its planned retirement. This was delayed two years after it was required for the “Black Buck” raids during the Falklands War – at that time the longest bombing run undertaken. Not bad for an aircraft designed during the fifties!
Despite their role in Aviation history, today only three Vulcans survive in operational condition. Two are ground running, while the third XH558 returned to the sky and performs on the display circuit.
Good handling and high maneuverability.
These are the specs for the B2, the more famous Vulcan. There are no surviving B1’s, which were distinguished from the larger B2s by their rigid triangular wings, lacking the distinctive sweep of the B2’s.
Bomber (also recon and tanker duties)
645mph at altitude
4 x Bristol Olympus engines
99 ft 11 inches
The B1 was smaller, with a slightly lower maximum speed, and had a service ceiling of 55,000 feet. 45 B1 and 89 B2 Vulcans were built. 28 B1’s were adapted to the B1A build, with extra ECM equipment. In addition there were two prototypes.
The crew usually comprised The Pilot, co-pilot, AEO, Nav Radar and Nav plotter. In some cases an additional crew members were brought in – for Black Buck a sixth crew member who was an air to air refueling specialist was added. This could make the cockpit very cramped.
More than a bomber – the Vulcan’s many roles
The Vulcan proved to be an extremely versatile aircraft. As well as the standard builds (B1, B1A, B2 and B2A) there were several Vulcans modified for specific requirements and roles.
Once retired from bombing duties, the less powerful B1 and B1A craft were converted to test beds, testing engines for Concorde, the TSR2 and even the Vulcan’s eventual replacement, the Panavia Tornado. This duty was not without risk, as the TSR2 test engine caught fire on the runway. Fortunately the Vulcan’s crew escaped uninjured.
The test engines were slung beneath the Vulcan’s bomb bay, taking advantage of the B1’s high ground clearance.
Reconnaissance – The MRR
Nine Vulcans served as Maritime radar reconnaissance between 1973 and 1983. They were adapted to carry radar equipment rather than bomb aiming navigation, including aerials added to the fins and wingtips. Designated MRR, these Vulcans are occasionally refereed to as the Vulcan SR.
Vulcan MMR (photo from avrovulcan.org.uk)
Tankers – The K2
Six Vulcan B2’s were renamed K2 and adapted to become refueling tankers to supplement the Victor fleet after the Falklands. Their massive 96,000 liter bomb bay was adapted to hold three fuel tanks, which could be used to refuel other aircraft through a single trailing drogue from the tail. They served until the end of the Vulcan’s lifespan in 1984.
XH558 – The last flying Vulcan
XH558, the only flying V Bomber, is the oldest surviving Vulcan. She is also the last capable of being restored to flight, due to corrosion on the two other survivors.
XH558 was the display Vulcan for the RAF until her retirement. She was sold, and ended up at Bruntingthorpe airfield, where she initially carried out taxi runs. Eventually she passed into the hands of the Vulcan Operating Company, who launched an ambitious campaign to return her to the skies.
After several very difficult years, facing cancellation of the project several times, they accomplished their aim, and Avro Vulcan XH558 returned to flight in early 2008.
After several flights she was successfully certified for display, and has flown at a number of airshows around the country. She was the star of the show at Farnborough 2008, and attended other airshows through the year, bringing attendance up at those shows up 20%.
Ensuring her future:
After a rocky few years, XH558 was nearly grounded permanently earlier in 2009. Saved by a pledge campaign that raised £1M in six weeks, the charity are now looking for ways to secure her future, and have just launched her 50th birthday appeal.
XL426 – Returning a Vulcan to Power – Restoring a Vulcan to Taxiing condition
VRT BannerXL426 was ironically also one of the RAF’s display Vulcans during a period when XH558 was on hiatus. It is owned and operated by the Vulcan Restoration Trust, who are based at Southend Airport.
XL426 is not airworthy, but performs in ground displays at Southend, performing fast taxi runs and deploying its drag chute (always a crowd pleaser).
It is also one of the few to have a celebrity pilot encountering some real heavy metal – Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden fame co-piloted the Vulcan on a taxi run. Prior to 2005 the aircraft received only the routine maintenance to keep it taxiing. Due to wear and tear (and age) XL426 needs an overhaul if she is to keep displaying. The Return to Power Campaign aims to raise £54,000 to restore the aircraft to ground running, performing long term work necessary to the aircraft’s survival. If you are interested in the campaign, full details are available from the Vulcan Restoration Trust.