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The Vulcan: The Last RAF Strategic Bomber

Short History

The Avro Vulcan was a long-range medium bomber. The prototype made its first flight on August 30, 1952. Avro began production on the B.1 in 1953. The first production Vulcan flew on February 4, 1955.[i] The second production Vulcan performed at the Farnborough Air Show. The crew rolled the aircraft during the demonstration.[ii] The Vulcan became the bomber for Great Britain’s nuclear deterrence. At peak strength the Royal Air Force (RAF) had 70 Vulcans. They served until 1984.[iii]


[i] Weapons of Mass Destruction Frequently Asked Questions, Vulcan - United Kingdom Nuclear Forces (fas.org), last accessed 2/1/22.

[ii] RAF Museum.org, Avro Vulcan B2, Avro Vulcan B2 - RAF Museum, last accessed 2/1/22.

[iii] HistoryLearning.com, The V Bomber Force, The V Bomber Force (historylearning.com), last accessed 2/1/22.

In Cold War Service

In October 1, 1956 a Vulcan flew from Britain to Australia and New Zealand and back to London. What was to be a successful 26,000-mile publicity flight ended in tragedy at Heathrow Airport when Vulcan B.1 XA897 struck the ground 700 yards (640 meters) short of the runway. The bomber rose back in the air and the pilots, Squadron Leader D.R. Howard and Air Marshal Sir Harry Broadhurst, ejected safely. The four others on board died in the crash.[i]

In 1957 Royal Australian Air Force pilot, Flight Lieutenant Milt Coffee, and RAF co-pilot Flight Lieutenant Ray Bray unintentionally flew the aircraft to an indicated airspeed above Mach 1. The Vulcan was not designed for supersonic flight. There was no sonic boom heard so Vulcan CA892 probably didn’t break the sound barrier. The rear bulkhead was deformed.[ii]

On September 20, 1958 a Vulcan crashed killing all four on board and three people on the ground. On October 24, 1958 a Vulcan crashed, killing all six crew members. [iii]

An electrical failure caused the crash of a Vulcan on July 24, 1959. Avro Chief Test Pilot Jimmy Harrison was the aircraft commander. He and the rest of the crew ejected safely. This was the first time an entire crew survived a Vulcan crash. [iv] On October 26 a mishap during an airshow in New Zealand forced the pilot to make an emergency landing. A repair team returned Vulcan XH498 to service in January, 1960.[v]

Vulcan bombers entered RAF Squadron service in July 1960. No. 83 Squadron was the first squadron given Vulcans. No. 617 Squadron received its Vulcans next. The Vulcans No. 617 received had Avro Blue Steel Mk 1 stand-off missiles.[vi] The RAF equipped seven other squadrons with Vulcans.

On June 12, 1963 a No. 50 Squadron Vulcan crashed on a low-level exercise. All five crewmembers perished.[vii] On October 7, 1964 a Vulcan went into a spin during an asymmetric power practice. The crash killed all on board.

On May 11, 1964 a Vulcan crashed during a demonstration. The pilots ejected safely but the rest of the crew died in the crash. A midair explosion caused a Vulcan crash on July 16. The crew bailed out safely.[viii] On October 7 a Vulcan crashed during an asymmetric power practice, killing all on board.[ix]

Vulcans XH506 and XA913 appeared in the movie “Thunderball”. XA913 appeared on the ground and XH506 appeared on the ground and in the air. The UK turned both aircraft to scrap in 1968.[x]

On May 5, 1965 a Vulcan crashed while making an asymmetric approach. The Vulcan, XM576, was damaged beyond repair, but the four crew members were uninjured.[xi]

A Vulcan crashed into a hillside on February 11, 1966. All five crew members died in the crash.[xii] In 1967 the RAF ceased exercising aerial refueling of the Vulcan.[xiii] There was a crash on January 30, 1968 where the pilots ejected but the other four crew members died in the crash. The pilot, Flt. Lt. Peter Tait stayed with the aircraft to try to get the other crew members out. He ejected late and probably would have been killed had his parachute not been caught on some power lines.[xiv]

A Vulcan crashed in Zabbar, Malta on October 14, 1975. The pilots, Flt Lt G.R. Alcock and FO E.C. Alexander, ejected safely but the other 5 crew members died in the cash. The plane came down in a residential area and killed one woman.[xv]

A Vulcan crashed at Glenview NAS, Illinois during an air demonstration on August 12, 1978. The crash killed all four crew members.[xvi]

Britain decided its main military deterrent would be submarines. This meant the Vulcans would no longer be on nuclear alert.


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[i] British Pathé, Round The World Vulcan Crashes 1956, Round The World Vulcan Crashes - British Pathé (britishpathe.com), last accessed 2/1/22.

[ii] Vulcan Test Pilot: My Experiences in the Cockpit of a Cold War Icon, by Tony Blackman, London: Grub Street © 2007.

[iii] Vulcan Test Pilot: My Experiences in the Cockpit of a Cold War Icon, by Tony Blackman, London: Grub Street © 2007.

[iv] Vulcan Test Pilot: My Experiences in the Cockpit of a Cold War Icon, by Tony Blackman, London: Grub Street © 2007.

[v] Aviation-Safety.net, Incident Avro 698 Vulcan B.1 XH498, 25 Oct 1959 (aviation-safety.net), last accessed 2/6/22.

[vi] Weapons of Mass Destruction Frequently Asked Questions, Vulcan - United Kingdom Nuclear Forces (fas.org), last accessed 2/1/22.

[vii] Aviation-Safety.net, Accident Avro Vulcan B.1A XH477, 12 Jun 1963 (aviation-safety.net), last accessed 2/6/22. The crew members were; Flt Lt. David Allen Blackmore (Pilot), F/O Derek George Faulke (Pilot), Flt Lt. Arthur David Roper (Navigator), Flt Lt Gerrold Bartley Ross (Navigator), Flt. Lt. John Rodney Chapman (AEO).

[viii] Vulcan Test Pilot: My Experiences in the Cockpit of a Cold War Icon, by Tony Blackman, London: Grub Street © 2007.

[ix] Jackson, A. J. Avro Aircraft Since 1908, 2nd Edition. London: Putnam Aeronautical Books, © 1990.

[x] International Movie Database, Thunderball (1965) - Trivia - IMDb, last accessed 2/10/22.

[xi] Incident Avro Vulcan B Mk 2 XM576, 25 May 1965 (aviation-safety.net), last accessed 2/14/22.

[xii] Accident Avro Vulcan B.2 XH536, 11 Feb 1966 (aviation-safety.net), last accessed 2/14/22.

[xiii] Offensive Air Operations of the Falklands War, by Major Walter F. DeHoust, April 2, 1984, Marine Corps Command and Staff College, Marine Corps Development and Education Command, Offensive Air Operations Of The Falklands War (globalsecurity.org). last accessed 3/12/22.

[xiv] Accident Avro Vulcan B.2 XM604, 30 Jan 1968 (aviation-safety.net), last accessed 2/14/22.

[xv] Gear-up landing Accident Avro Vulcan B Mk 2 XM645, 14 Oct 1975 (aviation-safety.net), last accessed 2/14/22.

[xvi] UK Military Aircraft Losses (ukserials.com), last accessed 2/19/22.

Avro Vulcan B.2 stats

Source: Forces Technology Net, https://www.forces.net/technology/aircraft/avro-vulcan-specs-facts-and-service-history, last accessed 3/13/22.

EnglishMetric

Length

105'

32 meters

Wingspan

115'

35 meters

Speed Max

644 mph

1,030 km/h

Range

4,603 miles

7,365 kilometers

Crew

5

Max Weight

250,000 lbs

114,000 kgs

Bomb load Conventional

21 x 1000 lb bombs

21 x 455 kgs bombs

Bomb load Nuclear

One bomb

To The Falklands

On the evening of April 30, 1982 two Vulcans of No 101 squadron took off from Ascension Island on the longest bombing mission to date. One Vulcan was a reserve aircraft. The reserve Vulcan, piloted by Flight Lieutenant Martin Withers, had to fill in when the Primary Vulcan, piloted by Squadron Leader John Reeve, couldn’t pressurize its cabin. Flt. Lt. Withers flew to the Falklands and cratered the airfield at Port Stanley.[i] The crew dropped 21 bombs and scored one direct hit on the runway. Argentine C-130’s continually used the runway throughout the conflict. The Argentines made the British believe the runway was under repair by covering the runway with piles of dirt during the day.[ii] Squadron Leader John Reeve carried out the Black Buck 2 mission on May 3-4. The bombs missed the Port Stanley airfield.[iii] Bad weather caused the RAF to cancel Black Buck 3. A problem with the Victor aerial tanker fleet forced the RAF to cancel Black Buck 4. Squadron Leader Neil McDougall flew Black Buck 5. The Vulcan flew within range of Argentine gun control radars but outside the range of the anti-aircraft-artillery (AAA). The Vulcan’s air electronics officer Flight Lieutenant Rod Trevaskus released chaff. Flt. Lt. Trevaskus fired two Shrike anti-radiation missiles at Argentine radar sites. The Argentines shut off their radars at the last minute and the Shrikes caused little damage.[iv] Squadron Leader McDougall and Flt. Lt. Trevaskus flew Black Buck 6. The Shrikes severely damaged a Skyguard fire control radar and killed three of its crew. The Vulcan’s refueling probe broke off during the final refueling. McDougall had to make an emergency landing in Brazil. Flt. Lt. Trevaskus fired two Shrike missiles into the Atlantic. Flt. Lt. Brian Gardner de-pressurized the cabin and threw out classified documents. He had difficulty repressurizing the cabin. The fuel situation caused McDougall to make a precarious landing. Brazil impounded the aircraft, serial number XM597. Flt. Lt. Withers flew Black Buck 7, the Vulcan’s final combat mission, on June 12. The Vulcan released air-burst bombs against airport stores and aircraft. All 21 bombs missed their target. The Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies concluded the British used the Vulcans “largely to prove [the air force] had some role to play and not to help the battle in the least.”[v]

The RAF retired the Vulcan in March 1984. The lone exception was XH558, the first Vulcan B.2 delivered to the RAF, which the RAF kept in service as a display aircraft until 1992. The Vulcan to the Sky Trust flew XH558 for demonstrations as a civilian aircraft from 2008 until October 2015.[vi]


[i] Air War South Atlantic by Jeffrey Ethell and Alfred Price, © 1983 by Sidgwick and Jackson Ltd.

[ii] Offensive Air Operations of the Falklands War, by Major Walter F. DeHoust, April 2, 1984, Marine Corps Command and Staff College, Marine Corps Development and Education Command, Offensive Air Operations Of The Falklands War (globalsecurity.org). last accessed 3/12/22.

[iii] Tangmere Museum.org, RAF VULCAN ‘BLACK BUCK’ MISSIONS THIRTY YEARS AGO | Tangmere Museum (tangmere-museum.org.uk), May 2012, last accessed 3/12/22.

[iv] Air War South Atlantic by Jeffrey Ethell and Alfred Price, © 1983 by Sidgwick and Jackson Ltd.

[v] War in the Eighties: Men Against High Tech, ed. Brian MacDonald, (Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, 1983, p. 32, Offensive Air Operations Of The Falklands War (globalsecurity.org). last accessed 3/12/22.

[vi] Vulcan to the Sky Trust, About the Trust - Vulcan to the Sky, last accessed 3/13/22.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Robert Sacchi

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