God Save the Vulcan!
The Royal Air Force Vulcan, immense cold war bomber and aerodynamic marvel, has been sentenced to permanent museum exhibition.
- By Craig Mellow
- Air & Space magazine, January 2004
BAE Systems/NASM (SI Neg. #1A-04984)
(Page 3 of 6)
It was actually the United States that set the Vulcan project in motion. In 1948, a cold-war-stoked Congress passed the McMahon Act, excluding foreign nationals, Brits included, from U.S. nuclear programs. The U.K. didn’t blink, even under Clement Atlee, Winston Churchill’s far-left successor as prime minister. The government ordered not one nuclear bomber of its own but three, from three British aircraft manufacturers, all of them gone now.
Handley Page of Reading offered the Victor. Vickers of Newcastle built the Valiant. (Vickers still exists as an armored-vehicle maker.) The Vulcan—its name borrowed from the Roman god of fire—was created by A.V. Roe, outside Manchester, under the direction of master designer Ray Chadwick. The company had built the Lancaster, the RAF’s workhorse World War II bomber, and its contribution to the “V-Force,” as the three bombers became known, was again the best of its breed.
It also reflected the aerodynamic fashion of the time. Allied intelligence had captured German World War II research on all-wing aircraft and delta-wing designs, and aeronautical engineers were beguiled by the purity of the flying wing. In the United States, Jack Northrop produced an experimental flying wing in 1946, but two Northrop prototypes crashed. Later critics of that design judged that putting everything in the wing—the cockpit and fuel tanks—had made it so thick that at high speeds airflow around the wing separated, became turbulent, and caused the aircraft to buffet and lose stability.
Vulcan designers found similar problems with the first model they sent to Royal Aircraft Establishment wind tunnels. They had started with a more radical, all-wing design; the test results persuaded them to reduce the wing’s thickness by withdrawing the crew compartment, placing it instead in a short forward fuselage. Later, they added a conventional centrally mounted fin and rudder.
And still they faced difficulties. A prototype test flight ended in a fatal crash in 1949. A.V. Roe called on its chief test pilot, Roly Falk, to continue the test program. One of two or three fliers who could claim to be the British Chuck Yeager, Falk was known as “the pinstriped pilot,” because he preferred to fly in a three-piece suit and “if the cockpit wasn’t absolutely clean, he wouldn’t go up,” his son John recalls.
Falk had flown 350 different types of aircraft by the time he took the Vulcan’s controls, even surviving a 1947 accident in which he crashed through a house and ended up with a metal stanchion lodged in his throat. He nursed Chadwick’s monstrous creation through five more years of test and modification, ending in the summer of 1955 when, starting at a height of 300 feet and watched by a gaping crowd at the Farnborough Air Show, he rolled the big bomber. By the following year, Vulcans were in production and poised on the front line of freedom, each one packed with more destructive power than was dropped in all of World War II.
The Vulcan represented a great leap forward from the Lancaster and the larger, farther-reaching Lancaster descendant, the Lincoln, whose four piston engines pushed it along at a top speed of 290 mph. The new airplane reached 630 mph when it cruised at unheard-of 60,000-foot altitudes. The Vulcan was more complement than competitor to its great U.S. contemporary, the B-52—as a swift, get-on-base shortstop complements his muscle-bound clean-up hitter. “The B-52 was an extension of the Superfortress concept the Americans pioneered during the war,” observes Pleming, who earned a doctorate in nuclear physics in his youth before entering the computer industry. “[The B-52] was loaded with defensive systems and designed to deliver a knockout punch. The Vulcan flew faster than most fighters at the time, and because the engines were inside the wings, it had a stealthy design with a very low radar cross-section.”
The Vulcan in fact flew without fighter escort, and with no guns of its own, on the assumptions that Soviet defenders couldn’t catch it and anti-aircraft fire couldn’t reach it 12 miles up. The second assumption crumbled in 1960, when the Russians downed Powers’ CIA spyplane at 67,000 feet. But that, Vulcan groupies insist, is when Chadwick’s genius became fully apparent. For the great bomber, with enormous wing area and buried engines, could hug the ground as well as cruise the stratosphere.