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 4 of 6)
It could do it all right, but a price was paid, according to retired RAF Air Vice Marshal Ron Dick, a former Vulcan squadron commander and a contributing editor to Air & Space/Smithsonian. “An aircraft designed for high altitude does not lend itself terribly well for low-level operations,” says Dick. “It was designed to withstand 2 Gs. You’ve got to be amazingly careful in the thicker air at lower altitudes to keep the indicated airspeed below about 350 knots because it couldn’t bear much stress.
“It was a wonderful airshow airplane, and I flew it at a number of airshows. But it is questionable whether it could have been effective flying at low level in a war against a nation as powerful as the Soviet Union.”
The Vulcan did inarguably play the strategic nuclear first-strike role until 1969, when Britain’s generals transferred that service to the Polaris submarine. The bomber then began a 15-year twilight. First it was rearmed with tactical nukes. Later it was relegated to reconnaissance, and even, on occasion, refueling, its prodigious bomb bay converted to a gas station.
The Vulcan served aviation as a test bed for the engines that would power the Concorde supersonic airliner. And it got a last turn in the limelight in 1982 with the five “Black Buck” raids on the Falklands. These were 8,000-mile round-trip sorties with each Vulcan supported by 11 refueling craft, the longest bombing runs in history until U.S. attacks on Afghanistan two decades later. The Vulcans, each one packed with 21 1,000-pound bombs, effectively cratered the Argentines’ runway.
Two years later, the RAF retired the Vulcan from active duty. Britain never built another strategic bomber; Polaris plays its nuclear deterrent role to this day. The Vulcan was the last of the breed.
So who cares? Britons can relive their finest hour half a dozen times a summer as RAF-preserved Spitfires, Hurricanes, and a single Lancaster soar through World War II reenactments at airshows across the land. Fifteen Vulcans, aside from Pleming’s XH558, are on view around the U.K. Two of them still taxi: Packard and Clarkson’s baby at Southend and a rival at Wellesbourne airfield, near Stratford-upon-Avon. A crowd of some 3,000 braved a sweltering Father’s Day afternoon to see the Wellesbourne specimen spool up and do three minutes on the runway, murmuring in awestruck tones: “It’s sooooo big” and “Turns on a dime!”
Three weeks later the Southend Vulcanites threw an Open Cockpit Day. There, more red-blooded English families steered their wide-eyed youngsters through the claustrophobic, dials-mad space where five crew members spent 16 hours during the Black Buck raids, the two pilots crammed in the tight cockpit. The audience was rapt by the lore volunteers shared about soup heaters the pilots used and the “P-tubes” they urinated through.
The Vulcan, in short, is still stoking plenty of national pride on the ground. Should Britain really spend £3 million of public funds so it can fly again for five or six years, after which the 600 tons of spare parts stockpiled at Bruntingthorpe will be exhausted? Even that lifespan depends on Pleming’s so-far empty assurances that private sponsors will pick up XH558’s running costs once the lottery pays for the craft’s return to airworthiness. “The underside of those wings would make a perfect advertising space for Richard Branson or somebody,” hopefully postulates Dave Griffiths, a financial software programmer who edits the Vulcan Restoration Trust’s Vulcan News.