God Save the Vulcan!

The Royal Air Force Vulcan, immense cold war bomber and aerodynamic marvel, has been sentenced to permanent museum exhibition.

The prototype’s wing had a constant angle of sweep; tests led to a trademark leading edge kink in wings of production craft. (BAE Systems/NASM (SI Neg. #1A-04984))
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The RAF retired the Vulcan from service in 1984—ironically, just after it finally dropped its first bombs in combat, crippling an Argentine airfield in the Falklands War. The icon hung on at airshows for another nine years, and 16 remain intact today as museum pieces. But only the one under Pleming’s care, known to insiders by its serial number, XH558, could theoretically fly again.

That is, if the lottery fund changes its mind after turning down the Vulcan last year. If not, the end has come. Cecil Walton, the Bruntingthorpe owner who bought XH558 for love in 1993—along with all existing Vulcan spare parts—has died. His son David takes a more practical view of contributing 30,000 feet of hangar space. If the cash doesn’t come through this time, the airplane will be scrapped, Pleming says. Or, worse still in the eyes of some enthusiasts, be sold to an American.

“What got me involved in this was hearing a few years ago that the XH558 might end up in the U.S.,” says Felicity Irwin, who runs a London public relations agency and volunteers as Pleming’s spin doctor. “I said, ‘Over my dead body!’ ”

Pleming’s account of his own motivation is no less dramatic. “This is my own personal Everest,” he says, squaring his shoulders for a final assault on the peak. “I’m either Mallory or Hunt, I’m just not sure which yet.”

Pleming should know soon. John Hunt reached the summit of Everest in 1953, survived to write a book about it, was made a baron, and passed away peacefully at age 88. During his summit attempt of 1924, George Mallory died on the mountain.

It was an Englishman, John Milton, who wrote, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” The words might have been dedicated to the Vulcan three centuries later. From 1956 to 1969, it toted Britain’s (and an important part of NATO’s) frontline deterrent to the Communist nuclear threat. The bomber was designed to fly above the reach of radar and missile, but after the Russians brought down Gary Powers’ U-2 spyplane in 1960, the Vulcan switched, with some effort, to flying below detection. The airplane’s ultimate service was that its payload was never used.

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.

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