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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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.

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!”

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