Vulcan, you are Cleared for Take-off
October 18, 2017 12:14 AM   Subscribe

On 18th October 2007 G-VLCN, better known as XH558 took to the air for the first time in 14 1/2 years.

At the end of the second world war with the dawning of both the jet and nuclear ages. A time of Cold War and Hot Jets. When Britain ruled the skies as an Empire of the Clouds. The UK was at the forefront of plane design. Producing design such as the Canberra. Which didn't leave service with the RAF until 2006 and is still used by NASA. An effective bomber, lacked the payload and range to carry early atomic bombs to targets in the USSR.

Air Ministry Specification B.35/46 which envisioned "medium-range bomber landplane, capable of carrying one 10,000 pounds (4,500 kg) bomb to target 1,500 nautical miles (2,800 kilometres) from a base which may be anywhere in the world."

A number of companies submitted design to meet the specification. Avro and Handley Page’s designs were seen as advanced and high risk. The Vickers’ design was selected as a 'safe' stop-gap option..

Additional insurance was to be provided by the Shorts design. The Sperrin took a very conservative approach. Essentially a World War Two design with jet instead of piston engines. Two prototypes were built. Before in late 1949, the Air Ministry ordered the Vickers Valiant for production instead. Relegating the two airframes to research duties.

Vickers Valiant
The first of the V-Bombers to fly and enter service. Taking to the skies on 18th May 1951. The production versions of the type entered RAF service on 8th February 1955. The only one of the V-Bombers to drop a live nuclear weapon as part of Operation Grapple. They were also deployed in a conventional role in the Suez crisis. The Valiant had a shoulder-mounted wing and four Rolls-Royce Avon embedded in the wing roots. Representing a conservative design compared to the other members of the V-Force.

Avro Vulcan
Designed by the same team as the Lancaster. With the prototype Vulcan flying only 11 years after the first flight of the Lancaster. Famously performing a barrel roll at Farnborough. Just over a year after the first flight of the Valiant on 30th August 1952. The Vulcan was a tailless delta wing design powered by four Bristol Olympus engines. Because of the lack of experience with Delta wing designs. Five Avro 707’s were built as proof-of-concept plane. With the first 707 flying on 4th September 1949.

Handley Page Victor
The fastest and able to carry the largest bombload. The Victor featured a unique crescent-shaped swept wing and was able to go Supersonic in a dive. First flying just under four months after the Vulcan om 24th December 1952. The Victor had the longest service life of all the V-Force, seeing action in the first gulf war. Before retiring in 1993. With XM715 being the last to fly in an unscheduled hop on 3rd May 2009.

By the mid 1960’s, even stand-off missiles and Quick Reaction Alert did not provide the required confidence of the bombers being able to deliver their weapons. The V-Force switched from the previous high-level mission profile to low level missions. This prompted a change from the previous anti flash white colour scheme to disruptive pattern camouflage. The Valiant’s developed stress fractures and were soon withdrawn from service. The Victors also did not withstand the increased stresses of the low-level role and were converted to tankers. Leaving the Vulcan to carry out the nuclear role.

The new low-level role also highlighted that each of the V-Force only provided ejection seats for the pilots. With the rear crew being expected to bail out of the crew door in the event of an emergency. Which prompted questions in Parliament.

Possible Replacement
The TSR-2, designed for the low-level mission from the outset. Was put forward as a possible replacement for the V-Force. By 1963 the TSR-2 had been cancelled in favour of F-111, which was subsequently also cancelled. Leaving the V-Force as the UK’s nuclear deterrent.

Handing over the Nuclear Deterrent Role
By the end of 1970 British Polaris submarines became operational, taking over as the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Vulcan’s continued to carry the WE.177B tactical weapon in support of NATO.

Twilight years
The Panavia Tornado started to enter RAF service June 1979, marking the beginning of the end the V-Force as weapons platforms. As squadron’s ran down, 617 Squadron was filmed to document the final days of the unit.

Good morning, this is One Quebec Delta. Superfuse
Things abruptly changed on 2nd April 1982. With the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands. The RAF set about planning an attack with the closest runway on RAF Ascension Island. 6300 kilometres from the Falklands. These Black Buck raids would use a Vulcan supported by many Victor tankers. With the Vulcan needing to be refuelled four times on the outbound leg and once on the return. The raids marked the first use of the Vulcan in combat and the V-force since Suez in 1956. The military success of the raids is still being debated.

With much of fatigue life of the RAF's Victor tankers being consumed by the Black Buck missions. Six Vulcan B2’s were converted into tankers to supplement the refuelling fleet. Serving until March l984. Marking the end of the Vulcan in frontline service.

Vulcan Display Flight
Such was the popularly of the Vulcan at air shows. In part due to the distinctive sound the engines make at around 90% power. The famous Vulcan Howl. The RAF maintained a Vulcan for display flights. Initially this was XL426 for the 1984 season . With XH560 as a replacement, before XH558 was selected given her larger remaining flying hours. XH558 remained with the flight until budget cuts disbanded the unit. Bidding farewell with a wave. The final display being at RAF Cranfield on 20th September 1992.

XH558 was acquired along with a large collection of spares by the Walton family, and delivered to Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome in Leicestershire on 23 March 1993. XH558 performed fast taxys as part of the collection of cold war jets.

Return to Flight
In 1997, a study was conducted, looking into the feasibility of returning XH558 to flight. With the project always struggling for money. The Vulcan to the sky trust was formed. The most complex return to flight project continued on. Finally, in October 2007 getting XH558 moving under her own power on the 12th. Fast Taxying again on the 17th. With the return to the air on the 18th. The first display was at RAF Waddington in July 2008, watched over by XM607.

Back to Finningley
XH558’s base moved to Doncaster Sheffield Airport. The former RAF Finningley. Funding still remained a problem. XH558 cost £2 million a year. XH558 appeared at RIAT 2012. 2013 was projected to be the final flying year but funds were raised to continue until 2015. With XH558 flying with two Avro Lancaster in 2014.

The three technical authorities (BAE Systems, Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group and Rolls-Royce) withdrew their support. Meaning XH558 would lose CAA approval to fly at the end of 2015. By this point XH558 had performed 10% more flying hours than any other Vulcan. With engineers being brought out of retirement to provide the expertise.

The final flying season was marked by an extended send-off. The last time flying with the Red Arrows. A 'Salute to the V-Force' tour, visiting all the preserved V-Force airframes in the UK. A final display at Old Warden. A tour of Northern and Southern sites to give as many people as possible a chance to say goodbye. With the final flight taking place on 28th October 2015

Life after Flight
XH558 remains at Doncaster Sheffield Airport and able to fast taxy. Plans exist to build a new hanger with XH558 as the centrepiece to inspire the next generation.

"Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened"
posted by Z303 (32 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Paging artw, artw to Doncaster Sheffield.

Art and I met IRL due to a story I once told on here about seeing a pair of Vulcans overfly my family at the border stone atop Llanberis Pass, circa 1982. Last time I looked into it, it seemed likely the birds were flying there to be decommissioned. Will be back with links and whatever corrections might be needed.
posted by mwhybark at 12:28 AM on October 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Initial thread.

Art's remark, and followup.

My tale.

My initial blog entry.

I note that in the Mefi thread I had learned that what mist have been XH558 was still flying. Don't think either Art nor I ever saw it at an airshow, logically enough as we live in Seattle.

Thanks very much, Z303 - you are not the only Vulcan admirer on MetaFilter.
posted by mwhybark at 12:36 AM on October 18, 2017 [7 favorites]

I saw a Vulcan fly over an air-show I was visiting as a child (likely in the early '80s) at a low-ish altitude, and I still distinctly remember the intense, innard-rattling noise the thing made. Thanks for the post, Z303!
posted by misteraitch at 12:43 AM on October 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Love. This. Post.
posted by garius at 12:58 AM on October 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

I knew a Vulcan pilot back in the 1980s - well, he was an ex-Vulcan pilot by then. He was very proud of the aircraft, the job it did and the job he did, missed the business and his fellow crewmates, but said it was not too difficult to walk away from the actual flying, which was... uncomfortable. (He could be more adjectival than that.)

He never talked about the small matter that on some QRA drills, you didn't know until quite some time after takeoff that you were on a drill. If you weren't, you probably wouldn't be coming back because there'd be nothing to come back to - fly onto Mongolia and settle down in a yurt, was the gallows humour plan.

I love the Vulcan for many reasons, and I'm very pleased I saw it fly at airshows back in the day - you don't forget it. I can't imagine what it was like seeing it when it was new - it and the Victor looked like nothing else at the time, and flew like nothing else. But thinking about what it was designed to do, and what the crew had to be prepared for, I am happy that the damn things are done with.

(Concorde, on the other hand... now there was a comfortable white tin triangle with even more grunty donks. Probably won't fly again - I don't think any of the return-to-flight groups have much chance - but my love for that particular folly is much more uncomplicated.)
posted by Devonian at 1:30 AM on October 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

Thanks so much for sharing this! And wow, the Canberra, the plane you have to fly wearing an astronaut's suit. That's definitely going to be on my X-mas wishlist.
posted by ouke at 1:34 AM on October 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Great post - I grew up in Lincolnshire close to RAF Scampton so we saw Vulcans flying overhead regularly when I was a kid.
posted by crocomancer at 1:41 AM on October 18, 2017

I seem to remember that a Vulcan was at the heart of a little operation codenamed: Thunderball.
posted by valkane at 1:43 AM on October 18, 2017 [6 favorites]

My father-in-law did his army service stationed off the runway in Farnborough. Whenever one of the early Vulcans took off they had to stand everything in the place back up again.

Like the Spitfire, it is an instrument of destruction but at the same time an awesome, iconic shape.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 2:29 AM on October 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Vulcan was designed to carry the British strategic nuclear bomb, and at first (1958–60) this was the hastily deployed "Violet Club", possibly the worst designed nuclear weapon ever put into operation. It contained more than a critical mass of uncompressed uranium, and so there was a risk that damage to the bomb (for example by dropping it, or by the plane crashing, or by a fire in the storage area) would yield a lethal burst of radiation or a low-yield nuclear explosion. The risk was ameliorated by filling the hollow core with ball bearings, but there was no facility for removing the bearings in flight, so it had to de-safed before loading onto the Vulcan. The RAF hated the weapon.
posted by cyanistes at 2:45 AM on October 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

It's kind of amazing that a single program could produce one of the most beautiful planes ever and also one of the ugliest.
posted by Zonker at 3:17 AM on October 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've long tried to find a picture of the truly-madly-deeply-bonkers Violet Club; the closest I can get is this none-more-bombly pic of Blue Danube, together with a none-more-atomic-scientist in gingerly attendance. Violet Club was housed in a Blue Danube casing, so it'll have to do.
posted by Devonian at 4:01 AM on October 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Whenever posts like this come up, they always inspire the same response in me: aesthetically and technically wondrous, morally vile.
posted by lalochezia at 5:04 AM on October 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

So was unfamiliar w Violet Club, but the wikipedia article on it is pretty eyebrow raising. Of particular interest was the incident where the retaining bung slipped out in a hangar and they ended up with 133,000 steel ball bearings all over the floor surrounding a now very active nuclear weapon that sounds like it was about as easily detonated as a case of nitro-glycerin. That must have been fun for the guys cleaning up all those ball bearings.

So after that they apparently had to ask permission to store the bombs inverted, i.e., with the hole for the ball bearings on the top so they wouldn't fall out and activate the bomb. I would have thought that would have been the obvious way to store it from the beginning...

Overall, it sounds kind of like a nuclear Austin Allegro.
posted by Naberius at 5:51 AM on October 18, 2017 [9 favorites]

posted by googly at 6:26 AM on October 18, 2017

I saw a Vulcan at the East Fortune airshow. My bike had broken down, so I was a couple of miles away, waiting for a lift, when it came over. There were a couple of fighter jets in the air at the time. I don't recall what they were now, but I do remember that the presence and sound of the Vulcan made them look tiny.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 6:28 AM on October 18, 2017

(Violet Club discussed in this thread previously)
posted by Devonian at 6:29 AM on October 18, 2017

I saw XH558 on July 26th 2014 at the Yeovilton Air Day (nr Yeovil, Somerset, England) - seeing it in flight was the highlight of my day. Got some good photos which I would be happy to share with anyone who is interested.
posted by IncognitoErgoSum at 6:36 AM on October 18, 2017

Zonker: I don't think it's fair to rag on the Victor in its final let's-hang-the-kitchen-sink-on-it incarnation;the clean, uncluttered, supersonic-capable prototype in flight is something else.
posted by cstross at 7:01 AM on October 18, 2017 [6 favorites]

What's more: "Even an event as inconsequential as early morning frost was an issue. Violet Club could be loaded into a bomber for up to thirty days on standby while parked overnight on a remote base where the bomb could get very cold. If the steel balls froze together inside the bomb cavity and could not be removed, the bomb was useless. AWRE's solution was to fit the bomb with an electric blanket."

Though honestly, that sounds like about the best possible outcome for the aircrew. "Oh, there's a bit of a nip in the air, isn't there? At least we won't be vaporized this morning."
posted by Naberius at 8:14 AM on October 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I lived near Naval Air Station Glenview as a kid, and I still remember the 1978 crash of XL390 while preparing for the Chicago Air and Water Show.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:10 AM on October 18, 2017

Apropos Violet Club, the British nuclear weapons program has always been a bit Heath Robinson-esque (in American terms: Rube Goldberg). There's a cut-away Chevaline MRV warhead (safely free of explosives and fissile bits) on a Polaris missile test article at East Fortune Museum of Flight; I was slightly astonished to see that bits of it seemed to be made out of bakelite and cork. And then there's the way that, through the late 1990s, the WE.177B free-fall H-bombs didn't have a Permissive Action Lock to prevent accidental arming/detonation — they were secured with a bicycle lock (which could be picked with a ballpoint pen cap).

And then there's the infamous chicken-heated atomic landmine, Blue Peacock, a device so absurd that when the papers describing it were declassified one April 1st the Records Office issued an indignant disclaimer to the effect that they don't make up April Fool stories.
posted by cstross at 9:56 AM on October 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Well, not on purpose anyway...
posted by Naberius at 10:25 AM on October 18, 2017

cstross: that's a fair point, and it's certainly true that the poor old Victor wasn't helped by all of the various sorts of cruft that it accumulated over its long career. But I can't pay the prototype any more of a compliment than "not as ugly as it became later". I could learn to like the crescent planform of the wings. But that bulbous underhang from the nose and the manta-like view from the front seem biological (in unpleasant ways) to me. It's the plane that a young H.R. Giger would have designed, before he turned himself loose to get really weird.

Maybe the designers were groping towards an understanding of the Area Rule. Once that concept was fully understood, it resulted in some lovely designs (Concorde and the Su-27 are good examples), but the early attempts to implement it just looked strange.
posted by Zonker at 10:56 AM on October 18, 2017

MetaFilter: I burst into the capering, leaping dance of the excited hominid, screeching and whooping in excitement, even joy. I tossed my arms above my head as language and culture fell away.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:44 PM on October 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also the famous (maybe apocryphal?) nuclear warhead storage warning:
It is necessary for technical reasons that these warheads be stored upside down; that is to say, with the top at the bottom and the bottom at the top. In order that there may be no doubt as to which is the bottom and which is the top, it will be seen to that the bottom of each warhead is immediately labelled with the word TOP.
Vulcan pilots also wore an eyepatch during patrol, so that if they were blinded by an atomic flash they could change over and keep flying.

In addition, a Vulcan painted in anti-flash white is the coolest-looking warplane ever.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 8:15 PM on October 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

It's kind of amazing that a single program could produce one of the most beautiful planes ever and also one of the ugliest.

You shut your vile gob now.

Is there any other plane that looks so much like it flew out of a Thunderbirds annual?
posted by MartinWisse at 12:31 AM on October 19, 2017

cstross - did you ever work in the UK defence industry? One of the small issues with the V-force (and indeed the fast jet fleet at the time) was that for their entire service life, the radars which were supposed to spot incoming threats didn't work. (See also Nimrod cancellation, which saw Shackletons, themselves redesigned Lancasters, refitted with WWII-era radars as the front-line UK maritime surveillance system.)

I don't know what's going on in that sector these days, but I do note that having closed down RAF Saxa Vord against much advice, and sold most of it off to be a leisure complex (which is about as enticing a place to visit as you might expect ex-barracks in the far north of Shetland to be), the MoD has just said it's going to open it up again. So I suspect the same national genius which brought us the Blue Circle radar system is still in effect.
posted by Devonian at 1:43 AM on October 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Is there any other plane that looks so much like it flew out of a Thunderbirds annual?

Sorry, dude, I mean no offense, but I calls ‘em as I sees ‘em, and, well... I think this picture says it all.
There’s no shame in being ugly but functional (or so I tell myself when I look in the mirror). The A-10 leans in to its ugliness, owns it, and takes it all the way off the end of the spectrum to a place of grim, functional—not beauty, but elegance of a sort. But a pig just can’t be a swan, even when it’s dressed up in a white, anti-flash tuxedo...
posted by Zonker at 4:30 AM on October 19, 2017

I drove up through Labrador a few years ago and was surprised to see a Vulcan sitting there in front of CFB Goose Bay. Turns out it suffered some damage in-flight (maybe a fire?) and would have cost too much to return back to the UK for repair so they just gave it to the base, so there it sits.
posted by lumberbaron at 6:58 AM on October 19, 2017

That Vulcan did have a fire which burned through some cabling. It wasn't so much the damage per se that led to it being abandoned, more that since the Vulcan fleet was being retired anyway there wasn't any point. In the end, it was donated to the local community.

TIL that the Victor was intended to have a detachable cockpit with a parachute as an escape mechanism. Work with models dissuaded the designers of this idea, which is a shame - even more Thunderbirdesque.
posted by Devonian at 8:44 AM on October 19, 2017

Zonker: ...I think this picture says it all.

Are you talking about Glamorous Glennis's big, white sister? Careful what you say!
posted by wenestvedt at 5:37 AM on October 20, 2017

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