Operational History

In September 1956, the RAF received its first Vulcan B.1, XA897, which immediately went on a round-the-world tour to fly-the-flag. On 1 October 1956, while landing at London Heathrow Airport at completion of the tour, XA897 was destroyed in a fatal accident.

The second Vulcan was not delivered until 1957 and the delivery rate then increased. The B.2 variant was first tested in 1957 and entered service in 1960. It had a larger wing with a different leading edge, and better performance than the B.1 and had a distinctive kink in its delta wing to reduce buffeting. The leading edge was forward of the spar and changes were easily incorporated into the production.

The undercarriage of a Vulcan made heavy contact with the runway during an air show for the opening of Rongotai (Wellington) Airport New Zealand in 1959. Despite one main undercarriage leg being non-functional the aircraft returned to Ohakea and landed safely, toppling onto the grass verge at the end of its run. There was a long delay while it was decided whether to scrap it, ship it back by sea, or repair it in situ. In the end, the aircraft was repaired by the RNZAF - who applied RNZAF kiwi roundels in place of the typical RAF roundels. A display at the Ohakea branch of the Royal New Zealand Air Force Museum includes honeycombed skin from the damaged aircraft.

XH558 taking off; Farnborough international air show 2008

Vulcans frequently visited the United States during the 1960s and 1970s to participate in air shows and static displays, as well as to participate in the Strategic Air Command's Annual Bombing and Navigation Competition at such locations as Barksdale AFB, Louisiana and the former McCoy AFB, Florida, with the RAF crews representing Bomber Command and later Strike Command.

A total of 134 production Vulcans were manufactured (45 B.1 and 89 B.2), the last being delivered to the RAF in January 1965.

Nuclear deterrent

As part of Britain's independent nuclear deterrent, the Vulcan initially carried Britain's first nuclear weapon, the Blue Danube gravity bomb. Blue Danube was a low-kiloton yield fission bomb designed before the United States detonated the first hydrogen bomb. The British then embarked on their own hydrogen bomb programme, and to bridge the gap until these were ready the V-bombers were equipped with an Interim Megaton Weapon based on the Blue Danube casing and Green Grass, a large pure-fission warhead of 400 kt (1.7 PJ) yield. This bomb was known as Violet Club. Only five were deployed before a better weapon was introduced as Yellow Sun Mk.1.

A later model, Yellow Sun Mk 2 was fitted with Red Snow, a British-built variant of the U.S. Mk-28 warhead. Yellow Sun Mk 2 was the first British thermonuclear weapon to be deployed, and was carried on both the Vulcan and Handley Page Victor. Only the Valiant carried U.S. thermonuclear bombs assigned to NATO under the dual-key arrangements. Red Beard (a smaller, lighter low-kiloton yield) bomb was pre-positioned in Cyprus and Singapore for use by Vulcan and Victor bombers, and from 1962, 26 Vulcan B2As and the Victor bombers were armed with the Blue Steel missile, a rocket-powered stand-off bomb, which was also armed with the 1.1 Mt (4.6 PJ) yield Red Snow warhead.

It was intended to equip the Vulcan with the American Skybolt Air Launched Ballistic Missile to replace the Blue Steel, with Vulcan B.2s carrying two Skybolts under the wings the last 28 B.2s being modified on the production line to fit pylons to carry the Skybolt. It was also proposed to build a stretched version of the Vulcan, with increased wing span to carry up to six Skybolts. When the Skybolt missile system was cancelled by U.S. President John F. Kennedy on the recommendation of his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara in 1962, Blue Steel was retained. To supplement it until the Royal Navy took on the deterrent role with Polaris submarines, the Vulcan bombers adopted a high-low-high mission profile using a rapidly introduced parachute-retarded "laydown" bomb; WE.177B. After the British Polaris submarines became operational, and Blue Steel was taken out of service in 1970, WE.177B continued in use on the Vulcan in a low-level tactical strike role in support of European NATO ground forces. It would outlive the Vulcan bombers, being used also on Buccaneer, Tornado, and Jaguar until retirement in 1998.

Avro Vulcan from Operation Black Buck at the National Museum of Flight, showing mission markings.

Conventional role

Although the primary weapon for the Vulcan was nuclear, Vulcans could carry up to 21 1,000 lb (454 kg) bombs in a secondary role. The only combat missions involving the Vulcan took place in the 1982 Falklands War with Argentina, when Vulcans, in the Black Buck operations flew the 3,889 mi (6,259 km) from Ascension Island to Stanley. There were three missions to bomb the airfield at Stanley; two to attack Argentine radar installations with missiles and two missions were cancelled.

Victor aircraft were used for air-to-air refuelling in a complex scheme and approximately 1.1 million gal (5 million L) of jet fuel were used in each mission.

Five Vulcans were selected for the operation: their bomb bays were modified; the flight refuelling system that had long been out of use was re-instated; the electronics updated; and wing pylons designed, manufactured, and fitted to carry an ECM pod and Shrike anti-radar missiles where the Skybolt hardpoints remained in the wings. The engineering work began on 9 April 1982 with the first mission on 30 April-1 May. At the time these missions held the record for the world's longest distance raids.

Maritime Radar Reconnaissance

On 1 November 1973, the first of nine B.2 (MRR) aircraft was delivered to No. 27 Sqn at RAF Scampton reformed for its main role of Maritime Radar Reconnaissance. The main external visual difference was gloss paint and the lack of the Terrain Following Radar (TFR) "thimble" below the air-to-air refuelling probe. The gloss finish, with a light grey undersurface, was due to the secondary role of air sampling. As both roles were high altitude, the TFR system was removed.

Royal Air Force Avro Vulcan B.2

Only five of the B.2(MRR)s were capable of the air sampling role and these aircraft were distinguished by the additional hard points outside the Skybolt points. These additional points sometimes carried modified Sea Vixen drop tanks with the nose section replaced by a larger diameter nose. Another external, but much smaller, piece of equipment was carried just outboard of the port undercarriage main door.

During the late 1970s, some of the non-air sampling aircraft were exchanged with other squadrons whose aircraft had a high fatigue usage.

All B2(MRR) aircraft were equipped with Olympus 201 ECUs. Three of the aircraft had the small Mk 1 style of engine air intake. The B2(MRR) was withdrawn from service on 31 March 1982, some of the aircraft going on to be converted for use as tankers.

Aerial refuelling role

After the end of the Falklands War, the Vulcan was due to be withdrawn from RAF service. However, the disbandment of 57 Squadron and delays in the operational availability of the Lockheed TriStar left a gap in the RAF's air to air refuelling capability, as the Victor aircraft that were used for air-to-air refuelling in a complex scheme in the Black Buck operations, used up their air life in these operations. As an interim measure, six Vulcan B.2s were converted into air-to-air refuelling (AAR) tankers, with a single HDU box tacked onto the rear of the fuselage. To accommodate this crude, but functional HDU box and extra equipment, the ECM bay was gutted. The go ahead was given on Tuesday 4 May 1982 and quickly detail manufacture was undertaken at both Woodford and Chadderton, with help from BAe Warton Division and Flight Refuelling Limited, who helped with redesign of the HDU to make it fit into the Vulcan. Fifty days later, on Wednesday 23 June, the first Vulcan Air Tanker XH561 was delivered to RAF Waddington. These Vulcans were then commissioned into service with 50 Squadron from 1982 to 1984. The additional fuel load in the Vulcan K.2 Air Tanker was carried in three standard Vulcan long-range tanks, which were fitted in the bomb bay. This gave a total fuel capacity of 100,000 lb (45,000 kg).

The Vulcan to the Sky Trust's Avro Vulcan XH558

Engine test beds

The first Vulcan to serve as an engine test bed was the first prototype, VX770, powered by four 15,000 lbf (67 kN) Rolls-Royce Conway R.Co.7. It flew with these engines, the first turbofans, in 1957-8 until its fatal crash. Its place was taken by Vulcan B.1 XA902, which was powered by the R.Co.11 variant. In 1961 the two inner Conways were replaced with Rolls-Royce Speys, flying for the first time on 12 October 1961.

XA894 flew with five Olympus engines, the standard four plus an underbelly supersonic Olympus 320 fed from a bifurcated intake starting just aft of the wing leading edge and inboard of the main intakes, in a mock-up of the TSR2 installation. This aircraft was burned out on the ground on 3 December 1962. Another five Olympus Vulcan was B.1 XA903. The test engine was a 35,080 lbf (156.0 kN) Olympus 593, the type used in the Concorde, mounted underbelly in a mockup of a single Concorde nacelle. The first flight was on 1 October 1966 and testing continued through to June 1971.

In April 1973 XA903 flew with an underbelly Rolls-Royce RB.199 turbofan destined for the Panavia Tornado. It was mounted in what was essentially one side of a Tornado, including reheat and thrust reverser.

Prototypes

Two prototypes were built and subsequently modified for development, gaining the Mark 2 wing and testing engines. They differed in several ways from the later production aircraft. Smaller nose (No H2S radar fitted) and no Flight Refuelling Probe (FRP). VX770 did not have the bomb aimer's blister. Both aircraft had a longer nose undercarriage leg than production aircraft.

B.1

The initial production aircraft, with the straight wing leading edge, with wide undercarriage track and four underwing airbrakes. Early examples finished in silver, later changed to "anti-flash" white.

B.1A

The B.1 with an Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) system in a new larger tail cone

B.2

Developed version of the B.1. Larger, thinner wing than the B.1 and fitted with Olympus 201 or 301 engines. Terrain following radar in nosecone and passive radar warning in tail fin giving it a square top from mid-1970s. Uprated electrics with Airborne Auxiliary Power Unit and emergency Ram Turbine generator. Smiths Military Flight System (MFS). Originally white "anti-flash" finish, from late 1970s dark all over camouflage finish.

B.2A

Also known as B.2BS. B.2 with Olympus 301 engines to carry Blue Steel in recessed bomb doors. A & E bomb bay tanks only. After the withdrawal of Blue Steel converted back to B.2.

B.2 (MRR)

Nine B.2 converted to Maritime Radar Reconnaissance. Given high gloss protective paint to protect against sea spray effects. No Terrain Following Radar (TFR) but given LORAN navigation aid. Five aircraft further modified for Air Sampling Role taking over from 543 Sqn. Victor SR 2. Retained gloss finish with light grey underside when B 2 given matte all-surface camouflage.

K.2

Six B.2 converted for air-to-air refuelling with Mark 17 hose drum below tail cone. ECM removed. Could be fitted with three bomb bay drum tanks (for self-use or tanking).

Avro Vulcan XL361 on display at CFB Goose Bay in 1988

Operators

  • No. 9 Squadron RAF (Operated the B2 from 1962 to 1982)
  • No. 12 Squadron RAF (Operated the B2 from 1962 to 1967)
  • No. 27 Squadron RAF (Operated the B2 from 1961 to 1972 and the B2(MRR) from 1973 to 1982)
  • No. 35 Squadron RAF (Operated the B2 from 1962 to 1982)
  • No. 44 Squadron RAF (Operated the B1 from 1960 to 1967 and the B2 from 1966 to 1982)
  • No. 50 Squadron RAF (Operated the B1 from 1961 to 1966, the B2 from 1966 to 1984 and the B2(K) from 1982 to 1984)
  • No. 83 Squadron RAF (the first Vulcan squadron operated the B1 from 1957 to 1960 and the B2 from 1960 to 1969)
  • No. 101 Squadron RAF (Operated the B1 from 1957 to 1967 and the B2 from 1967 to 1982)
  • No. 617 Squadron RAF (Operated the B1 from 1958 to 1961 and the B2 from 1961 to 1981)
  • No. 230 Operational Conversion Unit RAF
  • Vulcan To The Sky Trust (Flying XH558)