Avro Vulcan strategic bomber
Aircraft

Avro Vulcan: Specs, facts and service history

Second only to Spitfire in iconic stakes, this is all the gen on the Cold War Bomber.

Avro Vulcan strategic bomber

Was there ever a post-World War Two aircraft so iconic as the Avro Vulcan?

Vulcan's delta-shaped wingspan and the high-pitched roar of her four Rolls-Royce powered engines became symbolic of the Cold War.

In the Falklands War, she was credited with conducting what was, at the time, the longest bombing raids in history. Decades before, Vulcan's placement on V-Force became the cornerstone of Britain's nuclear deterrent.

Conceptualised by the same designer behind the invaluable Lancaster Bomber, the Avro Vulcan was always destined to find its status as a British aviation legend. 

But what is it about the the aircraft that makes so many of us so proud?

Here, we explore the ins and outs, the stats and facts, of one of Britain's most loved Bombers, the Avro Vulcan. 

The Avro Vulcan B.2.

History 

Vulcan's concept, design, and introduction to RAF service in the mid-1950s traces its genesis in Britain's desire to enter the Nuclear Arms Race and have a deterrent deliverable from the air in its arsenal. 

In 1947, the government issued an Air Staff Operational Requirement for "a medium range bomber landplane capable of carrying one 10,000 lb bomb to a target 1,500 nautical miles from a base which may be anywhere in the world."

Six companies submitted tender responses to the Air Ministry's Requirement, including Avro, which manufactured the Lancaster Bomber during World War II. Roy Chadwick, Avro's technical director, led the work to design what would eventually become the Vulcan. However, the famous aircraft designer would not live to see his Vulcan plans come to life. Chadwick was killed in an aeroplane crash in 1947, five years before she first took to the skies.

The pilot and co-pilot positions in the cockpit of Vulcan.

The first Vulcan prototype conducted a maiden flight at Woodford, near the Avro plant, on 30 August 1952. Four years later, Avro delivered its first new Bomber to the RAF, Vulcan B.1 XA897.

Later that year, XA897 crashed in bad weather at Heathrow.

While the pilot and co-pilot, which on that occasion was Air Marshal Sir Harry Broadhurst, ejected safely before the impact, four other crew members were killed in the incident.

The Bomb

Vulcan carried Britain's nuclear deterrent throughout the 1960s until the Royal Navy took over the duty in 1969. Since then, the Senior Service has maintained a constant sea-based deterrent with at least one submarine on patrol at an undisclosed location beneath the waves.

But from 1958, 108 of the RAF's V-Bombers were assigned secret Soviet targets to engage should the order be given, and from 1962, two jets in every bomber base were armed with 'the bomb'. 

In September 2021, an ex-Vulcan pilot described his experiences of the long periods he spent on standby as part of that air-based nuclear deterrent. The now-retired pilot, Nick Dennis, served in the Royal Air Force for more than 20 years. He said:

"The general feeling was that if we were actually sent in anger East, there was a reason for it. There was a great need to get airborne as quickly as possible because there was something incoming. So, you always felt that if you were called out in anger, there wouldn't be much left of this country. And that went on until the Royal Navy took on the deterrent.

"I was pretty young then, and I think you think you are pretty invincible and that nothing like that will happen to you."

Nick Dennie flew Vulcan's during the years of her nuclear deterrent service.

Avro Vulcan Variants

  • B.1                   Last flight occurred in 1979.
  • B.1 A               Withdrew from service in 1969.
  • B.2                   Most extensively produced Avro Vulcan.
  • B.2 MMR         Maritime Radar Reconnaissance converted.
  • K.2                   Air-to-air refueler.
  • B.3                   Designed to carry Skybolt missile but never built.

In total, 45 B.1 variants were built, and 89 B.2s. Of the 134 produced by Avro, one remained as an airframe at its Woodfield-based factory. Nine were converted to the MMR specification, and six became air-to-air refuelers.

XM655 is one of three remaining B.2 variants able to "fast-taxi."

Vulcan And The Falklands War 

Although the Vulcan's Royal Air Force service spanned four decades, her crews only fired weapons from her variants on five occasions, all during the Falklands War. 

The operations, seven in total, were given the codename Black Buck. Each involved targets at Port Stanley Airport or its associated defences.  

At the time, they were the longest-ranged bombing raids in history, coming in at 6,000 nautical miles, equating to a return journey of 16 hours for the crews involved. 

One such Officer involved in the raids on Stanley is Air Electronics Officer Rod Trevaskus, who, on the night of 3 June 1982, succeeded in destroying an Argentine anti-aircraft position by firing a Shrike missile from his Vulcan, XM597. Four Argentine soldiers were killed in the attack, but Rod, explaining the incident in an interview earlier this month, faced an almost fatal emergency of his own on the run home. He said:

"On the way back when we were doing our last refuelling, the Nimrod came and put us together about 700 miles of the coast of Brazil. We had one of two problems trying to get into the probe. On one particular approach, it was rather heavy, and there was a huge bang. And then we lost the tip of the probe. It stayed in the gasket of the Victor.

"It became obvious we weren't going back to Ascension Island and started to head for Brazil and think what we had to do."

After disposing the aircraft's secret documents by ditching them in the ocean, Rod gave a Mayday call to Brazilian air controllers, who were reluctant to let the British bomber land.

Reliving that moment, Rod said: 

"I told them, 'Here's the situation, you either let us land, or we are going to ditch in Rio Bay'.

After some days, Brazilian officials released Rod and his colleagues, and their Vulcan bomber, back to the UK. He and the aircraft played no further role in the war. The crew of XM597 had had a lucky escape. 

Rod Travaskus was Air Electronics Officer on Vulcan XM597 during raids on Stanley during the Falklands War.

Avro Vulcan B.2 Specifications

The Avro Vulcan B.2 was the most numerously produced variant to be delivered to the Royal Air Force. These are her specifications.

Manufacturer            A.V. Roe and Company (known as Avro)

Powered by                4 x Bristol Siddeley Olympus 201 or 301 jet engines

Length                        105 feet

Wingspan                   111 feet

Max speed                  644 MPH

Max range                  4,603 miles

Crew                           Five

Max weight                250,000 lbs  

In-service with:

Royal Air Force Squadrons: 9, 12, 27, 35, 44, 50, 83, 101, 617 and 230.

Based at:

RAF Bases: Akritori, Coningsby, Cottesmore, Finningley, Scampton and Waddington.

Armament:

  • 21 x 1,000 lbs conventional bombs
  • 1 x Blue Danube nuclear gravity bomb
  • 1 x Violet Club 400 kiloton bomb
  • 1 x US Mark 5 nuclear bomb
  • 1 x Yellow Sun Mk.1 400 kiloton nuclear bomb
  • 1 x Yellow Sun Mk.2 1.1 megaton thermonuclear bomb
  • 1 x Red Beard nuclear bomb
  • 1 x WE.177B nuclear bomb (parachute-retarded).