Today is the 100th birthday of the Royal Air Force, the world’s oldest independent air force. Once upon a long ago, I served in the RAF. Why did I choose the RAF? Well, I got a bit too seasick for the Navy. And bullet dodging with the British Army wasn’t something that appealed to me. The application process was quite the balava. In between posting my application form and turning up for basic training at RAF Halton, eighteen months passed. Numerous tests, interviews and a pair of medicals filled the time. Two medicals, rather than the usual one, because I failed the first for being a couple of pounds underweight, courtesy of a ten day bout of flu.
In the 1950s, Britain decided they needed some shiny new planes to deliver the country’s nuclear bombs to carefully chosen locations east of Berlin. Britain was still a world superpower of sorts. In the air, she was still the superpower. So in keeping wih that status, the decision was made to put in orders for three different aircraft. The Victor, the Valiant and the Vulcan. The V Force. At ridiculous expenses, hundreds of planes were built and put into the air just in time to coincide with the development of effective anti-aircraft missiles and the decision to house the nuclear deterrent inside submarines instead.
To understand why the decision was made at all, you’d do worse that watch the recent two part television series, Cold War Hot Jets – two hours of aviation history from a British perspective. One things that becomes quickly apparent – of the three types of bomber, there was one that represented the cutting edge of technology. It was the riskiest of the three projects. Ultimately, it was the most successful. Once anti-aircraft missiles had become an established and unmitigated threat, there was just one that was capable of switching from high altitude high speed flight, to speeding along just metres off of the ground, under the radar.
Luckily, it was also the most beautiful of the three planes. It was, of course, the Vulcan. If you’ve seen it in the flesh, you’ll never forget it. It’ll appear in silence. Then the noise from the four engines catches up. It won’t just deafen you. The ground will vibrate and numb your senses.Only the Concorde compares. Although Concorde had a slightly less deadly job to do. Not that a Vulcan was ever called upon to fulfil a nuclear raid. Indeed, for all the money spent on the V Force bombers, only one ever supplied an explosive delivery in anger.
Ironically, in 1981, the Argentines wanted to buy some Vulcans. The British government initially agreed to sell them a single bomber. A few months later, the Falkland Islands were invaded, and a Vulcan was duly sent to Argentina’s military forces. Albeit in a different manner to how they had originally planned to take delivery. One Vulcan and a fleet of refuelling aircraft flew from the UK to the Falklands, dropped some bombs on the runway and then returned home. It was the longest bombing raid in history until relatively recently, an there’s a documentary on YouTube that tells the story. Despite the successful sortie, the Vulcans were retired just a couple of years later.
There is just one Vulcan still flying these days, making appearances at airshows around the country. It is everyone’s favourite. Every year, there are fears that the Vulcan may not return next year. It is costly to keep airworthy, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep this 50 year old plane in the sky. But every year the money is found for another tour of air show duty. However, the end is now nigh, it seems. The owners have announced that this year is the final year of the Vulcan.
My home town of Bournemouth has one of the largest free air shows in Europe. I go every year. I pick my day carefully – which day does the Vulcan fly? I got a decent viewing point this year and snapped away with my camera at what was, possibly, the Vulcan’s final display over the golden sands of Bournemouth. Farewell old chap. We will miss you. Click here for the full photo set from last weekends show.
The UK is littered with airfields and RAF bases, past and present. Mostly past. The majority were opened at the outbreak of WW2 and closed again at the end of the war. There were no airfields terribly close to my current residency in Bournemouth. There were RAF Stations nearby, as you’d expect on the south coast. Radar installations, watching out for Jerry.
Still, Bournemouth has become a destination for fans of flying, both civilian and military. There is a small airport offering cheap flights with RyanAir to places like Barcelona, Pisa, Faro, Malta, Ibiza and more. And in late August, early September the annual Bournemouth Air Festival draws huge crowds to see four days of aeronautical displays. It’s a fantastic show, especially when the owners of the last, creaking Vulcan manage to get that delta winged beast into the skies.
But there is a lesser known, almost hidden corner of Bournemouth’s aviation scene. The Bournemouth Aviation Museum. It’s just £6 for an adult entry ticket, and it’s situated, appropriately, right next to the airport. Perhaps the fact it has a children’s Wonderland park the other side is a hindrance. Or maybe it’s not. Either way, for those that make the trip, there’s a fascinating walk down RAF Memory Lane waiting for you.
First impressions aren’t perhaps that great. Museum or mortuary? There’s a lot of carved up jet carcasses littered about the site. Mostly cockpits. It’s as if an aircraft industry version of al-Qaeda turned up, decapitating planes left right and centre. But having said that, there are a fair few complete models to look at. And besides, this is very much a hands on museum. And if you can get your grubby mitts on any part of an airplane, then the cockpit is the place to be.
In the space of a few minutes I got to act and feel my ages. All of them. I leapt into the single seat of the English Electric Lightning fighter jet with huge enthusiasm and promptly demonstrated the mental age of a four year old, flicking every button and switch and pulling every lever in the cockpit. What’s this one do then? And this one? And this one? None of them, of course, did anything. But that didn’t put me off. I imagined life as one of the glorious few who got to fly this awesome piece of machinery, setting their sights on enemy MiGs. The Lightning was a phenomenal machine, Britain’s first supersonic jet fighter, capable of Mach 2+, the most ridiculous vertical climbs and the ability to fly high enough to intercept a U2.
Then I extracted myself from the plane, and all of a sudden I was no longer a youthful four year old, but a creaking 40 something. It wasn’t a dignified exit. There was bashing of knees and elbows, curses, a pained back, and I ended up crawling away on hands and knees. These jets have seriously cramped cockpits. I had been pleased to see I had the place to myself when I had first entered the park. I was doubly grateful there was no one else about to witness my ungainly departure from the Lightning. But nonetheless, it was worth it. Totally worth it. I repeated the exercise with a few other jets.
Each cockpit was a model of functionality. Very mechanical. These were not computerised fly-by-wire planes. Masses upon masses of dials and switches. With yards of messy, exposed wiring that would be enough to give Steve Jobs a nervous breakdown. It all seems delightfully primitive, in a 1950s and 60s way. Until you get to the cockpit of the Vulcan. You aren’t allowed to sit in the cockpit seats. Nor one of the three rear facing seats for the navigator and his two chums. But there’s an distinct step up in tech with the Vulcan. Still lots of dials and switches. But it’s a different beast.
You can see a few photos below. Click on one of the images for the gallery view. Or go see the whole set on Flickr by clicking here.