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 expense, hundreds of planes were built and put into the air, just in time to coincide with the development of effective anti-aircraft missiles. The decision was made 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.