This weekend, all over the nation, crowds of people are to be found, gathering to look up in the hope of seeing a very special aircraft. G-VLCN (formerly XH558) is the last of her kind, and in the very near future she will be grounded for good.
I was in Brough, a town dominated by the aerospace industry. They didn’t build the Vulcan there: that was Woodford, near Stockport. Nonetheless, XH558 treated us to a graceful lap of honour before heading off to the west.
XH558 is a warbird that never went to war. None of the 134 Avro Vulcans that were built were ever required to perform in their designated role, and for this we have to be grateful as the mission would have been to launch nuclear weapons in a third world war. Only two Vulcans ever went into battle – and that was in a particularly unusual capacity.
While the aircraft now known as G-VLCN wasn’t called upon to serve, its chief pilot was: it was Martin Withers (then a Flight Lieutenant) who led the attack on Port Stanley Airport, cratering the runway in the opening phase of the British operation to retake the Falkland Islands.
Those of us who study logistics and the supply chain can’t fail to be impressed by the challenges that were overcome on the night of 30 April/1 May 1982. A bombing raid involving a round trip of almost 6,800 nautical miles (12,600km) should have been impossible – even unthinkable – but it was made possible with the aid of another Cold War bomber that never bombed. The remaining Handley Page Victors had been converted to an aerial refuelling role, but they retained their own in-flight refuelling probe, which meant that they could (of course) dispense fuel, but also receive it. This permitted some indecently long flights to be conducted, operating from RAF Ascension Island.
The refuelling scheme for getting a Vulcan bomber all the way from Ascension to Port Stanley and back is something that a civilian like me can barely comprehend. You’ve likely seen footage of the aerial ballet that is in-flight refuelling: now imagine that it’s being done in the dark, in a South Atlantic thunderstorm, in radio silence, thousands of kilometres from friendly territory. A mission to get a single bomber into the vicinity of the Falkland Islands demanded eleven tanker aircraft. The refuelling plan diagram reminds me of how a troupe of acrobats form a human pyramid: the one on the top depends upon all the others… but a key difference here is that you have to construct another pyramid to safely retrieve the principal and complete the performance. You have to refuel the inbound tanker aircraft, too, for a total of eighteen air-to-air fuel transfers. Words like ‘audacious’ just don’t do it justice: it was the longest bombing raid in history. (The Americans flew further on a raid against Iraq in 1991, but the tanker aircraft were based in friendly territory along the route, so I’m not sure that qualifies…)
Although a Vulcan bomber had a fuel capacity of 41,823 litres, the overall mission consumed perhaps 623,000 litres of jet fuel in total. In a very real sense, the remarkable thing wasn’t causing a string of holes to appear suddenly in a British overseas territory, but simply being able to organise and conduct an operation of such complexity: to get the required quantity of fuel into play at such a distance from base.
Another astounding thing about the Port Stanley raids was the adaptability shown by the Royal Air Force. The Vulcans were retrofitted with an inertial guidance system that was taken from the Super VC10, making flight over the trackless ocean possible. Dash 10 electronic countermeasures pods were taken from Buccaneer carrier-borne attack aircraft, and fitted on an improvised underwing pylon, while still more pylons were added in order to carry the AGM-45 Shrike missile for later attacks on radar installations. They also added a sixth crewman (a refuelling specialist) and a chemical toilet, exceeding their maximum take-off weight in the process. Politicians may well wonder why it is that equipping the armed forces with a new system takes years and inevitably goes over-budget, while in wartime the same people manage to work miracles. This disparity between the needs and expectations of the two parties is something that I continue to study, and hope to understand someday!
The military refer to this kind of operation as ‘force projection’, and with good reason. After Flight Lieutenant Martin Withers and his crew showed that the British were serious about retaking the Falklands, and with the naval task force on its way, the outcome was never really in doubt. With the runway damaged at its midpoint, options for stationing fast jets on the islands declined, and the Argentine leadership had to wonder if the next target might be an airbase in their own territory.
The Vulcan to the Sky Trust gave XH558 the name Spirit of Great Britain in 2010, but many fans affectionately refer to her as the Tin Triangle. It’s hard to believe that the type first flew on August 30th 1952. Little more than a decade separates the type from the famous Avro Lancaster of the Second World War, yet when you compare the two, one is a crate suitable for ‘Biggles’, while the other looks like a ride for ‘Dan Dare’.
How can something be more than half a century old, and all used up, and still look futuristic?