Yesterday, 1st April, was the 100th anniversary of the Royal Air Force. Some of you may have seen More4’s screening last night of ‘Last Flight of the Vulcan Bomber’ when the daredevil mechanic Guy Martin worked at the ‘Vulcan to the Sky Trust with the team of engineers maintaining XH558 The Spirit of Great Britain, the last remaining Vulcan flying.
He learned about the rigorous servicing, he flew alongside the Vulcan in a fly-past and later experienced the incredible thrust of this brilliant aeroplane from the cockpit, accelerating up to the point of take-off (WOW!)
The programme also heard from former Vulcan pilots and aircrew, including a pilot who said he ‘trembled at the responsibility I had … … at the age of twenty-three I was in charge of a nuclear weapon’.
From 1957 to 1969, during the Cold War, the Avro Vulcan was the main British contribution to NATO’s strategic nuclear deterrent. For twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, crews were on QRA – quick reaction alert. They slept in their flying suits when on duty ready for the ‘missiles incoming’ warning to scramble within four minutes; this was the time between the warning of a USSR strike being launched and its arrival in Britain.
The Vulcan was equipped with a hydrogen bomb, code-named ‘Yellow Sun’ or a nuclear tipped Cruise missile – Blue Steel. No British bomber ever actually flew with a live nuclear weapon; the deterrent strategy was a success.
Pilots were advised what to do if they had to drop their bombs – in essence, head east and start a new life ‘with a warm Mongolian woman’ as there would be nothing left to return to! These young men put their lives on the line for us. Those of us who still remember the Cuban Missile Crisis will recall how close we were to nuclear holocaust.
My best man Alan: the pilot and captain of a Vulcan
My best man, Alan, was a Flight Lieutenant in the RAF and the pilot and captain of a Vulcan. He was based at RAF Finningley and, in 1961, I stayed with him in the Officers’ Mess while I researched education in Doncaster – a comparative study. As a poor student, I hitch-hiked there, climbed out of the cab of a lorry and walked into the base. I strolled across the site up to a number of parked-up Vulcans and inspected them at close range. They were spectacular, immense and sleek with those magnificent delta wings.
Several minutes passed before a Military Policeman drove up in a Land Rover to politely challenge me and then drove me to where I should have been. What a different world we lived in in those days – the nuclear threat on one hand but such apparently relaxed security on the other!
All his life, Alan has been a committed Christian and is the most delightful man you could wish to meet – but he had a duty to do and he would have carried it out without question.
The Vulcan played a vital role in the Falklands
Three months before it was to be retired, the Vulcan played a vital role in the Falklands. In a sixteen hour round trip from Ascension Island, refuelled seven times by airborne tankers, a Vulcan dropped 21 bombs on the runway at Port Stanley. The plane was travelling at 400mph so the bombs had to be released from two miles away; only one bomb hit the target but the runway was put out of commission. Needless to say, the Argentinians had never expected such an attack.
Some years ago, at a dinner party at our house, the subject came round to what occupations our parents had followed. George, a great friend of many years and a brilliant mathematician, said, in a totally matter-of-fact way, that his father had designed the delta wing for the Vulcan. Another friend, Mike, had been a RAF engineer servicing Vulcans. Such coincidences.
For me, for many years, the highlight of the Bournemouth Air Show was to stand on the clifftop at Boscombe and watch an Avro Vulcan fly past at close range with that mighty roar of its Rolls Royce engines making the ground shake. Alas, no more.
XH558 took off from Doncaster’s Robin Hood Airport on Wednesday, 28 October 2015 on its last, short flight. Truly, the end of an era.