Roles for the
This page gives an
in-depth view on the many roles the RAF utilised the Vulcan for during
her time in active service.
When the idea for the
Vulcan was first conceived it was agreed that the safest way to attack
an enemy was to fly as high as possible. Flying high had a number of
advantages including :
The aircraft was out
of range of enemy surface to air missiles
The aircraft was out
of range of enemy radar
The aircraft was too high to be intercepted by
The higher the aircraft flies in the atmosphere,
the less dense the air is, so the operating range of the aircraft
At this time the Vulcan fleet were painted white. This colour scheme
was known as anti-flash white. White was chosen as it was thought to be
the most effective high-level camouflage colour. When the aircraft was
flying at 40,000ft or above anti-flash white made it very hard to detect
from the ground. As the name suggests, anti-flash white also had another
purpose. It was believed that white would help to reflect any thermal
energy which could damage the Vulcan or her crew resulting from a
nuclear blast. Whether this is valid thinking is open to debate, as any
Vulcan delivering a nuclear device correctly would have been many miles
away at the time of detonation.
High Altitude attack using Blue Steel
The method of attacking a
designated target with a nuclear missile (such as Blue Steel) would have
been as follows :
The Blue Steel equipped Vulcan would fly towards its designated target
at around 48,000ft.
She would then climb to a launching altitude of
When within range (anywhere between 100 & 120 miles) the
missile would be released.
At this point the Vulcan captain would
fashion an escape as fast as possible away from the target area.
missile, travelling at mach 2.5, would climb to 70,000ft.
after release the missile would have completed its 100 mile journey and
been over the target.
It would descend, at around mach
1.5, and destroy the
During the operational life of the Blue Steel system the Soviets did not
have any suitable defence against its high speed and small size.
Blue Steel missile
on display at IWM Duxford
On 1st May 1960 a USAF U-2 spy aircraft was
shot down by a Soviet surface to air missile.
The U-2 was struck at an
altitude of around 68,000ft.
The days of the Vulcan as a high level
strategic bomber were over.
With the advancement of enemy radar and missile technology it was
necessary for the role of the Vulcan to change from high level bomber to
low level tactical strike aircraft. The risks of low level flight were
great, but not as great as being illuminated by enemy radar and attacked
ground-to-air rockets or missiles.
Navigational and bombing equipment was not designed to work at low
level. However, tests quickly proved that the Vulcan's systems were able
to cope remarkably well with the change in role. Thus, by 1963, Vulcan
B1a crews were being trained for low level sorties. A year later B2
crews were being offered the same training. It was around this time that
the anti-flash white paintwork of the Vulcan was changed to the green
and grey subsequently used to help prevent Soviet interceptor pilots
distinguishing the approaching bombers.
Blue Steel was test fired at low level, below 1000ft, at Woomera in
Australia. The trials were successful. However the range of the missile
was now drastically reduced from up to 200 miles to just 25-50 miles.
The Vulcan captain also had to climb sufficiently before releasing the
missile in order that its boosters were able to fire before crashing
into the ground. Once released Blue Steel would quickly climb to
17,000ft before descending towards its target. The accuracy of the
weapon was stated to be within 300 yards.
Skybolt Missile on display
at RAF Museum Cosford
The Vulcan airframe was designed for an
average life of 3,900 flying hours in a high level role. At lower
altitudes the stresses the airframe was subject to were much greater.
The use of reinforcing iron plates and strengthening modifications
implemented when the Skybolt missile system was destined to be carried
by the Vulcan allowed the fleet of aircraft to continue in their new
role until the implementation of the Panavia Tornado multi-role aircraft in the mid 1980's. In
theory, should it have been necessary, Avro could have modified the
Vulcan fleet to continue until the turn of the century. Considering that the Victor B2 was unusable after 1969 due to fatigue
fractures, there is no argument to be made concerning the robust nature
of the original Vulcan design.
Low-Level Attack to avoid detection by enemy
Further advances in missile technology,
during the mid to late 1960's, eventually lead to the demise of Blue
Steel. Long range intercontinental ballistic missiles were developed
which could be launched from huge distances. These were seen as
preferable to risking the lives of air crew. On the 30 June 1969 the
responsibility for NATO's strategic deterrent forces was passed to the
Royal Navy and their Polaris-equipped submarines.
From December 1970 all remaining Vulcan squadrons were equipped with
free-fall nuclear bombs.
Once Polaris had taken
over Britain's nuclear defence the Vulcan was to have a new role.
Clearly she could be used as a conventional bomber, capable of carrying
up to 21, 1000lb bombs. She was also converted to a maritime radar
reconnaissance role. For this duty the Vulcan was fitted with two under
wing air sampling pods, together with a smaller, locator pod under the
port wing. 8 aircraft were converted to this role. Five having fixed
fittings, the others having removable ones.
As this role took place
mainly over briny seas the selected Vulcans had a tough gloss
polyurethane coating applied to them to her prevent unnecessary damage
to their airframes from the corrosive salty air. Tasks assigned to this
hand full of converted aircraft included working in collaboration with
Nimrod aircraft to fly over the North Sea oil rigs on anti terrorist
patrol, and the much more hazardous collection of dust samples from the
upper atmosphere down range of nuclear test explosions. The gloss paint
finish had an additional advantage here, in that it was easier to cleanse
of any radioactive particles which may have attached themselves to the
Towards the twilight of her years in the
RAF many of the remaining Vulcan fleet were converted into tanker aircraft.
The large bomb bay made an ideal location to store extra fuel tanks.
rear ECM housing was emptied and the refuelling rig stored in the
Mk16 Hose Drum Unit from
The above example was fitted to the Valiant bombers during their
conversion to tankers. The hose drum unit (HDU) had a 105ft (32m) hose
wrapped round a rotatable drum. One end was connected the fuel system,
the other to a drogue which helped stabilise the hose and was used as a
target for the receiver aircraft. Radio contact between the two aircraft
was unnecessary as a system of lights on the tanker could be used to
inform the receiving aircraft of how the process was progressing. The
rate that fuel could be pumped from the tanker aircraft was around 500
gallons a minute.
The Vulcan tankers were not fitted with the Mk16 HDU.
Instead, they had the newer Mk17 units installed.