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Changing Roles for the
 Delta Bomber


This page gives an in-depth view on the many roles the RAF utilised the Vulcan for during her time in active service.


High Level Strategic Bomber

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 enemy fighters 

  • The higher the aircraft flies in the atmosphere, the less dense the air is, so the operating range of the aircraft will increase 

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 stand-off missile

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 50,000ft.

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.

The missile, travelling at mach 2.5, would climb to 70,000ft.

 Four minutes 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 target.

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


Low Level Strategic Bomber

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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 with 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 radar


Maritime Radar Reconnaissance

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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 fuselage.


Refuelling Tanker

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.
 The rear ECM housing was emptied and the refuelling rig stored in the new-found space.

Mk16 Hose Drum Unit from Hendon

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.


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