Thursday, October 04, 2007

Avro 698 -- The Big Delta

(* Following from yesterday's prelude, Jeremy Briggs introduces up to...)


Today, right now in fact, the Royal Air Force has fighter jets fully armed, with their avionics powered up and their engines ready to be ignited. Their pilots are sitting in rooms beside the aircraft hangers fully suited up and ready to be strapped into their aircraft. It is called Quick Reaction Alert and they are there to defend United Kingdom airspace. There was a time in the 1950s and 1960s when our bomber force also stood ready to take off at a moment's notice carrying nuclear bombs in the Cold War standoff known as Mutually Assured Destruction.

Today those bomber aircraft, the Vickers Valiant, the Handley Page Victor and the Avro Vulcan, and their weapons, including the Blue Steel stand-off bomb and the WE177 free-fall nuclear bomb, have been consigned to history.

They did their job by simply being there, the alternative was too horrendous to contemplate, until the day came when they were no longer needed, finally replaced by more modern technology and the eventual end of the Cold War. Today a few of these enormous aircraft remain in the trust of aviation museums. The lucky ones are inside in the dry while the less fortunate remain outside, loved but slowly beginning to rust away in the rain, never to feel air under their wheels again.

Except for one, a Vulcan. Her military registration number is XH558 and she is being brought back to life. She was the last ever Vulcan to fly as part of the Vulcan Display Flight and at her last public display at Cranfield on 20 September 1992 she had “Farewell” taped to the inside of her bomb bay doors. On 23 Mar 1993, almost 9 years to the day when the RAF Vulcan fleet had been retired, she was flown to Bruntingthorpe and she is still there - but hopefully not for much longer. This V-bomber will fly again.
The Vulcan was not the first of the V-bombers, that was the Valiant. It couldn't carry the most bombs, that was the Victor. Yet with its big delta wing, the Avro 698 Vulcan was the one that captured the public's imagination and with it came appearances in comics and picture books.
It goes without saying that there is a cutaway of a Vulcan by L Ashwell-Wood in Eagle comic, Volume 9 Number 20, 16 May 1958 to be precise. Ashwell-Wood shows it in its original gloss white paint scheme designed to reflect the heat of the nuclear explosion it was designed to cause. Of course Eagle also did cutaways of the other two V-Bombers, the Victor in Volume 5 Number 13, 26 March 1954, and the Valiant in Volume 9 Number 33, 16 August 1958. In addition in Volume 6 Number 23, 10 June 1955, they also covered the forgotten V-bomber, the Shorts Sperrin, which did not go into production but the prototypes of which were used as test beds.

Rather more unusual are the appearances of the bomber in children's nursery books. T E North painted illustrations for the "Timothy's Book Of…" selection of Collin's Wonder Books series published in the 1950s and he used the Vulcan for the frontispiece of Timothy's Book Of Aircraft. Quite how Timothy's father was able to wander around a nuclear bomber base with his son to watch these aircraft take off must be left to our imagination. North would provide illustrations for many other books including the more science fiction oriented Book of Whopper Stories.

Another set of children's books published by Collins were the small 4 inch square Orbit Books. At least twenty four of these delightful little hardback books were published in the early to mid Sixties on various transportation subjects ranging from the mundane Cars to the more unusual Machines, with some titles having up to three differently numbered books. The artists were not credited and only a few signed their work but one was Gerald Palmer, one of the Dan Dare artists in the original Eagle who illustrated Rockets and Spacecraft Book Two. The Vulcan appeared in Planes Book One with the aircraft's manufacturer being listed as Hawker Siddeley which dated the publication to at least 1963, the year that Avro was amalgamated into Hawkers.
Perhaps the best known set of British children’s books were Ladybird Books, published by Wills and Hepburn Ltd, and they covered the Vulcan as well. In The Story Of Flight by Richard Bowood with illustrations by Robert Ayton, “The Modern Fighting Plane” is depicted with a Vulcan being escorted by three English Electric Lightning interceptors, something that would not have happening in reality.
However it was one of the Ladybird People At Work series that really took the Vulcan to heart. The Airman In The Royal Air Force, written by I and J Haverhand and illustrated almost photographically by John Berry, has three paintings of the Vulcan and a further one of its Blue Steel weapon. Since the RAF has many more personnel than just pilots, the illustrations, while including a Vulcan in flight, also show one being towed on the ground and another of the massive bomber’s braking chute being loaded into its tail compartment.

Returning to a comic title and the unusual Lion Book of Speed, an annual style book published in 1962. The Vulcan made it onto the painted cover by James McConnell, with a short photo feature on the aircraft inside. The book itself had many text and photo features on the subject of speed with only a few pages of comic strip stories.

From comics to newspapers. Jeff Hawke was the Daily Express’ pilot who was just as much at home flying the aircraft of his day as the spacecraft from the imagination of his creator Sydney Jordan. At the start of 'The Martian Invasion' story which began in July 1954, Jeff is called to London from a Vulcan base.

Yet Jordan would take a step further in the next Hawke story. It is not well known that each of the manufacturers of the three V-bombers had plans on the drawing board for transport variants of their planes. Vickers used the wing of the Valiant for the V1000 military transport and the VC7 airliner, while Handley Page used the wing of the Victor for the HP96 and HP111C military transports, and the HP97 Pacific airliner. Indeed Eagle did a cutaway in Volume 8 Number 30, dated 26 July 1957, for a civil airliner version of the Victor that they called the Handley Page Commonwealth.
As for Avro, as early as December 1952 they were proposing an airliner with the wing of the Vulcan and a new fuselage designed to carry 113 passengers. It was the Avro Type 722 and was to be called “Atlantic” but, like its rivals, never got off the drawing board. Sidney Jordan, who had trained at the Miles Aircraft Company, would use an Avro Atlantic airliner to carry Jeff Hawke and his friends from London to New York in 'The Threat From The Past', which began in November 1955.

The Vulcan was famously agile for its size. Indeed the Avro designers were that confident in the agility of their design that they did not give it the normal bomber-style two handed pilot's yoke, but the single handed joystick of a fighter plane. You only have to look at 2000AD Prog 2 when John Probe, MACH 1 himself, recaptured a flying Vulcan having transferred into it from another plane in midair. Based on Pat Mills script, artist Ian Kennedy shows the aircraft flying between London’s skyscrapers complete with an accurate representation of its airbrakes deployed.

As a contemporary aircraft the Vulcan rarely appeared in the war comics of its day, since the vast majority of their stories were set during the Second World War but, needless to say, it has appeared in Commando. In July 2005, issue 3832 had an Ian Kennedy cover of a Vulcan being chased by Soviet surface to air missiles. The story by Sean Blair is set in 1960 with the CIA using an RAF Vulcan to overfly the Soviet Union dropping monitoring packages around a nuclear power station. Damaged by the missiles it is forced to land on a frozen lake where the plot takes a completely unexpected twist. Kennedy’s cover painting is typically accurate down to the space between the starboard engines (on the left of the cover) filled in with the flat Red Shrimp jammer while the space between the port engines remains open.

Escaping from a Vulcan in an emergency was always an issue. With a crew of five, the pilot and co-pilot sat high up in the cockpit on ejector seats with the cockpit hood being jettisoned automatically before the ejector seats would fire. The three other crew all sat in an area below and behind the cockpit know as the Coal Hole. Their only escape route was to open the under fuselage entrance/exit hatch and slide down it with their parachutes on. Wilf Hardy in Look and Learn in 1971 showed a Vulcan in its death throes over Tyneside with the cockpit hood missing and the open hatch trailing three parachute static lines. This real incident took place on January 8 1971 and is used by author Rowland White as the prologue for his bestselling non-fiction book, Vulcan 607, which tells the true story of the first time a Vulcan was used in anger.

In the twilight of their careers Vulcans flew what were then the longest strategic bombing sorties in history. This Garland cartoon comes from the Daily Telegraph on 4 May 1982, three days after the first Black Buck bombing raid against Port Stanley airfield in the Falklands when Vulcan XM607 dropped 21 1000lb bombs on the Argentinean positions, a number accurately depicted by artist Jim Watson in Battle’s factual 'Fight For The Falklands' strip from the issue dated 9 October 1982.

The Black Buck raids against the Argentinean positions in the Falklands tested the RAF's long range capability to its extreme and in five different raids only one Vulcan didn't come back. She ended up causing a diplomatic incident when returning from her combat mission with a live American missile under her wing that the RAF did not own, a broken inflight refueling probe and little remaining fuel, her crew took the decision that, rather than ditch her in the ocean, they would land their nuclear bomber at the civilian airport at Rio De Janeiro.

The Falklands conflict was covered at the time by both Warlord in their 'Falklands File' feature and by Battle in their factual 'Fight For The Falklands' strip and later in their fictional Invasion strip. These have been covered in more detail elsewhere but the Vulcans were featured in Warlord issue 427 dated 27 November 1982 with art by Gordon Livingstone.

Yet it was to be the swansong for the plane. Despite the comment on the 'Warlord Photo File' in issue 433, dated 8 January 1983 (despite what it says on the back cover!), that their retirement might have been reconsidered, the last Vulcans were retired from active service in 1984 replaced by the strike version of the Panavia Tornado which, in its GR4 version, remains in service with the RAF to this day. While a few Vulcans went to museums, the rest of the big bombers than had served so faithfully for so long succumbed, not to Soviet fighters or Argentine anti-aircraft missiles, but the scrap men.


  1. An obvious point, but perhaps worth adding: all three V bombers shared their names with comics, although Vulcan was, inappropriately eough, an undersized reprint title.

  2. Superb. I'm a bit of a Vulcan buff but I didn't know any of this stuff!



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