Avro Vulcan: The Bomber That Had One Mission

Avro Vulcan Bomber
December 16, 2023 Topic: military Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: AvroAvro VulcanBomberRussiaCold War

Avro Vulcan: The Bomber That Had One Mission

When the Avro Vulcan first flew in August of 1952, the distinctive bomber was notably advanced and clearly a child of the Cold War with a conflict against Russia in mind.

When the Avro Vulcan first flew in August of 1952, the distinctive bomber was notably advanced and clearly a child of the Cold War with a conflict against Russia in mind.

Put into service just seven years after the conclusion of World War II, the Vulcan was a jet-powered, tailless, delta-wing strategic bomber – capable of reaching a 55,000-foot service ceiling and Mach 0.96 speed.

Although the Vulcan remained in service with the Royal Air Force for three decades, the bomber saw limited action on account of Britain’s postwar, post-empire footing.

In January 1947, the UK’s Ministry of Supply released Specification B.35/46 to British aerospace companies. Specification B.35/46 was meant to satisfy Air Staff Operational Requirement OR.229, which called for “a medium range bomber landplane capable of carrying one 10,000 lb (4,500 kg) bomb to a target 1,500 nautical miles (1,700 mi; 2,800 km) from a base which may be anywhere in the world.” Further, OR.299 called for a plane with a cruising speed of at least 580 miles per hour, capable of reaching 35,000 to 50,000-foot altitudes. Six British companies submitted designs to satisfy OR.299, including Avro.

Avro Designs an Aircraft on the Specifications Given

Avro began working on its proposed design in April of 1947. Technical director Roy Chadwick and chief designer Stuart Davies led the effort, which came to be known as Avro 698. From the onset, Avro recognized that a conventionally designed aircraft could not satisfy the OR.299 requirements. The team would have to get creative.

While Avro Vulcan had never designed a delta-winged aircraft, the company was aware that German designer Alexander Lippisch had done so successfully. Since Avro calculated that a conventional wing configuration would make the plane twice as heavy as the OR.299 requirement allowed, the engineers elected to use a delta-wing design, placing faith in Lippisch’s previous success. 

Immediately, Avro recognized that its delta wing, swept back at 45-degree angles, increased longitudinal stability – allowing the team to remove the jet’s tail and supporting fuselage while still retaining stable flight characteristics. In effect, the Avro 698 became a flying wing, with only a basic forward fuselage and a vertical stabilizer. And while Lippisch is commonly understood to have pioneered the delta-wing design – the Avro team started from scratch, developing their own blueprints, relying on Lippisch’s design strictly for inspiration rather than guidance.

The British Government Awards Contract to Avro, and a Backup Supplier

The Ministry of Supply was impressed with Avro’s proposal; Avro received a contract to proceed with building its delta-winged bomber. But the British government, recognizing that Avro’s design was somewhat radical and prone to failure, chose to hedge its bets; as a contingency, Short Brothers were given a contract to develop its prototype, the less ambitious SA.4 bomber, in case Avro ultimately failed. 

Because Avro Vulcan lacked flight experience with a delta-wing, it decided to build two experimental aircraft to test the principle – both scaled-down versions of the 698. The first, the 707, was one-third the size of the 698 and built for low-speed testing. The second, the 710, was ultimately canceled before being built –  but would have been one-half the 698’s size and used for high-speed testing. 

The first 707 built, VX784, debuted in September 1949, and crashed the very same month, killing chief test pilot Samuel Eric Esler. Avro worked out the kinks on the 707 platform, ultimately learning that its delta-wing design was viable. It was time to test a full-sized 698.

Tests of the 698 revealed a series of problems. For example, the prototype had a tendency to buffet at high speeds. And more concerningly, the jet would often enter an uncontrollable dive when approaching Mach speed. Wing redesigns, based on wind tunnel research, were implemented to solve the buffetting. An auto-mach trimmer, which applied upward pressure on the elevator as the jet’s speed increased, was installed to prevent uncontrolled dives. Once all the quirks were worked out, the 698 was ready to enter service – but first, it needed a proper name.

The Avro Vulcan Takes Flight

Avro favored the name Ottawa, in homage to Avro’s Canadian ties. The weekly magazine Flight had a few name ideas, too, including Avenger, Apollo, and Assegai. Ultimately, Flight recommended the name Albion. But ultimately, the name wasn’t up to Avro – and it certainly wasn’t up to any magazine. The chief of the air staff favored a V-class of bombers, so that was that. The Air Council announced that the 698 would be redesignated as the Vulcan, in reference to the Roman god of fire.

The Vulcan entered service in September 1956. A five-man crew operated the new bomber; a pilot and co-pilot on the top level; a navigator radar, navigator plotter, and air electronics officer (AEO) on a level below. The pilot and co-pilot sat on Martin-Baker 3K ejection seats, whereas the rest of the crew sat facing rearwards and, in case of emergency, would just exit the aircraft the way they came in – through the door. 

Curiously, although the Vulcan was designed well before stealth technology was an objective of aerospace designers, the bomber had perhaps the lowest radar cross-section (RCS) ever at the time of the bomber’s introduction; the distinctive delta-wing shape significantly reduced the bomber’s RCS, foreshadowing the flying-wing designs of future stealth attack/bomber aircraft like the F-117, B-2, and B-21

While the Vulcan could be outfitted with either conventional or nuclear weapons, the bomber saw limited action; the UK just wasn’t very involved militarily during the Vulcan’s service run (1956-1984). Yet, the delta-winged bomber remains an important milestone in aerospace development, an important stepping stone in the development of today’s most advanced aircraft. 

About the Author

Harrison Kass is a prolific defense and national security writer with over 1,000 articles published. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.

Image: Creative Commons.