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Our recent feature commemorating Concorde brought to mind that other favourite of the jet-era skies, the Vulcan bomber. Few of us can, at one time or another, not been enthralled to see that graceful delta-wing shape sliding through the sky, or shaken, if not stirred (with apologies to James Bond fans) by the thundering roar of her four Rolls Royce Olympus engines – coincidentally the same type of engine which powered Concorde. Maybe you have witnessed the sole surviving airworthy Vulcan XH558 as she demonstrated some of her capabilities at air shows over the last few years – a sight we are, sadly, unlikely to see for too much longer as her airframe has reached the limits of its already extended fatigue life, and replacement would sadly be prohibitively expensive.
As maybe the more knowledgeable will know, right at the end of the Vulcan fleets’ flying career a Vulcan pulled off an almost suicidal long-range bombing mission to protect the Falkland Islands back in 1982. Yet how many are aware of the incredible effort and endeavour, which lay behind this apparently low-key activity? Indeed, I was one of those who were aware in general, of this feat of derring-do, yet it was not until my attention was attracted to a copy of a book entitled “Vulcan 607” on my sons’ bookshelves – himself an ex-RAF Tornado pilot – that I came to appreciate the enthralling story which lay behind this flight.
For those who have not yet read the book, I will not spoil the enjoyment by giving too much away. I have to confess that my reading habits definitely tend towards easy-to-put down fiction, yet this was one non-fiction book which was so gripping that I genuinely could not put it down. The book describes how, when Argentinian forces invaded the Falklands in the early hours of 2nd April 1982, Britain’s military chiefs were faced with a real life Mission Impossible. Their opening shot, they decided, would be Operation Black Buck, to strike a body-blow at the occupying army, and make them realize that nothing was safe – not even the Argentinian capital, Buenos Aires.
Whilst their objective was simple: to destroy the vital landing strip at Port Stanley to prevent the Argentinian forces using it, the reality was more complicated. The only aircraft that could possibly do the job was Vulcan, which was three months from being scrapped, and the distance it had to travel was four thousand miles beyond its maximum range. The only way to get the Vulcan to its destination would be to use a flotilla of fifteen Victor tankers and seventeen separate in-flight refuelling to get the one Vulcan over the target, any give its crew any chance of coming back alive.
Yet one month later a formation of elderly British jets was launched from a remote island airbase to carry out the longest-range air attack in history. At the tip of the spear was a single Vulcan, six men, and twenty-one thousand-pound bombs, facing a hornet’s nest of modern weaponry: the state-of-the-art radar guided guns and missiles of the Argentine defences. There would be no second chances……
It was the end of an era – the last time the RAF flew heavy bombers into combat before they were replaced by their digital, fly-by-wire laser-guided successors. There were many who believed it couldn’t be done. Yet by sheer determination and effort of all concerned, the RAF pulled it off, and got every aircraft involved home in one piece.
From the dedication of the engineers, who scoured scrapyards all over the world to locate the long-scrapped unique equipment essential to equip the jets for vital mid-air refuelling, to the efforts of the planning team who commandeered every single airworthy Victor tanker to play its part in the mission, to the gruelling pre-mission training undergone by the aircrews, most of whom had never carried out air-to-air refuelling before, British human endeavour triumphed over adversity
Indeed, the book is crammed with fascinating anecdotes and insights into every aspect of the preparation and planning as well as the mission itself. To relate but one gem: the plan was for Vulcan XH598 to carry out the mission, being judged both the best-prepared aircraft and best-trained crew. The plan allowed for one back-up Vulcan, XH607 although in truth so much effort had gone into preparing 598 that nobody expected 607 to have to earn its corn that night.
Yet – and in a scary demonstration of the fragility of these life-expired jets, after take-off 598’s cabin failed to pressurise, forcing the crew to abort their mission, leaving XH607 to take over. On returning to base, XH598’s pressurisation problem was found: the seal on a cockpit window was so age-hardened that it simply fell out when the window was opened!
If this brief article has whetted your appetite to know more, then beg, borrow, buy or even steal a copy of “Vulcan 607” by Rowland White (ISBN 978-0-593-05391-1). There is also an interesting, albeit less detailed description of Operation Black Buck on the RAF website at http://www.raf.mod.uk/history/OperationBlackBuck.cfm