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  • Vulcan 101
    Posted by Bill Sweetman 7:50 AM on Jul 16, 2008

    Today - Wednesday - is supposed to see the last flyable Vulcan bomber return to the skies over Farnborough. Time for a few facts that you may or may not know about the Vulcan, and why it gets the British public so excited.

    The Vulcan was designed to a 1945 specification. An industry that had never mass produced an airplane more complex than the World War 2 Lancaster - which with all due respect was a semi-expendable airplane not far removed from a giant cropduster - was challenged to build a jet bomber capable of hitting Moscow with Britain's first nuclear weapon, a fat ten-ton device, outflying jet fighters along the way. Like the "wooden wonder", the de Havilland Mosquito, it was supposed to survive through speed and altitude, rather than defensive guns, with the aid of the jamming equipment that the "boffins" had developed during the 1939-45 unpleasantness.

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    With its huge wing area and powerful engines, the Vulcan totally outperformed its closest US equivalent, the Boeing B-47 (which admittedly appeared some years earlier), in terms of altitude and agility. No coffin corner for Vulcan crews, where the airplane quivered between sonic buffet and stall;  the B.2 model could fly well above 60,000 feet, and could outturn and outclimb most contemporary fighters above 50,000 feet. And nobody ever rolled a Boeing bomber at an air show.

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    The Vulcan had less attractive features. One problem that should have been fixed, but never was:  the two pilots had ejection seats but the three rear crew in the "coal hole" behind them had to take their chances with a parachute exit. In 1956, a Vulcan returning from a triumphant demonstration flight to Australia hit the ground short of the runway at Heathrow, trying to land in driving rain. The crew managed to drag the airplane into the sky, but the flight controls were damaged and control was quickly lost. The pilots - one of them the boss of Bomber Command - ejected but the rear crew never had a chance. The word was that the boss had pushed the pilot to land at Heathrow, where the press was waiting, rather than diverting;  months later, a V-bomber force dining-in night turned into a near-riot, as highly lubricated aircrew pelted the commander with rolls and abuse.

    But the mystique of the Vulcan remained. The jets - all-white in their early career - were renowned for their ability to flush from dispersal bases inside the "four-minute warning" that the UK could expect in the case of a nuclear attack. Despite missiles and fighters, Vulcan veteran and author Andrew Brookes, in his history of the V-force, reckoned that a good number of them would have made it to their targets.

    And after that? Brookes remembers being told, as a new Vulcan pilot: "Your best bet, old boy, is to keep flying east and settle down with a nice, warm Mongolian woman."

    Tags: ar99, farnblog, vulcan

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