Like a spectral ghost of the Cold War, the world’s only remaining airworthy Avro Vulcan bomber is amazing the crowds at this year’s Farnborough Air Show. Brought back from the dead by a determined restoration team, the Vulcan’s dramatic appearance at the biggest international aerospace event of the year comes an astonishing 56 years after the prototype first flew at the show.
The day before its first airshow display I was lucky enough to get a look inside the venerable V-bomber which was developed in the years immediately after World War II. Climbing up through a hatch forward of the nose leg, I stood between the pilots seats and was struck by the appalling visibility from the cockpit, recognizable to many from the starring role of a Vulcan in the James Bond film ‘Thunderball’.
While situational awareness may not have been its strong point, the Vulcan more than made up for it in handling, with flying qualities akin to a Hawker Hunter according to the crew who use fighter-like pilot joystick controls.
Pilot and co-pilot sit in ejection seats, while those in the two navigators and electronics warfare systems operator positions are required to bail out manually through the hatch. An unusual feature is an inflatable seat bottom, dubbed the ‘whoopie cushion’, designed to help propel the fleeing back-seaters towards the hell hole in the event of an emergency.
Although still a jaw-dropping sight in the circuit, the crew of Vulcan B2 XH558 warn that the display routine is rather gentle by the standards of shows in the 1980s and 1990s when the ‘tin triangle’ was as much as a crowd puller as Concorde. A structural fatigue issue by the front spar restricts the aircraft’s g-load during maneuvers to 1.55g, rather than the 2g of past years. BAE Systems has offered to modify the Vulcan with extended doublers in 2009-2010 to fix the issue.
Nonetheless the combined 68,000 pounds of thrust of the Vulcan’s four Rolls-Royce Bristol Olympus 202s pushes it off the ground in startling fashion with a throaty howl that turns every head at the show. The agility also comes from low operating weights of around 140,000 lbs for the display, versus a former max weight of around 204,000 lbs.
For Farnborough, the six minute display routine includes an aggressive take-off with hammerhead turns at both ends of the runway, followed by an orbit at show center with bomb bay doors open. The final pass at around 300 feet ends with a full power climb to circuit altitude before landing.
But all this costs money – roughly $70,000 per flight hour, or more than $3 million per year, and after 15 years and $14 million spent on restoration, the funds are running low. The Vulcan team desperately needs sponsorship to keep this mighty Cold War warrior in the show circuit – so if you can help they’ll be pleased to hear from you!
"Guy" the Vulcan mascot peers out of the bomb aimers position