In 1946 the Air Ministry drew up requirements for bombers to replace the existing piston-engine heavy bombers such as the Avro Lancaster and the Avro Lincoln. The Air Staff Operational Requirement OR.229 was for ‘a medium-range bomber landplane capable of carrying one 10,000 lb bomb to a target 1,500 nautical miles from a base which may be anywhere in the world’. 10,000lb was the weight of the first British atom bomb, called Blue Danube.

On 24 January 1947 the Ministry of Supply distributed specification B.35/46, which grew from OR.229. Each specification name usually followed a pattern. B.35/46 included B for “bomber”, and the set of numbers signified the thirty-fifth specification of all types in 1946.

Along with the required bombing capabilities, B.35/46 insisted on 45,000 feet as the cruising altitude after one hour and 50,000 feet in two and half hours after take-off. The spec preferred that the aircraft had no fewer than four and not more than six engines, and called for a high degree of manoeuvrability at height and speed.

Although the specification would push engineering of the day to its limit, six companies tendered bids. Designs were submitted by Armstrong Whitworth, Avro, English Electric, Handley Page, Short and Vickers.

The Handley Page HP.80 was accepted, and Avro, led by technical director Roy Chadwick and chief designer Stuart Davies had the Type 698 accepted to B.35/46 specification.

Orders for two prototypes of each were placed. It was recognised however that there were many unknowns associated with both designs, and so an order was also placed for the Vickers’ design, which became the Valiant. Although not fully meeting the requirements of the specification, the Valiant design posed little risk of failure and could therefore reach service earlier.

On 23rd August 1947, Chadwick was killed in the crash of the Avro Tudor 2 prototype and Stuart Davies became the technical director at Avro with responsibility for producing the Avro 698.

As Avro had no flight experience of the delta wing, the company planned two smaller experimental aircraft based on the 698. Avro Type 707 was designed to test the aircraft’s handling at low and high speeds. Aerodynamically it was a one-third scale version of the 698.

Early footage of VX784, and Roly Falk explaining the need for the experimental aircraft in 1950

The first 707, VX784, flew in September 1949 but crashed later that month killing Avro test pilot Flt Lt Eric Esler. The second 707, VX790, flew in secret in September 1950, piloted by Avro test pilot Wg Cdr Roland “Roly” Falk. Nearly a year after that first flight the BBC was invited to film “Roly” Falk take VX790 to the air.

A further 707, WD480, followed in July 1951. Two more 707s were also constructed, WZ736 and a two-seat, WZ744, but they played no part in the 698’s development. The 707 was a “proof-of-concept” delta design that was principally the work of Davies. The diminutive experimental aircraft provided valuable insights into the 698’s flight characteristics.

On 30 August 1952 at Woodford, in his usual dress of a pinstripe suit, ‘Roly’ Falk took the white Type 698 prototype (VX770) into the air for the first time. For safety reasons the flight was single crewed.

Powered by four Rolls-Royce RA.3 Avon engines, VX770 had a temporary fuel tank fitted into the bomb bay and was only fitted with the first-pilot’s ejection seat. Falk took the aircraft through a number of unconventional manoeuvres before opening the throttle to such a point that it shattered a number of factory windows.

Days later, in September 1952, the yet to be named aircraft appeared at the Society of British Aircraft Constructors (SBAC) Farnborough Air Show. A number of name options were being considered, including the ‘Ottawa’, in honour of the contribution made by Avro Canada. The UK press were full of their own suggestions including the Albion, Avenger, Apollo or Assegai. In October 1952, the Air Council announced the aircraft as the Avro Vulcan.

Did you know? Vulcan was the Roman god of fire and destruction and the name had previously been used by Vickers for a 1920s transport aircraft. The Vulcan’s project engineer, Gilbert Whitehead, was not at all impressed by the name. When he looked it up in a mythology book, Vulcan was defined as a ‘misshapen god of war thrown out of heaven’. I think we all agree the Vulcan is a beauty!

VX770 landing at Farnborough a little after the first flight.
Note the double air brakes under the wing, later reduced to single units on production aircraft.

Susan Kennett (daughter of Avro Chief Designer, Stuart Davies) recalls her memories of first flight of the Avro Vulcan prototype…

August 30th 1952, a Saturday I believe. A beautiful summers day and we assembled in front of the Club House at Woodford to watch this historic event – namely, the first flight of 698 as she was called. She did look rather lovely as we waited for her to move.

Roly Falk started off down the runway on what I, at nearly 13 years old, thought was the take off, but he was teasing us and just doing a test taxi run. Anyway, shortly afterwards, she lifted off and started doing the thing at which she excelled – showing her paces. Everyone was chatting about how well that part had gone but my father, a man of few words on this sort of occasion, enquired what else would be expected, as the 707s had been busy for several years testing the delta shape on a much smaller scale. After, perhaps, 30 minutes, the plane returned but I seem to recall that something fell off! Was it a cover to the undercarriage? I feel sure there is a more technical term!

Anyway, a couple of planes, one a 707, I seem to remember* flew up to check everything was OK and it was decided that the wheels were locked down and all would be well. My father continued to be upbeat about this small incident on the basis that the plane was not flying very fast! The 698, soon to be known as the Vulcan, landed perfectly with the parachute streaming out behind her and slowed to a halt whilst the assembled audience clapped.

Roly Falk reported that everything had gone very well. In those times of austerity ( I think we still had food rationing) I seem to think that we had nothing much to celebrate with other than tea and biscuits. Several days later, at the Farnborough Air Show, Roly Falk again demonstrated the white 698 with a red 707 on one side and a blue one on the other. I recall that the spectators at the show rose to their feet in applause.

*The 707A was flown by Jimmy Nelson, who had already flown that day and was low on fuel on the ground, so made a hasty take-off to help check over the aircraft, but landed as soon as the other aircraft, a de Havilland Vampire, was airborne. No damage was found and the aircraft landed without further incident. The Vampire was piloted by Jack Wales.