By Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Knight
There follows a brief account of a few months in the last years of the Vulcan’s life on the front-line – little known, barely recorded in full and ever so slightly bizarre.
On 8th September 1981, as AOC 1 Group, I had joined the crew of the then OC 44 Squadron (one Wing Commander Simon Baldwin) to deliver XM605 to her final resting-place at Castle AFB in California. At that time, Castle was the home of the USAF Museum; and permission had been sought – and, surprisingly, granted – to ‘gift’ a Vulcan to our long-time colleagues, friends and occasional competitive rivals of Strategic Air Command.
The aircraft in question had been operating out of Offutt AFB on a routine ‘Olive Branch’ low-level training exercise; and, with only a few hours of fatigue life remaining, it had been officially declared surplus to the nation’s requirements. That said, she was in fine fettle as we climbed out of Nebraska and headed West. With only minimal fuel on board (MoD was not inclined to be over-generous with this gift) we managed to cruise-climb to something in excess of 50,000 feet – an event which was scarcely unique but which, for form’s sake, was duly recorded on film.
Letting down into Castle, we were met by a rather large (and distinctly welcoming) crowd of USAF personnel and local civilians – the old Vulcan having been, for many years, a frequent and popular sight in the North American skies. Indeed, there were several of our American colleagues who, over a pint or five of their trademark ‘yellow beer’, would let it be known that they were rather in awe of the size, shape, manoeuvrability and even performance of what they affectionately dubbed ‘the tin triangle’. Of particular note was the aircraft’s capability for the simultaneous start of her four Olympus engines, which had been a feature of many a practice ‘Scramble for Survival’ on exercises or air displays at bases up and down the US of A.
The arrival of the very first Vulcan to be permanently loaned to the US was therefore a matter of some moment; and it led to a rather impressive week of Californian partying, over which the AOC must draw a discreet veil – if only because he could remain with ‘his boys’ for a mere 24 hours before having to leg it back to Bawtry for distinctly less strenuous ‘action’.
To bring the first part of the story to a conclusion, it must be recorded that XM605 was not the first Vulcan to end its days on transatlantic soil. Some had sadly been lost in flying accidents over the years; and one had been left at that other 1 Group ‘home from home’ at Goose Bay in Labrador when, towards the end of her life on the front line, a large fire had done more than a little mischief to her bomb bay and associated components. She had been categorised as incapable of cost-effective repair; and the decision had been taken to grab a little credit with our Canadian friends by gifting her to the base – or, more precisely, to the ever-welcoming citizens of nearby Happy Valley.
Meanwhile, some 6 months after 605 had arrived at Castle, a certain General Galtieri had taken what he saw as a growing loss of interest by the dreaded Brits in maintaining an adequate defence of their South Atlantic interests. This was a classic case of a failure of deterrence – fortunately at the conventional level; and Argentine forces invaded, firstly, South Georgia and then the Falkland Islands themselves – and sat back to await some sort of UK response. In an exemplary case of ‘biter bit’ (and, clearly, to the astonishment of the invaders) preparations were immediately put in train to recover the islands – a perilous venture encouraged in striking, but typical, fashion by a resolute British Prime Minister. A Task Force was cobbled together in short order and set forth due South. Like many another military and civilian industrial establishment the length and breadth of the land, HQ No 1 Group was now on a war footing – and the days of scattering old Vulcans here and there were, for the time being, at an end.
The Vulcan force was being prepared for its very first experience of ‘hot war’. However, as a pre-requisite of any capability to mount airborne attacks on Argentinian ground forces, there was a need to establish the aircraft’s capability for extended air-to-air refuelling (AAR) – the procedure having been removed from the training syllabus some years before. It transpired that there was a worrying lack of some vital components of the aircraft’s capability for this activity; but there was no doubt that it would be essential for operations some 4,000 miles beyond the only viable operational base in the area on Ascension Island. At dead of night, two gallant RAF SNCOs descended on Castle AFB to retrieve the refuelling probe from old XM605, stuff it up their proverbial jumpers and return home – an interesting snippet of the ‘Black Buck’ story so vividly recorded by Rowland White in his epic book, ‘Vulcan 607’.
A little over 10 weeks later, with events in the South Atlantic having been brought to a satisfactory – if, inevitably, costly – conclusion, things back home began to revert to a state of relative normality. For 1 Group, that included the resumption of the plan to phase out the Vulcan force and bring Tornado into front-line service. There was a slight, but welcome, adjustment to those plans in that the RAF’s lack of adequate AAR tanker assets had been brought into sharp focus by our activities in the Falklands conflict. Urgent action was taken to improve the situation by the acquisition and essential conversion of virtually the entire global fleet of civil VC10 (and, later, Tristar) aircraft; and, as a stop-gap measure, 6 Vulcan B2s (one of them, the remarkable XH558) were hastily modified as airborne tankers at BAe’s Woodford facility. The first-ever B2 into the front line, that aircraft had already seen service as a medium bomber and in the maritime radar reconnaissance role; and was later to develop as a star attraction on the Air Display circuit, firstly as a RAF asset and, later, for 8 wonderful seasons with the ‘Vulcan to the Sky Trust’, as G-VLCN on the civil register.
But that was for the future. Back in June 1982, the priority was to complete the rundown of the Medium Bomber Force; and that programme included the disbandment of two minor units set up to support essential operational training in the USA and Canada. Accordingly, the detachments at Offutt and the Canadian base at Goose Bay were to be wound down and despatched into history in as fitting a manner as time and resources would allow.
The small, but highly professional RAF Unit at Offutt had rendered 25 years’ worth of vital support to the Vulcan and Victor forces; and a rather ambitious programme had been planned for its formal disbandment. As a lead-in to a typical English Garden Party of cucumber sandwiches and cream teas, a short but impressive flying display was enacted. This included a last 4-aircraft scramble in the States (flown before an enthusiastic Anglo-American audience in near-record time); a flypast tribute by USAF B-52, KC-135 and F-111 aircraft; and a typically spirited display of ‘whirling and twirling’ by a fifth Vulcan. To thunderous applause from a crowd of Service and civilian personnel, including a fair proportion of the 100 or more General Officers on the SAC staff, the aircraft was taxied to a well-appointed dais, from which the Deputy C-in-C of Strike Command formally handed her into the safe keeping of the base – or, more specifically, its adjacent aircraft park.
Job done? … not completely. Following a splendid ‘manifestation of joy’ in the O-Club that evening, AOC 1 Group was joined by a carefully selected band of brothers to fly one of the remaining Vulcans down to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana – home of the USAF’s 8th Air Force and scene of many a hard-fought inter-Service Bombing and Navigation Competition over the years.
Space does not permit a detailed account of this ‘interesting’ sortie. But suffice to say that it included a few ‘no-notice’ demands on the rear crew for flexibility in speeds, ETAs and other such trivialities, in order to make a precise time of arrival at the Barksdale ramp. There was also something of an arm-wrestle between an AOC intent on offering a little excitement to the waiting crowd and his right-seat ‘guardian’, the equally large OC Waddington, whose eyes were firmly fixed throughout on the accelerometer of this time-expired old bomber. In the event, a sort of ‘score draw’ ended in a safe arrival before the Commanding General and his entourage, a few welcome glasses, a couple of speeches and eventual recourse to the bar – for yet another evening of celebration and transatlantic camaraderie. Happy memories, indeed.