back to article Goodbye Vulcan: Blighty's nuclear bomber retires for the last time

Visit a British air show before September and it's possible you’ll get the opportunity to witness the last Vulcan bomber in flight - and this is definitely the last year you'll get the chance, this time. Alongside the staple leather-clad wing-walking ladies, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, simulated Apache attack- …


  1. GreggS

    A beautiful aircraft though

    For a big lad, he's very quiet and can move a bit. I was in luck when it did a low-level fly past of our football game this Saturday after It just been doing some aerobatics over East Midlands Airport. Didn't see or hear it coming until it was overhead. I've also seen it at airshows and the acrobatics this thing can pull off puts many more modern fighter jets to shame.

    1. 0laf Silver badge

      Re: A beautiful aircraft though

      I've never heard a Vulcan described as quiet before. I saw one at RAF Leuchers in the 90s and it made your guts vibrate and the ground shake as it went by. Possibly the loudest thing I've ever seen move.

      A sad but understandable day. Our new stuff is no doubt much much better than the old V bombers but they're not half as impressive.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: A beautiful aircraft though - Possibly the loudest thing I've ever seen move.

        I think Aeroflot holds that record. Yes the V-bombers are loud, but it's the Russians who thought that doing things quietly was contrary to Marxist-Leninism.

        1. GreggS

          Re: A beautiful aircraft though - Possibly the loudest thing I've ever seen move.

          Don't get me wrong - i've heard them lift off and boy do they make a noise, it's just that when i saw it on Saturday it made hardly any sound moving at low level at a slow speed, almost refined in its old age.

          1. Danny 14 Silver badge

            Re: A beautiful aircraft though - Possibly the loudest thing I've ever seen move.

            It was on its way to Carlisle Airport on Saturday. Turned up right on time at 14:43, did a couple of circles and a big load of howl and yowl. Great stuff.

          2. spinynorman

            Re: A beautiful aircraft though - Possibly the loudest thing I've ever seen move.

            Yeah - I've witnessed a Vulcan both quiet and loud. Last year it flew over the old runway at Filton (Bristol) - it was quiet and graceful. Must have been around 1980 at a British Aerospace open day at the same location I witnessed a near vertical climb from quite low above the ground. That was loud ... very very loud! To this day the loudest noise I have ever heard ... and felt through my body! I don't think they perform climbs quite like that with X558 because of the age of the airframe.

            1. slime

              Re: A beautiful aircraft though - Possibly the loudest thing I've ever seen move.

              Saw one at an airshow in the 80s, can't remember exactly where but Harlow was involved somehow. I'd have to agree that the aircraft as a whole was beautiful but my abiding memory is looking up at a lump of metal being pushed upwards by sheer brute force. I dont properly recall the aerodynamic grace or style just the noise and power as it seemed to go almost vertically upwards pushed by those engines.

              1. Kubla Cant Silver badge

                Re: A beautiful aircraft though - Possibly the loudest thing I've ever seen move.

                I saw a Vulcan take off at the Farnborough Air Show as a kid - I suppose it must have been the early 1960s. I recall the massive noise that made the ground shake, and also the incredibly steep climb as soon as it left the ground (I think they were showing off).

                1. Anonymous Coward
                  Anonymous Coward

                  Re: A beautiful aircraft though - Possibly the loudest thing I've ever seen move.

                  Went to an air show at Wem in the 1960s. An announcement was made that the English Electric Lightning was delayed. Nice deception - within a few seconds it arrived almost hedge hopping - and then went into a steep climb over the display area with the afterburners glowing. I have never felt such a pummelling vibration.

                  1. Sir Runcible Spoon Silver badge

                    Re: A beautiful aircraft though - Possibly the loudest thing I've ever seen move.

                    The Lightning's are a fearsome beast, it's basically a couple of huge jet engines with a couple of fins attached to it - the pilot is almost an afterthought!

          3. Ian 55

            Re: A beautiful aircraft though - Possibly the loudest thing I've ever seen move.

            I live (looks) about 4km from somewhere that had a fly over recently and we're at about 90 degrees to the flightpath.


        2. dmacleo

          Re: A beautiful aircraft though - Possibly the loudest thing I've ever seen move.

          haven't heard aeroflot but have been on the rail end of a B1b in afterburner doing a take off.

          have been near antonov an-124 and the an-225 and they were silent compared to the B1b.

          the thing rotated just as it past my car at approx 200 ft agl and rocked my 1988 crown vic which weighed about 5000 lbs.

          just awesome.

      2. Bowlers

        Re: A beautiful aircraft though

        I remember when the Vulcan's practiced QRA (quick reaction alerts) when we were supposed to get a 4 minute warning of imminent attack. The Vulcan's would be lined up at the end of the runway staggered left/right to avoid the exhaust of the preceeding aircraft. We would come out of our service bay to watch them start rolling in quick order very close to each other. The first Vulcan would take off and climb at a shallow angle the next really steep and so on. That really generated lots of noise, I could feel the vibrations through my whole body.

        I also saw a firepower demo over the sea off RAF Episcopi Cyprus. A Vulcan released a full bomb load into the sea from a lowish height, I have a wonderful photo of the resulting 21 water spouts.

      3. Bilbo of Bag End

        Re: A beautiful aircraft though

        Absolutely true. One AMAZING fact I remember about these planes was their great American adventure?

        As in most things, America was pretty down on the upstart 'Brits', daring to join the nuclear club. Disregard the fact that without our help the actual atomic bomb would have been developed in Germany first.

        Once these planes were operational, Britain announced them as the first 'true' V bombers and thus our main nuclear deterrent. The Americans decried it as slow, cumbersome and far too noisy to be a tactically effective bomber? Naturally, this ruffled a few collars in the MOD and plans were set afoot to show the Americans that the UK could certainly hold its own in the area of defence. And so one such plane took off for America.

        Its payload was a plastic 'bomb'...basically a weighed hollow plastic tube. Its flightpath took it out over Iceland (I believe it was refueled on both legs of this flight)? Greenland, out over Newfoundland, through Canada, over the Great Lakes and finally releasing its 'bomb' on the unsuspecting city of Chicago. Whereupon, it returned via the same route to the UK. Once they RAF had confirmation of the successful 'raid', they informed the Americans that they had been bombed and the evidence was in a park in Chicago!!!

        There was instant outrage from our cousins over the pond and quick rebuttals as to the authenticity of the 'attack'...the assumption being that the 'bomb' had simply been placed there under darkness. So the RAF plotted a second 'low level' attack...still following the same route, but this time making its final bombing run over the Great Lakes at an altitude below radar surveillance. This too was achieved without incident and despite having been warned in advance, the only thing the American defences could confirm, was they had heard a deep rumbling sound, out over the Lakes. And they found the 2nd 'bomb' exactly where we had told them it would be.

        And as an aside...I remember watching a news report many years ago, on the final docking as one of our nuclear submarines arrived in port, to be retired...I think it was Portsmouth? And the TV reporter asked the captain, what his one memory of his time on the sub would be? And his answer epitomised the 'Bulldog' spirit. It was something along the lines of...

        'Without doubt, it's the fact that from the day we launched, until today...not ONE other country in the World knew where we were. Not the Americans, not the Russians, not the Chinese. We remained undetected for the whole time'!!!

        And those three events to me, sum up what it is to be British.

        1. Robevan

          Re: A beautiful aircraft though

          A certain amount of mythologising going on here. Vulcans did penetrate US defences, but with full US congniscience and permission as part of operation Sky Shield. They were apparently embarrassingly good at it almost completely foxing defence radars and interceptors and "hitting" all targets, As usual Lewis's virulent anti Britishness leads him astray, Vulcans and Victors almost certainly were an effective deterrent throughout the 1960's. British ECM expertise was considerable and aircrew extremely well trained in evasive techniques as their success at penetrating North American defences demonstrated.

          1. x 7 Silver badge

            Re: A beautiful aircraft though

            "Vulcans and Victors almost certainly were an effective deterrent throughout the 1960's"

            A certain amount of eulogising also going on there.......

            In the late '60s and 70's the V-bomber role was really to blast an access corridor through Central / Eastern Europe / Western Russia, nuking the air defence and C3 sites allowing the USA-based B-52 fleet unopposed into Russian airspace, with the freedom to go roaming and target hunting several hours later.

            Being based in the UK, the V-bomber fleet had several hours advantage over the B-52 squadrons. In reality the first NATO nuclear bombs would have been dropped by the UK based B-50 Hustlers (1960's) or FB-111's (70''s-80's)

            But in reality, what was the V-bomber fleet worth? In a flap, how many would have got to target? Well......assuming they beat the incoming first strike missiles then maybe a maximum of 40-50 would have been in a flyable state and got to launch. Then, with no fighter cover they would have to try to fly through heavily defended Warsaw Pact airspace with a hot war going on underneath. You'd probably be lucky if 10% got through to the target. Then you have to consider the reliability of the bombs themselves........something at the time that was severely questioned in academic circles. So even assuming 70% of the bombs worked, that 70% of 10% of 50.....thats 3-4 aircraft hitting target. Even if you double the penetration rate to 20%, only 7 aircraft would drop their bomb. Within the scope of the whole war, totally pointless and ineffective.

            1. Matt Bryant Silver badge

              Re: x 7 Re: A beautiful aircraft though

              "....But in reality, what was the V-bomber fleet worth?...." All through the '80s and '90s the US Air Force was regularly embarrassed during NATO Red Flag exercises by the almost-as-old and subsonic Blackburn Buccaneer, which had a nasty habit of cruising so fast and so low that, even when US fighters like the F-15 or F-16 could find one, they ran too low on fuel chasing the Buc to get within missile firing range. Indeed, it was a considerable point of glee amongst RAF Buc crews that the only other type to have previously scored better against the USAF in such exercises was - drumroll - the Vulcan. Considering that the USAF from the '60s onwards had a significant technological advantage over the Soviets, it stands to reason that the Vulcan (and the Buccaneer) would have done much better than you might think.

    2. Matthew Smith

      Re: A beautiful aircraft though

      I was insanely lucky to have it fly at low level over the top of me as I was heading along an empty stretch of the A580 towards Manchester on Saturday, as it made the turn towards Manchester Airport. It felt like it was in formation between itself and my somewhat humbler Renault Scenic. And I really do mean, 'felt'.

    3. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: A beautiful aircraft though

      I saw her just over a week ago at Weston, and when she was coming up the coast (in formation with a Hawker Hunter) you couldn't hear anything until she was almost right on top of us.

      On the other hand, when she departed and went into a zoom climb away from the beach, everything shook, you had to shout to be heard (and many people were shouting and cheering) and within about 30 seconds she was about 20,000 feet above Bristol already.

      Many people "got a bit of sand" in their eye after that farewell.

      Bye XH558 :(

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: A beautiful aircraft though

        They aren't loud, they're ear-splitting :)

        When I was 10 years old I snuck on to the runway at the airbase I was living on to lay down at the end when one of these babies took off (it's last flight from that airbase).

        It's a good job I was laying down though, that delta was displacing so much air it felt like I was flattened by a giant air-hand :) Not to mention having to jump into muddy ditch-water on the way home because I was covered in unspent jet-fuel! Not sure when my hearing returned, must have been hours rather than days though - I can still remember the bollocking I got when I got home.

        Tip: Muddy ditch water doesn't really clean off jet fuel very well :)

        Awesome plane, awesome memories.

        1. Chicken Marengo

          Re: A beautiful aircraft though

          >>I can still remember the bollocking I got when I got home.

          I empathize with you there. Growing up on a succession of army bases was like living in the Garden Of Eden to me as a young boy (but with more pointy explody stuff).

          Remember once being caught by an MP in a warehouse of Honest John rocket launchers (cold war Europe) - got a bloody good hiding.

          The MP then told my dad and I got another bloody good hiding when he got home.

      2. The First Dave

        Re: A beautiful aircraft though

        Saw her at Biggleswade on Sunday, magnificent sight, magnificent sound, very glad I made the trip to see her.

        Not quite as spectacular as Miss Demeanour, but certainly top of the list when it comes to bombers.

    4. LarsG

      Re: A beautiful aircraft though

      In the 70's I lived at RAF Scampton in Lincs and regularly saw flights of three taking off on exercise over my house. The noise was phenomenal, the whole house shook the windows were almost at breaking point. The only thing that came close to this spectacle was watching Phantoms taking off at night with full afterburner from my bedroom. I have been up close to them, been inside and sat on the seats all courtesy of my dad. Happy days.

  2. hammarbtyp Silver badge

    A privilege to see her for the last time

    Went to see her for the last time at EMA Aeropark.

    She's a sprightly girl for a lady of 55 and it was a privilege to see her for the last time.

    I doubt we will see her like again. The costs of keeping some complicated machines flying means there will probably never be a equivalent project in the future. Congratulations to the Vulcan to the sky team for keeping her going this long.

  3. itzman

    Valiants Victors and Vulcans - the soundtrack to my childhood.

  4. Dr Who


    Saw it last year at the Shoreham airshow where it stole the show and stress tested the ear drums! An iconic machine which I'm glad my kids by happy chance got to see in action see before it was retired.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    My dear old dad spent a significant part of his RAF career on board these aircraft, which meant we as a family were regularly subjected to the noise of them taking off at all hours of the day and night.

    Anyway, he also told me something interesting about the Falklands bombing raids: they refused to orient their bombing runs along the length of the runway, but instead chose to run perpendicular to it, which of course made it much, much more difficult to hit the target. Exactly why they did that, I don't remember.

    There were also tankers to refuel the tankers, such was the demand for fuel for these largely ineffective raids.

    1. hammarbtyp Silver badge

      Aiming Error

      It wasn't perpendicular, it was at an angle. the angle was calculated to have the maximum chance of at least one bomb hitting the runway.

      In these days of precision guided weapons it difficult to remember the bombs the Vulcan were using were not any more accurate than the ones used in the 2nd world war. They slightly better radar and computers, but not much better.

      Dropping 10000ft meant it would not take much of a change in wind speed to cause the entire stick to miss the target, so they decided on the least risk strategy.

      I also disgree that it had no effect on the war. The fact the RAF proved they could launch missions at such range, meant the Argentinian air force was forced to keep more planes on the mainland in case of attack on the air fields there.

      1. TRT Silver badge

        Re: Aiming Error

        Major Argentine cities were thus demonstrated to be within range of a very heavy punching British bomber. The Government said they wouldn't hit the Argentine mainland, but it was very clear that was just the word of a politician rather than for any technical reason.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Aiming Error

          Do you really think that the Argentinian Junta gave a flying f*ck about their citizens or their cities? And if so, which would have scared them more, a couple of bombers or the deterrent carried in the UK's submarine fleet?

          At the time the Brit's were facing down the Chinese who wanted an early take-over of Hong Kong, sabre rattling from newly democratic Spain over Gibraltar and the Guatemalan military who had their eyes on Belize. A robust response to the Falklands was necessary to fend off the rest of the vultures.

          1. Steve Evans

            Re: Aiming Error

            Whilst the Junta wouldn't have cared about their citizens, and the submarines could have levelled most of the cities without warning, there is a lot to be said for a visible presence as a "message", and a Vulcan bomber turning up on your doorstep is one hell of a visible message!

            I still remember seeing a Vulcan at an airshow back when I was a lad, it came low over the car park, setting off every car alarm as it approached and roared over the crowd before pulling up into a near vertical climb... I remember it clear as day, and I think it will remain with me as one of the most "WTF!!!" moments of my life, it cast a shadow over the crowd like the arrival of the independence day mothership and then climbed in a way it no right to do so!

            The cars shook, the ground shook, my camera shook and I shook... I was awesome!

            TBH they could have sent one down to the Falklands with no bombs and an aux fuel tank in the bay instead and just given the airfield a fly past at 200 feet...

            1. Danny 14 Silver badge

              Re: Aiming Error

              I too remember a finningley airshow where people were wowed by F15s doing vertical climbs. They came the Vulcan who did pretty much the same thing but told everyone for miles at the same time. The noise and vibration in the floor was epic.

              although not 100% sure, I was told that the airshow Vulcan displays were at 70% power as that is when you get the most distinctive howling noise? Imagine the raw vibration at 100% then...

              I was at an airshow where a B1 lancer flew, they were pretty loud too but didn't have the same howl as a Vulcan.

              1. Johndoe888

                Re: Aiming Error

                RAF Finningley (now Robin Hood airport),is where XH558 now lives, back in her original cold war hanger.

                The howl is produced at 90% power and only by Vulcans fitted with the 202 engines rather than the more powerful 302's

                On takeoff the B1 Lancer is louder due to it's use of reheat.

                For displays such as Fairford and Yeovilton where XH558 will be on the ground for under wing tours, take offs will use 100% power! I recommend that anyone who has not done it, walks to where the engines are run up to full power before the brakes are released and FEELS THE NOISE, fingers in ears of course.

            2. Matt Bryant Silver badge

              Re: Steve Evans Re: Aiming Error

              ".....TBH they could have sent one down to the Falklands with no bombs and an aux fuel tank in the bay instead and just given the airfield a fly past at 200 feet..." The Argentinians got a lot of noisy and old British kit thrown at them! The Royal Navy had HMS Glamorgan providing high-altitude and long-range air defence with the Sea Slug SAM, a rather ironic name for a very deadly missile in its day. Unfortunately, the Argentinians decided to not be accommodating and flew their air attacks in at low level, rendering the Sea Slugs virtually useless. But Sea Slug had an interesting trick in that it could also be command-guided as well as radar-beam-guided, and in the Falklands it was used by HMS Glamorgan as an impromptu cruise missile against a radar site and the airfield. The job meant flying the Sea Slugs horizontally low over the Argentinian positions to the area of the target, then commanding the Sea Slug to tip over into a dive. Whilst its warhead wasn't really that big and they weren't used against the general Argentine soldier's positions, the incredible racket of its rocket motor as the big missile screamed low overhead was said to scare the Argentinians silly! They had nothing that could shoot the low- and fast-flying Sea Slugs down with and their soldiers were convinced that the RN had a whole fleet of ships with a large stock of Sea Slugs they could use against them, when the reality was the RN only had two ships (Antrim and Glamorgan) armed with Sea Slug. Luckily the Argentine Navy didn't see fit to pass on their intelligence to their army and the Argentines remained terrified of the Sea Slug right up until their surrender.

            3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

              Re: Aiming Error

              "and then climbed in a way it no right to do so!"

              Absolutely!!! I've seen it at three air show over the years and also was working in York for a week recently when I heard and "unusual" noise, look across the fields and there was the Vulcan doing a performance over an ex-airfield (Elvington?) and I swear it did an Immalman! That was a really nice surprise in the middle of a shitty week.

          2. Allan George Dyer Silver badge

            Re: Aiming Error

            @AC - Are you sure the Chinese wanted an early takeover of HK? If they were impatient, they could have turned off the water supply and walked in any time fromthe '60s. AFAIK, the issue was brought up because local businesses wanted assurance about land leases when Britain's 99 year lease on the "New Territories" ran out.

      2. TitterYeNot

        Re: Aiming Error

        "In these days of precision guided weapons it difficult to remember the bombs the Vulcan were using were not any more accurate than the ones used in the 2nd world war"

        It's also worth remembering the Vulcan's raison d'être - it was designed from the ground up as a nuclear bomber, with an aiming and delivery capability to suit that role. Even carrying an unboosted low yield weapon of 10 kilotons or so, an accuracy measured in hundreds of metres was perfectly acceptable at the time, and later in its life the aircraft could carry a full on thermonuclear fissile/fusion payload with yields of a megaton or so, where pinpoint accuracy really isn't a consideration (to put it mildly!)

        Considering the above, I really do have to take may hat off to a crew and aircraft that managed to hit a target as relatively small as a runway even once, halfway through a 7000 mile sortie.

    2. Steve 114

      It's rather interesting - do try a bit harder to 'remember'.

    3. zapper

      The reason for not running along the runway was if the line was displaced either side, then you miss completely. If you hit it at an angle, the chances are great for a hit if you are displaced left or right.

  6. Anonymous Coward

    Snif, snif bye bye Vulcan

  7. hammarbtyp Silver badge


    If you get a chance to climb into the Vulcan cockpit (at EMA aeropark they have open days), do so. You will be surprised by disparity between the size of plane and the crew compartment, which is let us say, snug.

    None of the huge acerage that the yanks have in the b-52, which makes the black buck missions even more remarkable.

    1. cray74

      Re: Cockpit

      "None of the huge acerage that the yanks have in the b-52, which makes the black buck missions even more remarkable."

      I'll grant the Vulcan's cockpit is smaller, but "acreage?" The B-52H's have a 2-deck compartment for a crew of 5 in survival gear and ejection seats with a cumulative volume similar to a minivan. I'm not tall, but I got leg cramps while touring a B52H that was undergoing maintenance and had its ejection seats removed.

      Of course, I'm not a military air crewman so maybe that does count as acreage. The F-4's cockpit in the National Museum of the USAF was claustrophobic. I had to put my camera to my forehead to photograph the control panel while seated in it.

      1. hammarbtyp Silver badge

        Re: Cockpit

        I will bow to your superior knowledge @cray74. I have never had the privilege of touring or ever seeing a B-52 in the flesh, so most of my knowledge is based on Dr. Strangelove....

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Cockpit

      The cockpit was snug because it was never designed to have two seats up there - with a navigator back down behind the cockpit Avro thought that one pilot was perfectly capable of flying the aircraft. However the MoA and RAF insisted that bomber=pilot+copilot, so two ejection seats were shoehorned in there.

  8. HPCJohn

    Britains weapons designs

    You use the phrase 'Heath Robinson' with respect to Blue Danube.

    I am not of that era, but I would imagine this is a bit of a disservice to those who designed and built it.

    Worth noting though that one bomb design had a safing system which involved pouring in lead shot.

    I am at work at the moment and can't spend much time Googling for the name.

    Someone remind me please?

    1. Brian Morrison

      Re: Britains weapons designs

      That was the Green Grass warhead used in the Yellow Sun bomb body that was called Violet Club in this combination. It was never tested and was regarded as unsafe because the amount of fissile material was greater than a critical mass and had the thin-walled shell of Plutonium been crushed it could have gone critical. The steel balls (not actually lead shot) weighed almost half a ton and filled the hollow Pu sphere to prevent accidental crushing. Only 5 were made.

      Nearly all of the late 50s/early 60s air-dropped nukes in the UK arsenal were interim weapons, in some of the slightly later weapons the cores were stored in lead pits in the ground inside small buildings with roofs shaped so that they threw a similar shadow to a tree. Before flight the weapon had to have the core carried out and inserted into the weapon inside the bomb bay.

      Remember that the Hiroshima Little Boy bomb could go critical if filled with water, it had a cadmium rod inserted for safety which was removed before being dropped, but even that might not have been enough if the aircraft carrying it had gone off the end of the runway into the sea on takeoff.

    2. Steve 114

      Re: Britains weapons designs

      I thought they had to pull out the cork so that the ball bearings between the sub-critical masses drained out. After which it was deemed pretty unsafe to land with bomb still aboard. Brit. response to an International Incident was an Erk with a Cork.

  9. Alan Bourke

    My father in law did his national service in Farnborough

    ... in the 50s, billeted off the end of the runway. When Vulcans took off they would have to go round standing lamps back up and putting everything back on the shelves.

  10. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    Will be seeing it at Eastbourne in August

    So here's a pint to the lads and lasses that kept her flying so long.

  11. Uberseehandel

    A "Pocket" Bomber

    A lovely aircraft, there was no need for the writer to sprinkle his copy with the adjective "huge". The Vulcan was was nimble, but carried a bomb load slightly less than a Lancaster. As well as being half the physical size of a B-52, it had a maximum takeoff weight some 318,000 lbs less, so huge it most definitely wasn't. As well as being nimble it was comparatively fast with a higher maximum ceiling than a B-52. I doubt it had the range, altitude or outright speed required to be a successful cold war bomber.


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