The name, sight and sound of the powerful, piscine and stingray-like Avro Vulcan, after all these years, still generates a thrill in my gut that starts somewhere down low below the belt and rises up to fill the heart. The chest-pounding concussion of its four Bristol Olympus engines was, to my young mind, a thunderous warning from the gods to think twice about messing with the British. Its name was so perfectly in sync with its role and its powerful beauty—Vulcan—the hammer-wielding Roman god of fire and volcanoes. The name Vulcan brought to mind the flaming apocalypse of thermonuclear warfare and the power of man to destroy his world—in an elegant way. Its power over the active imagination of a young boy survives to this day. The god-like Vulcan still resides in the pantheon of the most beautiful and iconic aircraft ever built—something the British are particularly good at as witnessed by the Spitfire, Mosquito, Lightning and Concorde. Its appearance at the beginning of the James Bond film Thunderball cemented its place as an icon of the Cold War and in the imaginations of pre-pubescent boys.
As late as 1975, I witnessed the flight of a Vulcan at the Ottawa Air Show, held at Uplands when that base was still a major and very active RCAF Station. I can still see its broad back glinting like burnished armour in the flat sunlight of that late spring day. Its demonstration that day would have been the perfect time to be a pickpocket, for there was not a single face among the throng that was not turned toward this thundering elasmobranch. Everything about the Vulcan evokes awe, not the least of which is its dramatic name. But, Vulcan was not the name first put forward to the Air Ministry by Avro. Not even close.
The famous (some say infamous) Avro Vulcan prototype VX770 (with four Rolls-Royce Avon engines) showing off the breathtakingly beautiful and futuristic shape of the Vulcan’s massive delta wing. VX770 was equipped with the early straight-edged leading edge wing. Everything about this aircraft would make it the darling of the V-force bombers, inspire the nation and keep it flying as a bomber well into the 1980s. VX770 had a catastrophic wing failure during a climbing turn at an air show at RAF Syerston in 1958. The crew of 4 was killed as were three on the ground. Photo: Avro
At the time of the construction of the first prototypes, the Royal Air Force had a long-standing tradition of naming their bombers after cities, dating back to the beginning of the Second World War. Many of these aircraft have come to stand for the finest men, women and machines that the Royal Air Force ever put into harm’s way—the mighty Handley Page Halifax and Avro Lancaster. While the cities that these aircraft were named after evoke little imagery in the minds of us Canadians, their names will forever represent the courage, tenacity and sacrifice of more than 10,000 Canadian men who went to war in them and did not return.
When the Royal Air Force took receipt of more than 80 Boeing B-29 Superfortresses in the early 1950s, they chose to rename them Washingtons after the American capital city in honour of their American roots. By the time the last of the Washingtons were being flown back to the USA, A.V. Roe and Company (Avro) was contemplating a new name for their new and massive delta-winged heavy jet bomber. Having flown for the first time in August of 1952, the new aircraft, temporarily called the Avro 698, did not yet have a name when it flew at the Farnborough Air Show the following September. Avro, thinking along more traditional lines, had the name of a city in mind—Ottawa. I kid you not! Avro of Great Britain strongly recommended the name of Canada’s sleepy capital city as a way of honouring the company’s corporate connection with the über-creative Avro Canada which, by this time, was developing some extremely advanced aircraft designs—the Avro Jetliner (the world’s second jet airliner after the Comet), the Avro Canuck all-weather interceptor and the truly magnificent Avro Arrow.
Ottawa around the time of the Avro Vulcan’s development—logging industry and Parliament in one place. Photo: Malak Karsh
The two Avro Vulcan prototypes (VX770 and VX777) fly in formation with four Avro 707s, the Vulcan’s proof-of-concept progenitors. This was at Farnborough in 1953, by which time the name Ottawa was forgotten—thankfully. Photo: Wikipedia
While I am extremely proud to call myself an Ottawan, I am the first person to say, “What were they thinking?” Ottawa was in those days a small city of some 280,000 civil servants, lumbermen, railroad people, office workers and their families. Though it was on Moscow’s target list to take receipt of a fistful of nuclear warheads, it was as far from representing the near-supersonic, fire-breathing white chariot of the apocalypse as, say, a squirrel might be. Like the Spitfire, this new flying nemesis of communism would need a name that inspired awe and fear. Ottawa was just not going to do it. As much as we Ottawans appreciate the honour, were are forever grateful (as is all of Great Britain I am sure) that Avro was convinced to let that name drop.
The British weekly magazine Flight threw out some ideas including Albion, Avenger, Apollo and Assegai (not a great name, but apparently a long, iron-tipped spear). Nice try Flight! The Chief of the Air Staff, Marshal of the Air Force Sir John Slessor stepped in with the idea of a V-Force of bombers and a month later, the Avro 698 became the Vulcan—the Roman God of Fire and Destruction. Appropriate indeed. Other members of the V-Force were the Handley Page Victor and the Vickers Valiant, but it was and still is the Avro Vulcan that captures the imagination of the world.
Perhaps the name Ottawa, if given half a chance, would have one day become synonymous with impending doom and mutually assured destruction. After all, a little old lady from Illinois by the name of Enola Gay Haggard is now and forever connected to the same Armageddon scenario. I doubt it though.
The City Bombers
I’m not certain that the Bristol Blenheim was named for a city—more likely after Blenheim Palace or perhaps the Battle of Blenheim, where John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough defeated the French. Regardless of the origin of the name... there is the city of Blenheim in New Zealand to be considered. Here, three Blenheims from No. 13 Operational Training Unit at RAF Bicester hold position perfectly in echelon right. No. 13 OTU was associated with 6 Group, Bomber Command which was comprised of squadrons of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Photo: Imperial War Museum
The Handley Page Hereford was named after the county city of Herefordshire near the Welsh border. The Hereford differed from the Hampden in that it was powered by the completely unreliable Napier Dagger engine which offered no appreciable performance over the Bristol radials of the Hampden. They were soon pulled from service. Photo: Imperial War Museum
The Bristol Bombay, named after the city that is now called Mumbai, was designed as a transport for the RAF with the ability to function as a medium bomber. Used mostly as a transport and supply aircraft, its bombing career was as a night bomber in the North African campaign. The design bomb load of 250 lb bombs under the fuselage was supplemented by improvised bombs thrown out of the cargo door by hand! Only 51 were constructed. Photo: Imperial War Museum
Similar in many repsects to the Bristol Bombay, the Handley Page Harrow was named after the London suburb of Harrow. The two had about the same performance qualities, except that the Bombay had nearly twice the range of the Harrow. Photo: Dan Shumaker Collection, via 1000AircraftPhotos.com
The Armstrong Whitworth Whitley was one of three medium bombers available to Bomber Command at the outset of the war—the Hampden and Wellington being the others. Despite being obsolete by the time of the war, some 1,800 Merlin-powered Whitleys (mostly Mk IVs) were built, seeing service in a wide variety of roles. The two examples above are Coastal Patrol aircraft with 612 Squadron, based in Iceland. The Whitley’s major flaw was that it could not maintain altitude on a single engine. It also flew with a pronounced nose-down attitude—due to a wing that was set at a high angle of attack (AOA). The wing’s AOA was set in this manner because the original design had no flaps. Even after flaps were added to the design, the wing’s angle never changed. It had a snooty aristocratic look about it, and was named after the West Midlands town of Whitley, a suburb community near Coventry and the place where one of Armstrong Whitworth’s factories was situated. The same Whitley plant site is now home to Jaguar Cars Limited and houses its design, research and development facilities. Photo: Imperial War Museum
The Vickers Wellington was the most capable of the medium bombers available to the RAF’s Bomber Command at the start of the war. Wellingtons of No. 9 and No. 149 Squadrons, along with Bristol Blenheims, participated on the first offensive attacks by Great Britain in the Second World War—attacks on German shipping and naval vessels at Brunsbüttel Roads at the western mouth of the Kiel Canal. The Wellington, nicknamed the “Wimpey”, was unique among the aircraft of the Second World War in that its fuselage construction was largely fabric over a geodesic structure—designed by Barnes Wallis, the genius armaments designer who devised the bouncing bomb used by the Dam Busters later in the war. The criss-crossing framework of the geodesic concept allowed the Wellington to absorb considerable damage and still return safely to base. While the aircraft was named after Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, one could also claim that since the city of Wellington in New Zealand was also named after Wellesley, the aircraft was therefore named after a city. Photo: Imperial War Museum
An amazing photograph of the Wellington’s (and Warwick’s) unique geodesic structure, over which wood battens were laid to accept the fabric outer skins of both aircraft types. Photo: Imperial War Museum
Named after the small city of Warwick in Warwickshire, the heavy two-engine Vickers Warwick was developed along with the Wellington and was its larger counterpart, sharing the same geodesic structure. Its use was limited compared to it smaller sister, the Wellington—842 built to the Wellington’s 11,460 airframes. It saw use as a transport, Coastal Command patrol bomber, air-sea rescue aircraft (with underslung lifeboat as above), and maritime recce platform. Photo: Imperial War Museum
The last of the piston-engined Vickers City bombers—the Vickers Armstrongs Windsor, named after the great city in Berkshire and the home of Windsor Castle. Only three prototype Windsors ever flew, the type being pretty well eclipsed by later variants of the Lancaster. This photo shows the yellow underbelly and P roundel of experimental aircraft in the RAF during the war. Wikipedia tells us “The Windsor used [Barnes] Wallis's geodetic body and wing structure that Vickers had previously used in the Wellesley, Wellington and Warwick bombers. Instead of doped Irish linen however, a stiff and light skin was used on the Windsor, made with woven steel wires and very thin (1/1000 inch thickness) stainless steel ribbons, doped with PVC or other plastic, specially designed to avoid ballooning. To properly fit the skin to the frame, a tuning fork had to be used. The wings' structure had no spars. Instead, it was a single hollow geodetic tube from tip to tip, passing through the fuselage truss. ... The wing was designed so that the tips had a noticeable droop on the ground, but was straight in flight, so the skin had to be fitted tighter on top than on the bottom to be evenly tight in flight.” The Windsor had many unique features, not the least of which was its tall dagger-board-like tail, pressurized cockpit and gunner positions and four main gear oleos, each extending from an engine nacelle (lower photot). Photo via WarThunder.com
The Avro Manchester, named after the Lancashire/Cheshire city of Manchester on the River Mersey, was a rare Avro failure of the war. Only 202 airframes were built, and though its performance was poor, it did see limited service with both the RAF and the RCAF. The problem with the Manchester was largely in its very unreliable pair of 24-cylinder Rolls-Royce Vulture X-engines (two opposing V-12s). The aircraft was both unreliable and underpowered and crews hated them. The engines were not only unreliable, the aircraft could not maintain altitude on a single engine—a recipe for disaster. In trying to make the Manchester a better aircraft, the Mk III was given a longer wing and four Merlin engines, and thus the Lancaster was born. Photo: Imperial War Museum
The Douglas A-20 Havoc became the Boston when employed by the Royal Air Force and other Commonwealth air forces as a light bomber and attack aircraft. Perhaps it was an understated reference to the Boston Tea Party, one of the seminal acts of rebellion that ended with America’s independence from England. During the course of the war, 24 Commonwealth squadrons were equipped with the Boston. Some were converted to Turbinlite standard. Photo: Imperial War Museum
The Short Stirling was the Royal Air Force’s first four-engine heavy bomber of the Second World War. It was named after the city of Stirling, known as the “Gateway to the Highlands”, and which was once the capital of Scotland. The Short Stirling was hamstrung by an Air Ministry requirement that limited its wingspan (based on an existing hangar door width), which resulted in performance issues. While it was required to have approximately the same wingspan as the Lancaster and Halifax, it was considerably taller and longer. The Stirling had a limited strategic bombing career, being relegated to second line duty by late 1943. It continued as a mine laying aircraft, glider tug and transport until the end of the war. Photo: Imperial War Museum
The Handley Page Halifax was, along with the Avro Lancaster, the true backbone of Bomber Command operations in the latter part of the war, with nearly 6,200 manufactured. The aircraft was named after the city of Halifax in the West riding of Yorkshire. The “Hali-Bag” was built in a number of marks, and was powered by four Merlins or four Bristol Hercules radial engines. The Halifax was better than the Lancaster in terms of crew survivability, but performed marginally less at higher altitudes. It did not capture the imaginations of the citizenry like the Lancaster would do—likely because the Lanc was used in several famous operations like the Dam Busters Raid and attacks on French coastal submarine pens of the Kriegsmarine. The Halifax equipped 15 squadrons of the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War. There are only two restored examples in the world today, but the Bomber Command Museum of Canada in Nanton, Alberta is presently collecting parts with the intent to have a restored Halifax with running engines (God bless them). Photo: Imperial War Museum
The star of the film The Dam Busters, the Avro Lancaster became the poster girl for Bomber Command night operations against Nazi facilities in occupied Europe and on German cities. They were made in large numbers (7,377) including 430 at Victory Aircraft in Malton, Ontario. The last Lancaster was retired from service with the RCAF in 1963. Unlike the Halifax, a number of Lancs still exist today, with two in flying condition (Hamilton, Ontario and the UK) and two in running condition (Nanton, Alberta and the UK). Photo: Imperial War Museum
Designed originally as a later mark of the Lancaster, the new type was renamed the Lincoln after the East Midlands city and county town of Lincolnshire. It was the last piston-engined bomber used by the Royal Air Force and saw service until 1963, by which time the RAF’s Bomber Command went all-jet. Photo: Imperial War Museum
The RAF operated 87 Boeing B.29 Superfortresses from August 1950 until early 1954 as a stopgap until jet-powered British Electric Canberras arrived as well as the later V-bombers. In keeping with the British tradition of naming bombers after cities, the B.29s became known as B.1 Washingtons in RAF service—in honour of the American capital city—and were acquired under the Mutual Defense Assistance Program. The last in use with the RAF left in 1958. Photo: 44sqn.com
The English Electric Canberra was named after the Australian capital city. In addition to the 900 built in Great Britain, the Canberra was license built in Australia and the United States (as the Martin B.57 Canberra). An incredibly capable aircraft in many roles, the Canberra was a stable bombing platform capable of prodigious distances and altitudes. Pictured here is an early model Martin B.57 Canberra flying over Chesapeake Bay near the Martin plant. Three WB.57 Canberras still fly today with NASA—as high altitude research aircraft. Photo: Wikipedia
The Avro Ottawa... thankfully now known as the Avro Vulcan
Vulcan from RAF Scampton displaying the linked leading edge of the Vulcan B.2. The Vulcan’s manta ray-like form is evident in this photo. Photo: Imperial War Museum
V-bombers of the Royal Air Force in flight. An Avro Vulcan, Vickers Valiant and Handley-Page Victor from the Ministry of Supply Research and Development establishment at RAF Boscombe Down in formation over the sea during development trials. These aircraft formed the spearhead of the Royal Air Force’s strategic nuclear bomber force. The Valiant entered service in 1955, the Vulcan in 1956 and the Victor in 1957. Photo: Imperial War Museum
The crew of an Avro Vulcan B.1 bomber pose in front of their aircraft. Photo: Imperial War Museum
A trio of RAF Waddington Vulcans in flight, wearing the early anti-flash white paint scheme. The anti-flash white was designed to reflect some of the thermal radiation from a nuclear blast, thereby protecting the crew and the airframe. To think that these could have been called a trio of Ottawas makes this Ottawan cringe. Photo: Imperial War Museum