Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Grub Street, July 2014
Although Tony Blackman has written one or two other “Boys” titles (see Victor Boys), he has returned to his true love, since he was a development test pilot on the mighty Vulcan. The book understandably starts with the gestation of this, the longest-lasting of the three types that made up Britain’s V force. Roly Falk, Avro’s chief test pilot at the time, became famous for looping and rolling the aircraft during his displays at the Farnborough Air Show. He generally treated the lightly fuelled bomber as a fighter, aided by the fact that, unusually, it had a joy stick rather than a control yoke. We learn in these first chapters that test pilots frequently took their wives as back seat passengers during these Farnborough displays! This rather underlines how times have changed. Pilots frequently wore ties when flying military aircraft, and there was nary a sighting of a hi-viz jacket.
Once into service the Vulcan (together with its fellow V bombers) was the cornerstone of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Like the fighters of the time (i.e. the Lightening), Vulcan squadrons therefore had to provide crews on continual Quick Readiness Alert. The antiquated motor transport provided to speed the crews to their craft reminded me that not many years had elapsed since Dad’s Army had hung up its uniforms…..
More scope for nostalgia is given with the descriptions of overseas detachments – a feature of the RAF in those times much more so than now – Britain really did project a global reach. A Vulcan trip to RAF Changi required stops at three airfields enroute, only one of which, Akrotiri, is still operated by the RAF. At nearby Tengah the RAF was present in what now seems astonishing force: a permanent presence of 2 squadrons of Javelins, 2 of Canberras, one of Hunters, plus a squadron of New Zealand Canberras on detachment! More period flavour is given by the high proportion of Vulcan crew who sport moustaches in the photos.
In peacetime the highlight of a bomber pilot’s year was being sent to the annual competition between the RAF and the USAF’s Strategic Air Command, known as Giant Voice. The book well portrays the huge effort that went into these ‘battles’.
But the Vulcan’s swansong was also its apogee: as squadrons were being disbanded, some Argentinian scrap dealers annexed South Georgia in the middle of the South Atlantic. This minor act was the prelude of course to the Argies’ invasion of the Falkland Islands. The book’s main interest - to both lay and specialist reader alike – is the Vulcan’s central role in the liberation of the islands. The build-up to the war – known as Op Corporate – is fascinating. Of course much is also told in parallel in Victor Boys, since the Vulcan was only able to perform the Black Buck bombing missions with the aid of the tanker fleet. Aspects of the tale that caught my eye: the weight of responsibility thrust onto young shoulders, the behaviour of the Soviets (parking a ‘trawler’ off the end of Ascension’s runway and radioing take-off data to Buenos Aires); the degree of clutter, chaos, and rubbish accommodation on Ascension. This led to an illuminating tale about a fridge which showed the Royal Navy at its worst (you will have to buy the book).
The Black Buck missions did of course require precise navigation over long periods of sea transits. This was before the era of GPS; the tales of feats of celestial navigation seem closer to Captain Cook than now. But just as it took the British military an age to adopt GPS years after its commonplace use in the civil world, it is instructive that the Vulcans were saved in this task by the ‘robbing’ of some stored VC10s of their Inertial Navigation Systems – which provided the necessary precision wherever needed around the globe.
One (of several) description of a Black Buck mission has a buttock-clenching example of the possible consequences of bull-headedness in the cockpit. Disaster was very narrowly averted, but only by some awesome flying by the Vulcan’s captain, who, to all intents and purposes, did a power off landing into Rio’s international airport. The subsequent behaviour of the Brazilian Chief of the Air Staff shows the camaraderie of the air at its best.
The book lacks some of the juicy ground-bound tales of most of its companion volumes – perhaps bomber crews are slightly less ebullient than fighter pilots. I sense that there was quite a lot of what would have been interesting detail left out – Vulcan pilots of my acquaintance (who do not feature in the book) have some interesting stories about how the Soviet strikes would have been carried out, which go untold in this volume.
The insight into the prosecution of the Falklands War is the key attraction of this book. However it could have done with tighter editing. As with other ‘Boys’ titles, each chapter features the contribution of a different character (or two). So needlessly, for example, we learn several times over about the Pye Pylon. These gripes apart, it will appeal to most aviation buffs.
Not a Vulcan tanking off a Victor
Black Buck refuellling plan - idiot's version