John M. White

Advanced Flying Wing Aircraft

Oct 21, 2023

The Avro Vulan B.1 was a jet-powered, tailess, delta-wing high-altitude strategic bomber of the mid-1950s
The Avro Vulcan B.1 was a jet-powered, tailless, delta-wing high-altitude strategic bomber of the mid-1950s

Aircraft designers understood the advantages of a flying wing aircraft, but after the Northrop designs failed to deliver the required performance, many manufacturers returned to more conventional designs.

Immediately after WWII, the British decided that they needed an aircraft to carry an atomic bomb weighing 10,000 pounds at a distance of 1,500 miles at an altitude of 20,000 to 50,000 feet at a speed of 500 knots.

However, even though the riskiest design option was a flying wing aircraft, the only practical way to get the weight of the aircraft to an acceptable level could only be met by a flying wing design.

Avro began immediately to design such an aircraft, and several reduced-scale aircraft were produced to test and refine the delta-wing design principles, eventually, in 1956 the Vulcan B.1 bomber began delivery to the Royal Air Force.

The aircraft made its first flight on August 30, 1951, with the original Rolls-Royce Avron R.A.3 turbojet engines, but these were soon replaced with the more powerful Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire A.S.Sa.6 engine.

The aircraft had no defensive weapons and relied only on its high-speed high-altitude capabilities to evade ground-based air-to-air missiles. After 1960 the Vulcan aircraft were equipped with electronic countermeasure capability.

 

A photograph of Avro Type 698 VX770 in flight on 20 September 1958.
An Avro Type 698 VX770 in flight on 20 September 1958.

Tragedy Strikes

The British continued development of the Vulcan, and on September 20th, 1958, during a test flight, the test pilot Keith Roland Sturt decided to take the aircraft and make a scheduled air show fly-past. 

On board were also co-pilot Ronald W. Ward, flight engineer William E. Hawkins, as well as Navigator Flight Lieutenant Raymond M. Parrott of the Royal Air Force.

The aircraft flown was Avro Type 698 VX770.

A photograph of Vulcan VX770 as it flies past the tower and begins a right turn.
Vulcan VX770 as it flies past the tower and begins a right turn.

During the fly-by, the aircraft flew East along runway 07 - 25, and as it passed the control tower at about 350 knots, the pilot started a turn to the right.

Spectators noticed what they called a "kink" form on the leading edge of the aircraft's right wing. The wing then began to disintegrate from the leading edge aft as it shed wing surface panels.

Vulcan B.2 disintegrating as it makes a right turn.
The right wing begins to disintegrate as the aircraft turns right.

Soon fuel from the ruptured fuel tanks forms a cloud under the right wing as the aircraft begins to roll to the left.

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The aircraft plummets to earth trailing aircraft parts and fuel.

Next, the top of the vertical find comes off, the aircraft pitches upward towards the vertical, then pivots straight down with both wings on fire and impacts the east end of the runway.

The VX770 debris field at the east end of the runway.
The VX770 debris field at the east end of the runway.

Sadly, not only were all four crew members killed, but three additional RAF fire/rescue personnel on the ground were killed.

In the investigation following the accident was unable to determine the cause of the failure of the wing, but metal fatigue was suspected. The aircraft had been undergoing flight testing for six years, and it is possible that some of the design limits had been exceeded during earlier flight testing.

Today, the backbone of the USAF strategic bomber fleet is the B-2 stealth bomber, although the Air Force still maintains a fleet of B-52 bombers as well.

I hope you enjoyed this trip through some of the history of aviation. If you enjoyed this trip, and are new to this newsletter, sign up to receive your own weekly newsletter here: Subscribe here:

Until next time, keep your eyes safe and focused on what's ahead of you, Hersch! 

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