First of the V’s – The Vickers Valiant

April 6, 2022

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At the end of the Second World War, the British Royal Air Force had a huge fleet of heavy bombers. Massive numbers of Avro Lancasters and Handley Page Halifaxs were on hand, and deliveries of the new Avro Lincoln had just begun.

 

Unfortunately, it was also apparent that all these aircraft were teetering on the edge of obsolescence. Jet engines and, more particularly, the development of the atomic bomb, pointed the way to how things were going to go, and RAFs Bomber Command would need to replace the piston engine designs in the near future.

In 1946 the Air Staff set out Operational Requirements for the development of new jet bombers that would replace the old aircraft and also be capable of carrying the new atomic bombs that the British planned to develop. This was followed in 1947 by the issuing of two new specifications for jet bombers that would fulfil the role of carrying Britain’s planned nuclear deterrent.

One of these specifications, B.35/46, called for a new bomber that would have a speed of 575 mph and a ceiling of around 50,000ft.

For perspective the Lincoln, then the RAFs most advanced bomber, had a top speed of only 310mph and a maximum altitude of just over 30,000 feet.

Obviously, the new aircraft was going to be best defence contract in the next decade and so multiple British aircraft manufacturers competed. And because the aircraft that was going to be the U.K.s nuclear deterrent, the Ministry of Defence thoroughly hedged its bets and ended up ordering three of the competing designs into production.

These became the “V-Bombers”.

From Avro came the famed Vulcan, whose distinctive style and great capability meant that they served until 1984. Handley Page created the Victor, another cutting edge design which in fact would serve on longer than the Vulcan.

The third aircraft, far less well known than its more long-lived siblings, was the Vickers Valiant.

And it is somewhat ironic that this aircraft is often overlooked in comparison to its rivals, as it actually saw far more use at the sharp end than either.

In fact, the Valiant was initially overlooked in the selection process, being a far more conservative design than the Vulcan and Victor and so was passed over.

However, Vickers promptly began to lobby the Air Ministry, making the perfectly valid points that, yes, their proposal was more modest than the other designs, but that meant:

a) There was far less chance of something going wrong with the aircraft in the design and testing phases as compared to Victor or Vulcan, and

b) they could get the aircraft into service quicker.

Their design would also still be able to meet the required specification. In fact, Vickers design team leader, George Edwards, promised that he could deliver an aircraft to the specification within a tight schedule and budget, something that was achieved and in the history of aviation is, quite frankly, something of a rarity.

Because of the urgent need to update Bomber Command’s fleet, and to get a modern nuclear capable bomber into service, Vickers argument won the day and in February 1949 two prototypes were ordered.

It might seem extravagant to field three separate designs for a single requirement, but bear in mind that when the decision was made the Berlin Blockade was at its height and war with the Soviet Union seemed a very real possibility.

The need for the V-bombers and hedging against the potential failure of any one of them in development, was an absolute priority. And for all the talk of the Valiant being the least sophisticated aircraft of the three, it was still an advanced aircraft and far superior to the piston-engine bombers it replaced.

 

The first prototype flew on the 18th of May 1951, followed by the second, with a different engine fit, in April 1952. This was followed almost immediately with an order for the production of 25 Valiant B. Mk.1 bombers and another prototype, the Vickers Type 673 which was intended to form the basis for the Valiant B.Mk.2.

In fact, the B.Mk.2 actually makes the whole Valiant program much more of a “what-if” aircraft, for reasons that will become apparent.

This aircraft, which was painted distinctively all black, was designed to be a low-level pathfinder, as opposed to the high-level aircraft of the original specification. For this it had a much-strengthened airframe, greater fuel load and had far greater speed than the Mk.1 at low-levels.

Delivered in September 1953 it served in trials until 1958 and was then scrapped because the Air Ministry thought the concept of a low-level intruder was obsolete – a short sighted view in light of what happened.

However, while the experiments were taking place with the B.Mk.2, the actual production aircraft of the B.Mk.1 were getting into service. In design the Valiant was exactly as had been promised, a less ambitious concept than the other V-bombers, but a competent one.

 

The Valiant used a shoulder mounted compound sweep wing, which cut down top potential speed but assisted with low-speed handling.

The four engines were buried in the wing roots, giving the aircraft a very clean appearance. These were Rolls Royce Avon turbojets, which produced 9,000lbf in the first five aircraft and were upgraded to later models as production continued so that most of the fleet flew with Avon RA.28s that produced 10,500lbf each.

With this the Valiant had a top speed of 567mph (912km/h) and a maximum service ceiling of 54,000ft.

Weapon load was 21,000lbs of conventional bombs or else a British designed nuclear weapon, at first Blue Danube atomic bombs, around which the V-bombers bay bays were all designed, and then thermonuclear Yellow Suns. These were supplemented with American made B43 bombs.

In total, 107 Valiant’s would be built; three prototypes and 104 service aircraft in four models – 36 B.1 bombers; 11 B(PR).1 that were bombers that could have a photo reconnaissance camera pack fitted in the bomb bay; 13 B{PR)k.1’s that could act as bombers, photo-recon or inflight refuelling tankers, again depending on which mission equipment pack was loaded in the bomb bay; and 44 Valiant B(k).1’s, which were bomber/tanker variants.

The first Valiant B.Mk.1 off the production line flew in December 1953 and was ultimately delivered to the RAF in February 1955. They were soon demonstrating their range of capabilities, which makes their almost complete overshadowing by their later siblings all the more confusing.

Despite the complexities of transitioning crews who were mainly coming from the old Lincolns, the RAF managed to get Valiant squadron operational in a remarkably short time. They also were soon to demonstrate both the Valiant’s and Britain’s nuclear capability.

On the 11th of October 1956, Valiant WZ366 became the first British aircraft to drop an atomic bomb when a Blue Danube was tested at the Maralinga range in Australia. This was followed in May 1957 when another Valiant conducted a test drop of the British experimental thermonuclear bomb, code named “Short Granite”, on Christmas Island in the Pacific.

(As an aside, this actually fizzled, producing a blast of only 300 kilotons instead of the projected 1-to-1.2 megaton explosion – for reference, the Little Boy bomb used on Hiroshima was about 15 kilotons. That’s why they tested the things, I suppose.)

Britain had demonstrated to the world that it was an independent nuclear power, and with the Valiant had the means to deliver such weapons at great distance. Valiant’s would provide a keystone in Britain’s nuclear deterrence, supplemented by the later Victors and Vulcans, for a few years.

But they would also see more standard combat usage.

On the 31st of October 1956, Britain and France launched an attack on Egypt. Notionally the two countries were attempting to enforce a ceasefire between Israel and Egypt, a rather simplistic ploy for the two European nations to intervene and occupy the Suez Canal zone. The canal had been owned by Britain and France for decades and had been recently nationalized by the Egyptian leader, Gamal Nasser, leading to the “Suez Crisis”.

British intervention saw it amass a large amphibious force to seize the canal, and this was supported by Valliant’s operating from Malta that bombed the Egyptian airfields that posed a threat to the invasion force, as well as communication and logistic hubs.

The high-altitude capability of the Valliant’s made them immune from interception by the Egyptian Air Force’s most capable fighter of the time, the Gloster Meteor.

One Egyptian did claim to have hit a Valiant during an attack, but the RAF crews involved reported that they had seen the Meteor “standing on its tail” in an attempt to reach them and firing its guns, but they did not take any hits.

In fact, the Valiant’s high altitude bombing proved somewhat disappointing, and they were not able to decisively knock out the Egyptian airfields, despite multiple missions flown and hundreds of tonnes of bombs dropped.

But the effort was remarkable in being the only combat missions flown by V-bombers throughout their career until Operation Black Buck of the Falkland’s War in 1982.

Though the Valiant’s high altitude capability had been expressly specified in its design to make interception by manned fighters of the day more difficult, in the face of the development of Surface to Air missiles this soon proved a disadvantage.

In 1960 a U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, signaling that high altitude intrusions were largely a thing of the past. Instead, aircraft would have to refocus on low-level attack flying.

By now the Valiant had been largely replaced in the nuclear strike role by Victors and Vulcans, but was still used heavily for photo reconnaissance, aerial tanking and conventional strike.

Four Valiant squadrons were assigned to this latter role for NATO duties, having their anti-flash white paint scheme replaced by a camouflage pattern. Unfortunately, it was here that the failure to procure the Valiant B.2, which was expressly designed for low level flying, told against the aircraft.

After only a few years of flying these sorts of missions, the Valiant’s began to show extreme signs of wear to their airframes. In 1964 cracked wing spars began to be found on some aircraft, and in August of that year one failed on an aircraft in flight. As a testament to the toughness of the Valiant, the pilot managed to get the aircraft home, but it was not a good sign.

Inspection on the fleet found that a number were in bad shape and though the RAF wished to make repairs, in January 1965 the government decided that the Valiant was not worth the expense and the whole fleet grounded and ultimately scrapped. This was something of a shame, as aircraft that had been conducting tanking operations also went, and they still had several years of service in them.

This has led to speculation by aircraft historians ever since as to the reasoning for slashing the whole fleet. But to be honest, the Wilson government at the time was on a bit of a cutting spree, so it was probably just easier from their perspective to get rid of the whole lot than maintain them.

So ended the Valiant, the Vickers company’s last dedicated combat aircraft design. Nowadays only one complete aircraft remains, XD 818 – the aircraft that dropped the thermonuclear bomb on Christmas Island. She can be seen on display at the Royal Air Force Museum Cosford.

Sources/Related:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vickers_Valiant

https://www.baesystems.com/en/heritage/vickers-valiant

https://www.hotcars.com/the-vickers-valiant-the-forgotten-vbomber/

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Ed Nash

Ed Nash

Ed Nash has spent years traveling around the world. Between June 2015 and July 2016 he volunteered with the Kurdish YPG in its battle against ISIS in Syria; his book on his experiences, Desert Sniper, was published by Little, Brown in September 2018.
Ed Nash

Ed Nash

Ed Nash has spent years traveling around the world. Between June 2015 and July 2016 he volunteered with the Kurdish YPG in its battle against ISIS in Syria; his book on his experiences, Desert Sniper, was published by Little, Brown in September 2018.

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Billy
Billy
1 month ago

Wilson not Healey.

Billy
Billy
1 month ago
Reply to  Ed Nash

No probs. Keep up the good work!