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Few incidents have had such a profound impact on military thinking than the shooting down of Gary Powers’ Lockheed U-2 spy plane by the Soviet Union in 1959. Since the dawn of the bomber military planners had seen height as an ally since bombers with their greater wingspan could fly above fighters and ground based defences trying to shoot them down. Now the altitude advantage had been stripped away from them and American and British bombers appeared naked to the new threat – Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs).
Britain’s nuclear deterent lay in it’s triad of V-Bombers. The Avro Vulcan, Handley-Page Victor and Vickers Valiant made headlines the world over in the 1950s for their speed, agility and of course their high altitude performance. These aircraft resplendent in their white paint schemes were even the envy of their USAF counterparts who watched in awe as the mighty delta wing Vulcan was rolled at the Farnborough air show knowing that their B-52 Stratofortress would snap in half if they tried to do the same. Gary Powers’ U-2 was shot down at an altitude higher than any of the V-Bomber fleet could fly and so overnight the RAF’s deterrent was effectively nullified. The balance had to be redressed as a matter of urgency.
After years of reaching for the stars the V-Bombers took a step backwards to the days of World War II and the technique of hedge-hopping; flying under the radar to avoid detection. The beautiful anti-flash white schemes were ditched as the aircraft adopted camouflage schemes more akin of tactical aircraft like the Hawker Hunter. For aircraft designed to fly in the very thin air of 50,000ft+ it was a hard transition to now be thrown around in the very dense air at low altitude as they avoided mountains, buildings and bridges. For one of the V-Bombers, the Valiant, it would be fatal. The extra stresses of low level flight caused premature fatiguing and inter-crystalline corrosion in wing spar attachment castings and after a number of in-flight failures the type was withdrawn. The Valiant would therefore be remembered as the bomber that couldn’t hack it down low.
There is another, much earlier, chapter to this tail of woe however; one that could have reversed this opinion entirely and produced what would have been the finest low level V-Bomber of the trio. The V-Bomber concept was developed in the post-war era and all the lessons of that titanic conflict were put in to it’s specifications. One such lesson was the need for a pathfinder force whose job it would be to fly ahead of the main attack force and mark targets. It was one of the most dangerous jobs in military aviation and also had the drawback of alerting an enemy to where the attacking force was heading. Nevertheless it had proven successful over Germany and so a similar role was envisioned for the V-Bombers.
This called for a bomber with very high speed performance at low altitudes. It also called for an aircraft to have greater internal fuel volume than the aircraft of the main force. The reason for this was two-fold; firstly at lower altitudes the denser air meant that the engines would burn a greater volume of fuel. Secondly, unlike the high altitude main force that could fly straight to the target the pathfinder was going to have fly around some of the more densely defended areas in order to reach the target therefore increasing the distance the aircraft would have to fly. The three companies involved in building the V-Bombers were instructed to develop versions of their aircraft to meet this requirement but only Vickers took the role seriously. Both Avro and Handley-Page believed that their aircraft could navigate and locate the target independently and so there would be no need for a pathfinder. Vickers too believed the same of their Valiant but perhaps hoping to gain a monopoly with the RAF went ahead with their pathfinder-Valiant.
In order to increase internal fuel volume it was decided to relocate the main wheels outside of the wing in large faired over pods similar to the Soviet Union’s Tu-16 “Badger”. This freed up considerable space in the wing for additional fuel but perhaps more importantly the strengthening need for high speed low altitude flight. This strengthening produced a much more brutish aircraft. If the new aircraft was a plank of wood then the original Valiant B.1 was a sheet of paper!
The new wheel arrangement upset the balance of the aircraft because when the wheels were raised they actually hung behind the wings. In order to negate this problem therefore a fuselage plug was put in forward of the main wing which increased the aircraft’s length to 112ft as opposed to the original Valiant B.1’s 108ft. A less obvious change was the replacement of the Rolls-Royce Avon engines (as in the B.1) with Rolls-Royce Conways which were the same as the engines powering the Handley-Page Victor. This engine had marginally lower power than the Avon but was far more gutsy at low level whereas the Avons performed better at high altitude which was why it was used in so many fighters including the English Electric Lightning.
As September 1953 dawned the aircraft was nearing its first flight. Then, as has happened so many times in the history of advanced aircraft development in the UK, a series of events began to conspire against it. The role for which it was envisioned to carry out was finally declared an obsolete form as the V-Bombers proved they could find their targets independently. Even before this was realized however the aircraft became a victim of the bank manager and the acquisition of 17 of the newly designated Valiant B.2 was cancelled for financial reasons. On the 4th of September 1953 the only Vickers Valiant B.2, painted in a stunning black scheme and carrying the serial WJ954, took off for the first time in to an uncertain future.
Testing nevertheless continued in order to support the Valiant B.1 and the rest of the V-Bombers including testing Rocket Assisted Take Off (RATO) procedures that were adopted operationally. Although the role had gone the testing of the aircraft in the low level penetration role went on and the results spoke for themselves. A Valiant B.1 could attain a speed of 414mph at sea level. The Valiant B.2 on the other hand could comfortably attain speeds in excess of 600mph (the aircraft was actually cleared to fly to 640mph at low altitude). None of the other V-Bombers ever achieved speeds that could come close to this at altitudes just above sea level. In fact the B.2 was marginally faster than a Vulcan operating at high altitude (625mph at 39,000ft)!
The sole B.2 continued testing until 1958 when it was sent to Foulness to have a series of weapons fired at it to test the damage resistance of modern aircraft. A tragic end to a promising aircraft that eerily echoes the story of another advanced low level aircraft – the TSR.2 which met a similar fate. Just a year later Gary Powers’ U-2 was shot down.
They say hindsight is 20:20 and in the case of the Valiant B.2 its clear the RAF could certainly have used the aircraft’s low altitude performance during the 1960s as the V-Bomber force went low to maintain Britain’s nuclear detterent until the Polaris submarines took the duty away from them in 1969. As early as 1955 however there were those in the RAF who could already see the cancellation was a mistake as the new technologies threatened the V-Bomber’s effectiveness at high altitude.
One question of the whole story remains unanswered however; why paint it black? Rumours abound as to why a black scheme was adopted. One rumour states that it was intended to contrast sharply with the anti-flash white Valiant B.1 to show it had a totally different role. Others simply state that it was designed to be striking or that the public expected a pathfinder to be black. The most popular story however is that when test pilot Brian Trubshaw first saw the design for the brutish aircraft he simply uttered;
Paint the f***er black!
Crew: five – two pilots, two navigators (one navigator plotter + one navigator bomber), air electronics officer
Length: 112 ft
Wingspan: 114 ft 4 in (34.85 m)
Height: 32 ft 2 in (9.80 m)
Powerplant: 4 × Rolls-Royce Conway turbofans, 9,250lbs each
Maximum speed: 567 mph (493 knots, 913 km/h) at 30,000 ft (9,150 m)
Range: 4,280 miles on internal fuel only (B.1 – 4,500 miles with external tanks)
Armament (as B.1)
1 × 10,000 lb (4500 kg) Blue Danube nuclear bomb
21 × 1,000 lb (450 kg) bombs