The Vickers Valiant

v1.1.0 / 01 apr 03 / greg goebel / public domain

* In the postwar period, Great Britain built not one but three long-range jet bombers -- the "Valiant", "Victor", and "Vulcan" -- as the backbone of that nation's nuclear deterrence force. The first of these "V-bombers" was the Vickers Valiant, which served through most of the 1950s and into the early 1960s. This document provides a short history and description of the Valiant.



* The British Royal Air Force's (RAF) Bomber Command left World War 2 with a policy of using heavy four-piston-engined bombers for massed raids, and remained committed to this policy in the immediate postwar period, adopting the Avro Lincoln, an updated version of the WW2 Lancaster, as their standard bomber.

The development of jet aircraft and nuclear weapons soon made this policy obsolete. The future appeared to belong to jet bombers that could fly by themselves at high altitude and speed, without defensive armament, to perform a nuclear strike on a target. To be sure, even at the time there were those who could see that guided missiles would at some time in the future make such aircraft vulnerable, but development of such missiles was proving difficult, and fast and high-flying bombers were likely to serve for years before there was a need for something better.

In any case, massed bombers were unnecessary if a single bomber could destroy an entire city or military installation with a nuclear weapon. It would have to be a large bomber, since the first generation of nuclear weapons were big and heavy. Such a large and advanced bomber would be expensive on a unit basis, but would also be produced in much smaller quantities. Britain had been economically bled dry by World War 2 and the potential cost savings were attractive.

The arrival of the Cold War also emphasized to British military planners the need to modernize British forces. Furthermore, Britain's up-and-down relationship with the USA, particularly in the immediate postwar years when American isolationism staged a short-lived comeback, led the British to feel they needed their own strategic nuclear strike force.

After considering various specifications for such an advanced jet bomber in late 1946, in January 1947 the British Air Ministry issued an request for an advanced jet bomber that would be at least the equal of anything the US or the USSR had. The request followed the guidelines of the earlier specification "B.35/46", which proposed a "medium-range bomber landplane, capable of carrying one 10,000 pound [4,535 kilogram] bomb to a target 1,500 nautical miles [2,775 kilometers] from a base which may be anywhere in the world."

The request also indicated that the fully loaded weight not exceed 45,350 kilograms (100,000 pounds), though this would be adjusted upward in practice; that the bomber have a cruise speed of 925 KPH (500 knots); and that it have a service ceiling of 15,240 meters (50,000 feet).

* The request went to most of England's major aircraft manufacturers. While the Short Brothers submitted a design that was judged too ambitious, in August 1947 the Air Staff accepted another submission from the company for a separate requirement, "B.14/46", to provide a very conservative bomber design as "insurance" in case the advanced B.35/46 effort ran into trouble. The contract specified construction of two flying prototypes and a static-test machine.

The Shorts design became the "SA.4", later known as the "Sperrin". It was, as intended, a conservative design, basically a jet-powered version of a World War II style bomber with conventional tail assembly and straight wings (though the wings did have leading-edge sweep). The only particularly unusual feature was that the four Rolls-Royce Avon engines were fitted in nacelles mounted in the midwing, with two engines in each nacelle mounted in a top-and-bottom fashion.

The Sperrin was to have a crew of five, including pilot, copilot, bombardier, navigator, and radio operator, in pressurized accommodations. Only the pilot had an ejection seat. The Sperrin had no defensive armament. It was to carry radios, navigation avionics, and bombing radar, and space was set aside for defensive avionics.

The Sperrin was of conventional monocoque construction and built largely of aircraft aluminum alloys. It featured tricycle undercarriage, with twin-wheel nose gear retracting backward and four-wheel main gear, arranged as 2-by-2 bogies, retracting from the wings towards the fuselage. A dual-parachute brake chute system was also fitted.

   _____________________   _________________   _______________________
   spec                    metric              english
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

   wingspan                33.2 meters         109 feet
   wing area               176.2 sq_meters     1,897 sq_feet   
   length                  31.14 meters        102 feet 2 feets
   height                  8.69 meters         28 feet 6 inches

   empty weight            32,660 kilograms    72,000 pounds
   MTO weight              52,165 kilograms    115,000 pounds

   max speed at altitude   912 KPH             567 MPH / 492 KT
   service ceiling         13,715 meters       45,000 feet
   range                   5,150 kilometers    3,200 MI / 2,780 NMI
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

The first prototype performed its initial flight on 10 August 1951, with Shorts chief test pilot Tom Brooke-Smith at the controls. It was fitted with Avon RA.2 turbojets with 26.6 kN (2,720 kgp / 6,000 lbf) thrust each. In March 1950, well before the initial flight, the Air Ministry had decided that the Sperrin wouldn't be put into production, but work on the two prototypes was allowed to continue.

The second prototype performed its first flight on 12 August 1952. It was fitted with Avon RA.3 turbojets with 28.1 kN (2,950 kgp / 6,500 lbf) thrust each. The two Sperrin prototypes were used in a variety of trials through the 1950s, including engine tests for the big de Havilland Gyron turbojet, with 66.7 kN (6,800 kgp / 15,000 lbf) thrust, with the nacelles modified to accommodate a Gyron in the lower half and an Avon in the upper half; the "Blue Danube" atomic bomb; and the "Blue Boar" TV-guided missile, which did not see service. Both Sperrin prototypes were scrapped in the late 1950s.

* Interestingly, Shorts also pursued their earlier, more ambitious bomber concept on a private basis, resulting in a small test aircraft, the Short "SB.4 Sherpa". The Sherpa was basically a tailless glider with small jet powerplants and long, sweptback wings, giving something of the appearance of a boomerang with a fuselage.

The Sherpa was intended to test the "aero-isoclinic" wing concept. In this scheme, the outer sections of the wings were pivoted, allowing them to maintain the same incidence even as the wing flexed. The pivoted wingtips acted as both elevators, rotating together to control pitch, and ailerons, rotating in reverse direction to control roll.

   _____________________   _________________   _______________________
   spec                    metric              english
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

   wingspan                11.59 meters        38 feet
   wing area               24.31 sq_meters     261.5 sq_feet   
   length                  9.72 meters         31 feet 10 inches
   height                  2.77 meters         9 feet 1 inch
   loaded weight           1,482 kilograms     3,268 pounds
   max speed               275 KPH             170 MPH / X KT
   endurance               50 minutes
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

The Sherpa was powered by twin Blackburn-Turbomeca Pallas turbojets, with 1.57 kN (100 kgp / 220 lbf) thrust each, mounted on the upper fuselage behind the wing and fed through a common inlet on the aircraft's back, behind the cockpit. The Sherpa had fixed tricycle landing gear. Initial flight of the Sherpa was on 4 October 1953.

This line of investigation proved to be a dead end. The Sherpa name would be recycled later for the Shorts 330 / C-23 light twin-engine light transport.



* The Sperrin was never anything more than a footnote to Britain's strategic bomber development effort. Other work would achieve much more significant and impressive results.

Handley-Page and Avro came up with very advanced designs for the bomber competition, which would become the Victor and the Vulcan respectively, and the Air Staff decided to award contracts to both companies, again as a form of insurance.

While Vickers-Armstrong's submission was originally rejected as too conservative, Vickers' chief designer George Edwards energetically lobbied the Air Ministry and made changes to meet their concerns. Edwards managed to sell the Vickers design to the Air Ministry on the basis that it would be available much sooner than the competition, going so far as to promise delivery of a prototype in 1951 and production aircraft in 1953. The Vickers bomber would be useful as a "stopgap" until the more advanced bombers were available. Apparently the Air Ministry didn't think there could be too much insurance.

Although the idea of developing, much less fielding as turned out to be the case, three entirely different large aircraft in response to a single request is unthinkable now, aircraft were less sophisticated in those days, development was not generally so troublesome and certainly much less expensive. One aviation writer observed, probably with a certain amount of exaggeration, that it cost less to develop a combat aircraft at the dawn of the jet age than it would to produce the manuals for a modern equivalent.

In April 1948, the Air Staff issued a specification with the designation "B.9/48" written around the Vickers design, which was given the company designation of "Type 660". Two prototypes of the aircraft were ordered in February 1949. The first was to be fitted with four Rolls-Royce RA.3 Avon axial-flow turbojet engines, while the second was to be fitted with four Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire turbojets and redesignated "Type 667".

The Type 660 looked very promising and led to the Air Ministry's decision to not put the Sperrin into production. The first Type 660 prototype took to the air on 18 May 1951, as George Edwards had promised, and in fact beat the first Shorts Sperrin into the air by several months. It had only been 27 months since issue of the contract. The pilot was Jeff "Mutt" Summers, who had also been the original test pilot on the Supermarine Spitfire and wanted to add another "first" to his record before he retired. His co-pilot on the first flight was Gabe "Jock" Bryce, who replaced Summers on his retirement.

The Vickers Type 660 given the official name of "Valiant" the next month, recycling the name from the Vickers Type 131 general-purpose biplane of 1931. Traditionally, RAF bombers had been named after cities, for example "Lancaster", "Halifax", and "Canberra", but the new aircraft technology seemed to suggest a break from tradition, and the name "Valiant" was selected by a survey of Vickers employees.

The initial Valiant jet bomber prototype was lost due to an in-flight engine fire in January 1952, all the crew escaping safely except for the co-pilot, who struck the tail after ejecting and was killed.

After modifications to the fuel system to eliminate a fire hazard, the second prototype first flew on 11 April 1952, though it was fitted with RA.7 Avon engines with 33.4 kN (3,400 kgp / 7,500 lbf) thrust each, instead of the Sapphires originally planned. The loss of the initial prototype did not seriously compromise schedule, since the accident occurred so late in the flight test program.

An initial order for 25 production "Valiant Bomber Mark 1 (B.1)" aircraft had already been placed in April 1951. The first production aircraft flew in December 1953, again more or less on the schedule Edwards had promised, and was delivered to the RAF in January 1955. Britain's "V-bomber" force, as it had been nicknamed in October 1952, was now in operation. The Victor and Vulcan would follow.



* The first Valiant prototype was a relatively conservative and conventional design, with a shoulder-mounted wing and twin Avon RA.3 turbojets, with 28.9 kN (2,950 kgp / 6,500 lbf) thrust each, in each wingroot for a total of four engines. The overall impression of the design was of a plain and clean aircraft, appealing in its simplicity as were many early jet aircraft. George Edwards described it appropriately as an "unfunny" aircraft.

The wing's good size allowed it to have a chord (ratio of wing thickness to length at the root) of 12% and still accommodate the Avon engines within the wing. This engine fit contributed to the aircraft's aerodynamic cleanliness, at the expensive of making engine access for maintenance and repair more troublesome, and increasing the risk of "fratricide", with the failure of one engine possibly contributing to the failure of its partner.

The wing had a "compound sweep" configuration, devised by Vickers aerodynamicist Elfyn Richards, with a large 45-degree angle of sweepback in the inner third of the wings and a shallow angle of about 24 degrees sweep outboard. The compound sweep was a good compromise between aerodynamic efficiency and aircraft balance.

The engine inlets were long rectangular slots in the first prototype, but following Valiants featured oval or "spectacle" shaped inlets to permit greater airflow for more powerful Avon engine variants. The jet exhausts emerged from fairings above the trailing edge of the wings. The tail was sweptback, and the horizontal tailplane was mounted well up the vertical tailplane to keep it out of the engine exhaust and so improve controllability.

The wing loading was relatively low, reducing takeoff run and increasing range, and the Valiant was also fitted with double slotted flaps to shorten takeoffs. The aircraft featured tricycle landing gear, with twin-wheel nosegear and tandem-wheel main gear retracting outward into the wing. Most of the aircraft's systems were electric, with the power system based on 112 volts DC. The brakes and steering gear were hydraulic, but its pumps were electrically driven.

The Valiant was built around a massive "backbone" beam that supported the wing spars and the weight of bombs in the long bombbay. The crew were contained in a pressurized "egg" and consisted of pilot, copilot, two navigators, and an electronics operator. Only the pilot and copilot had ejection seats. This was a concern, particularly for the other three crew members who had to jump out of the bomber on their own.

In fact, the Air Ministry had originally requested an escape system that would eject the entire crew compartment or, if that were not possible, ejection seats for all crew. Vickers engineers replied that this requirement was impractical. Experiments were later performed on providing the other three crew members of the Valiant with ejection seats, but this was not done due to the expense. In hindsight the good safety record of the Valiant, and in fact of all the V-bombers, made it clear this would not have been a good use of money.

The Valiant B.1 could carry a single 4,500 kilogram (10,000 pound) nuclear weapon or up to 21 450 kilogram (1,000 pound) bombs in its bombbay. Large external tanks, one carried under each wing and with a capacity of 7,500 liters (1,979 US gallons), could be used to extend range. The aircraft had no defensive armament.

Initial Valiant production aircraft featured four Rolls-Royce Avon 201 turbojet engines, with 42.3 kN (4,310 kgp / 9,500 lbf) thrust each. Trials were performed with two underwing De Havilland Sprite and Sprocket rocket booster engines. However, the booster rockets were judged unnecessary due to the availability of more powerful Avon variants, as well as fear of accidents if one booster rocket failed on takeoff, resulting in asymmetric thrust.

   _____________________   _________________   _______________________
   spec                    metric              english
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

   wingspan                34.8 meters         114 feet 4 inches
   wing area               219.43 sq_meters    2,362 sq_feet
   length                  33.0 meters         108 feet 3 inches
   height                  9.8 meters          32 feet 2 inches

   empty weight            34,400 kilograms    75,880 pounds
   max loaded weight       79,400 kilograms    175,000 pounds

   max speed at altitude   912 KPH             567 MPH / 493 KT
   service ceiling         16,460 meters       54,000 feet
   range with tanks        7,245 kilometers    4,500 MI / 3,915 NMI
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

* Including three prototypes, a total of 107 Valiants were built, including:

16 more Valiant B(K).1s were ordered, but cancelled. All Valiant production ended in August 1957.

The tanker variant production listed above leads to a puzzle since tanker gear, produced by Flight Refueling LTD, wasn't operationally available until 1959, well after Valiant production was over. Some sources say the tanker versions were simply refits of B.1 and B(PR).1 aircraft, but then the assignment of different Vickers type numbers is curious. It is possible that these aircraft were simply B.1 or B(PR).1 aircraft that were produced with minor changes to allow refit to tanker configuration when the planned tanker gear became available. In any case, with inflight refueling probes fitted to Valiants and tanker conversions available, the Valiant was no longer a "medium range" bomber, and the RAF had a true strategic bombing capability.

A number of Valiants were also modified to the "radio countermeasures (RCM)" role, where RCM was what is now called "electronic countermeasures (ECM)". These aircraft were ultimately fitted with AN/APT-16A and AN/ALT-7 jamming transmitters, Airborne Cigar and Carpet jammers, AN/APR-4 and AN/APR-9 signals intercept receivers, and chaff dispensers. At least seven Valiants were configured to the RCM role.

Originally, Valiants were finished in silver, but once equipped with nuclear weapons they were painted in "anti-flash" white to reflect the glare of a nuclear blast. However, the RAF roundels were left in solid red-white-blue. It was later realized that this insignia might be permanently burned into an aircraft by a blast. In the other V-bombers the roundel became faded pink-white-violet, but the faded insignia was never applied to the Valiant.

* Of the three prototypes, one was for an advanced variant, the "Valiant B.2", known as the "Black Bomber" as it painted gloss black. It was intended as a "pathfinder", penetrating to a target area at low level and marking it with flares for a follow-up strike by other bombers. The Air Ministry ordered 17 B.2s, including two prototypes and 15 operational aircraft, in April 1952. Only one was actually completed, and flew for the first time in September 1953.

For center of gravity reasons, the B.2 featured a fuselage stretch forward of the wings for a total length of 34.8 meters (114 feet), in contrast to a length of 33 meters (108 feet 3 inches) for the Valiant B.1. As the B.2 was intended for low-level operations, the wing was strengthened, which required rethinking the main landing gear. The B.2's main landing gear, featuring four wheels instead of two, retracted backwards into fairings in the wings.

The Air Ministry eventually realized that target marking was an outdated concept. Although the Valiant B.2's low-level capabilities would later prove to be highly desireable, the B.2 program was cancelled in 1955. The B.2 prototype was used for tests for a few years, then incrementally destroyed in the humiliating role of "ballistic target" for ground gunnery.

* Vickers also considered a air transport / tanker version of the Valiant, with a low mounted wing, wingspan increased to 42.7 meters (140 feet) from 34.8 meters (114 feet 4 inches), fuselage lengthened to 44.5 meters (146 feet), and more powerful Rolls-Royce Conway engines. It looked something like a de Havilland Comet airliner with Valiant wings, but was to be larger and faster than the Comet.

The Ministry of Supply (MoS) ordered construction of a prototype of the " Vickers Type 1000 (V.1000)", as it was designated, in October 1952, with construction beginning in February 1953. The V.1000 was to be built in two versions, the "V.1001" for the RAF and the "V.1002" or "VC-7" for civilian use. In June 1954, the MoS ordered six production V.1001s, to be fitted with 120 rearward-facing passenger seats, and the British Overseas Aircraft Corporation (BOAC) was interested in the VC.7 version.

However, the government cancelled the order for the V.1001s on 11 November 1955. There was apparently some notion in the government that BOAC would keep the project alive anyway, but BOAC was unwilling. Vickers gave up the project at the end of November and scrapped the V.1000 prototype, only a few months before its scheduled first flight. Some of the thinking that went into the V.1000 did emerge eventually in the Vickers VC.10 airliner / tanker, a fine and elegant aircraft that provided long and useful service but was only built in modest numbers.



* As the Valiant was an entirely new class of aircraft for the RAF, the 232 Operational Conversion Unit was established at RAF Gaydon to help get the bomber into service. The first operational RAF unit to be equipped with the Valiant was 138 Squadron, also at RAF Gaydon at first, though it later moved to RAF Wittering. At its peak, the Valiant equipped at least seven RAF squadrons.

The Valiant was the first of the V-bombers to see real combat, during the Anglo-French-Israeli Suez intervention in October and November 1956. Under OPERATION MUSKETEER, Valiants operating from the airfield at Luqa on Malta pounded Egyptian targets with high-explosive bombs. It was the last time the V-bombers flew an actual strike mission until Avro Vulcans pounded targets in the Falkland Islands during the Falklands Crisis in 1982.

Although Egyptians did not oppose the attacks and there were no Valiant combat losses, the results of the raids were disappointing. Their primary targets were seven Egyptian airfields, and though the Valiants dropped a total of 856 tonnes (942 tons) of bombs only three of the seven airfields were seriously damaged.

As the modern military expression has it: "Train as you fight, fight as you train." The Valiant force was not only new and inexperienced, it had also been focused on the nuclear strike mission, and personnel were therefore lacking in training and procedures for carrying out conventional bombing missions. In response, the RAF began to re-emphasize training for conventional bombing missions. As far as the Valiant was concerned, however, this was a wasted effort, since it never dropped a bomb in anger again.

A Valiant B.1 of 49 Squadron was the first RAF aircraft to drop a British operational atomic bomb, performing a test drop of a downrated "Blue Danube" weapon on Maralinga, South Australia, on 11 October 1956. A few months later, a 49 Squadron Valiant B(K).1 dropped the first British hydrogen bomb, the "Green Granite Small", over the Pacific as part of OPERATION GRAPPLE. The blast was impressive but not a complete success, as the measured yield was less than a third of the maximum expected. The British still needed to do a bit more work on their fusion weapons.

The GRAPPLE series of tests continued into 1958, and the first really satisfactory drop occurred in April 1958, with a Green Granite Large bomb exploding with ten times the yield of the original Green Granite Small. Further tests followed, but were finally terminated in November 1958, when the British government decided they would perform no more nuclear test blasts, eventually renouncing such tests completely.

Valiants were originally assigned to the strategic nuclear bombing role, but by the early 1960s they had been replaced in this capacity by the Victor and Vulcan. Some sources claim the Valiant carried the Blue Steel nuclear-tipped standoff missile that was carried by the Victor and Vulcan, but in fact the Valiant was only used to test a two-thirds scale powered prototype of the weapon. Blue Steel didn't go into service until 1963, well after the Valiant was no longer being used in the strategic bombing role.

Three squadrons of Valiants were assigned to support NATO in the low-level tactical bombing role, and two squadrons of Valiant tankers were established as well. They also continued to give good service in the strategic photo-reconnaissance role.

In the tactical bombing role, improved air defenses had made high-altitude bombing tactics questionable, and the Valiants were switched to low-altitude tactics. They were given a new camouflage paint job, replacing their anti-flash white scheme.

Low-level operations proved too much for the Valiant. Following a series of accidents, inspections showed that the main wing spars of the Valiants in operation were suffering from excessive fatigue. Despite the aircraft's continuing usefulness, particularly in the tanker role, replacing the wing spars was deemed too expensive for an aircraft that was going out of service in a few years anyway, and had been built as a interim solution to begin with. The Valiant force was grounded in October 1964, to be officially withdrawn from service in January 1965.

* The Valiant was a competent and effective aircraft, and was particularly noteworthy for the speed with which it was designed and introduced, with remarkably few changes between the initial prototype and production machines. In fact, some aviation observers suggest that if the Valiant B.2 had been adopted the Victor and Vulcan would have been redundant, and Britain could have had every bit as effective a V-bomber force at lower cost though this isn't an idea that would necessarily please V-bomber enthusiasts.

Only one complete Valiant survives today and is on static display at the RAF Museum at Hendon, in North London.



* Some time back, after the release of the initial version of this document, I was contacted by an Australian who told me he had been test copilot on a Victor when the wing spar broke. It didn't give way and the aircraft managed to get back down to the ground in one piece.

Some more time after that, I was contacted by a Britisher living in the US who had also flown the Valiant. It turned out he was the pilot on the same flight where the wing spar broke. "It's a small world, but I wouldn't want to paint it."

The Corgi company has produced excellent 144th-scale diecast replicas of the Victor and Vulcan that are prominent members of my diecast collection. I keep hoping Corgi will come out with a Valiant to finish out the set, but it seems the Valiant is something of a forgotten aircraft and there's no strong motivation to build such a product.

* Sources include:

Some comments were also obtained from Damien Burke's THUNDER & LIGHTNINGS page in the UK.

   v1.0   / 01 sep 03 / gvg
   v1.1.0 / 01 apr 03 / Minor cosmetic update.