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The V-Bomber Ejector Seat Story

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A V-bomber cockpit exterior.

The giant delta-winged aircraft eased out of its graceful turn into the final approach to the airport that lay five miles ahead. The aircraft, painted in a 'high-speed silver' finish with contrasting red, white and blue cockades, glinted in the sunlight as it straightened up from the turn. The pilot deployed the air brakes to reduce speed and brought the aircraft into its characteristic nose-up attitude. The undercarriage locked down with a satisfying clunk as it began its descent into cloud that pervaded down to ground level. The calm tones of the air traffic controller guided the pilot along the glide path as he searched for a glimpse of the runway lights through the all-enveloping murk. Seconds from touchdown, the Ground Approach Controller advised him that he was 80 feet (25 metres) above the nominal glide path. Seconds later, the aircraft slammed its undercarriage into a field a quarter of a mile from the runway perimeter track. The undercarriage legs tore off, the fuel tanks ruptured and the control surfaces were damaged as the aircraft lurched back into the air.

As he cleared the airfield perimeter fence, the pilot, unaware that the aircraft had received mortal damage, opened up the engines to make another circuit, but it was immediately apparent that all control of the stricken aircraft was lost. The pilot gave the order to the crew to bail out and reached with both hands above his head to grasp the candy striped, yellow and black loop of his ejection seat handle and pulled, hard. The canopy blew off and the seat's ejection gun fired to propel pilot, seat and parachute through the newly opened aperture. The co-pilot who had been seated beside him paused only for a second to try the controls himself as the aircraft's nose began to pitch down and to the right. Realising the situation was beyond redemption, he also called for the crew to abandon the aircraft and ejected a second or two later. The aircraft barrelled into the ground beside the runway, breaking up as it went with hot engines and sparks igniting spewing fuel.

With insufficient time or height to get to the exit hatch, the other four members of the crew who did not have the benefit of ejection seats, died where they sat as the whole careering Panjandrum turned into a fireball.

Transition to the Jet Age

The Second World War was fought largely with conventional armies and conventional weapons. In its final days a new and more efficient way of killing was found and used over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The writing was on the wall that another worldwide conflict would take a much different course. Indeed, as the two former allied sides of the USA and the USSR bellied up to one another in the euphemistically-titled 'cold war', it seemed that it would only be a matter of time before cold became very hot.

Conventional WW2 bombers had bristled with defensive guns against attacking fighters intent on destroying them before they could reach their targets. To deliver the new atomic weapons, a new breed of aircraft was on the design table even as peace broke out. These aircraft were to be built to a new concept made possible by another wartime innovation, the jet engine. These bombers were designed to fly higher and faster than the defence's fighters and therefore able to dispense with their own defensive armament.

In the event of the onset of a nuclear holocaust, the new aircraft, it was thought, would be almost invulnerable at height, be able to overfly its target, drop its bomb and return to what might be left of its home base. But in other respects, as when it became necessary for the crew to abandon a stricken aircraft, conventional thinking still predominated. The existing wisdom had it that by flying at high altitude there would be sufficient time for crew members to escape through a conventional hatch and therefore any assistance to exit the aircraft would be unnecessary. Given the height that these aircraft were expected to operate, that thinking may just have been acceptable, but as future events were to unfold, fundamental changes were to be forced on those concepts.

Three1 separate manufacturers designed aircraft to the Air Ministry specification. It required a bomber capable of carrying the new British atom bomb weighing 10,000 lbs with a range of 1,500 miles at a height of 50,000 feet. The first into production was the Vickers-Armstrong Valiant, closely followed by the Avro Vulcan and the Handley-Page Victor. Collectively they were known as the V-Bombers and they formed the main thrust of the British nuclear deterrent. All three exceeded the specification handsomely, but they all shared a common trait. The layout of the crew compartment placed the two pilots at high level looking forward over the aircraft's nose. The three remaining crew members, navigator, flight engineer and air electronics officer were placed side by side, behind and below the pilots. Their compartment was accessed only by the entry-exit door in the side of the fuselage.

Initially, some thought had been given to the crew's escape from a damaged, uncontrollable aircraft under battle conditions, One idea, considered early in the design stage, made the whole nose section of the aircraft, including the crew's cabin, detachable by explosive bolts and retrievable by parachute. But this was eventually discarded as an impractical solution and the designs continued without any assisted escape method. But after representations by some of the manufacturer's test pilots, further thought was given to the matter.

In what must have been one of the worst and incomprehensible decisions taken by those in authority, a relatively new piece of equipment, the ejection seat, was designed into the aircraft for the pilot and co-pilot. But only the two pilots, who were the furthest away from the exit doors, were to be provided with these seats, while the other three crew remained strapped into conventional seats in the closed aft compartment.

To incorporate ejection seats for the rear crew the manufacturers were faced with a major redesign of the aircraft. They foresaw as their main problem that the crew faced rearwards and ejection facing the back end of the aircraft would be too hazardous. Designs to rotate the seats to face forward as part of the ejection sequence were scrapped as impractical. In practical terms a complete redesign of the front end of the aircraft would be necessary to strengthen floors, relocate equipment to provide an untrammelled run for the seat's guide rails to the roof and provide a blow-out panel to allow the seats to exit the aircraft.

At this time RAF bomber crews consisted exclusively of commissioned officers. Normally crews stayed together as a cohesive unit to foster teamwork and esprit-de-corps. Although the formal hierarchy prevailed they were friends as well as colleagues. They trained together and lived together in service accommodation where their families socialised in the tight circles that was service life. Indeed it was not unknown for some to become godparents to another's children. All this fostered a reliance on one another and a confidence in the other team members to get the job done when called upon.

The dichotomy here was that two members of the team were better favoured by circumstance to survive. For the pilots this made the decision to abandon fellow members of the team to their fate in the face of almost certain death, an anathema. The prospect of returning to face the families and friends of the dead crew members after saving themselves, must have been one that few would have relished. With height to spare and some vestige of control over the doomed aircraft, the pilot might just be able to keep the aircraft straight and level long enough for the others to get out. But, at low altitude or with the aircraft burning and spinning, there would be little else to do but leave them behind. It was the duty of pilots to save themselves when they could, but even so, several pilots were to make the conscious decision to stay with their aircraft while attempting to hold the situation together long enough for their crew to escape. In some cases they were to pay for that decision with their lives.

It has to be said that the crews generally accepted the hazards of low-level bail out as just another risk of a dangerous occupation, albeit with grave humour. To a large extent it was part of the job, but the ready quip 'see you later, navigator' must have rang hollow with the pilots who at any moment might be called upon to make the appalling decision to save themselves while deserting their friends and colleagues, leaving them to die. They, after all, were the ones that would have to live with the consequences of that decision.

And so the scene was set for what must amount to one of the longest running scandals in the history of the Royal Air Force. It was eventually to become a newspaper's cause célèbre, questions would be asked in the House of Commons, and it would remain a running sore throughout the life of the aircraft, bringing anxiety and grief to many service families. It has to be hoped that it may have caused more than a few sleepless nights for some of those who took the despicable decisions that condemned many service personnel to sudden and violent deaths.

The Heathrow Crash

Avro Vulcan XA897 was the first production Vulcan to be taken on charge by the RAF. It was designed by the same team that had produced the wartime Lancaster bomber, but the similarity ended there. Whereas the Lancaster was a conventional large bomber, the Vulcan was a complete departure. It was of a delta planform with its wings melding seamlessly into the fuselage shape. The four jet engines hidden in the wing roots allowed a streamlined transition, unbroken except for the jet tailpipes at the wing's trailing edge. In the air it was an imposing giant of an aircraft that had a manoeuvrability that belied its size. Painted in a brilliant white, anti-flash finish, it became known by the affectionate nickname of the 'Tin Triangle'.

Before being assigned to its squadron, XA897 was sent on a highly publicised demonstration tour to Australia and New Zealand in September, 1956. The normal crew was supplemented by the presence of Air Marshal Sir Harry Broadhurst, Air Officer Commander-in-Chief, Bomber Command, acting as co-pilot. The crew's actual co-pilot who was fully qualified on the type, was relegated to a seat in the rear compartment. The return journey was routed by way of the Middle Eastern Aden Protectorate and was to culminate with a landing at London's primary airport, Heathrow, to a welcoming committee comprising MP's, Air Ministry and service officials. The pilot, Squadron Leader DR Howard, was accompanied by three other RAF officers and an engineering representative of AV Roe, the aircraft's manufacturer.

On the 1 October, Howard was given weather forecasts at Aden and at other points en route that Weather conditions surrounding Heathrow were poor. The conditions were confirmed as he turned over Epsom, Surrey onto the final leg and descended into thick cloud and heavy rain with visibility reduced to 1,100 yards on the final approach. He had decided to attempt a landing under a Ground Control Approach at Heathrow, with a 'break off height' of 300 feet. That is, that the landing would be aborted if the runway lights could not be seen at that height. The descent from 1,500 feet undulated relative to the nominal glidepath and at three quarters of a mile from touchdown he was advised that he was 80 feet too high.

At 700 yards from the threshold of the airport the aircraft struck the ground tearing off both rear undercarriage legs and damaging the elevator controls. The aircraft rose 300 feet and crossed the airport's perimeter as the pilot opened up the engines to regain height, only to find that the aircraft was not responding to the controls. He gave the order to the crew to bail out and himself used his ejector seat. Broadhurst paused long enough to try the controls only to find them unresponsive. As the aircraft nosed over and dropped to the right he repeated the order to bail out and ejected. The Vulcan crashed into ground beside the runway, Howard and Broadhurst both survived.

The remaining crew who stood no chance of escaping without some form of assistance, perished in the ensuing conflagration. Even if they had overcome the G-forces of the rotating aircraft and opened the hatch, they had neither time nor height for a manually operated parachute to deploy. The press were not slow to appreciate the situation.

  • 11 May, 1956. A Vickers Valiant flying from the RAE2, Farnborough on an experimental flight suffered an electrical failure in the onboard experimental equipment and the experiment had to be abandoned as an overloaded circuit breaker kept tripping out. The aircraft was carrying a full load of fuel which it had to lose in order to land at Farnborough. The Valiant continued to fly at 1,000 feet along the Sussex coastline to use up the excess fuel . During this time repeated resetting of the breaker caused a failure of the aircraft's power system and the loss of the rear elevator3 trim. The crew were unable to maintain control with the back-up manual system and the pilot ordered the crew to bail out. The co-pilot ejected and survived. The navigator made it to the exit but was too low to allow his parachute to open. The others died in the aircraft when it crashed onto the railway line near Shorham, bounced and exploded in mid air. The pilot stayed with the aircraft. He did not eject.

The Furore Begins

A service inquiry on the Heathrow crash followed, and on 20 December, 1956 the Conservative Secretary of State for Air, Nigel Birch, addressed the House of Commons with a statement on the accident. Effectively, blame was apportioned between the Ground Control Approach controller and the Vulcan's captain. He also included the statement:

It would be unjust to the pilot and co-pilot were I not to make it clear, in conclusion that it was their duty to eject when they did. I am satisfied that there could have been no hope of controlling the aircraft after the initial impact. In these circumstances, it was the duty of the captain to give the order to abandon the aircraft and of all those who were on board to obey it if they were able to do so. Both the pilot and co-pilot realised when they gave their orders that, owing to the low altitude, the other occupants had no chance of escape, and they considered that their own chances were negligible.

The ensuing debate centred on the advisability of military aircraft using a civilian airport, but no question was raised concerning the lack of provision of an effective means of escape for the unfortunate rear crew. The crash had brought the issue forcibly to the public's attention. A national daily newspaper, the Daily Express, picked up the story and publicised the predicament of the V-Bomber crews when it began asking the awkward question, Why no ejector seats for three of the crew?

  • 24 October, 1958. Vulcan XA908 experienced a complete electrical failure at 30,000 feet near Detroit Michigan USA during a goodwill trip. The aircraft was carrying the usual five crew and an additional engineer in the rear crew compartment. Due to a short circuit, the backup system also failed to work correctly and the control system locked up. The aircraft went into an uncontrolled 70-degree dive. The co-pilot ejected while the pilot stayed with the aircraft. All members of the crew died in the crash which created a 70 foot deep crater. The co-pilot's body was never found.

The chief constructor and contractor to supply ejector seats to British aeroplane manufacturers was the safety equipment company Martin-Baker Ltd. The head of the company was James Martin, an individual dedicated to saving aircrew lives after his co-founder of the company, Capt Valentine Baker, was killed in an air crash while testing the company's latest fighter aircraft. After the death of his friend, Martin changed the focus of the company to manufacturing safety equipment for aircraft. Martin-Baker was the first British company to produce a viable ejector seat which was taken as standard equipment in many of the new jet aircraft that were coming into service with the armed services. The name Martin-Baker has been synonymous with the ejector seat ever since.

  • 20 August, 1959. Victor XH668 entered a high speed dive and was lost over the Irish Sea. The cause was unknown. Over two million pounds were spent by the British government in attempts to recover the wreckage and crew. Both pilots were believed to have stayed with the crew in an attempt to ditch the aircraft rather than eject and leave the rear crew to their fate.

From the outset Martin lobbied manufacturers and ministry officials alike to supply ejector seats for all crew members of the V-Bombers. Despite the manufacturers' reluctance to change their designs, Martin, appalled by the Heathrow crash, was confident that he could provide an answer and he set about proving it. It took four years from the introduction of the first V-Bomber to the RAF to obtain the use of a Valiant bomber to test fire a live ejection to prove that ejecting while facing to the rear was no more hazardous than conventional ejection.

On 1 July, 1960 Valiant WP199 took off from RAF Finningley, Yorkshire and set course for the Martin-Baker airfield at Chalgrove, Oxfordshire. The bomber approached the airfield at 1,000 feet and in view of various representatives of the ministry, manufacturers and Royal Air Force, the man in the hot seat4, banged out of the rear compartment, facing backwards. W T 'Doddy' Hay, a civilian tester and part-time guinea-pig for the Martin-Baker company, exited the Valiant in the ejector seat and arced high above the tail of the aircraft. As the seat stabilised under the influence of a trailing drogue parachute, a shackle automatically released, separating him from the seat and deployed his main parachute. He remains to this day the only person to have ejected from the rear compartment of any V-Bomber. The test conclusively proved the viability of rearward-facing ejection.

The next day the Daily Express reported the successful test with the headline 'FIRST MAN OUT'. The test had been carried out under restricted conditions without any press invited. The Express reporter had lurked on the airfield and had managed to take an illicit photograph of the ejection which accompanied the scoop headline. Unfortunately the implicit 'first' (of many) was to be proved premature. Only a few weeks later the decision was taken by the Air Ministry not to modify the V-Bombers. The Express relayed the news to the general public with the headline:

'In view of the ... considerable time, effort, disruption and cost which would be involved in modifying the aircraft, it has been decided that the provision of ejection seats for rear crew members cannot be justified'.

The Express condemned the decision as 'monstrous' and the matter was again raised in the House of Commons on 25 January, 1961. The Conservative Secretary of State for Air, Julian Amery, defended the decision and when responding to a question made the extraordinary statement which almost completely evaded the point at issue:

I am advised that the greater number of accidents take place at high altitudes when pilots are able, with their ejector seats, to go on piloting while the rest of the crew escape; they then have the advantage of ejection in the latter phase of the accident. When accidents happen at low level, this is not so easy. The honourable gentleman and I have travelled together in airliners, and in those airliners there were no ejection seats or any other kind of escape apparatus.

Moving the Goalposts

Two months before Doddy Hay carried out the live test ejection, an event occurred that was to have profound consequences for the V-Bomber force. On the 1 May, 1960 an American Lockheed U2 spyplane, piloted by Gary Powers, left its base in Pakistan on a routine mission to overfly the Soviet city of Sverdlovsk to photograph its military installations. Operating at heights up to 70,000 feet the U2 was practically untouchable by the Soviet air defences which simply did not have interceptor aircraft that could fly that high. Allowing him to penetrate deep into its territory the Soviets launched a barrage of 14 surface-to-air missiles to bring him down. Suddenly height was no longer a friend.

The inevitability of the 'opposition' catching up in the performance stakes had at least already been recognised and that it was only a matter of time before flying in at height would leave the intruding bombers sitting ducks to anti-aircraft missiles. Intelligence had long been aware that a development such as this was inevitable as soon as the Soviet aircraft industry developed interceptor fighters capable of attaining the altitude of the attackers and able to destroy a high-flying bomber long before it reached its target. The RAF themselves already had fighter aircraft that could manage this easily, so it was only a matter of time before the defenders had interceptor fighters that were their equal. The U2 incident now forced an urgency for change to the RAF's fundamental method of attack.

Nothing if not adaptable, the RAF began to develop new techniques for delivering their bombs. The new approach was to go in low. Flying at under 1,000 feet below the enemy radar, hugging the terrain and lobbing a bomb from a half loop, or curving turn, at the target from several miles away, initially became the favoured method of delivery. Development of Blue Steel, a new 'stand-off' rocket powered bomb, which was to be launched up to 100 miles from the target, brought a new, safer method of delivery from low level.

But none of the V-Bombers been designed for sustained low altitude operations or the stresses imposed on them by the new techniques and payloads. Consequently, as training within a thicker and more turbulent atmosphere increased, so did the stresses imposed on their airframes, with consequent increases in maintenance costs and reduced service life. The older Valiant was the first to succumb. After a number of aircraft showed fatigue fractures in the wing's highly stressed rear spar, the Valiant was phased out of service. The Victor and the Vulcan were younger and more robust aircraft and they carried on as the prime strike force.

  • 23 March, 1962. Victor XL159 on low-speed handling trials testing modified wing leading edges, stalled and entered a flat spin at 16,000 feet from which the crew were unable to recover. The two pilots stayed with the aircraft as it lost altitude at the rate of 6,000 ft/min. They both ejected at under 1,000 feet after one crew member managed to bail out. The other two were unable to get out in time and died in the crash.

Experiments and Second Best

Meanwhile, in response to the criticism, the RAE conducted a series of tests in the research centre's centrifuge that showed that it was almost impossible to vacate the rear crew compartment when the occupants were subjected to even a comparatively low 2.5 G force. Encumbered with flying suit and parachute harness in which it was impossible to stand upright, the need to get out of their seats, make their way to the hatch, fit a static line to their chute and exit the aircraft took minutes rather than seconds.

Their answer was to provide the rear crew with seats that swivelled from the working position to face the hatch. The seat also incorporated a cushion inflated by a CO2 bottle that raised the occupant up to a standing position. Even this solution was not without its hazards. Vulcan rear crew members who occupied the centre seat position were to quickly learn to get the sequence correct, as inflating the cushion before rotating the seat could effectively trap their legs under their work table making any exit impossible.

The question whether the decision not to provide rear ejector seats could be reversed was asked again in the House of Commons, and received the following written reply by the Conservative Secretary of State for Air, Mr Hugh Fraser on 22 May, 1963:

The rear crew members are provided with an escape hatch. This is inherent in the design of the aircraft and could not be changed without extensive structural alterations.

  • 11 May, 1964. Vulcan XH535 stalled during a low speed descent near Andover, Hampshire and went into a spin. In an attempt to regain control the pilot deployed the landing braking parachute. This momentarily regained control but the aircraft began to spin again shortly afterwards. Unable to regain control he gave the order to bail out at 2,500 feet. Pilot and co-pilot ejected safely but the remaining three were unable to get out, probably due to centrifugal forces developed by the spin.

Talking Shop

On the 10 June, 1964 the matter was raised again, this time in the House of Lords, by the Earl of Kinnoull. He asked whether in view of the increasing number of personnel killed in V-Bomber accidents they would reconsider the decision to supply only the pilot and co-pilot with ejector seats. He cited the official figures of six accidents since 1959, in which the death toll was 17 killed, of whom only two were pilots, and condemned the decision as 'utterly wrong and morally indefensible'. He went on:

...and perhaps most important of all, there is the moral question which I think is unanswerable. Why should there be discrimination of escape equipment between the pilots and the rear crew? Why should the pilots have the extra burden, in a crisis, of deciding whether to eject or not? ...What is required today I feel, is for the minister responsible to say, 'I will not endure this situation any longer.'.

The question of cost of modification was raised, but the Government's stated position was that the decision had been based on the time that it would take to modify each aircraft, which was estimated to be anything between six and nine months. This meant that to complete modifications to all the aircraft in the force within a reasonable period, estimated to be up to four years, would inevitably weaken the force, as it would require an unacceptable percentage of the force to be out of the front line at any one time.

Lord St Oswald stated:

These are the reasons why we have decided against fitting ejector seats. There have been suggestions — I think there was a suggestion by my noble friend today — that the work was decided against because of expense. I am pleased to say — and I know my noble friend will be pleased to hear it — that this is totally unfounded. Cost has never entered into the question. The ejector cabin which my noble friend mentioned was not turned down on grounds of costs but because it did not prove feasible to develop it in anything like the necessary time to fit into operation in aircraft entering service. It was turned down on technical, and not on cost grounds. There was no question whatever of costs affecting the issue.

Meanwhile James Martin was still working on the problem, part of which was the structure of the pressurised cabin. In the Vulcan at least, removing a large enough area of the cabin roof to provide a blow-out panel of sufficient size to accommodate the exit of three seats would compromise the structural integrity of the fuselage. In typical fashion, Martin came up with a solution in the form of a complex mechanism that synchronised the operation of all three seats fired through a hole just big enough for one.

After several years of development at the Martin-Baker company's expense, a practical solution was developed using the discarded nose and cabin section of a Vulcan as a test rig. Once the initiation of one seat commenced the centre seat was the first to go. Through a series of interlocking mechanisms the two outer seats then tilted inwards, and one after the other fired through the same hole. Martin carried a series of tests utilising dummies and his new zero/zero5 rocket-powered seat. The tests were successful but didn't progress beyond ejecting dummies before the heavy hand of officialdom intervened.

In October 1964 the political colour of the Government had changed from blue to red as the Wilson Labour government ousted the Conservative administration at the polls. Labour MPs who had previously attacked the former government's decisions now found themselves as the incumbent ministers having to defend the decision they had previously criticised.

On 14 February, 1968, Conservative Maurice Lipton MP raised a written question, which was answered for the government by Merlyn Rees, Labour Secretary of State:

The practicability of providing ejection seats for the rear crew of V-Bombers was examined twice during the earlier years in service, but on each occasion was rejected after careful consideration, though in 1964 it was decided to fit swivel seats which enable a more rapid escape to be made. The question of ejection seats for the rear crew is being examined again with particular reference to possible technical developments and to current consideration of the future of the V-force in the context of the reshaping of our air forces.

In a debate in the House of Commons on 4 March, 1970, opposition Conservative member Mr Victor Goodhew, asked the Secretary of State for Defence why the proposals by Martin-Baker to equip Vulcans with a rear compartment ejection seat system had been rejected. The reply by the Labour Minister for Defence Mr John Morris, indicated:

To have adopted the Martin-Baker scheme would have required a costly and lengthy programme for the major modification of aircraft. In the light of careful assessment of the probability of circumstances occurring during the remaining life of the V-force in which an ejection for the rear crew members might increase chances of survival, we did not consider that such a programme would be justified.

Clearly the cost of the modifications had now become a factor in the Governments considerations. Goodhew went into the attack:

Since these aircraft are being pressed into service much longer than was originally expected, is the honourable Gentleman still insisting that for a few million pounds lives of bomber crews can be thrown away? If it were his life, would he want it risked, or is it just bomber crews who are expendable and not the Secretary of State?

Mr Robert Howarth, Labour member for Bolton sprang to the Defence Secretary's defence:

Will my honourable friend remind the honourable Member for St Albans (Mr Goodhew) that these aircraft were in service well before this Government took office, so presumably his right honourable and honourable friends were prepared to put up with a situation which he finds intolerable?

The defence secretary returned with the rather lame response:

The House knows this is a fact.... When we looked at the likely contingency of the need for equipment against the loss of the operational effectiveness of the aircraft, in that a large number would have to be taken away from the front line, and also the premium that would be involved, this was the kind of difficult decision that I and my advisors had to take.

Passing on the Torch

The V-Bomber force was envisaged to be Britain's strategic nuclear deterrent only up to 1970. The RAF soldiered on with a half-developed weapons system through the 1960s and beyond. Further development of Blue Steel was cancelled in favour of what was thought to be a superior system, the American Skybolt stand-off missile. Skybolt barely made it into service before the Americans cancelled it themselves. This left the RAF with an under-developed method of delivery and the Americans with an international political row on their hands. Wheeling and dealing between the American and British governments eventually provided the British with Polaris, a submarine-launched ballistic missile.

This spelled the end for the V-Bomber force as Britain's nuclear strike capability, and when Polaris came into service in 1970, the Royal Navy took over that responsibility from the RAF. But conventional wars require conventional weapons and Vulcans and Victors laboured on as bombers and tanker aircraft to provide a heavy, long-range bomber force. But with their change in role, the imperative for provision of ejector seats had all but evaporated for all but the crews.

  • 14 October, 1975. Vulcan XM645 lost its port undercarriage leg and damaged the flight controls after undershooting the runway at Luqa airport in Malta. After circling for a second attempt the aircraft broke up in mid-air. The pilot and co-pilot ejected, the remainder of the crew died when the fuselage crashed into a village killing five and injuring 20 others.

Some Victors carried on in service as refuelling tankers and the last of the V-Bombers was taken out of service in 1984. Various V-Bombers, including a handful of Vulcans are kept as museum exhibits but only one Vulcan, XH558 remains in flying condition due to the work of the ‘Vulcan to the Sky Trust'. XH558 occasionally graces the skies in air shows around the UK. Each of the V-Bombers had its heyday. The Valiant was used during the Suez crisis, the Victor during the Indonesia-Malaysia conflict and Vulcans and Victors during the Falklands war. Only the Valiant ever dropped a live atomic weapon6.

No crew member ever ejected from the rear compartment of a V-Bomber.

1A fourth bomber, the Short Sperrin had also been designed by Short Bros but resulted in only one prototype aircraft flown.2RAE: Royal Aircraft Establishment. The research centre for the Royal Air Force, founded at Farnborough, Hampshire.3In the case of delta wing shape, these control surfaces are more correctly known as 'elevons'.4Former RAF parachute instructor WT 'Doddy' Hay wrote a book The Man in the Hot Seat describing his career as a seat 'test-pilot' for Martin-Baker.5Zero/zero seat: refers to an escape from an aircraft at zero forward speed and zero height using an ejector seat powered by rocket propulsion. Developed by Martin-Baker for use in vertical take-off aircraft, where forward speed and height might not be sufficient to allow the parachute enough time to deploy fully.6The first British air-dropped atomic weapon, codenamed ‘Kite’, was dropped by a Valiant over the Australian Maralinga site on 11 October, 1956. Valiant XD818 of 49 Squadron (now preserved at RAF Cosford Air Museum) dropped the first British H-bomb on 15 May, 1957 over Malden Island in the Pacific – one of nine test bombs dropped by Valiants during Operation Grapple.

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