Sunday, 12 July 2015

Vulcan at Yeovilton 2015: Infra-Red

Off to the Yeovilton Air Day, with an infrared camera and a bottle of pop. This year the Avro Vulcan retires for the third and final time. Like Lazarus, it was raised from the dead; and like Lazarus it is fated to die again, this time forever.

I used an infrared camera - there is no shortage of Vulcan photographs taken with visible light - in part because the results are dramatic but also because I was curious to see what would happen.

The Vulcan entered service in the 1950s. Its original mission was to incinerate Russians - tens of thousands of them - with our nuclear bombs. In practice this never came to pass, and the only people incinerated by Vulcans were Argentine ground crew, six of them, during the Falklands War of 1982. The Vulcan was retired from service almost immediately afterwards. It remained in flight as a display aircraft until 1993, at which point the expense of keeping a jet bomber in the air became too great.

In this shot, for example, you can see that some of the panels were made of a different material from the rest of the airframe, or perhaps they used a fundamentally different paint.

Just like Doctor Who, it made an unlikely comeback; in 2007 the Vulcan to the Skies trust finally got the machine airborne again, thanks to millions of pounds of donations from members of the public. Alas, the Vulcan's engines and airframe are coming to the end of their service lives, and so 2015 will be its final year in the air. It outlasted the Lighting, Concorde, the Harrier (at least in British service), and its close contemporaries, the Victor and the Valiant. Because it looks awesome, that's why. And it sounds awesome.

There were some other aircraft at Yeovilton, but in most cases* they will be there next year, so they can wait.

* Notable exceptions include the French Super Etendards - which were displaying just as I left - and the Sea King helicopters, which are still in service elsewhere in the world.

In the nuclear strike role the Vulcan was painted white so that the nuclear blast wouldn't hurt the crew. Why didn't the Russians paint their cities white? Perhaps they did, I don't know. Thanks to the efforts of our American friends, the Russians eventually stopped being our enemies and became if not our friends then at least some people we know, and indeed large tracts of modern London are owned by Russians because we are great friends (short pause) with their money.

What's it like to see a Vulcan dancing in the sky? In an airshow context the experience is somewhat muted, because regulations prevent it from flying overhead. The pilot can only make long passes parallel with the crowd line plus some wingovers. The Vulcan's low wing loading gave it superb high-altitude performance - I imagine that the likes of the F-86 or MiG-15 would have found it an incredibly hard gun target - but this doesn't help at an airshow. Nonetheless, when the pilot gunned the engines it was like being punched in the chest, and I could feel a collective grin from the crowd, although I was too far from the car park to hear the car alarms going off.

On the ground it's smaller than I expected. The pilot and co-pilot had ejection seats, but the back-seat passengers - the radar operator, the navigator, the electronic countermeasures specialist, and often a relief pilot - were expected to climb down the crew ladder and hop out of the aircraft. Looking at the entrance hatch I wouldn't rate their chances at low level.

The Vulcan had a surprisingly good accident record for a jet aircraft from the early Cold War years, but the Aviation Safety Database lists three instances in which only the two pilots survived a crash, with the other crew dying inside the airframe. I know that RAF men are not given to sentimentality, but it must have haunted them, at three o'clock in the morning, later on in life.

The enormous, unsegmented bomb bay was originally designed to drop freefall nuclear weapons, at first from high altitude and later from a few hundred feet - the WE177 freefall bomb was slowed with a parachute, which gives me a mental vision of Soviet policemen desperately firing at it with their pistols.

The bay resembles a metal skeleton. In practice it seems that the Vulcan was just as likely to carry stores under the wings (either missiles or sensor pods) with the bay used as a fuel tank. As with the American B-52, the Vulcan lent itself to different roles - in the 1970s it became a maritime patrol aircraft and mid-air refueling tanker - and perhaps if it had been cheaper, or had attracted export sales, it would still be flying today. The RAF only retired their Canberras in 2006 and the American version of the Canberra, the B-57, is still flying today, in a limited capacity as a communications relay.

Writing about the Vulcan's dimensions doesn't really impart the flavour of the thing. It has meaning beyond numbers. On one level there's something desperately melancholic about its original role as a nuclear bomber. Perhaps in the early days of the Cold War it was feasible that the Vulcan could drop its bombs on Russia and return to Britain for tea and medals - but the Russians would have done the same to us, and they had 1,500 Tu-16s, outnumbering the Vulcan more than ten to one. They only had to hit London once to knock us out as a functioning nation. Later in the Cold War it was obvious that the Vulcan was a desperate weapon of retaliation that would fly off into oblivion, "not to return on this day, or any other day".

On a cultural level the Vulcan's emotional legacy is complex. In the 1950s it was a symbol of Britain's globe-spanning power and technical ingenuity. This blog post captures some of the Vulcan's hold on the British psyche, expressed in the likes of Commando and Eagle and Ladybird's The Airman in the Royal Air Force. Britain's globe-spanning power had been an illusion for a decade by the time the Vulcan entered service, and it's hard to feel nostalgic for it, but the aeroplane, its engines, and its bombs were undeniably state of the art. I imagine that kids reading Eagle would have been enthused to grow up as aviation engineers or designers or technicians, but when they left school there were no jobs for them, not then or ever since, so the bright ones moved abroad.

Still, the Vulcan. It will be flying until September, unless the Argentine government invades the Falklands again. Or there's a giant war between America and Russia that also knocks out India and China, in which case Britain will be a world power once more, albeit that the world will be much smaller and more radioactive.

On a photo-technical level I used a 70-200mm f/2.8 IS, because that's all I have in the long range; I had to focus manually because the lens is calibrated for visible light, but that's easier than it sounds because the aeroplanes were roughly the same distance. In my admittedly limited experience anything around 400mm plus or minus a couple of hundred mm with good central sharpness is good enough for airshows, 500mm if you have a full-frame body. The most popular lenses I saw were, in roughly descending order, either of Canon's 100-400mms, Nikon's 80-400mm, various Sigma "bigmas" and a couple of 70-200mms with teleconverters. Yeovilton has a little mound in the north-east that lets you look over the heads of the crowd.

No doubt in a few years people will start using drones as camera platforms, assuming that they aren't banned; and a few years beyond that all of the display aircraft will be drones as well.