Escaping the V-Bomber

Martin-Baker development model

Martin-Baker development model

At 10 am on 1 October 1956, Royal Air Force Avro Vulcan B1 serial XA 897 of 230 Operational Conversion Unit was on its final approach to land at London Heathrow Airport, eagerly awaited by VIPs and families. This was a very unusual airfield for a Vulcan bomber, but then it was a very special flight.

This was the first Vulcan to have been delivered to the RAF and which was on its way home from a round-the-world tour to New Zealand to demonstrate this latest addition to Britain’s aircraft industry and defence capabilities.

But at this point, the fairy tale turns to tragedy. Landing a military aircraft with handling characteristics quite unlike an airliner at a civilian airport, while under the control of a civilian radar controller by a military pilot with limited experience of radar assisted landings – and in bad weather too – resulted in the deaths of four of the crew (three RAF and one from Avro). The aircraft impacted the ground well short of the runway, taking off again but fatally damaged and crashing: whilst the two pilots were able to eject safely, those in the rear of the cabin had no such seats and were unable to bale out and use their parachutes.

This accident brought to the fore a question which had been under consideration since the very first stages of the Vulcan’s design – why did the pilots have ejection seats but the rear-seat crew did not?

The German Luftwaffe fitted early ejection seats to some of its wartime aircraft and in Britain, the RAF stipulated in 1947 that Martin-Baker Aircraft Company’s seats would be fitted as standard in all new jets.

Early Martin-Baker design

Early Martin-Baker design

Thus, the three V-Bombers – Vickers Valiant, Avro Vulcan and Handley Page Victor – would have ejection seats for the two pilots. But the cabin layout of all three types created problems: the three rear-seat crew (Air Electronics Officer, Navigator Plotter and Navigator Radar) – all faced aft  and the Air Ministry doubted that it would be possible to eject whilst travelling backwards.

Vulcan crew placement

Vulcan crew placement

Valiant Rear Crew Seats

Valiant rear crew seats

They had to bale out conventionally through the entrance hatches. Martin-Baker Aircraft Co proved rearward ejection was possible with a live firing from the rear of a Valiant. The Air Ministry then doubted it would be possible for all three rear seats to eject as the cabin roof could not have a large enough aperture. Again, Martin-Baker Aircraft Co. proved them wrong with a rig with all three seats ejecting sequentially through a single exit: the outer two seats would tilt over to clear the hole.

Victor Cabin Door And Escape

Victor cabin door/escape

Vulcan crew hatch

Vulcan crew hatch

This required major modifications of the seats: rocket propulsion was impossible as the exhaust from the first seat would burn the remaining two crew; and the standard long seat guide-rails had to be shortened as the first man out would have blocked the remaining two. (An unsuccessful design submitted by Armstrong-Whitworth actually included a completely detachable crew compartment descending by parachute – as implemented on the General Dynamics F 111 Aardvark – but this was beyond the manufacturing capabilities of the 1950s so was abandoned.)

Martin Baker Triple Seat Test Rig

Martin-Baker triple-seat test rig

Numerous trials were undertaken by the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down in 1958 on the chances of escape from the rear seats, involving dummies and live parachutists, and, to simulate ‘G’ (force of gravity), a centrifuge. Conclusions across all trials and all three aircraft types were unanimous: escape was feasible provided the aircraft was in stable, controlled, flight. Otherwise, the reports concluded ‘the only sure method of escape is the ejector seat and the early fitment of them for rear seat crew members is strongly recommended.’

Armstrong Whitworth Drawing Of Detachable Cabin Escape System

Armstrong-Whitworth drawing of detachable cabin escape system

Proof existed that it was technically possible and so the debate shifted to whether seats should be fitted. The real problems lay in questions of strategic defence policy, cost and the anticipated service life of the V-Bomber fleet.

This was the era of the Red Menace (‘Better Dead than Red’ © Senator Joseph McCarthy), the Cold War, Cuban Missile Crisis and the ‘four minute warning’ [flight time of a Soviet nuclear-armed missile from East Germany to London and the East Anglian bomber airfields]. When there were permanently a dozen or more V-Bombers on 24-hour alert, fully fuelled and with live nuclear weapons already loaded: ready to fly to Moscow at 5 minutes notice. Added to which were recurrent financial/currency crises.

The strategic issue lay in ensuring that the United Kingdom had a credible deterrent policy: that it had sufficient bombers to create a genuine belief in the Soviet Government that it could destroy key Russian cities. The argument ran that removing aircraft from their front-line duties to fit new seats would reduce the deterrent fleet below a credible size.

Cost was a major factor, coupled with the anticipated ‘out of service’ dates of the V-Bombers, alongside how many lives might realistically be saved. These questions were debated at the most senior levels in the Air Ministry and RAF, with opinions swinging back and forth. An early discussion paper was issued in 1957 and a final decision was apparently not taken until 1969. And at no time were rear ejection seats fitted.

How many crew did V-Bombers kill or – more pertinently – how many more might have survived with rear ejection seats? All statistics must be viewed with caution and the issue of how many more men might have lived requires major assumptions on accidents.  Also, only RAF statistics were compiled centrally, thus excluding losses during manufacturers’ tests. Bear in mind that although the standard crew was 5 men, some tanker variants had the Nav Plotter’s seat removed whilst with the normal bombers, often there would be a sixth supernumerary crew – the NCO Crew Chief for one – and sometimes even a seventh, both on primitive ‘jump seats’ or – in the Vulcan – wooden boxes.

Valiant Jump Seat (folded)

Valiant jump-seat (folded)

Vulcan Starboard Jump Seat

Vulcan starboard jump seat

Finally, some freak accidents defy prediction and analysis. On 19 July 1960, Victor XH 617 of 57 Squadron caught fire in flight. Of the five crew, the Captain ejected safely and the AEO made a safe parachute landing. But the Co-pilot did not operate his seat correctly (probably failed to pull hard enough on the face-blind handle) and went down with the wreckage; the Nav. Plotter jumped but became entangled in his parachute lines which broke his neck before reaching ground; and by a tragic freak accident, the Nav. Radar baled out successfully but was killed during his descent by debris falling from the exploding aircraft above him.

A key document appears on 27 March 1963, being a list of all V-Bomber losses to date. Ten had been involved in fatal accidents between introduction into service in 1955 and March 1963. The briefing paper acknowledges (and it is worth quoting directly here) ‘in 6 fatal accidents, ejector sets for rear crew members might have facilitated escape and it must be said that in the three cases where only the co-pilot escaped, it was at least possible that the captain might also escaped but for his efforts to save the remainder of the crew’. The statistics are harsh: 50% of co-pilots  and 30% of pilots escaped, but only 9% of rear crew.

The files suggest the matter lay quiescent for 5 years until Vulcan XM 604 crashed on 30 January 1968. The two pilots ejected and survived; the four men in the rear perished. The then current draft operational plan foresaw 88 Vulcans and Victors remaining in service until 1977/78 and statistically, over 15 would be lost in flying accidents. The Air Force Policy Board, at its meeting on 29 September 1969, considered a paper by the Vice Chief of the Air Staff (VCAS) which is significant as it appears to be the rationale behind the last decision taken on the subject. Starting a study of the arguments, perhaps paradoxically, with the Appendix, there is an analysis of the 19 major accidents in RAF service [i.e. excluding manufacturers’ and other trials] and the likelihood of rear ejection seats altering the rear seat crew loss rate. Of the 19, it was assessed that there was no change in 9 cases, 5 marginal, 1 very doubtful and 4 good, some 11 souls. The main paper gave a history of the decisions taken and their reasons but did state that by now, there was ‘a practical scheme’. However, the paper continued with a cost-benefit analysis. To complete the equipping of the whole V-Bomber fleet of 108 Victors and Vulcans would take until mid 1974 and cost in the region of £9.95 million. VCAS makes a very noteworthy comment ‘on the grounds of humanity, I would be inclined to recommend adoption  of the modification [installing ejection seats] but in these days of rigidly constrained Defence Budgets it is necessary to consider very carefully and objectively the cost justification of the proposed scheme’. VCAS wrote that the then defence plan foresaw Victors flying for 109,000 hours and Vulcans for 102,000 hours: with an accident rate of 2 per 100,000 hours, four V-Bombers would be lost of which only one would benefit from rear ejection seats. The Air Force Board concurred, noting also that there had been no Parliamentary interest since January 1968.

And what actually happened? The cancellation of Skybolt (a long-range stand-off nuclear missile) by President Kennedy in late 1962, so the replacements for the Vulcan and Victor as delivery vehicles for the strategic deterrent were never required.

Vulcan with Skybolt aerodynamic test dummy

Vulcan with Skybolt aerodynamic test dummy

Because it was recognised that it was no longer credible that manned bombers could reach Moscow – even with short-range Blue Steel missiles – the strategic nuclear deterrent was transferred in 1969 to the Royal Navy’s nuclear-powered SSBN submarines carrying Polaris Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles. Victors became air-to-air refuelling tankers and Vulcans switched to a short-range tactical nuclear role within NATO. Vulcans had one last swan-song in Operation Corporate’s Black Buck missions – bombing the Falkland Islands in 1982, finally being withdrawn from RAF service in 1984. Whilst the Victors soldiered on until Operation Granby (Gulf War 1) in 1991, being withdrawn shortly thereafter. A mere 26 years after they were first forecast for withdrawal. And between the last decision not to fit ejection seats in 1969 to 1991, a total of 4 V-Bombers crashed (exactly as statistical assumptions): with the loss of 19 aircrew. Of the pilots/co-pilots with ejection seats, 3 of 8 survived but none of the 14 rear seat crew escaped.

Author’s Note 1: Martin-Baker Aircraft Co Ltd and RAF Museum have kindly provided some photographs but the opinions expressed herein are those of the author alone.

Author’s Note 2: this article is a very much abbreviated version of the original which appeared in the November 2022 edition of Magna (the magazine of the Friends of The National Archive). Readers seeking greater detail are referred to this, which contains many detailed extracts from and references to original documents held by The National Archives.

About the Author

Norman Brice: Volunteer

Volunteer Norman Brice

It all started very many years ago when, lying in my pram, I was awoken by what I later knew as Spitfires on their finals to RAF Biggin Hill, just a handful of miles away. As a schoolboy I was captivated by the annual September Battle of Britain Days at Biggin Hill with a vast range of visiting aircraft, including all three V-Bombers in gleaming anti-flash white.

Fast forward very many years past retirement I joined the RAF Museum London as a volunteer as a Vulcan and Cold War tour guide.