|by Paul Holden, PRO|
18 November 2003
AN INSIGHT INTO OUR COLD WAR
V-FORCE NUCLEAR DETERRENT
The speaker was Group Captain Michael Thom, who, although strictly a member of the Engineering Branch of the RAF, was seconded as an Air Electronics Officer (AEO) in the V Force for one of his tours of duty. Because Victors and Vulcans were the first RAF aircraft to have electro-hydraulic powered flying controls with no manual reversion, as well as many other essential systems which were electrically powered or controlled, together with advanced radar, navigation and Electronic Counter Measure (ECM) equipment, they required a lot of absolutely reliable electrical power, and a new type of Flight Engineer to look after it all. This was the key role of the AEO, who also acted as the Signaller and ECM operator as well. All these new qualifications proved a hard job to fill, but as a new University trained Electrical Engineer just entering RAF service, Michael was in the right place at the right time to volunteer for a 5 year loan assignment to the General Duties (i.e. flying) Branch.
His first 6 months was spent on a crash course getting up to 22 words per minute in Morse code and learning the RA F Communications equipment and procedures before joining the V-force at Gaydon, to do operational training on the Victor. This aircraft was a revelation back in 1958. High performance (cruising up to 0.93 Mach at 50,000 feet, with a 35,000 bomb load) - a very different league altogether from the Lincolns and Canberras of the day! But it took some 10 weeks of ground training to learn the intricacies of this very sophisticated electrically controlled aircraft, and how to deal with engine failures to keep the remaining aircraft systems operational.
Once on the squadron, their war mission was practised continually, with the objective of getting their average bombing error down to less that 350 yards - pretty accurate for a Blue Danube (atomic) or Yellow Sun (hydrogen) bomb.
As the V-force grew in numbers, the problems of a surprise attack from Russian Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) became more real. With only four minutes warning, all the V-force aircraft might be caught on base. Hence Bomber Command instituted a dispersal policy in which 4 aircraft from each squadron could be dispersed at short notice to remote operating bases (in the case of No 10 Squadron, to Boscombe Down.) Also, the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) system was introduced, in which 2 crews from each squadron had to be kitted up in huts alongside armed aircraft with the aircraft "scramble checked" - all the pre-flight checks completed up to start engines. From the "go" signal, they had to be airborne within 2 minutes. This was frequently tested, but only to taxi, as they never flew armed up. On a practice bombing mission over the USA, they were the only aircraft up at 40,000 feet or above, at a time when US strategic bombers were limited to about 35,000 feet, and transatlantic passengers were flying in Stratocruisers. On their way back from Goose Bay on 3rd July 1961, with the help of a jet stream, their flight time to overhead base was only 3 hours and 50 minutes!
The last year of his secondment was spent as an AEO instructor, and taking part in Intensive Flight Trials of the Mark 2 Victor which was an amazing improvement - mainly because it had about twice as much thrust. It could cruise at Mach 0.95 if pushed, and could make 58,000 feet.
In retrospect, Michael said that he had had a pretty good innings in Victors. He had flown in 25 of the 84 built, and over the five years of his association with them he had clocked just over 600 flying hours, including some pretty sharp-end squadron time at the absolute heyday of the RAF’s Nuclear Deterrent Force and in his view, it is the squadron experience which counts.. His last flight was rather a sad one, on 17th April 1964 taking Mk 1 XA924 to St Athan for use as a ground instructional aircraft. He was able to show several video clips of the Victor, showing the cockpit layout, and its operational role on QRA dispersal, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.