Blackburn Buccaneer – the last British bomber
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“You want me to fly at 50 feet agl? Hell! I’m not CLIMBING for ANYBODY!”
I once had the great privilege of living (and working) at the Royal Air Force’s premier navigation school. Inevitably, one met members of the instructing staff who had been in contact with the Blackburn Buccaneer. To say that this aircraft was held in affection would be a massive understatement. The rugged strength of this nuclear-capable attack bomber was the stuff of legend, a typical quote being – ‘Built like a brick outhouse? No, I think they just carved it out of the solid metal!’ Yet the Royal Air Force acquired this bomber, with its fighter-like agility, almost by accident.
In the 1950s the Royal Navy was looking for a fast low-level bomber, capable of delivering a free-fall nuclear weapon, for its Fleet Air Arm squadrons. Blackburn’s had traditionally been a supplier of naval/maritime aircraft since World War One (e.g. the Blackburn R.T.1 Kangaroo maritime patrol aircraft) and they jumped at the chance to build a fast, carrier-borne jet. The N.A 39 design which emerged from the design process was rather disappointing in some ways. The angle at which the aircraft was launched from the steam catapults on the British fleet carriers was critical at certain gross weights, and the 7,100 lb st de Havilland DGJ.1 Gyron Junior engines were both underpowered and ‘thirsty’. For these reasons, the Buccaneer S.1 got mixed reviews.
Whilst all this was going on, the RAF had shown absolutely no interest in the Buccaneer. They were going to have the superb BAC TSR.2 (an aircraft so advanced that it would still be in service today as an ELINT or photographic platform). Unfortunately, the politics that killed the TSR.2 also killed the RAF’s American replacement for it, the General Dynamics F-111K. Suddenly, the RAF needed a fast bomber – fast – and there was the Buccaneer! The Royal Navy was retiring their fleet carriers, and the RAF ‘inherited’ their McDonell Phantom FG.1 (F4K) aircraft, as well as the ‘Buccs’. A new version of the Buccaneer, the S.2B, was developed specifically for the RAF, with the superb Rolls-Royce Spey 101 turbofan engine of 11,100 lb st (Speys were also in the Phantom FG.1) and this gave a massive boost to the Blackburn design. The RAF inherited an aircraft with very useful characteristics; a heavy-duty undercarriage (designed for carrier landings), folding wings (easy on hangar space), split speed brake in the tail, arrestor gear (useful for battlefield short-field ops.), and buddy-buddy refuelling capability. More importantly, the ‘Bucc’ could go places – in a hurry – like 540 knots at 100 feet a.g.l. or LESS! Its ride – on the deck – was nothing short of superb. I have seen film of a pair of Buccaneers ‘attacking’ a US-manned ‘threat site’, at 500 knots plus, in a Thatch weave, at below 100 feet. The site operators were unable to maintain lock on the incoming pair and just gave up! The first time the RAF sent Buccaneers to Exercise Red Flag in Nevada, the F-15 pilots and AWACS crews were gleeful at what they assumed were easy kills ahead. At the end of two weeks there were red faces at Red Flag – not one single ‘Bucc’ kill, and lots of targets eliminated. The Buccaneer’s last hurrah came with the 1991 Gulf War. A detachment was hastily refinished in ARTF (Alkali Removable Temporary Finish) Desert Pink and flown out to Bahrain. Providing laser targeting facilities (via their ‘Pave Spike’ pods) for the RAF’s Tornado GR.1 strike aircraft, they also joined in bombing raids, carrying their share of 1,000 lb TI Paveway II laser guided bombs.
Sadly, the end came due to metal fatigue. Two aircraft (and their crews) were lost due to structural failures in flight, and many were found to have cracked main spars, at the end of a long and hard life. There were those who say that the Buccaneer should have been re-spared (not just repaired), ‘zero-timed’ and updated, but it was not to be. It was replaced by the Panavia Tornado GR.1 – which could not carry as much, or as far, or as fast at low level, and was just not as manoeuverable as a ‘Bucc’.
Ah well, I can only hope that you get a chance to view Buccaneer S.2B, XX 889, seen here it all its glory, with the ‘Sky Pirates’ flag on the port side of the nose (the name ‘Longmorn’ and 14 sortie markings are to starboard), at Cotswold Airport, Kemble (unfortunately, XX889 is minus its rotary bomb-bay door). The Buccaneer Society is well on its way to finishing a superb restoration of this S.2B. Long live the Buccaneer!
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