Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Why the Victor was retired by the RAF

Pressure Jerkin
The Victor was designed as a high-level delivery platform for striking at the Soviet Union and this would only have been carried out as a retalitory counter-strike following an attack on the UK. In this role the aircraft of the V Force were extremely capable particularly with the constantly improving suite of electronic counter measure (ECM) and development of 'stand-off' nuclear weapons such as the AVRO 'Blue Steel' missile which both the Vulcan and Victor could be modified to carry in their advanced and improved Mk2 versions. At high altitudes all 3 V-Force aircraft types (Victor, Valiant and Vulcan) were under little airframe stess in the much smoother conditions experienced at high altitude. Altitudes of well over 40,000feet were quiet normal and with modified oxygen regulators and partial pressure suits for the crew the aircraft could be flown much higher. The Victor in particular was capable of very high speeds and a high speed cruise of Mach 0.92 was not uncommon, faster than most civil airliners today with probably the exception of the Boeing 747.

Col Francis Gary Powers
All of this changed dramatically with the loss of a Lockheed U2 spyplane of the USAF being flown at very high altitude over the USSR by Col Francis Gary Powers. Once it was confirmed that the U2 had been shot down by a Soviet Surface to Air Missile (SAM) this sent shockwaves around NATO and particularly the V Force as they had always trained for high level operations and their aircraft were designed for that enviroment.

The answer to this was that the V Force would have to operate at low level and this caused a complete change in both training and operational flying. The pressure suits were no longer needed and the aircraft were painted in camouflage on the upper surfaces, retaining a white underside from the all over earlier white paint scheme.

In camo whilst on detatchment to RAF Luqa, Malta
It soon became abundantly clear that not only was low level flying uncomfortable for the crews (also at night) it was also causing problems with the airframes which were not designed for low level work. By 1965 the Vickers Valiant was literally falling apart, a training sortie from RAF Gaydon in Warks saw a Valiant return with externally visible main spar defects that by rights should have caused the aircraft to crash, by skillfull flying and an amount of good fortune this did not happen. The fleet was inspected and the engineers were horrifed to find most airframes were in a bad way. Some were immediately grounded while others were graded on inspection as fit to fly in certain circumstances, some in a state of war only would be allowed to fly. The Valiant was officially retired in 1965 as a type.

This left the Vulcan and Victor to carry on the role of  defending our country from nuclear strikes. The Vulcan was able to take the low level work as the airframe was much more 'solid' with a relatively thick wing and centre section, this although good for the aircraft was not good for the crew who became 'fatigued' rather than the aircraft! The Victor however was a different problem, it rode the buffet of low level work very well but flexed much more than the Vulcan, this helped the crew's comfort but damaged the aircraft heavily and one ex Victor captain known to us said he could quite clearly feel the aircraft 'twang and crack' and crack it did.

Bombing up!
It was discovered that the wing attachment points known as 'club feet' were fatigueing. The Victor has no main spar as such,basically it has a series of wing attachment points which attach to the fuselage structure and this is what gives the Victor its huge un-interrupted bomb bay, capable of carrying 35 x 1,000lb gravity bombs!

The cracking was monitored for the rest of the Victor's Mk2's service life as a bomber and as a Strategic Reconnaisance Platform until retirement from the bombing role in 1968 and reconnaisance in 1974.

Once it was decided to convert most of the Mk2 fleet to the tanker role a 'zero fatigue' life had to be achieved and this involved the manufacture of new 'club feet' as well as the other modifications required to effectively make the aircraft as new again.

Fatigue was always a concern particulary on a finite amount of K2 Tanker airframes (22) and they were treated as gently as possible. Despite this carrying a heavy amont of fuel was bound to stress the airframe and one memorable occasion related to us by several aircrew tells of the time the Victors had to operate from the USAF base at RAF Sculthorpe whilst RAF Marham's runway was being resurfaced. Apparently taxying around had to be kept as gently as possible due to the fact Sculthorpe was so 'bumpy' on its surfaces it was causing the aircraft's fatigue counters to clock up fatigue without even leaving the ground!

Despite gentle operating the dreaded fatigue began to build up and none  more so than during the Falklands war of 1982. Heavy tasking of the fleet in the South Atlantic and constant returns to the UK until 1986 took their toll. So much in fact that it was decided to disband No57 Sqn that year as well as No232 OCU, highly fatigued aircraft were retired. All remaining aircraft with acceptable fatigue life were transferred to No55 Sqn, leaving them to see the Victor out of RAF service and this they did with an impecably proud record. The Gulf War of 1990/91 saw the Squadron carry out 299 tasked sorties with a 100% success rate, impressive by anyones standards. The Squadron remained in the Gulf Theatre until Sept 1993 returning to the UK that month for the NATO exercise 'Elder Joust', disbanding the following month.

The Victor K2 was designed with a finite fatigue life of 100 Fatigue Indices, with carefull monitoring and dedication this was extended in some airframes to 132 FI,  XL231 'Lusty Lindy' was retired with a calculated 128 FI on the clock and she was never in any danger of falling part.