Past Talks : July 2022

“The Blackburn Buccaneer in service” by Air Commodore (Ret’d) Graham Pitchfork MBE

Our speaker this evening told us very little about himself, but his own background would fill a book. In a nutshell, Graham spent 36 years in the RAF, having graduated from RAF Cranwell and training as a navigator. During his career he spent some time on Canberras in Germany, but mostly he flew in the back seat of Buccaneers with the RAF and with the RN on a three year exchange, including a tour on HMS Eagle. Finally he held many military Directorate roles prior to retirement career as an aviation historian – and it is in the latter role that we enjoyed his company this evening.

The Blackburn Buccaneer, where did it all begin? Up until the end of WW2, the Russian Navy was largely coastal, but with the emergence of the Cold War Russia started to build powerful ocean-going warships such as the 16,500 tonne Sverdlov class cruisers. They were fast, well-armed and numerous, therefore a distinct threat to allied shipping.

This led to the question of how to deal with them – build a new fleet of equally capable warships; or submarines; or carrier based aircraft, etc.? The most cost-effective solution was a specialised strike aircraft to operate from the existing Fleet Carriers (3 large and 2 smaller).

The detailed specification NA39, issued around 1952/53, called for a two-seat aircraft with folding wings, capable of 0.85 Mach speed, at 200ft (below the enemy radar), a 400 nm (nautical mile) range and the ability to deliver conventional or nuclear weapons.

The Blackburn design very quickly emerged as the favourite submission and the final service aircraft still looked very much like that in the original submission.

The prototype Buccaneer was built at Blackburn’s Brough factory in March 1958 and was largely milled out of solid blocks of metal. Although heavy, the aircraft soon gained a reputation for its strength and is often referred to as “being built like a brick public convenience”, or words to that effect.

For the first flight, the aircraft was transported by lorry to RAE Bedford, where on the 30 April 1958, a mere 5 years after the original specification was circulated, the aircraft made its first flight.

The original Buccaneer Mk1 was fitted with two DH Gyron Junior engines with 7,500lb thrust. The Buccaneer also featured a relatively small wing, ideal for high speed low-level flight. The wing incorporated a boundary layer control system which drew hot air from the engines and blew it across the top of the wing, thus allowing lower speeds to be achieved during take-off and landing. Additionally, the Buccaneer incorporated several other novel features such as: ‘area rule’ aerodynamics (the coke bottle shape) which improved high speed handling; a rotating bomb bay to reduce drag and radar signature; split rear fuselage air brakes; and a folding nose cone, wings and tail cone to enable ease of handling on existing carrier lifts.

Unusually, 20 development aircraft were ordered to enable a rapid test programme for the numerous, various complex systems. The first carrier landing took place on HMS Victorious in August 1960. For take off, extra lift was given by drooping the ailerons and the flaps.

The toss-bomb technique was to be used for attacks against Sverdlov cruisers, using either 1,000lb bombs or tactical nuclear bombs. By this method the Buccaneer would fly in at low-level, then at a 2½ mile range would start to pull up, toss the bomb onto the target and then turn back smartly for home.

Among the limitations of the Buccaneer Mk1 was that it was underpowered to the extent that a go-around on a deck landing was likely to be extremely hazardous at best. Similarly, to carry a heavy weapon load required that the aircraft launched with much less than a full fuel tank load, followed by a quick rendezvous with a Scimitar ‘buddy’ aircraft at 2,000ft for in-flight refuelling before carrying out its mission.

If you can imagine it, the catapult would project the Buccaneer down the carrier deck to 150kts in 1.25 seconds. During the process, the pilot did not hold the control column. A typical sortie lasted around one hour. On landing there were four deck wires and the carrier’s landing mirror was set for the aircraft to catch the 3rd wire.

It soon became very apparent that an engine upgrade was necessary. To avoid a complete re-design it was found that the RR Spey engine could be made to fit within the ringed sections of the main spar. Larger intakes and some redesign of the fuselage section were necessary, but the time taken for redevelopment also allowed time for many systems and components to be upgraded and modernised for the Buccaneer Mk2. At this time, the Buccaneer Mk2 was also fitted with the detonating cord in the canopy to make underwater escape a more likely. The Spey engine not only increased available power by over 50% to 11.500lb thrust. It also increased the range by 25%.

By 1965 the Buccaneer Mk2 was in service and around that time, Graham went on a detachment to Singapore with photo-reconnaissance camera packages loaded in the bomb bay.

Not long afterwards in 1966, Ian Smith, Prime Minister of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), led a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) from Britain. This led to an embargo of supplies to Rhodesia. To monitor this situation, the Beira Patrol was set up to observe and investigate any ship movements in the area. Buccaneers played a prominent part in this exercise and undertook patrols over a period of 71 days, with much air refuelling via the Scimitar ‘buddy’ tankers.

A year later in 1967, the 120,000 ton oil super-tanker ‘Torrey Canyon’ ran aground off Cornwall, causing enormous environmental damage. At that time, it was the largest ship ever to be wrecked. Re-floating attempts failed and the ship started to break up, spilling the heavy oil cargo. Containment was not working in the conditions either. Scientists therefore decided that the best solution was to set fire to the oil cargo and Buccaneers were included in the inventory of aircraft sent in to bomb the ship with 1,000lb bombs. That was not a great success either, due to the heavy oil coagulating just below the surface of the sea, defying attempts to set it ablaze as intended. Nevertheless, it was good anti-ship training experience.

By 1969, politicians had thwarted RAF future plans by cancelling the very promising TSR2, plus its substitute, the American F-111 aircraft. In addition it was decided that all remaining aircraft carriers were to be retired, thereby taking the maritime defence role from the RN and putting it on to the RAF. In consequence, all RN Buccaneers were transferred to the RAF and an additional 46 new-build Buccaneers were ordered for the RAF. The new aircraft were delivered with RAF type communications and avionics equipment and a fuel tank with a 2,500lb capacity bulging from the rotating bomb bay.

As to be expected, throughout its lifetime, the Buccaneer was constantly updated with new weapons and systems. Among these were Passive Support ECM (Electronic Countermeasure) pods for self-defence, plus the Martel air to surface missile, which the RN had installed and was also part of the RAF fit.

In the 1960s the South African Air Force bought 16 Buccaneer Mk2, designated the S.50. Although similar the S.50 had the powered wing folding removed and some other changes. The SAAF decided to order a further 14 Buccaneers, but once again our politicians stepped in and embargoed the order on political grounds. South Africa therefore designed its own weapon systems and successfully operated the Buccaneer for many years.

Graham described several exercises undertaken by the Buccaneer over the years and it was truly a successful and capable aircraft that was also popular with its crews. It could operate at 70,000ft down to 70ft.

On one occasion, word came about that a Russian Kirov battle cruiser had been identified lurking within range of Jan Mayen Island in the Arctic Ocean. With the aid of a refuelling stop in the Shetland Islands and a Victor flight refuelling tanker, a Buccaneer flew at very low level to pay the Kirov a surprise visit out of the blue.

Another highlight was an invitation to participate in a ‘Red Flag’ two week aerial combat training exercise at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, USA. The training area itself is almost as big as Wales and uses genuine Russian radar systems ‘acquired’ from the Eastern Bloc. The aggressor (Red) aircraft were operated under strictly Russian orders and tactics to provide realism in the training. There were over 70 aircraft participating from several nations in all the battles. Graham was delighted to tell us that the Buccaneers stole the show by flying as low as 100ft and catching out its opponents. Previous training exercises in Labrador enabled low-flying training in vary variable scenarios.

Operation Granby, the British contribution to the Gulf War, was perhaps the swan song for the Buccaneer. It occurred when Tornado aircraft were achieving much prominence for their successful attacks on enemy positions. This success was heavily dependent on Buccaneers providing laser designation for the Tornadoes. Over 200 sorties were undertaken by Buccaneers, plus some direct bombing without a single loss. The Buccaneer was still quietly making the best of any opportunities.

Although the Tornado was taking over from the Buccaneer, it is a fact that the Tornado could not fly as far, nor could it carry as many weapons as the Buccaneer. In its early career, one Buccaneer astonished everyone by returning from Canada direct to Lossiemouth without refuelling. The Buccaneer was a very capable and robust aircraft. It was also the last British built bomber.

Thank you Graham Pitchfork for a thumping good talk. For those members unable to attend the Fleet Air Arm Museum for the talk, do pay your £4 and join in via Zoom on your computer home, tablet or even mobile ‘phone. It is very easy to do and we will help and guide you if you are unsure or have any doubts. Honestly, it is such good value.