Concluding my short series of blog posts on iconic RAF planes to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Royal Air Force we finally reach the period that most of us are best familiar with. The age of the jet engine.
Frank Whittle invented the jet engine in 1930 though it was Germany that got the first jetfighters into action. The very British jetfighter was the Vampire which first flew in 1943 though wasn’t brought into service until just after WW2.
There was a considerable period of overlap with the old-style propellor aeroplanes with the Spitfire for example seeing acive service until at least 1961 in some airforces.
There have been many RAF planes in the modern-era from Buccanneers, Tornados and right up to the present day Typhoon, however for me the most iconic planes of the jet-age are the Vulcan Bomber, Harrier Jumpjet.
The Vulcan bomber was part of a generation of jet planes which included the Valiant and the Victor. Collectively known as V-Force.
All these planes were built before it was officially decided to build warplanes in co-operation with allied nations such as the USA and Germany to save on costs though nations such as France and Sweden seem to manage it ok.
Coming into service around 1954, the Avro Vulcan was a major player in the nuclear deterrent during the Cold War. Thankfully it never quite saw action the way it was planned, if it had we might not have been round to gawp at it’s majesty today.
It did see action however near the end of its career with the Falklands War in 1982. Following the Argentine invasion of the island, if Britain was to have a hope of successfully regain sovereignty then it would be necessary to put the airport at Port Stanley out of action so that the Royal Naval fleet would not be under quite as sustained an attack as it ended out being.
Numerous ideas were thought out, including audacious plans to have SAS teams go undercover in Argentina itself and blowing up their planes insitu before the SAS would make their escape to Chile. That was seen as possibly escalating the conflict and so a daring plan was created for the bombing of the occupied airfield on the Falklands themselves.
In what was to be known as Operation Blackbuck, a bombing raid would be made from the RAF base at Ascension Island to the Falklands. A fleet of Vulcans and support aircraft were prepared. Due to the huge distances involved and the weight of the bombs themselves an incredibly ingenious though complicated plan was drawn up where a vast number of planes would take off with most of them being used to refuel the lead bomber. It can be best understood in the diagram below with the Vulcan itself being refulled 5 times in total.
It was also planned that when the runway was destroyed, the Argentines would switch on their radar installations which would allow for them to be targetting by missile strikes from other aircraft.
With only minutes of fuel to spare and no guarantee that the Argentine airforce wouldn’t be waiting for them, the mission ended up being a complete success and to mind is probably the finest planned air-strike since since WW2 if not of all time.
Of course, bomber planes are slow and need defending and during the Falklands War, one of the main fighter planes was the iconic Harrier Jumpjet. The Harrier itself was very well established by the time of the Falklands War, having come into service in 1969 though the variety to be used in the war was the sea-harrier and it had only been in service for two years. it was the very first plane in the world that could take off vertically, like a helicopter.
If you don’t believe it, you can watch the video below for yourself. In fact the Harrier could even fly backwards.
The 20 Sea-Harriers were vastly outnumbered against tried and proven supersonic jet aircraft but they shot down at least 39 planes between them and were instrumental in gaining the air-superiority needed for troops to be put on the ground to attack the Argentine army.
So that ends my quick look at some of the most iconic planes of the RAF during its first 100 years. I hope you enjoyed it. Flight has changed so much in the last 100 years, it is hard to imagine what warplanes will be like 100 years on.
It’s safe to say though that sometime in the next decade or two, unmanned planes such as this BAE Raptor plane will be flying important missions for the RAF but this time, the pilot will be operating it remotely, safe and sound from a large hanger in Lincolnshire.