Former RAF navigator Jack Talliss describes how his crew delivered the RAF’s first complete Blue Steel nuclear missile to Australia. A hectic journey that included thick fog, an active volcano, fine wine, a missing spare part and soaring temperatures.
It was 1963. The Beatles’ debut studio album was out, David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia was still the talk of film fans, the first James Bond movie aired and that November, US President John F Kennedy was assassinated.
With the Cold War at its height, it was also the year that Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev announced his nation had produced a 100-megaton nuclear bomb; in the west it became known as the Tsar Bomba. Britain’s reply was Blue Steel, a stand-off air-launched missile designed and constructed by the builder of the legendary Lancaster – Avro.
THE CHOSEN ONES
At the time I was a young flight lieutenant serving with 617 Squadron as a navigator at RAF Scampton, Lincolnshire having first flown in a Vulcan during 1957. In June 1963, our crew was asked to fly the first Operation Blue Ranger sortie – the delivery of mission-ready Blue Steels from the UK to RAAF Base Edinburgh, north Adelaide, South Australia for test firing over the range at Woomera, approximately 280 miles (450km) northwest. We had been the first crew to demonstrate the weapon to the media after the initial example had arrived at Scampton earlier that year.
Blue Steel was designed to be released from the Vulcan or Handley Page Victor’s maximum height and then climb to around 70,000ft – reaching beyond Mach 2. While attached to the aircraft, the weapon’s inertial navigation system (INS) would be continually updated by the navigator until reaching the release point – normally about 90 miles (145km) from the target. From there, the INS would take over and direct it to within roughly 100 yards (91m) of the objective. It did have one slightly alarming characteristic – its fuel. The Armstrong Siddeley Stentor engine was powered by high-test peroxide and kerosene, a very volatile mix. If not kept surgically clean and cool, it could decompose and release explosive oxygen. The fuelling crews had to be incredibly careful as a drop of this stuff could burn a hole in one’s boot – and cause even more devastation to an aircraft.
When we were training in the UK it was the same things over and over, albeit with different weapons, so we were always excited to go on an overseas trip – we thought of it as a bit of a treat. As a crew, we had been together for about three years and had already visited Australia the year before to open and close the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth. Compared to that, this was much more serious as we had a very tricky weapon on board.
Our mission was Blue Ranger 4902. We left Scampton at 0917hrs on June 28, 1963, climbing into the typical Lincolnshire drizzle and low cloud. Although we were a 617 crew, we were using a 27 Squadron jet – B.2 XM570, delivered new from Avro in February. The captain was Flt Lt Peter ‘Tommy’ Thompson DFC, co-pilot Fg Off John McCracken, navigator radar Flt Lt Phil Steele, air electronics officer (AEO) Flt Lt Roger Swift and I was navigator plotter. For this trip we also had two chief technical officers with us – a chap with the surname Gaukroger from 27 Squadron to look after the aircraft and David Rosser from 617 for the missile. They were both great chaps to have around and had to deal with the Vulcan’s terrible discomfort always suffered by extra passengers during the trip…
The rest of this feature can be read in the current FlyPast, in UK shops now, or available at www.flypast.com