Blackburn Buccaneer

Buccaneer launching from Ark Royal

In the early 1950’s, when the Russian Navy introduced the ‘Sverdlov’ class cruiser into service, the capability of this heavily armed surface raider to wreak havoc on merchant shipping in any future conflict gave the Royal Navy (RN) a rude awakening. To counter this threat the RN decided that the most cost effective solution was a new specialised strike aircraft employing conventional or nuclear weapons, attacking at high-speed and low-level, operating from their Fleet Carriers. The detailed staff specification was issued in June 1952 as requirement NA39 and called for a two-seat aircraft with folding wings, capable of flying at Mach 0.85 at 200ft whilst carrying a nuclear weapon internally over a radius of action exceeding 400nms. Based on the RN requirement, in Aug 1952 the Ministry of Aviation issued specification M148T and by Feb 1953 the first responses from industry began to be returned.

Buccaneer weapons - recce pack rear centre

The design submitted by Blackburn Aircraft soon emerged as the favourite submission. Known initially as Project B103, the Blackburn design featured a relatively small wing, ideal for high-speed low-level flight which, thanks to a boundary layer control system in which hot air was drawn from the engine and then blown across the trop of the wing and in front of the flaps and ailerons, allowed the take-off and landing speeds to be lowered by 25kts. The Blackburn design also benefited from the area rule work of Richard Whitcomb at NACA and was powered by two de Havilland Gyron Junior engines of 8000lbs thrust each. In July 1955 the Ministry of Supply placed an order for 20 development aircraft. The prototype aircraft XK486 first flew on 30 Apr 1958 from RAE Bedford having been transported there by road from the Blackburn factory at Brough, on the banks of the Humber. For further flight trials, subsequent aircraft were towed on their own wheels from Brough to the nearby airfield of Home-on-Spalding Moor which had a longer runway.

Buccaneer landing on Ark Royal

On 26 Aug 1960 the new aircraft was formally named the Buccaneer S Mk1 – up to this time the aircraft was known as the Blackburn Aircraft Naval Aircraft or BANA for short which led to the Banana jet nickname followed the aircraft throughout its service. In March 1961 700Z Flt was formed at RNAS Lossiemouth to conduct the Intensive Flying Trials on the Buccaneer prior to its entry into service and conducted various trials from HMS Eagle and Ark Royal. The first Buccaneer squadron was commissioned on 17 July 1962 when 801 Sqn formed up at Lossiemouth. By 1965 the underpowered Gyron Juniors engines were replaced by Rolls-Royce Spey engines and these versions were known as Buccaneer S Mk2s.

RAF Buccaneers in echelon starboard

Although the Buccaneer was repeatedly offered to the RAF to meet their requirement for a new high-speed low-level bomber to replace the Canberra, the RAF were convinced that the TSR-2 best met their requirements. However, behind the scenes skulduggery by the then Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was utterly biased towards promoting the interests of the RN ahead of the RAF, eventually helped finish off the demise of the TSR-2. However, by a rather nice irony, when the RAF did eventually acquire the Buccaneer, they included those previously operated by the RN. The arrival of a new Labour government and Denis Healey as the Secretary of State for Defence marked a change in fortunes for both the RAF and RN. As well as cancelling the TSR-2 in a new round of defence cuts, they also decided not to build any new aircraft carriers to replace the current fleet carriers that were approaching the end of their service – signalling the end of RN conventional fixed wing flying. On 10 July 1968, after the RAF’s order for the F-111 was cancelled, the Ministry of Defence finally placed an order with Blackburn for on initial order of 26 Mk 2 aircraft for the RAF – this was followed by a further order for 17 aircraft and the RAF also acquired 64 S Mk2 aircraft from the RN.

Buccaneer of 12 Sqn carrying the recce pack

A little documented fact of the Buccaneer’s service with the RN and RAF is that it could be equipped with a reconnaissance pack in the large bomb bay. The Buccaneer reconnaissance pack consisted of six F95 cameras arranged as a vertical fan of three, with a further three as forward and sideways obliques. The reconnaissance pack was first used operationally by the Buccaneers of 800 NAS flying from HMS Eagle during the Beira patrols, the oil blockage of the newly independent Rhodesia, in 1966 when two tankers attempting to break the blockade were identified and photographed. The following year, after the departure of the RAF’s 1417 Flt of Hunters, 800 NAS used the reconnaissance packs again over Aden to cover the final withdrawal of British forces. Throughout their service, RN Buccaneers were frequently fitted with the reconnaissance packs to ensure the aircrew remained current in their operation. The RAF Buccaneer squadrons inherited the reconnaissance packs from the RN, however the RAF Buccaneer squadrons never had a reconnaissance role. Although the packs were occasionally fitted to RAF aircraft, they were never used operationally and were eventually withdrawn from service.

Buccaneer in a vertical climb

As well as the ability to carry the reconnaissance pack, the new RAF Buccaneers also retained the arrestor hook and folding wings of the RN versions and also were equipped with a bomb bay door fuel tank which increased the fuel capacity by some 425 gallons. The RAF aircraft were designated the S Mk 2A, which carried conventional or nuclear weapons and the S Mk 2B which carried the Martel anti-ship missile. On 11 Feb 1969 12 Sqn based at RAF Honington was the first RAF squadron to be equipped with the Buccaneer and in 1971 this base became the home of 237 OCU who then trained all subsequent Buccaneer aircrew. Eventually 12, 208 and 216 Sqns were based at Honington and then Lossiemouth, although 216 Sqn was eventually disbanded, whilst 15 and 16 Sqns were based at RAF Laarbruch in West Germany. The Buccaneer was an aeroplane much loved by those who served on the various squadrons, but having been designed in the 1950's s and never really updated, it's hardly surprising that by the 1980's it was suffering from its poor avionics and could only ever operate at low-level in good weather. In Jan 1991, long after the aircraft should have been withdrawn from service, six aircraft were sent to participate in Gulf War 1 where they used their TIALD laser designator to identify targets from high level for accompanying Tornados to bomb with laser guided weapons. It says something about the miss-management of the Defence budget that such an antiquated aircraft had to be called at this crucial time upon because the Tornados then lacked the ability to designate targets themselves. Eventually, after long and successful service, all the Buccaneer squadrons were re-equipped with the Tornado and in March 1994 the last Buccaneer was retired from RAF service at RAF Lossiemouth.