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Red Arrow + Vulcan + Lancaster + others Pilot Interview — Bill Ramsey

16 September 2014

Red Arrow + Vulcan + Lancaster + others Pilot Interview — Bill Ramsey


[Editor’s note: this is the second of four posts this week concerning the Avro Vulcan. The Vulcan is not well known on the west side of the Atlantic Ocean but is more than famous on the east side of the Atlantic as the Royal Air Force’s primary nuclear strike strategic bomber during most of the Cold War. As with its NATO cousin, the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, it too originally flew missions high and fast until increasingly capable fighter and missile threats demanded a change in tactics. Like the B-52, the Vulcan’s airframe was then reinforced for low penetration flying—also changing the livery from anti-flash white to earthtone camouflage coloring.

Bill Ramsey, the subject of this interview, is a more than accomplished pilot — a former Red Arrow commanding pilot, one of the pilots of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) Avro Lancaster World War II heavy bomber as well as one of the few pilots of the only flying Vulcan of the Vulcan to the Sky organization. He is also on The People’s Mosquito Project as Technical Project Research and Development. Most recently he flew flight lead of “The Three Sisters” — the unique and historical formation flights this year of the Avro Vulcan, the BBMF Avro Lancaster and the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum Avro Lancaster.

Enjoy the reading the interview from Ross Sharp of Shortfinals’s Blog as well as this one 🙂 ]


Bill Ramsey — photo provided by Bill Ramsey

Bill Ramsey celebrating two years as Tutor display pilot — photo provided by Bill Ramsey

Questions from Ross Sharp

  1. It may be you flew the B.2 version of the Vulcan (which had a ‘kink’ in the leading edge, compared to the straight leading edge of the earlier B.1). I understand that this made for some legendary handling characteristics at very high altitudes. Care to comment? [The wing was enlarged, the engines more powerful and 8 elevons on the B.2 as opposed to 4 ailerons and 4 elevators as on the B.1]

Yes, the aircraft was very manouevrable at high level (45,000 ft plus). No fighter of the day could turn with us at those heights and many couldn’t get up to us! These include English Electric Lightning, F-4 Phantom II, F-104 Starfighter, F-101 Voodoo and Dassault Mirage. Of course they also ran out of fuel much more quickly than us, so we could be on our way again.

  1. At one time the Vulcan held the record for the longest bombing sortie ever (during the Falklands War). Did you know anyone who was involved with the ‘Black Buck’ missions? [Operation Black Buck was a series of extraordinary and extremely long distance bombing missions which were unique since the bombers and tanker aircraft flew from the same base from RAF Acsension Island to the Falkland Islands — two Vulcan bombers and eleven Handley Page Victor refueling tankers.]

Yes. The main one being Sqn Ldr Martin Withers, the Captain of Black Buck 1, who won the Distinguished Flying Cross for the raid. Currently Martin is the Senior Pilot of XH558, the sole flying Avro Vulcan. I recommend the Rowland White book ‘Vulcan 607’ to anyone who would like to learn more about this epic mission.

  1. Bill, you mentioned that you have some time on the H.P. Hastings. If I remember correctly, towards the end of the Hastings time in service, the last five or six were used as bombing trainers for the V Force, with an H2S radar and four or five nav. stations. Was it one of those you flew, or one of the weather reconnaissance versions? And did this big tail-dragger have many similarities in handling terms to the Lancaster (on the ground or in the air).
Handley Page Hastings leading Avro Vulcan — photo provided by Bill Ramsey

Handley Page Hastings leading an Avro Vulcan — photo provided by Bill Ramsey

Yes I flew the radar training variant with the Radar Flying Squadron of No 230 Operational Conversion Unit known as 1066 Squadron (for US readers that is the date of the Battle of Hastings – the last successful invasion of England!). There was only the H2S [airborne ground mapping radar] station with an extra seat for the instructor. The rest of the aircraft had passenger seats. As well as Vulcan, we also trained prospective Blackburn Buccaneer and I think F-4 Phantom II Navigators (WSOs). For those who don’t know, the Hastings was the civil development of the Halifax bomber, a contemporary of the Lancaster. It was the backbone of the RAF’s Air Transport fleet before the mighty Lockheed Hercules came along.

I suppose both aircraft were quite similar in handling terms although the Hastings had an extra set of throttles at the Flight Engineer’s station. Normally, he made all power changes as called for by the pilot (including approach and landing) which took a bit of getting used to.

Bad landings (easily done) were different. Whereas the Lanc ‘clattered’ onto the ground, the Hastings, with its huge tyres would bounce causing all manner of fun thereafter. On the ground, both were very similar – pigs! Like most aircraft of the day they had pneumatic braking systems and the brakes were used differentially to steer the aircraft during taxy. Following a brake application there was a long pause before the brakes operated. This often led to a second application, just as the first one was taking effect. Again things became interesting at this point!

Last, bracing the rudder against a crosswind on the ground for longer than a few seconds nearly broke your leg in both aircraft!

  1. The Tornado could carry a pair of the controversial airfield attack weapon, the Hunting JP.233, which forced the aircraft to fly fast, low and dead straight over enemy runways. This caused proportionally higher casualties amongst the RAF contingent in the Gulf War than the USAF. Did you have any experience with the JP.233? [Editor’s note: as it turns out, thanks to reader Untings (see comment below), the RAF didn’t apparently lose an aircraft directly from use of the JP.233 during the war–though it remained a difficult weapon to deploy.]

I was flying the Tornado operationally with No 20 Sqn in Germany at the time JP233 was introduced to service. Whilst I never flew with the weapons on the aircraft (thankfully) we trained constantly for JP 233 attacks. I think its fair to say that it wasn’t popular with crews as delivering it needed you to fly straight and level for a long time in a very hostile environment.

Nonetheless it was effective in the Gulf War but as you say at a cost.

  1. Of all the many types you have flown, which do like the best of all? 

Easy, Hawker Siddeley (now BAE) Hawk. It never let me down all over the world! Of the types I never flew – the DH Mosquito!


Questions from Joseph May

  1. When flying the Vulcan during flypast flights how is the navigation accomplished? Do you fly with a navigator and is radar used (since the navigator’s station doesn’t favor visual navigation as is done in the Lancaster on these types of flights).

As you know, we no longer fly with Navigators on board. The aircraft has 2 fixed Garmin GPS and each of us flies with an iPad Mini bluetoothed to another Garmin. We run a fantastic piece of software – Runway HD – on them which gives us a moving map each. We also plan on it which gives us weather, NOTAMs, etc. For the Lincoln Flypast, I also planned it with pencil, protractor and map! So the last part was done by me looking out of the front window.

Incidentally, we no longer have the radar in the aircraft.

  1. How is navigation accomplished on the flypasts? No simple feat since arrivals for the flypasts are flown with military precision (on time on target).

As above. However there was an element of luck involved with the timing. Because of the performance differential, I couldn’t slow down to adjust timing and the Lancasters couldn’t speed up. So timing depended on accurately flying a precise plan. We also didn’t know the turn radius of the formation. Luckily the wind didn’t mess us about.

Flight crews of the Lancasters and Vulcan on this most unique of flypasts — photo provided by Bill Ramsey

Flight crews of “The Three Sisters” for the most unique of flypasts — photo provided by Bill Ramsey

  1. When the Vulcan and Lancasters flew to the flypasts did they do so together (in a looser formation) or did you fly ahead and rendezvous?

After carefully-timed, individual take-offs we joined up and flew the whole route with the Lancs in formation to give as many people as possible the chance to see it. Not as close as some formations but the Lancs have a similar wingspan to the Vulcan and we were all very conscious of the jetwash behind 558 [the Avro Vulcan’s tail number] if a Lanc accidentally put a wingtip in it.

  1. You are unusual, as previously mentioned, having piloted both the Lancaster as well as the Vulcan. I presume the initial roll rates are substantially different. Could you mention the piloting difference and how to compensated for this when turning the formation during flypasts, please?

I rolled the Vulcan as slowly as I possibly could! The Lanc crews were pre-warned of turns on the radio. You are right, the aircraft rates of roll could not be more different!

  1. Did any of the aircraft require refueling during the day of flypasts? If so, refueling Lancasters would require a significant volume of avgas so that would have required a bit of planning. Do you have similar insights?

Both Lancs were refueled at the bases they flew in from – both of which routinely hold big stocks of AVGAS. The Vulcan was refueled at RAF Waddington as we would have been overweight to land there if we had carried the amount of fuel needed for the flight with us from Doncaster (our home airport).

  1. The Vulcan of course has its elegant double swept delta wing. Generally speaking (always dangerous to do though helpful to do so), delta wings don’t allow for flaps (they produce a downward pitching) and their tip vortexes are in close proximity to the ground – how is this felt by you as the pilot?

As you say no flaps on the Vulcan. Means someone designed it right.

  1. The speed brakes (air brakes as termed in the UK) on the Vulcan may be unique. They are also placed, it seems, near the center of lift as well as center of gravity – how does the aircraft behave when you have them extended and is this different from other aircraft?

This is a bit technical I’m afraid, but you did ask! First positioning, quite correct, this means we feel no pitch effect when operating the airbrakes. Whilst they are air, or speed brakes, and do slow the Vulcan down when deployed it’s not really the main thing they do for us. All approaches and landings are flown with the airbrakes out. Why I hear you say! Well, they increase the aircraft form or profile drag with little effect on induced or lift-dependant drag (they are on poles so look a bit like an athletics hurdle). This has the effect of moving the Total Drag Curve to the left a bit which allows us to fly a lower approach and landing speed. It also means we have more power applied so the engines are more responsive than at a lower power setting.

  1. The Vulcan’s engines appear to produce a thrust line which is below the longitudinal axis of the aircraft. This is not unusual but physics imply that increasing the thrust tends to destabilize the aircraft – in this sense how does the Vulcan respond when you advance the throttles?

There is a pitch effect but the main thing I notice at the light weights we fly at is a very rapid acceleration! The aircraft decelerates very slowly – so small trim changes. Trim is adjusted by an electric thumb switch.

  1. The Vulcan engines are somewhat close to the aircraft’s centerline. How effective is differential thrust when under taxi? Do you use differential thrust while in flight?

We don’t use differential throttle really. Indeed we shut down the outboard engines after landing to reduce the idling thrust! The upside of this arrangement is that following an engine failure (actually we only ever practice a double engine failure!) the initial yaw is minimized and the aircraft much easier to control than many.

  1. The tasks of the ground crew must be extraordinary. Dealing with the wing leading edge replacement was remarkable in the extreme and there are the Olympus engines. Are there any insights you have?

Our groundcrew are indeed magnificent and few in number, They do a fanatastic job maintaining a complex machine to exacting standards. As you say the leading edge mod was incredible. It was the first and only Vulcan ever to fly long enough to require it so the challenges were enormous. There’s not enough space to describe it fully here but, if people are interested, details can be found at the Vulcan to the Sky website.

  1. When looking at the flying in the Vulcan on YouTube it appears the ejection seats are functional in that the there is no simple back cushion. Are the ejection seats functional?

YESSIR! Maintained and fully functional – but only for the 2 pilots. There is no such seat for our Air Electronics Officer. In operational service there were a number of tragedies where the pilots survived but not the rear crew for this reason.

Inside the Vulcan — photo provided by Bill Ramsey

Inside the Vulcan — photo provided by Bill Ramsey

  1. The Vulcan is not known for excellent viewing from the cockpit – less so below decks – I wonder what it is like in poorer weather in regard to clearing the windscreen?

Not a great view (small windows because contemporary engineering couldn’t make them bigger given the pressure differential at altitude and it would have helped reduce the visual impact on the crew of a nuclear explosion). It certainly doesn’t help in poor weather although we do have windscreen wipers. Ashtray on a motorcycle comes to mind! The rear crew sit facing backwards in a black hole so the view is always rubbish ‘below decks’!

  1. Is there a particular aroma or specific sensation that comes to mind with the Vulcan? The Lancaster?

Oddly all Vulcan nosewheel bays have the same distinctive smell, even those which have stood outside at museums for many years. I can’t remember anything in particular about the Lancaster.

Bill Ramsey walking from the BBMF Lancaster — photo provided by Bill Ramsey

Bill Ramsey walking from the BBMF Lancaster — photo provided by Bill Ramsey

  1. How does the Vulcan react when its bombay doors are opened while in flight? How does the Lancaster react when its bombbay doors are opened in flight?

No difference at all in the Vulcan. There is no speed limitation attached to them. Again I have to say I don’t recall for the Lanc but I don’t think it made any difference.


The People's Mosquito

The People’s Mosquito

From The People’s Mosquito (TPM) — the noble effort to build (not rebuild) an original de Havilland Mosquito for the public trust — see the fund-raising merchandise for TPM.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. 17 September 2014 06:47

    wow!…did I learn a lot from this interview!…the wing form is beautiful/ inlets refined..looking at the interior and exterior cockpit windowsit really __must__have been a challenge ..then and definitely now with all the formation flying…

    • travelforaircraft permalink
      17 September 2014 07:32

      Bill is great to converse with, isn’t he?

  2. H.Untings permalink
    22 February 2017 08:46

    Good read however, your query re JP233 is wrong. Only 1 Tornado lost on a JP sortie and that was after release and some distance away from the target and was due to CFIT.

    • travelforaircraft permalink
      22 February 2017 23:58

      Thanks for pointing out an apparent error and thanks so much for not referencing your source so that I could go on a hunt. I checked Wikipedia first and that article states what you stated. I also look up CFIT and see that it means controlled flight into terrain. So far so good.

      But not good enough. I looked deeper and found an RAF reference on Gulf War Tornado losses which was quite interesting. The citation is and it relates that this specific Tornado loss was not due enemy action. This infers CFIT of course but the investigation did not specifically state that as the cause. Oddly, the Wiki reference about the CFIT loss in the article does not mention that at all so that citation is erroneous. Hence, I always take Wikipedia with a grain of salt and check the citations if the copy appears useful. Recall that Wiki has no editors, per se, so the onus is on the reader to also be editor.

      So, my error stems from my query and not Bill Ramsey. Why is that? Well, it was the several Tornado losses attacking airfields and their advertisement of their specialty in runway destruction with that munition. As they say about assumptions…and I regret my error and it is mine alone.

      Finding all of the above was a merry chase but thank you for that and it allowed me to express my care about using Wikipedia as a final reference–I love Wiki but, like any research, more than one source is advisable and references must be verified. Wiki is always a great place to begin though.

      I’ll revise the post to correct the copy as well as add information. Thanks again 🙂


  1. Britain’s multi-role Mosquito remains a legend – The Casemate Blog

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