Bail Out

The crash of Avro Vulcan XM610 on Wingate in County Durham

by Jim Rutland

On the 7th January 1971 a 44 squadron crew were tasked to fly a Hi-Lo-Hi mission over the border counties of England. Their aircraft was to be Vulcan B2 XM610 of the Waddington wing. The crew was captained by Flt. Lt. Garth Robert Alcock and consisted of F.O. Peter Hoskins as co-pilot, Flt. Lt. Jim Power as A.E.O., Flt.Lt Jim Vinale as Nav plotter and F.O. Roger Barker as Nav radar.

The mission went well and the Vulcan descended from high level off the Northumberland coast and entered the North of England low flying zone, taking it through the Northern Pennines and Cheviot hills. Half way through the low level mission XM610 was cruising at 300 knots on 75% power at 500 ft over the hills near Kelso. Ahead Bob Alcock could see that the weather was deteriorating rapidly so he decided to abandon the mission and climb back to a safe altitude.

Informing the rest of the crew what he was about to do Alcock increased the power to 85%, raised the nose and started to climb away. A few seconds later their was a loud explosion and the aircraft slewed to the left. Scanning his instruments Alcock noticed the RPM on No.1 engine running down and the jet pipe temperature rising rapidly to its limit then the fire warning light for No.1 engine illuminated. Informing the crew Alcock shut the HP cock and closed the throttle, the fire button was pressed then the engine air switch was closed. While he was doing this Jim Power confirmed that he had alternator failure on No.1 engine and then switched off and isolated the alternator. Scanning the aircraft with the rear facing periscope he informed the captain that he could see damage to the airframe in the area of the rear of No.1 engine.

The fire warning light went out as the captain continued his climb on three engines, and the fire warning system was checked to ensure it was still operating. Running his eyes over the instruments again, Alcock noticed the J.P.T. on No.2 engine now rising too followed by its fire warning light also illuminating. Again he shouted a warning to the crew, he grabbed the Ram Air Turbine release handle to let the turbine swing down into the slipstream, in doing this all none essential electrical loads were shed from the aircraft's electrical bus bars. The cockpit lit up like a Christmas tree as warning lights blinked on all over the instrument panels. No.2 engine was shut down in the same manner as No.1 causing the pilot to use a lot of left boot to keep the aircraft straight. The fire button for No.2 engine was pressed and after a few seconds the light went out.

Taking stock of what had happened the captain asked the A.E.O. to read out the emergency procedures from the flight reference cards, at the same time the A.E.O. gain scanned the under surface but every thing still looked the same. Alcock reached over to the centre console and pushed the rudder trim switch to take the pressure off his left foot. It was now time to declare an emergency so a Mayday call was transmitted.

The co-pilot was playing tunes on the fuel console as he opened the cross feed cocks and transferred fuel from the port to keep the aircraft C of G within limits. Jim Vinale passed an accurate plot of their position to the pilot to be transmitted with the Mayday call. The A.E.O. had used the cartridge start system to fire up the A.A.P.U. to provide more electrical power, and was in the process of gradually restoring selected aircraft systems back to life. Half the Power Flying Controls had been shed in the emergency and these were restarted apart from the auxiliary rudder P.F.C. Jim Power was very busy running through the reference cards and doing his switching when he noticed a glow in the eye piece of the periscope. A very nasty shock was received when he saw a fire raging in the area of No.1 engine, as he shouted a warning the fire warning light for No.2 engine re-illuminated and remained on for two minutes. The Mayday was call retransmitted and the captain ordered "Put on parachutes and prepare to bail out".

As XM610 was now in cloud Bob Alcock delayed the order to jump until they were into clear air at 6000 ft. The aircraft entered clear skies near Rothbury, the crew had put the I.F.F. to emergency and donned their parachutes. Static lines and emergency oxygen were connected, masks on and toggles down. Life rafts and Personal Survival Packs were connected to their lanyards. Protective helmets were donned and tightened down, the Nav radar was now down by the door and Jim Vinale pulled the cabin depressurisation handle, one by one the crew called "Ready".

It was still only ten minutes since the first explosion in No.1 engine as Bob Alcock gave the order "Static line manual override, Jump, Jump". The three men in the rear cockpit pulled their emergency oxygen knobs, the nav radar grasped the door opening handle, moving it outboard then straight through to the emergency position. With a very loud roar the door opened and dust flew into the rear cockpit as the slipstream roared by at 200 knots. Roger Baker sat on the sill at the top of the door, pulled his knees up to his chest, put his arms around his knees and clasped his hands together to keep himself in a tight ball. Hitching up his P.S.P. and dingy the sill Barker slid down the door. As the underside of the aircraft whipped past him he felt the static line jerk at his parachute, his hand flew to the manual handle and yanked it. With a loud crack the chute opened and he was instantly struck by the sudden silence. Jim Power followed Baker and Jim Vinale was the last to leave the rear cockpit. All three made a safe descent and landed in fields near Rothbury. After landing they all operated their SARBE beacons, within a few minutes a Whirlwind helicopter from 202 Squadron, Boulmer, was homing onto them.

Alcock decide to try to get XM610 back to the master diversion airfield at Leeming helped by his co-pilot Peter Hoskins. The fate of XM610 had however been sealed since the first explosion, therefore everything that the crew did from that moment could not have saved the aircraft. After trying a few handling manoeuvres Alcock tried the low speed handling of the aircraft but broke off at 185 knots as the aircraft became difficult to control. Ahead was the Tyneside conurbation so Bob Alcock nursed XM610 overhead at 6000 ft, trying to steer clear of the built up area. As Sunderland slipped by on the port side the captain slowly turned the aircraft towards the sea. XM610 was blazing fiercely by now and thousands of people on the ground watched as the crippled Vulcan passed over with pieces now falling from the port wing and engines. Near Easington Bob Alcock ordered "Jettison canopy", he and Hoskins reached for their jettison levers and pulled them back. A loud bang took place just behind their heads as the jettison gun fired and the canopy was whipped away from above their heads. Alcock could now see the full extent of the fire over his left shoulder and he did not like what he could see., XM610 was now heading towards the coast. With the noise in the cockpit making all communication impossible since the canopy had gone Bob jerked his thumb up in a sign to Hoskins to leave the aircraft. Hoskins reached for the seat pan handle, straightened his back, braced himself and yanked the handle. There was a one second delay then with a double bang Hoskins seat fired, his feet were yanked off the rudder pedals as his legs were pulled back and anchored to the seat as it accelerated up the rail reaching a maximum of 60 ft per second.

As the coastline slipped under the nose Alcock took one last look around then he too pulled his seat pan firing handle. One and a half seconds after the seat fired he was 80 ft clear of the aircraft and the drogue gun on the seat fired pulling out the drogue chute to stabilise the seat. One and a half further seconds and the barostat operated releasing the harness and leg restraints allowing him to fall from the seat. The pull of the drogue chute was transferred from the seat to his main parachute pulling it out of his pack and allowing it to open and start a safe descent with Hoskins.

With no one now on board XM610 enters a downward spiral, instead of crashing into the sea XM610 impacts between the main village and the school at Wingate completely destroying itself and causing a large crater. Luckily no one was hurt on the ground, but if it had crashed 100 yards either side a heavy loss of life would have taken place.

The enquiry into the crash of XM610 near Wingate traced the cause to a fatigue failure of a high pressure turbine blade in No.1 engine. The blade became jammed in the periphery of the turbine disc and rotated with it until finally causing the casing to rupture. The turbine then broke up causing high speed debris to pierce the engine casing and engine bay walls, damaging No.2 engine and the outboard No.3 and No.4 fuel tanks. From then on the flames grew out of control fed with fuel, the aircraft was in danger of breaking up when the captain ejected, with pieces breaking away and the flames spreading along the wing.

Soon after the crash of XM610 all Vulcans were modified and titanium armour plates were fitted in the engine bays in the area of the high pressure turbines and also the roof of the bay. This plating was designed to prevent debris from any exploding engine damaging the next engine or entering the bomb bay or rupturing the fuel tanks and causing the loss of the aircraft.

For his attempt to save his aircraft Bob Alcock was awarded the Air Force Cross and the rest of the crew each received the Queens Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air. Bob was also R.A.F. man of the year for 1971.

Unlucky for Bob he was involved in another Vulcan crash on the 14th October 1975. Whilst landing XM645 of 9 squadron the aircraft touched down short of the runway at Luqa, Malta, forcing the port undercarriage leg through the wing and rupturing the fuel tanks. Bob hauled XM645 back off the ground and climbed to try to gain enough altitude so that the rear crew members could bail out. Unfortunately the aircraft blew up in mid air, Bob and the co-pilot ejected safely but the five rear crew members all perished. A woman was killed on the ground when the wreckage fell near the village of Zabbar.

Incidentally, Jim Vinale the Nav plotter was aboard the museum's Vulcan XL319 when she was delivered in January 1983.