Royal Air Force Centenary

The Royal Air Force Centenary by Sally Stacey

The oldest independent air force in the world, the Royal Air Force (RAF) celebrates its centenary this year. To honour the Royal Air Force Centenary and the RAF’s role in British military history and its vital ongoing contribution to protecting the nation, this Royal Mail issue includes six stamps showcasing landmark aircraft spanning 100 years. Featuring the work of renowned aeronautical artist Michael Turner, the stamps celebrate both Britain’s military achievements and the work of one of our most talented painters.

Royal Air Force Centenary stamp set

Making Some Noise

There can be few people in Britain whose lives have not been touched, if only for a fleeting moment, by the aircraft of the RAF. From the brave pilots of the Great War to children visiting the Imperial War Museum Duxford, the planes have changed lives, changed history and thrilled all who have seen them.

Most people would recognise the names of the great aircraft that have flown in defence of the country. Many will have a favourite which they are always keen to see. In my case, there was one plane that I was always desperate to hear! If I attended an air show, I prayed that my special plane would be a part of the flying display because it was so damn loud! It shook the very ground that I stood on and never failed to induce an emotional response in me. This aircraft was the very embodiment of power and therefore of human achievement.

That plane was the Vulcan and it just happens to be one of the six aircraft chosen for the RAF Centenary stamp issue.

Accidental Burns, Sonic Booms and an Incredible Racket

I clearly remember my first encounter with the incredible Vulcan. I had decided to attend an air show on Salisbury Plain and did so with some degree of trepidation! My nervous state was due to an unfortunate incident at Nottingham Air Show when another iconic aircraft, the Harrier, had been demonstrating its vertical take-off just yards from where I was standing.

Having been staring directly at the plane’s nose as it lifted off, I was caught unawares when the pilot decided to demonstrate the Harrier’s manoeuvrability close to the ground and I quickly found myself facing the engines. It wasn’t a pleasant experience! To say that I was red in the face after that episode would be an understatement! I had been burned!

Salisbury Plain appeared to be an altogether safer environment as it was possible to watch the entire display from the hillside above the runway. The show was proceeding without a hitch until a fighter jet clearly exceeded the speed of sound and there was a sonic boom.  This was presumably an accident but could have been a pilot pushing his luck. As thirty years have passed, I have no idea what type of plane it was but I was absolutely thrilled by the episode! Then, the noise level went up another notch or ten!

I have to admit that I had no idea what a Vulcan was until it took to the skies that day but I certainly did after its flight.  This ignorance on my part was a little shameful as both my parents served in the RAF during their national service. But as that plane arced across the sky in the sunshine, the incredible noise was simply breath-taking. I was obsessed with Concorde at the time and hadn’t thought that any other aircraft could live up to that magical bird. The Vulcan made me change my mind.

The Vulcan

Royal Air Force Centenary £1.40 Vulcan B2

Royal Air Force Centenary £1.40 Vulcan B2

First operated by the RAF in 1956 and dubbed the Tin Triangle, the Vulcan was a delta-wing bomber which was to become the UK’s principle nuclear deterrent during the Cold War. The plane was capable of both nuclear and conventional bombing missions. It was used in Operation Black Buck during the Falklands War and relied on high-speed, high altitude flight to evade interception. In 1960, the-second generation Vulcan, the B2 entered service. With yet more powerful engines, a larger wing and its enhanced electronics, The B2 was even more impressive than the B1.

Whilst in service, the B.2 was continuously updated. Modifications included rapid engine starting, bomb-bay fuel tanks, wing strengthening, upgraded navigation equipment and terrain following radar (TFR). And that memorable, earth-shattering noise, was the result of the Olympus engines. There were several incarnations of these during the aircraft’s service culminating in the Olympus 300s which delivered 20,000 lbf (89 kN) of thrust. No wonder they were ridiculously loud!

The inspirational Vulcan remained in service until 1984. Following its retirement, one example, the B.2 XH558 Spirit of Great Britain was restored for use in flying displays and it was this aircraft that I saw soaring above Salisbury Plain.

A Fond Farewell

As the years passed, it became increasingly difficult to maintain the last remaining Vulcan and to keep it in the air. I was aware that its flying days were numbered and so made a point of visiting the Farnborough Air Show if the Vulcan was scheduled to take part in the flying display. It was always the highlight of my visits. On the last occasion that I set eyes on it, the bomber was parked next to the runway ready to become the star of the show. But I was mortified to discover that the plane had been withdrawn from the display at the last minute due to a technical problem. I think I knew in that moment that I would never see it fly again.

The B.2 XH558 flew for the last time in October 2015 and now resides in taxiable condition at Doncaster Sheffield Airport. I often wonder if I will ever witness, or should I say hear, anything like it in the future. Never say never!

The Stamps

The dearly departed Vulcan is just one of six amazing aircraft which feature in this issue. The details are as follows:

1st Class: Lightning F6 – the fastest British-made fighter of all time which entered service in 1956

1st Class: Hurricane Mk I – the plane credited with winning the Battle of Britain

Royal Air Force Centenary 1st class se-tenant pair

Royal Air Force Centenary 1st class se-tenant pair

£1.40: L Vulcan B2 – enough said!

£1.40: Typhoon FGR4 -the state of the art fighter which first saw active service in 2011

Royal Air Force Centenary £1.40 se-tenant pair

Royal Air Force Centenary £1.40 se-tenant pair

£1.57: Nimrod MR 2 – a maritime patrol, surveillance and anti-submarine aircraft retired in 2011

£1.57: Camel F1 – The best known fighter from World War I credited with shooting down 1,300 enemy aircraft.

Royal Air Force Centenary £1.57 se-tenant pair

Royal Air Force Centenary £1.57 se-tenant pair

The issue also includes a presentation pack charting the 100 year history of the RAF, first day covers and a Miniature Sheet celebrating the RAF Red Arrows Aerobatic Team.