20 September 1958

Avro Vulcan VX770.
The first of two prototypes, Avro Type 698 VX770. (BAE Systems)

20 September 1958: The first prototype Avro Vulcan strategic bomber, VX770, piloted by Rolls-Royce test pilot Keith Roland Sturt, was on a test flight from the Rolls-Royce Flight Test Establishment, RAF Hucknall, when it diverted to make a scheduled fly-past for an air show being held at RAF Syerston in Nottinghamshire. Also aboard were Co-Pilot Ronald W. Ward of Fairey Aviation; Rolls-Royce Flight Engineer William E. Howkins; and Navigator, Flight Lieutenant Raymond M. (“Polly”) Parrott, Royal Air Force.

VX770 approched RAF Syerstone at 12:57 p.m. (GMT) and flew east along Runway 07–25 at about 250 feet (76 meters). As the Vulcan passed the control tower at an estimated speed of 350 knots, it began a right turn.

Seen from below, VX770 shows the full delta wing of the prototype. Production aircraft used a modified wing with curved leading edges in order to delay compressibility effects at high speeds. (Unattributed)
Seen from below, VX770 shows the full delta wing of the prototypes. Production aircraft used a modified wing with curved leading edges in order to delay compressibility effects at high speeds. (Unattributed)

Witnesses saw a “kink” form in the leading edge of the Vulcan’s right wing, which then began to disintegrate from the leading edge aft. Wing surface panels could be seen being stripped off before the wing spar failed completely. Clouds of fuel from ruptured tanks trailed as the bomber rolled to the left. The top of the vertical fin came off, the nose pitched upward toward vertical, then straight down, and with both wings on fire, the airplane crashed near the east end of the runway.

All four crew members were killed, as were three RAF fire/rescue personnel on the ground. Several others were injured.

The right wing of Avro Vulcan VX770 disintegrates.
The right wing of Avro Vulcan VX770 disintegrates. (© Mary Evans/The National Archives, London, England)
Clouds of vaporized fuel trail the doomed bomber.
Clouds of vaporized fuel trail the doomed bomber. (Unattributed)
Vulcan VX770 crashed at the east end of Runway 07-25.
Vulcan VX770 crashed at the east end of Runway 07-25. Debris spread over 1,400 feet (427 meters). (MEV-10473694 © Mary Evans/The National Archives, London, England)

A short video clip of the fly-by and crash can be seen on You Tube:

The cause of the Vulcan’s wing failure was not determined. Metal fatigue was suspected. The airplane had been used in flight testing for six years and it is possible that it’s design limits may have been exceeded during that period. There was also speculation that vibrations from the new Rolls-Royce Conway “bypass turbojet” engine, which is now called a turbofan, may have weakened the wing.

According to the investigative report, Keith Sturt was considered to be an “above average” and “capable and careful” pilot. He had accumulated 1,644 hours of flight time over six years. He had flown VX770 for 91 hours, 40 minutes. Sturt was a former Flight Lieutenant of the Royal Air Force, having been inducted into the service in 1945.

VX770 was the first of two Type 698 prototypes built by A.V. Roe & Co., Ltd., at Woodford, Cheshire. It made its first flight 30 August 1951 with Chief Test Pilot R.J. “Roly” Falk. Originally equipped with Rolls-Royce Avon R.A.3 turbojet engines, these were soon replaced with more powerful Armstrong Siddely Sapphire A.S.Sa.6 engines. During modification in 1953, fuel cells were added to the wings. As production airplanes were built with Bristol Olympus Mk.102 engines, VX770 was modified accordingly. During its final flight, it was powered by Rolls-Royce Conway RCo.10 turbofans.

Keith Roland Sturt was born in Guildford, Surrey, England, 20 April 1929, the son of George Sturt and Daisy May Raveney Sturt. On 20 June 1957, Sturt married Mrs. Colin Weal Coulthard (née Norah Ellen Creighton) in Surrey.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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2 thoughts on “20 September 1958

  1. RIP the crew. My mother was married to the Navigator, Flight Lieutenant Raymond Michael Parrott, or Polly as he was known to his friends.

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