Cold War

The Buccaneer – Carrier-Based Attacker

The Blackburn/Hawker Siddeley Buccaneer is a nuclear-capable carrier-based strike aircraft. She was designed in the 50s and developed for the Royal Navy. Unfortunately, its performance was not great and after 10 years in service other issues started to crop up.

Whilst the Buccaneer was technically a success, not many were produced and losses due to crashes were quite high.



The initial design for the Buccaneer was in response to the Soviet’s Sverrdlov-class cruisers that were constructed throughout the 1950s.

The idea was that instead of combatting this potential threat with another ship, the Royal Navy could use an attack aircraft designed to fly lower than the enemy radar could detect.

A Sverrdlov-class cruiser
The Sverrdlov-class of Soviet cruisers caused a minor stir in the West, but like many new technologies that appeared shortly after WWII they proved to be of a little value. Image by Michael Esspe CC BY 3.0

It was to carry anti-ship missiles, but could also carry nuclear weapons and traditional bombs.

Being carrier-based, folding wings for space-saving was also an important feature.

The requirements were for an aircraft that could fly at 630 mph (1020 km/h) at sea level with a combat radius of 400 nautical miles. It was to carry 8,000 pounds (3,600 kg) of ordnance.

These were advanced requirements considering that this was 1952 and only 11 years after the first flight of Hawker Typhoon strike aircraft.

Another key aspect was that the new aircraft needed to carry conventional bombs, the Red Beard nuclear bomb or the Green Cheese anti-ship missle.

At the time, Blackburn’s proposal was quickly chosen because there was not much competition.

The first prototype took to the skies over RAE Bedford in April 1958. Five years later, at the start of 1963, the Buccaneer S.1 was introduced into service.

The Buccaneer S.1 at the 1962 Farnborough airshow.
The Buccaneer S.1 used the rather measely de Havilland Gyron Junior turbojet engines, and was an underpowered aircraft. It is seen here in anti-flash white. Image by TSRL CC BY-SA 3.0.

S.1 was powered by two de Havilland Gyron Junior turbojet engines producing a combined output of 7,100 pounds-force of thrust. These engines were somewhat underpowered and were quickly replaced.

De Havilland only ever built 89 Gyron Juniors, which was an extremely small production run and it was only used by four types of aircraft.

The Buccaneer used Boundary Layer Control (BLC), an impressive technology to improve low-speed performance. This would greatly help during take-off and landing. BLC took high-pressure air from the engines and blew it across some of the wing surfaces, increasing lift.

However, the cost was severe pitch movements so an automated trimming system was linked to the BLC.

A de Havilland Gyron Junior
The de Havilland Gyron Junior was a rather disappointing engine. It was both unreliable and poor performing. After they were the source of a number of crashes they were discontinued.

A Joint Venture

Not only did the Royal Navy use the Buccaneer, but so did the Royal Air Force – somewhat reluctantly. General Dynamics canceled the F-111K project and the RAF was forced to take the Buccaneer in replacement. The first RAF aircraft were introduced in 1969 and were S.2A models. Ideally, the Buccaneer was to be used whilst they waited for the Panavia Tornado to be introduced into service. However, due to delays, this ended up being for over two decades.

Buccaneer Variants

The very first variant to enter service was the S.1, powered by the Gryon Junior engines. 40 of these were built and deliveries started in 1962, three years after the order was placed.

S.2 was a much-needed upgrade and swapped the engines to Rolls-Royce Spey turbofans. These started production in 1962 – ten were built by Blackburn and then another 47 by Hawker Siddeley Aviation.

Buccaneer S.2
The Buccaneer S.2 brought much needed power to the airframe.

For the Royal Air Force, they used the S.2 variant but as they were ex-Royal Navy they were re-worked as the S.2A.

Another important upgrade was to the weaponry carried; the S.2B was introduced and could take the Martel anti-radar or anti-shipping missile. They were first used by the RAF, but soon the Royal Navy used the same upgrades, designated as the S.2D.

The Buccaneer had Issues

The cost of being on the bleeding edge of new technology is that problems will happen.

Whilst no aircraft is completely issue-free, the Bucanneeer had two severe ones…

The introduction of the first model, the S.1, quickly gave rise to a potentially dangerous problem. The Gyron Junior engines that were fitted were unpowered, even at the time. This meant that with a full load of weapons and fuel, the Buccaneer could not actually take off.

Buccaneer takes off from a US airbase.
The early versions of the Buccaneer were famously unable to take-off at their maximum take-off weight. The addition of Rolls-Royce Spey engines solved this however.

A solution to this problem was to take off with minimal fuel, then meet up with an air to air refuelling aircraft, fill up and then head out to the combat zone. But this took time and was not practical if an urgent sortie was required.

The S.2 was soon introduced and mostly solved this problem with its Rolls-Royce Spey Turbofan engines that produced a huge 40 percent more thrust. On top of that, it was more fuel-efficient, meaning greater range too!

The second catastrophic issue was metal fatigue – any aircraft’s worst nightmare. Metal fatigue occurs after flight hours are accrued on an airframe. Changes in air pressure from altitude and G-forces all contribute to the stress on the metals used.

A stowed Buccaneer aircraft.
All Buccaneers were retired in the 1990s. Today, three remain in airworthy condition in South Africa. Image by Brian.Burnell CC BY-SA 3.0.

Eventually, this stress is too much and microscopic cracks develop within the airframe, often not even visible to the eye.

As you can imagine, the results are unsavory and usually end with a fiery explosion. One Buccaneer crashed thanks to metal fatigue during operation Red Flag in 1980. The aircraft lost a wing and the resulting crash unfortunately killed both crew members.

Quickly the fleet of aircraft was reduced to 60 and thoroughly inspected. All others were scrapped.

Operational Use

The first real combat that the Buccaneer saw was during the 1991 Gulf War. They were used in the target designation role. Each aircraft was equipped with a single laser designator. A squadron would be compromised of four Panavida Tornados and two Buccaneers.

S.2 XW547
This particular Buccaneer, XW547, was one of twelve to serve in the Gulf War. She was retired upon her return, and remains in her Gulf War colors.

The Buccaneers would highlight the targets and the Tornados could then drop the ordnance.
Dive bombing runs were also commonplace and used on targets of opportunity during the Gulf War. One recorded incident was where a pair of Buccaneers destroyed two Iraqi transport aircraft that were on the runway.

Thanks to the introduction of the Tornado, it was realized that the Buccaneer was surplus to requirement and they were retired before the end of their service life in 1991.

Another Article From Us: When a Victor Bomber Accidentally Took Off

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Crew: 2
Length: 63 ft 5 in (19.33 m)
Wingspan: 44 ft (13 m)
Height: 16 ft 3 in (4.95 m)
Empty weight: 13,608 kg (30,000 lb)
Gross weight: 28,123 kg (62,000 lb)
Powerplant: 2 × Rolls-Royce Spey Mk.101 turbofan engines, 11,000 lbf thrust each
Top speed: 670 mph ( 1,070 km/h) 580 kn at 200 ft (61 m)
Range: 2,300 mi (3,700 km)
Service ceiling: 40,000 ft (12,200 m)