If you lived in Scotland, Wales or Yorkshire during the 1960s or 1970s, you would have memories of many quiet hillside picnics shattered by a fleeting couple of shadows and seconds later the terrifying blast of jet engines screaming mere dozens of feet right over your head. The usual culprit was the Blackburn Buccaneer – for several decades the finest-handling low-level attack aircraft in the world.
The Buccaneer grew out of a 1953 Royal Navy requirement for a carrier-borne anti-shipping aircraft that could carry a very heavy load of conventional or nuclear weapons at 200 feet and 550 knots out to a distance of 400 miles. This requirement was driven by the threat of a new breed of fast Russian warships that were being produced in vast quantities during the fifties. Blackburn would have been nobody’s choice to produce an aircraft as advanced as this type would need to be, since during the fifties their only product was the hugely ugly and slow Beverley transport aircraft.
However, Blackburn quickly produced an extremely innovative design (Blackburn Advanced Naval Aircraft, or “Banana Jet”) that incorporated such new technology as boundary-layer control and a canopy woven with miniature detonating cord to aid in emergency water egress. The latter bit of kit was designed to fragment the canopy in the event of ejection, and was proven so effective that it’s still being used in fighter aircraft today. The first example flew in 1958, and while it flew extremely well, the early engines desperately lacked power. This was addressed in 1961 with the adoption of the Rolls Royce Spey, which gave 11,380 pounds of thrust and turned the Buccaneer into the formidable performer it was.
Pilots who flew the Buccaneer quickly became enamoured of its uncanny comfort on the deck. In fact, I’ve spoken with NATO fighter pilots who hated following the Buccaneer through the wilds of Yorkshire and Wales because down low the big, “slow” attack aircraft would simply walk away from much faster types like the F-4 Phantom. In 1977 a group of ten were sent on the American Red Flag exercises, where they essentially owned the competition. Apparently the only sign that a Buccaneer was running in on the attack was Nevada dust thrown into the air; they couldn’t be tracked by any systems of the day because they were arriving on scene at just over fifty feet.
British Buccaneers didn’t see real action until the first Gulf War, during which they acquitted themselves quite nicely. In the late seventies, however, South African Buccaneers were sent on ground-attack missions in Angola, where they came under some very heavy (Soviet/Cuban-supplied) anti-aircraft fire. At least one aircraft was hit by 17 cannon shells, the largest of which was a 67mm. One 23mm shell bounced off the windscreen but the aircraft returned to base without drama.
The Buccaneer was replaced (like nearly every other British warplane) by the Panavia Tornado. The Tornado has proven to be not nearly as effective in the role as its ancient predecessor: it’s not comfortable to fly on the deck, it needs fuel-guzzling afterburners to fly as fast as the non-reheated Buccaneer could, which means a greatly reduced range, and it can’t carry as many anti-shipping missiles. When the Banana Jet was finally retired in 1994, crews stated that “the only replacement for the Buccaneer is another Buccaneer”.