August 1977.  Nellis Range – Nevada. The flight lead of a section of F-4E’s is searching in vain for the intruders. Flying CAP, their mission is to intercept ingressing strike aircraft as part of the large scale exercise known as ‘Red Flag.’  Normally an exceptionally challenging environment, meant to replicate the skies over Central Europe, today finds the Phantom lead especially vexed because they can’t find the ingressing bandits.  A disturbance on the desert floor below catches the lead’s eyes, a dust devil perhaps?  No — there, at an impossibly low altitude were two of the raiders screaming along in the sanctuary of extreme low altitude.  Were these some new top secret designs from up around”Dreamland” come down to play in the exercise?  Nope – bounding along the desert floor, kicking up dust and occasionally scraping a wingtip was a twenty-something year old design with the roundels of the RAF marking the nation of origin – the Blackburn Buccaneer, and this was its first Red Flag.

S.Mk.1In 1953, the US and UK were looking to the future and a growing conventional and nuclear threat as embodied by the armed forces of the Soviet Union.  At the time, nuclear weapons technology had reached the stage where each country’s labs were able to design and deliver the first generation of so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons which tac nukemade it possible to break the hammerlock the big, land-based bombers had held, to that point, on the nuclear mission.  On the west side of the Atlantic, the US Navy was well on its way to developing and deploying a credible nuclear strike capability from the big decks of the Forrestal-class super carriers, the first of which was set for commissioning in 1956.  From her decks would fly either the Douglas A3D Skywarrior (aka ‘Whale’) and the A4D Skyhawk – which, like their carrier, were designed with the nuclear mission foremost in mind.


bucsOn the other side of the Atlantic, smilar steps were in motion.  Also in 1953, a new Naval Requirement was let (NA.39) which called for an ambitious new aircraft – one designed to fly well under enemy radar, carrying conventional and nuclear ordnance, at speeds in excess of 550kts.  This aircraft would operate from Royal Navy carriers like the Eagle and would replace the Scimitar and Sea Vixen.  The proposal was shopped out to several manufacturers, including DeHavilland and others with extensive experience in building carrier-based aircraft.  Interestingly enough, it was a more obscure manufacturer, Blackburn, that received the nod.


Now Blackburn was no stranger to manufacturing aircraft, including aircraft for the FAA.  Indeed, it got the nod to build a (then) radically different, all metal/enclosed cockpit torpedo bomber as the replacement for the long-in-the-tooth Fairey Swordfish.  Named the Skua, it had a checkered record of mixed success, eventually suffering grievous losses in the face of heavy AAA and enemy aircraft – not unlike it’s American contemporary, the Devastator.  Still, at this point in production history, Blackburn was only producing a four-engine transport.

It was clear that the demands of the mission – high speeds, low altitude and a complex weapons system would demand the services of a second crewman.  Additionally, being carrier-based would demand cetain concessions as far as size and ability to work in confined spaces.  And in the case of the Eagle, for example, it was aggravated by the use of a center line elevator to move aircraft to and from the hangar bay (unlike the Forrestal class which planned to use deck edge elevators).  Among the new design ideas and technology that Blackburn would employ was a concept called Boundary Layer Control, which used blown flaps and leading edge slats to improve lift, especially critical in the high-α environment of the carrier approach.  Additional features included Martin-Baker “0-0” ejection seats, an area-rule fuselage and a simple, fixed in-flight refueling probe.  Powered by a pair of de Havilland Gyron Junior turbojets producing 7,100 pounds of thrust, the first prototype flew in 1958 with sea-trials starting in 1960.  Delivery to the fleet of the production model S.Mk.1 began shortly thereafter.   One thing that became immediately evident was that the trbojets were seriously underpowered and fairly thirsty.  Fortunately a solution was at hand via the new turbofan engine (Rolls Royce Spey) developed for the BAC Tri-star passenger jet.  With modifications to the inlets and internally to support the larger engine, the S.Mk.2 began to outfit the fleet in 1964 and soon became the definitive version of the Buccaneer.


Operationally, the Buccaneer flew with the FAA in both conventional and nuclear missions until 1978 when the last of the conventional carriers, the HMS Ark Royal, was decommissioned.  From then, they were transferred ashore for service with the RAF which had been left in the lurch with first the cancellation of the TSRadvanced strike fighter, and then the F-111K which was supposed to be the fill-in replacement.  Upgrades continued to the weapons suite with the addition of laser-designation and increased range.  In addition to service with the FAA and RAF, the Buccaneer would also be flown by the South African air force until 1991.  Eventually, the Buccaneer would see combat, in the first Gulf War, but time was fast running out.  Despite exceptional performance in the Gulf, the last Buccaneer was withdrawn from service in 1994 after thirty-plus years of service.  Today many examples can be found in museums, and one, Buccaneer S.Mk2B XX885, is being returned to a flight status.



Specifications (Buccaneer S.2)

Data from: The Observer’s Book of Aircraft

Orthographic projection of the Blackburn Buccaneer

General characteristics

  • Crew: 2
  • Length: 63 ft 5 in (19.33 m)
  • Wingspan: 44 ft (13.41 m)
  • Height: 16 ft 3 in (4.97 m)
  • Wing area: 514.7 ft² (47.82 m²)
  • Empty weight: 30,000 lb (14,000 kg)
  • Loaded weight: 62,000 lb (28,000 kg)
  • Powerplant: 2× Rolls-Royce Spey Mk 101 turbofans, 11,100 lbf (49 kN) each



  • Up to 12,000 lb (5,400 kg) of ordnance carried in the internal bomb bay and on four underwing hardpoints


  1. anonymous

    Saw one of these Buccaneers making approach turn to NAS X in Southland, about a month ago….

  2. Just my usual, customary and (quite!) reasonable comment of thanks, SJS. Your Flightdeck Fridays are a “must read” for me.

  3. SJS,

    There’s one down in South Africa that is either still flying, or was until very recently. I used to see the ads for a hop all the time in Air & Space.

  4. JoeC

    I always heard that the A3D was known as “All 3 Dead” for its propensity to sink like a rock when in the drink, and for the contorted path the occupants had to maneuver in order to get out.

    We lost one off the America during my time aboard. Apparently an arresting cable broke (IIRC) just as it was about to come to a stop, and it rolled off the angle deck, thankfully with enough forward motion to pancake rather than dive.

    In that instance, I was told that it was a reconnaissance bird and the bomb-bay was sealed shut, allowing the occupants to escape before it sank. The E6 that I followed up to the flight deck to watch relayed that bit of lore to me and it has stuck around for a long time. Amazing what sticks in one’s mind about the service. (I think this was on the Gitmo quals after the yardwork in 1975, yet another piece of trivia.)

  5. Steeljawscribe


    Roger the All 3 Dead – Whale is/was the more commonly used nickname. The other, though, certainly has some basis in fact, sadly all the more so in my personal experience as the last Whale crew to perish at the boat had been with us on JFK for the first part of deployment before swapping out to Nimitz. As our RR was host to the VQ-2 det, we’d made some pretty good friends with that crew – I’d even flown with them. Underscored again what a high price this endeavor can extract….
    – SJS

  6. sid

    I always heard that the A3D was known as “All 3 Dead” for its propensity to sink like a rock when in the drink

    This is not entirely so.

    I would argue that the less than charitable reputation that now seems to be common in regards to the A-3 was gained in the latter days of its career when the the only ones left were the overweight and unloved “Queer” birds.

    During the A-3 bomber days the aircraft was as capable a component of the Air Wing as any other aircraft type (after some initial personnel teething problems).

    While the size of the aircraft demanded precision that could only come a proficiency gained by spending a whole lot of time around the boat…Something that hindered the VQ crews.

    Also, for its size, it was surprisingly maneuverable. The delivery tactic for the big nukes was the standard loft maneuver.

    Escape from the flight deck was via the ladder which also acted as a slide for emergency egress. Perhaps not a great way at low altitude, or via overhead hatch. For the GIBs in the electronic versions there was a fuselage door.

  7. Steeljawscribe

    Well, FWIW from my time in the backend of the Whale I rated my chances of successful bailout/surviving a ditching as about the same as for the E-2, and that wasn’t too optimistic for many of the same reasons… We’ve had instances where a ditched Hawkeye had to be sunk with gunfire to avoid being a hazard to navigation, but far more where it broke up on impact and the front end went sinker almost immediately followed by the backend not much longer afterwards. And for bailouts – well, the Whale probably has more successful bailouts of the entire crew than the Hawkeye (only one instance on record where all five got out).
    – SJS

  8. Glenn M. Cassel AMH1(AW) Retired

    Many years ago onboard Independence CV62, we did a cross deck with HMS Ark Royal. Somewhere around 1975. The Buccaneer was a funky looking airplane and boy was it LOUD when on the cat. The air wing types called it the Royal Navy’s version of the Intruder. I was in V-1 Division as an elevator operator/phone talker. I watched one launch from cat 1 from my perch on the side of the island as the deck spotter. It was impressive, to say the least.

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