Vickers Valiant B(PR)Mk 1Unlike the Victor and Vulcan, from the outset of its design the Valiant was developed as a dual-role bomber, with a strategic reconnaissance capability built into the design of a specific production batch. In May 1955 the first dual-role reconnaissance and bomber Valiant B(PR).1 was delivered to RAF Gaydon in Warwickshire. This airframe was initially attached to 138 Sqn until 543 Sqn formed on 1 Jun 55. Three further Valiant B(PR).1 aircraft were delivered in July, WP219, WP223 and WP221.
By 1955 543 Sqn at Wyton was fully equipped with the Valiant B(PR)1 and, eventually adopting a similar role to the USAF RB-47E, the aircraft began photographing and radar mapping the approach routes the later V-Bombers would follow to their targets in the Soviet Union. Whether Valiantís actually penetrated Soviet controlled airspace during these sorties is not known, but given the performance of the aircraft, it is considered highly unlikely. By 1954 the deployment of updated radar systems along their border areas had made it far more difficult for aircraft to penetrate Soviet territory undetected, particularly at the operating altitude of the Valiant.
In May 1957 two 543 Sqn crews were declared Ďcombatí classified those of Wg Cdr Havercroft and Sqn Ldr Cremer (who had also taken part in the RB-45C sorties from Sulthorpe). It is believed that during this time Valiantís from 543 Sqn conducted reconnaissance sorties into the Black Sea. It had been recognised for some time that Soviet defences were less concentrated in the southern states of Russia and one of the main approach routes for the V-Force bombers would have been through the Black Sea area, particularly for aircraft based in Cyprus, and these sorties were designed to radar and photo map the likely entry routes up to the border. Between 1957 and 1962 Valiantís were also used to photograph the likely track that other V-bombers carrying Blue Steel missiles would follow on their approach to the Soviet Union this data enabled highly accurate navigation charts to be produced and ensured the missileís accuracy.
In itís day reconnaissance role the Valiant B (PR)1 carried up in its camera crate eight F52 cameras, each with 48in lenses, providing 60 degree coverage either side of the aircraft. In addition, a 12 inch F49 was carried in the front starboard side. Finally, behind the shortened bomb bay doors and main camera crate was a fixed panel which held three six inch F49 cameras in what was known as the tri-met position. On at least one occasion, a Valiant was fitted with a special 60 inch F52 camera, looking out of the port window, to obtain oblique photograps over the borders of the Warsaw Pact. For night reconnaissance the bomb bay was fitted with a Night Camera Crate, this role five or six cameras were again housed in the bomb bay along with photo-cell units photo-flashes were housed in the rear of the bomb bay. A small 35 inch camera was also installed in the cabin to photograph the radar screen, so a permanent record could be kept of appropriate radar returns.
In 1964 three Valiantís of 543 Sqn, under the control of the Central Reconnaissance Establishment, conducted Operation Pontifex in which they undertook and aerial survey of Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Bechuanaland covering 400,000 square miles of territory. It was during this operation that Valiant WZ394 developed a crack in the rear wing spar that was eventually to lead to the whole of the Valiant force being withdrawn from operational service in January 1965. Eventually, all the Valiant B(PR).1 aircraft were assigned the AAR role as well and were redesignated Valiant B(PR)K.1.
Due to fatigue problems all the aircraft were retired in Feb 1965 and the 543 Squadron was re-equipped with the Victor B.2(SR) beginning in May 1965.