As a member of the Classic Fighter Association, I enjoy their periodic email newsletters featuring entertaining stories and heartwarming personal flying accounts. So when a recent newsletter featured Rick Mitchell’s efforts to learn whatever became of the Avro Vulcan used in the movie Thunderball, I knew the Fighter Pilot Podcast audience would also be entertained by it.
Please enjoy this article repurposed from the CFA with Rick’s permission…
The James Bond spy thriller Thunderball premiered in late 1965, and it was a huge financial success. It was the fourth Bond movie and starred Sean Connery.
The story surrounds a plot by the fictional organization SPECTRE to steal a British Royal Air Force Vulcan bomber and fly it to the Bahamas with two atomic bombs onboard. The bomber landed on the water near Nassau Harbor where it sank to the ocean floor, and SPECTRE agents, at the direction of their Number Two, Emilio Largo, removed both weapons using a mini-sub and divers. Bond was assigned to find the bomber and its two nuclear bombs. SPECTRE threatened to destroy Miami if they were not paid a ransom of 100 million British pounds worth of diamonds in return. Bond went to the Bahamas and located the stolen bomber and the bombs. The story ended with a a massive underwater battle with Largo’s henchmen. One unique aspect of this movie was that about a quarter of the action occurred underwater. It also won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.
The first Bond movie I saw was Goldfinger in the summer of 1964. For a 15 year old, this film was incredibly exciting to watch. When Thunderball opened over a year later, I could not wait to see it! My parents took my younger brother and me to one of the movie palaces in downtown Baltimore in December, 1965 to watch the film. I thought Thunderball was extremely entertaining, and it tied in with two of my other interests, military aircraft and scuba diving.
When the scenes with the stolen Vulcan occurred, I was impressed with how realistic the bomber’s water landing looked, as well as when it sank to the bottom of the sea.
Then the SPECTRE divers swam into the bomb bay and lowered the two atomic weapons into a small submersible and transferred them to Largo’s yacht. The question that puzzled me at the time was how did they film the water landing? I knew that models were used, as well as what looked like a full-size Vulcan bomber made for the underwater scenes. But how was this done, and what happened to the mock up? There was no internet then, and information about the making of the movie was hard to find, so I never knew the answers.
When I was 25 in 1974, my brother and I made a trip to the Bahamas to go scuba diving and ride motor scooters all over the island. We found a dive boat that took tourists diving in Nassau Harbor after a brief training session in a hotel pool where we were taught the very basic steps for diving. Looking back it was great fun but somewhat dangerous. None of their scuba tanks had pressure gauges to tell us how much air we had left. On one dive in the harbor when I was 30′ down, I literally ran out of air! I drew my breath in, but there was nothing there. Fortunately, one of the helpers from the dive boat was snorkeling on the surface watching us. He dove down and pulled the CO2 cartridge on my buoyancy vest, and I popped to the surface. An experienced diver would have seen that problem coming, but I was just a newbie. An hour later, though, I was in the water again with another tank.
The point of this discussion was that one of the guys running our dive boat said that he was a part of the dive team that filmed Thunderball in 1965. We talked to him about what that experience was like, but I do not remember him going into too many specifics, such as where the bomber sank to the sea floor, what it looked like after the filming was completed, or what it looked like then in 1974? After our trip, I was under the impression that somewhere near where we went diving there was a recognizable Vulcan bomber replica underwater. We should have pressed him further. If we were on a dive boat in the vicinity of the bomber, could we dive on it? Looking back on that occasion, it was a missed opportunity.
I have seen Thunderball many times over the more than 55 years since the movie was released. Recently, it was on cable television on the BBC America channel, and so I watched it again. But the same question nagged at me.
What happened to the Vulcan bomber used in the underwater scenes in the movie?
This time I started cross referencing everything I could find on the internet, and I learned quite a lot about what happened in 1965 and what is available today. The following information is based upon many small pieces of information from the web edited together as best I could.
There were two real Vulcan bombers identified as used in the film, XA913 and XH506. These were seen in the ground sequences and flying scenes. The Vulcan later crash landed on the waves north of Rose Island, off the northeastern coast of New Providence Island, about three miles east of Paradise Island where Nassau Harbor is located. This Vulcan that crashed and was seen before and during sinking was most likely a scaled down model, although all I found were two pictures, but little discussion about how that part of the movie was filmed. The Vulcan that was used for the underwater filming with its crew still onboard was what appeared to be a full-size mock up that was built in the Bahamas and submerged in the water. It never was a real plane, and it looks like possibly only the front half of the fuselage was completed.
After reviewing several accounts of the fate of the Vulcan mock up, it seems that after the film crew completed its work with this magnificently reproduced bomber near Rose Island, they decided that they did not want anyone else to use it for filming in the future. So they brought the mock up to a new location and blew it up, and then left the remains where they were. It was hidden near the Clifton Wall, part of Nassau Harbor. The frame work of the Vulcan bomber can still be seen today at this location. The wreck, though, is in poor condition. After being underwater for over a half of a century, its remains do not look like a plane at all. Only its rods remain, and there appears to be little sign that this was once a full-size Vulcan bomber mock up. One person said that the landing gear can be seen, but the rest looks like a collapsed scaffolding that has become a reef filled with marine life, and the location is now a popular dive site.
So if all of this pieced-together information is accurate, then back in 1974, when I visited the Bahamas, I may have gotten within a mile or so of diving on the Vulcan mock up in Nassau Harbor. It would still have been badly damaged from when the film crew detonated it, but it would have been much more recognizable than today, and possibly a few small pieces may still have been there laying on the sea bed. What great souvenirs they would have been!