Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. Photography as credited.
From the first ever airshow appearance by the Avro Vulcan at the 1952 Farnborough Air Show, the sight and sound of the mighty delta-winged V-Bomber has been etched onto the memory of airshow crowds. These memories continued long after the Vulcan had been retired from frontline service with the Vulcan Display Flight based at RAF Waddington continue to show off the impressive performance of the aircraft at shows around the UK.
Avro Vulcan B.Mk.2 XH558 was the first Mk.2 to enter service with the RAF and became the last Vulcan to leave RAF Service in 1993. She took over the XL426 (now preserved at Southend) in 1986 and displayed at airshows right through to the Cranfield Airshow in 1992 which would be her final public display in RAF hands.
She was purchased by C. Walton Ltd with a complete set of spares and in 1993 made her final flight in RAF Service from RAF Waddington to Bruntingthorpe Proving Grounds. Initially she was kept n ground running condition. All that changed in 1997 when a small team led by Dr. Robert Pleming started a decade long find-raising and restoration programme to return XH558 to the skies.
While at times the project seemed a little chaotic, it did succeed in generating a lot of media interest which in turn helped raise the funds for each stage of the project. That perseverance by what had become “The Vulcan to the Sky Trust” was rewarded on the 17th October 2007 when XH558 powered down Bruntingthorpe’s runway for her first flight in civilian ownership. That was a great achievement in itself as it proved the project could overcome many of the challenges set by the regulatory authorities and also in gaining much needed funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund who at first were reluctant to support a “return to flight” project. .
Testing resumed the following year and was completed in time for XH558 to make her civilian public display debut at the 2008 RAF Waddington International Airshow performing a memorable formation pass with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Avro Lancaster.
While there have been several ups and downs since that first show including some groundings following paperwork issues and other incidents, there’s no doubt XH558 has been a popular addition to the display circuit. There have been several memorable moments along the way too: XH558 has been in formation with the Red Arrows at the Dawlish, Jersey and Farnborough Airshows. During many appearances at the RNAS Yeovilton Air Day, she flew in very close formation with the Sea Xixen while in Northen Ireland she flew with Midair’s Canberra at the Newcastle Festival of Flight. Despite poor weather, she managed a formation pass with the Blades Aerobatic Team at the RAFA Shoreham Airshow. But perhaps the crowning moment came last year where she flew with the last two remaining airworthy Avro Lancasters over Lincolnshire.
All this has been achieved despite the VttS never gaining a full commercial title sponsor. While several companies have contributed, it has been and remains a quite incredible fund-raising effort to keep the operation going. That fundraising has even managed to pay for some expensive one-off modifications to the structure which kept the Vulcan flying through the 2014 display season into 2015.
However, the flying phase of the Vulcan project has always been a finite period and 2015 was always seen as a major milestone year as the aircraft has now flown longer than any other Vulcan and major components, notably the Rolls Royce(Bristol) Olympus engines, reach the end of their operating lives.
The confirmation that 2015 would be final flying display season for XH558 came in a joint statement from VttS Chairman John Sharman and VttS Chief Executive Dr. Robert Pleming: “This is going to be a spectacular summer for Vulcan XH558 but also a very emotional one; it is with considerable sadness that we have to confirm that we are about to enter the final flying season. After she has landed from her last flight this autumn, there will no longer be a flying Vulcan. We are therefore going to work especially hard to make summer 2015 a memorable flying season for every Vulcan enthusiast across the country. We intend to use every flying hour available, taking her to more people than ever before, celebrating other iconic British engineering achievements and saluting the heroes of Britain’s legendary V-Force in which she played a vital role during the knife-edge tension of the Cold War.”
“We are sure you are asking why this has to be the end of this phase of XH558’s life, particularly as many of you will be aware that we have been trying hard to find a way to extend her life for at least one more season beyond the additional two years (2014-15) that were promised when we completed the wing modification. The answer is that having evaluated a great many factors, the three expert companies on whom we depend – known as the ‘technical authorities’ – have together decided to cease their support at the end of this flying season. Without that support, under Civil Aviation Authority regulations, we are prohibited from flying.
At the heart of their decision are two factors. First, although we are all confident that XH558 is currently as safe as any aircraft flying today, her structure and systems are already more than ten percent beyond the flying hours of any other Vulcan, so knowing where to look for any possible failure is becoming more difficult. These can be thought of as the ‘unknown ’ issues, which can be impossible to predict with any accuracy. Second, maintaining her superb safety record requires expertise that is increasingly difficult to find. Our technical partners already bring specialists out of retirement specifically to work on XH558; a solution that is increasingly impractical for those businesses as the necessary skills become distant in their collective memories. We have recently been made aware that the skills issue is particularly acute as our engines age and will require a considerable amount of additional (and costly) inspection and assessment.”
“Thank you to everyone who has donated their time and/or money to help XH558 fly, including of course the many specialist companies whose expertise has been invaluable. This wonderful adventure and the pleasure she brings to millions of people each year would not have been possible without you.”
XH558’s future appears to lie at the centrepiece of a new Educational and Engineering Training project at Robin Hood Doncaster-Sheffield Airport. Hopefully that should mean that the airframe is cared for under cover and also serves as an impressive tool to generate much needed skills in the engineering sector.
The achievements and efforts in getting XH558 into the air and keeping her active on the display circuit should not be underestimated. And while the so called “Vulcan Effect” may have been over-hyped ever since 2008, the Vulcan will be greatly missed on the display circuit by organisers and public alike as it generated interest like no other aircraft. Here’s to a successful and memorable final season. More information can be found on the Vulcan to the Sky website.