I had the distinct pleasure of witnessing the most amazing sight and sound for the first time this weekend, it was however bitter-sweet! The sight and sound in question was that of the Avro Vulcan XH558 , the oldest complete Vulcan in the world, on one of her last flights, not just this season but for all time. I had heard talk of the “Vulcan howl” but nothing prepares you for the enormity of emotions and cacophony of sounds you are going to experience. As she soared over head, the ground resonated with the roar of the jet powered delta wing strategic bomber, and not just the ground, I could feel it in the base of my stomach and almost bouncing from organ to organ. The unassuming elegance of this beautiful warbird astounded me, no picture can compare to the magic and wonder of seeing her for yourself, in person, preferably right above your head. She almost danced through the clouds and bought to mind a Shakespeare quote from A Midsummer Nights Dream “My soul is in the sky” because I seriously felt as if my soul was up there soaring along with the tin triangle. Of course this summer is the swan song of our last flying Vulcan, hence why it was bitter-sweet and she certainly drew a crowd of supporters at Shuttleworth. To get the children interested we had bought them blow up replicas of the Vulcan in anticipation of the flight, by the time we stood gazing over the sky line. holding our breath for the first sight and sound of XH558, the children were getting excited about seeing ‘their’ plane and happily got involved with the ‘Vulcan Wave’ as she went over for the first time.
Obviously I am not the first person to fall in love with the sound and sight of this almost balletic aircraft, I have included thoughts and anecdotes from some of her many enthusiasts.
“a reminder of when in the 50’s and 60’s we had a Royal air force with real aeroplanes and real characters who flew them,like my old man who was an AEO flying valiants from wittering…when I see these aircraft especially…I feel patriotism and very proud which is an emotion I don’t often feel these days.” – John Matthews
“My dad worked on her in the 60s at Bitteswell in Lutterworth, and Baginton near Coventry, when he worked for Armstrong Siddeley. He kept little notebooks on every aircraft he worked on including XH558. And now I work at VTTS Office in Hinckley, and at Classic Airforces base at Baginton, Coventry. And my daughter works in an office at his old works at Bitteswell. All amazing coincidences…..” – Mervin Wallace
Known as ‘The Spirit of Great Britain’ she has been flying since the 1960, so although not quite in her dotage she is also hardly a spring chicken and in aviation terms she has had a very impressive innings. Her career has been impressive, being one of only a few Vulcan’s to be converted for maritime reconnaissance roles in the 1970’s and as an air to air refueling tanker in the early 1980’s. After her 1984 withdrawal she continued to take to the air, now to astound the people who came to see her with the RAF Vulcan Display Flight which she participated in until 1992.
” I was at Fairford in 89. A USAF pilot asked me what plane was twisting about above us. I told him and he said, “that’s a lot of plane to be throwing about like that”. He had no idea what it was.” – Graham Davies
“I drove up to the RAF Finningley show to her penultimate display in 1992 (I actually drove all that way to see the USN Blue Angels!).
They opened her white bomb-bay to show “farewell” in day-glo orange letters written inside.” – Mick Bremner
Less than a year later she was sold by the Ministry of Defence to the family company C. Walton Ltd for ground based displays at Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome, with the view to one day return her to the sky. She continued to participate in grounded displays until 1999 and the family were yet to see their Vulcan fly once again.
Now came the next chapter of her illustrious career, under the tutelage of Dr Robert Plemming she was now going to be restored to her former glory. In 1999 the team began the audacious, technically challenging and extremely expensive (early estimations suggested that £3.5 million would be required for the restoration) road to get their girl back into the sky where she belonged. Through costly donations and Heritage lottery funding (£2.7 million grant) the restoration was able to go ahead. Significant engineering design work was carried out by the staff in the Marshall Aerospace’s Cambridge Aircraft Design Office and she finally took to the skies once again thanks to the ‘Vulcan to the Sky Trust’ in October 2008 having cost a total of £6.5 million .
” I have been involved with 558 since 1998. I joined Vulcan to the Sky Club Committee in 2008 and our feet haven’t touched the ground since! We have been lucky enough to take the club stand to so many places around the UK plus trips to Vokel and Sanicole where she displayed. Throughout the years I have been touched by so many special memories so many people have shared with us on the stands and at events. It is great to see her legacy coming together but for me the legacy will be the fantastic friends I have made, the amazing people I have met along the journey and the smiles (and tears!) I have seen when she displays.” – Sarah Abbott
The £2 million a year running costs to continue her flight display career have been funded by the continuing support and donations of her many fans and devotees. Initially she shared her time between RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire through the summer and RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire through the winter however from 2011 she moved into her year round home at the commercial Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster South Yorkshire.
“Last year when She visited the Goodwood festival of Speed, My family and I trudged up to the top of The Trundle (a local iron age fort and tallest hill for miles) to get the best view. This was based on a previous visit where she flew around the coastal plain in front of the fort at around 500 feet. The plan was that we would look down on Her. Good plan we thought. She then proceeded to fly right over my house several times at display height and never came within a thousand yards of the Trundle. It was still bloody marvellous to see and hear Her though.” – Chris Hatton
“The last time I saw the Vulcan in flight was last year, when she flew over Wetherby where I now live, I was on the main shopping road with my wife and recognised the engine sound as something different to the Army Lynx helicopters that usually fly over, as did all the shoppers and shop keepers who came out and stood watching her fly over.” – Joe Noble
This beautiful lady has fought off the prospect of grounding and/or resale due to lack of funds for many years and went on to fly 10% longer than any other Vulcan before. However as with all good things her flying lifetime has now sadly come to an end, or at least will do once the season is over. She surpassed her life expectancy by a few years and has bewitched and enthralled all who have set their eyes on her. It was only announced in May that due to companies which have previously assisted with technical expertise, were pulling out. Due to her amazing longevity she had entered unchartered waters regarding her safety in flight and with the difficulty of securing the expertise required she would no longer have the CAA approval to flight. As such the difficult and emotional decision was made to ground her at the end of the 2015 season. The Vulcan to the Sky trust announced the decision on May 15th, posting this on to their site “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.”
“I saw her at weston super mare for the first time since she did her last display with the RAF at duxford in 93. seeing her again over the ocean and beach after all that time brought a tear to my eyes. and I’m a nearly 38yr old man now with kids of my own who I have dragged to duxford and shuttleworth since to witness something I also saw as a young lad. she will be sadly missed and im pretty sure I will shed a tear when her engines are used in anger for the last time as will so many others I’m sure.” – Scott Bostock
She will thankfully not become another static Vulcan and will continue to run her engines performing taxi runs. Of course she will continue to rely on the support and donation of her followers for her upkeep. If you would like to donate to costs you can do so here http://www.vulcantothesky.org/donate.html
If you venture out to see one aircraft this year make it the Vulcan, believe me it is more than a worthwhile experience, it is living history! You wouldn’t just be watching aviation history unfold before your eyes, you would also become part of that history. I don’t think my 5-year-old quite grasped the enormity and poignancy of what he was a party too but if he follows through with his current dream of being a pilot (Red 1 no less) then in the future he will be able to look back on this summer with pride and honor and say he saw the last flying Vulcan in her last flying season. I imagine a time many years from now when he shows his own children the pictures and video and tells the story that I will be telling him as he grows up. The story of how you can fall in love with a sound.
“With the Vulcan being a truly iconic masterpiece of aeronautical engineering, I feel blessed to have to have had the experience of seeing and hearing the this peace of English heratige fly. She will be so sadly missed from our British skyline. Farewell Delta Lady XH558.” – Mike Eddie Salmon
“Its a genuine crying shame that such a superb icon of British aviation will have her wings clipped this year. The Vulcan taught people about much MORE than just the Blackbuck missions and the cold war, but how amazing British aviation was back in the day, we were at the tip of the arrow when it came to innovation, it was a time to be celebrated and taught to our children to inspire the next generation of designers!” – Lee Richard Butler
If you are unable to see her fly before she retires from the skies then here is what I saw and heard on Sunday (in fact I’m filming).