Thunder & Lightnings

Avro Vulcan

Vulcan To The Sky

History Vulcan To The Sky Survivors Profiles Gallery Walkaround Links, References & Credits

The Vulcan is a cold war icon; everybody's seen the old film footage of these bat-winged white shapes getting airborne with a howl of engines, pouring black smoke from their exhausts and carrying a bomb load of instant sunshine during mock scrambles. Acting as an important part of the NATO nuclear deterrent against the Warsaw Pact, the bright white futuristic shapes were soon camouflaged and retasked with low-level penetration of the vast expanses of the Soviet Union. With advances in the technology of mutually assured destruction, the Vulcan and her sisters in the V-force were soon sidelined by the nuclear submarine, but the Vulcan was kept on as a conventional bomber (while the Victors became tankers and the Valiants found life at low level too tough, and were retired).

Vulcan B.1; Crown Copyright Vulcan B.1 take-off; Copyright Syndication International Vulcan B.2; Crown Copyright via Vulcans in Camera Vulcan B.2 at Ascension Island; Copyright Bob Shackleton via Naval-History.net

It was as a conventional bomber that the aircraft found its true and everlasting fame, flying thousands of miles to bomb a tiny runway on a tiny set of islands far down in the South Atlantic. The Black Buck missions of the Falkands War of 1982 put the aircraft firmly back in the public eye, and even though the type only lasted another two years in frontline service, the RAF kept one on purely for ceremonial and display duties - something unthinkable in this day and age of PC, petty bureaucracy and penny-pinching. We had 9 glorious years of watching a Vulcan at airshows - first XL426 until she ran out of hours, then XH558 took over in 1986.

Sadly it all came to an end in 1992, with XH558's final airshow season, culminating in a tear-filled final appearances at Cranfield's Dreamflight airshow. After that it was just few currency flights every now and again while her future was decided. Finally, she was sold, to C. Walton Aircraft Ltd. at Bruntingthorpe, and was flown there in March 1993, for what many thought would be the final time. David Walton's team of volunteers kept her in running condition, and she was the star of the 'Rolling Thunder' fast taxi days held at the airfield for some years.

The last taxi run - September 1999

In 1997 Robert Pleming came on the scene, and after talks with David Walton they agreed to go forward with a proposal to return the aircraft to the skies. Early agreement from BAE Systems' Heritage Committee was a huge boost to the idea and a technical survey began to see what was needed to get the aircraft back in the air. In September 1999 she carried out her last fast taxi run before retiring to the main hangar at Bruntingthorpe in preparation for the work to return her to flight and The Vulcan Operating Company was formed. A further two years down the line, the Vulcan to the Sky fund-raising campaign began, and a year after that the first application for lottery money was put in. It failed, but the Heritage Lottery Fund provided valuable advice on how to try again, and the second application in 2003 was successful. Nearly 3 million pounds was awarded in June of 2004, and was added to over a million donated by supporters of the aircraft since 2001.

David Walton Restoration underway Restoration underway Restoration underway Robert Pleming

In 2005 the Waltons sold the aircraft to the Vulcan to the Sky Trust, and restoration work commenced. Over the last two years the aircraft has practically been rebuilt from the ground up, with over 5 miles of wiring replaced, every component inspected and repaired or replaced as necessary, any corrosion rectified, new engines installed, redundant systems removed to save weight (and therefore stress on the airframe), new and far more advanced avionics including GPS navigation kit installed... it has been a mammoth task, undertaken by a mix of personnel from Marshalls of Cambridge, the RAF, and TVOC staff.

The UK's Civil Aviation Authority classes the Vulcan as a complex type, which immediately places the restoration and operation of the aircraft into a very deep and dark pit to climb out of. Regulatory and financial problems abound, but two very important factors enabled the TVOC team to climb out where so many others have failed - first of all, the Vulcan had a superb safety record while in RAF service. Had this not been the case, there would have been no way the CAA would have permitted it to fly. Secondly, it has unrivalled support from the public - not just aircraft enthusiasts, but hundreds of thousands of 'Joe Public'. This meant the donations flowed in at a rate sufficient - if only just so - to keep the project going.

Pre-rollout hob nobbing! Rollout Avro to Avro salute; BBMF Lancaster overflying the rollout TVOC team at the rollout XH558 and her fans at the rollout

Crisis was never far away in such an expensive and complex project, and with so many components sent out to their original manufacturers for work to be done on them, predicting costs was always going to be fraught with difficulties. In April 2006 the crunch point was reached, with several cost overruns threatening to scupper the project, and the money was predicted to run out by the end of August. A cool million pounds had to be raised between April and August to keep the project alive... and, incredibly, they did it. With just days to spare, the target amount was reached with the aid of a massive donation of £500,000 from Sir Jack Hayward (best known as owner of Wolverhampton Wanderers football club, but he also served in the RAF in WWII).

Amid much ceremony and overflights by the BBMF Lancaster, XH558 was 'rolled out' in front of an appreciative crowd to celebrate the successful acquisition of enough funds to get her as far as the first test flight. From schoolboys' pocket money to the hefty donation of a millionaire, this was an aircraft restoration funded unlike any other. Unfortunately work was slower than expected, and she missed her starring role in the Falklands Flypast over London in June 2007, and it was not until September that she began engine running trials, bringing a roaring Olympus back to life at Bruntingthorpe for the first time in 8 years.

XH558 and her fans at the rollout Engine runs Engine runs Engine runs Engine runs Tailipes getting nicely bronzed

Amidst much excitement a date for the first flight was set... but then postponed as snags of various types reared their ugly heads. At the most inopportune moment, for instance, a hydraulic pipe burst above the number 3 engine, just when almost everything else was ready. Dropping the engine out to fix the pipe and putting the engine back in was accomplished in almost no time at all, and then it was time for taxi trials to begin.

The sun shines on the righteous Pre-taxi nerves? Basking in the sun Taxiing out to the runway High speed taxi

Slow runs first were followed by the excitement of faster and noisier runs, with the heart-stopping sight of the nosewheels rising gracefully from the runway in a 'reach for the sky' pose. Another run tested the huge braking parachute, which unfurled perfectly and ticked the final box... it was time to fly.

Taxiing out to the runway Taxiing out to the runway Taxiing out to the runway Braking parachute in action Braking parachute release

So it was on a foggy morning that various media and VIPs arrived at Bruntingthorpe while the roads outside became ever more clogged by Vulcan fans who had heard about the first flight date from friends, from local radio, from forums on the internet... it was the 18th of October, the sky was blue, and the last tendrils of mist were dissipating from a cold and damp field in the middle of Leicestershire.

Peter Harper with a suitably modified t-shirt Modelling the take-off pose Towing XH558 down the taxiway V-Bombers together

I don't think I've ever been to an occasion quite like it. With no general announcements being made of what was going on, the time given for the aircraft being towed out of the hangar came and went, but even the usually vocal 'big media' of TV and national newspapers were failing to complain. As the cold percolated up through our feet, the atmosphere was not one of impatience but of simple hope that this incredible day was really going to go ahead. Just over half an hour late, the tug was finally attached and XH558 began inching out from her hangar, wings sweeping over the assembled media and then it was time for a rush down to the designated viewing area around two-thirds of the way along the massive runway at Bruntingthorpe.

Built in 1941/1942, Bruntingthorpe was originally in use by the Wellingtons of Bomber Command, though as an Operational Training Unit rather than a frontline unit. After the war it became a USAF station and the main runway was extended for jet types such as the B-47 and RB-66. Closed in 1962, the site was bought by the Waltons in 1972 and turned into a high-performance test track and storage facility for motor vehicles. Many of the dispersals and much of the perimeter track survive, along with the entire length of the runway, mostly used these days as a track for testing and racing. Sadly for the Vulcan fans gathered outside, the airfield has been surrounded by dense trees and earth banking to protect the local villages from the worst of the track noise, and this made viewing the take-off from outside impossible, and even the engine start and taxiing were inaudible from many spots outside the airfield. Regular SMS text message updates were sent by those on the airfield to those outside, while anticipation mounted.

Engine start Taxiing out Taxiing out to the runway Backtracking down the runway

Finally just over an hour after originally planned, XH558 sedately taxied out from her engine starting pan, and proceeded past the assembled VIPs and media to take to the runway. Al McDicken and David Thomas were in the pilots' seats; Barry Masefield in the AEO's position in the rear cockpit. Back tracking to the Bruntingthorpe village end of the runway, she turned around and then rested for a moment, while hearts pounded and countless prayers for a safe flight were muttered. The engine note rose, and rose... and rose. She suddenly darted forward and the famous Vulcan howl echoed around the airfield (imagine a dinosaur roaring in anger at the sudden appearance of a chap in a Victorian time machine).

Rotate! Click to buy a print of this photo
Lift-off! Click to buy a print of this photo
Lift-off! Click to buy a print of this photo Airborne! Click to buy a print of this photo
Flypast. Click to buy a print of this photo

Rotate - and she was off in no time at all, flashing past us, searing her way into the blazing blue and roaring into her true place, above our heads as well as in our hearts.

Fantastically noisy take-off video courtesy of close386 on YouTube:

Instead of the sedate couple of circuits of the airfield we'd expected, she turned left and made her way out over the former Vulcan base of RAF Cottesmore and on to do some handling trials over the fenlands of Cambridgeshire before returning around half an hour later for a flypast and then to come in for the smoothest landing any jet aircraft has ever performed while the crowd clapped and cheered their approval and the culmination of so many hopes and dreams.

Turning into the circuit. Click to buy a print of this photo Delta Lady airborne. Click to buy a print of this photo Contrail crossing! Click to buy a print of this photo Touchdown - and the crowd goes wild! Click to buy a print of this photo

This was just step 1 in the test programme, and money was still needed - but on that day she was her own advert, flying far enough away from Bruntingthorpe to be seen by many unable to make it there, or unaware that this was the day. I received delighted text messages from friends, who'd seen it from places as far away as Sywell and Kings Cliffe in Northamptonshire, and could barely believe their eyes. With this much delight and support for her return to the air, she was a dead cert at airshows, guaranteeing thousands of extra people through the gate (indeed a rumour she'd be doing a flypast at the last Duxford show of the season saw queues extending a couple of miles away from the airfield at a time when normally everybody would have been already parked up!).

Peter Harper and his t-shirt again! Shutting down with a happy crowd Test pilot Al McDicken deplaning Test pilot Al McDicken waving Barry Masefield deplaning as Al McDicken is congratulated

A very happy David Thomas and his wife Pam Vulcan Crew - Al McDicken, David Thomas, Barry Masefield Back at last The flight crew along with Crew Chief Taff Stone, Project Director Robert Pleming and Engineering Manager Andrew Edmondson take to the stage Vulcan to the Sky

Six more test flights followed in early 2008, with XH558 flying to RAF Cottesmore on 14th April, followed by a return to Bruntingthorpe on 16th April (a shorter flight, as one of the main gear doors refused to retract). These were followed by a flight to RAF Coningsby (for a compass swing) on 6th May and a return to Bruntingthorpe on 9th May. The test programme was completed with a further flight on 9th June (which included some display practice), and a few radio snags were then sorted before another short flight on 23rd June (another flight including some display practice).

Sadly to date a single big sponsor has not come on board for this magnificent project - funding to complete the flight test programme has come from more than £250,000 raised entirely from public donations and they still need to raise £50,000 a month after that. A very generous bit of sponsorship from Aerobytes Ltd. means that the first three big airshow appearances were funded but the public's donations continued to be needed just as badly as before - and indeed, they are still the major funding behind the aircraft to this day.

Take off of flight 2. Click to buy a print of this photo Landing at Cottesmore. Click to buy a print of this photo Take off of flight 3 at Cottesmore. Click to buy a print of this photo Take off of flight 3 at Cottesmore. Click to buy a print of this photo

Taxiing prior to flight 4. Click to buy a print of this photo Take off of flight 4. Click to buy a print of this photo Take off of flight 4. Click to buy a print of this photo Take off of flight 4. Click to buy a print of this photo

On 3rd July 2008, the paperwork finally came through and Vulcan XH558 gained her Permit to Fly - becoming the most complex ex-military type to ever be operated in civilian hands. She promptly flew to RAF Waddington and carried out several practice displays enabling her captain for the day - Dave Thomas - to gain his Display Authorisation in time to carry out her first public display at that weekend's airshow. Her next appearance was to be at RIAT at Fairford but that show was cancelled due to poor weather ruining the car parks, and so her next appearance was at Farnborough (four displays, bringing the place to a standstill) followed by Lowestoft (two displays), RAF Marham and RAF Cottesmore (both families day displays) and also RAF Wyton (flypast). She went on to carry out several more displays before returning to Bruntingthorpe in November.

First public display at RAF Waddington. Click to buy a print of this photo First public display at RAF Waddington. Click to buy a print of this photo Fast taxi run at RAF Waddington. Click to buy a print of this photo Resting at RAF Waddington. Click to buy a print of this photo

Funding once again reached a critical stage in late 2008, but a successful pledge campaign raised enough money to get the aircraft onto the airshow circuit once again in 2009. The year began very well with displays at RAF Brize Norton Families Day and the RAF Cosford Airshow, followed by a trip to Holland and two displays at Volkel, returning to the UK to display at Kemble, a flypast or two at Wellesbourne over sister aircraft XM655 and then a display at the Biggin Hill airshow before bad luck intervened again and an artificial feel unit failed, cancelling her second day at Biggin. Her next show appearance was to be at the RAF Waddington airshow, and while she transited successfully, carrying out a practice display on arrival, this was on the last day of her Permit to Fly (these are renewed annually).

One of the conditions the CAA placed on the issue of the Permit in July 2008 was that some deep structural inspections would be carried out; these would be extremely difficult to carry out on XH558, as they would practically destroy parts of the airframe in the dismantling process to get at the areas that the CAA want inspected. An agreement was made to make these inspections on a similar aircraft and use these results; XM603 at Woodford was chosen to be the victim, as she was due to be scrapped anyway. Unfortunately these inspections were repeatedly deferred (and XM603 has not been scrapped!) and to surprise all round the CAA refused to renew XH558's Permit to Fly, when they had been expected to grant another inspection deferral. A week later a three month extension to her Permit was granted and she flew to Yeovilton for the annual Air Day - however weather precluded her flying at the show itself. She was the undoubted star of the show at RIAT, with a particularly stunning take-off on Sunday. A succession of shows after that included Lowestoft, East Fortune, Sunderland, Windermere, Whitehaven, Dawlish (in formation with the Red Arrows) and Dunsfold before she retired for the winter to RAF Lyneham.

Displaying at RAF Brize Norton. Click to buy a print of this photo In formation with two RAF VC-10s. Click to buy a print of this photo Displaying at RAF Cosford. Click to buy a print of this photo Landing at RNAS Yeovilton. Click to buy a print of this photo

The winter of 2009 was a hard one, with the project nearly coming to an end due to lack of funding but once again the public donated in their thousands and together with some large donations from corporate sponsors such as Aerobytes - and one big anonymous donor - enough money was raised to begin some much-needed work on the aircraft to extend her life. XH558 returned to the air just in time for the 2010 Waddington Airshow, and has been regularly flying ever since - missing just one flight in 2010 for unserviceability due to a faulty brake unit. Unfortunately the British weather was as reliable as ever, and this kept the aircraft on the ground for several of its scheduled appearances. Fund raising was more successful in 2010, but there was still a big funding gap by the end of the season - happily Aerobytes and the public once again put their hands in their pockets and with much volunteer help, Vulcan To The Sky's employees kept their jobs and the aircraft continued to fly through 2011.

At the time of writing in late May 2012 funding is once again becoming critical with efforts continuing to raise enough money to keep the company in business and the aircraft flying. A further blow to their chances has arrived in the shape of a double engine failure caused by FOD ingestion at the beginning of a take-off roll. While the aircraft successfully aborted the take-off with no injuries to crew and reportedly no damage to the aircraft, both of the affected engines are now scrap. They do have two spare engines, but that pretty much exhausts their remaining stock and funding will now be even more of a problem.

With thanks to Kevin 'Taff' Stone and crew, Dave Thomas, Martin Withers, Mike Pollitt, Andrew Edmondson, Peter Holloway, Paul Muckle, Denis Parker, Rusty Drewett, Colin Marshall, Alan Rolfe, Richard Clarke, RNAS Yeovilton Met Office and 'Sonic', RAF Brize Norton ATC, RAF Cottesmore VASS/MCO, RAF Waddington VAHS and the RIAT Photo Team for their hospitality and assistance.

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Site contents copyright © 2014 Damien Burke/Handmade by Machine Ltd.
This page last updated on Thursday 31st May 2012

Visitor Comments

245 people have commented on this page. This is comment section 7 of 25.

Kevin Newman from hampshire

Posted at 1:33pm on Friday, August 27th, 2010

i saw her plus four others scramble from wyton in early 80s never ever seen such a wonderfull sight since i aslo remember some of her crew members from black buck who were breifly at wyton at the time. happy days and happy memories keep her flying shes fantstic.

John Ainsworth from Midlads

Posted at 6:44pm on Monday, August 23rd, 2010

Really cheesed off with the fact I have taken my wife to two airshows to show her how awesome the vulcan is and both times the Vulcan didn't turn up for one reason or another!!! I spent a couple of years in the 80s practicing firefighting on the Vulcan and watched many landings at RAF Catterick of this magnificent aircraft. My wife was keen to see one flying but I think she has given up now!

S Davies from Norfolk

Posted at 5:44pm on Monday, August 16th, 2010

I saw the Vulcan at lowestoft this friday,the last time i saw her was Bruntingthorpe in 1993,on a sad day. I lived at Scampton in my childhood so Vulcans were familier. Well done EVERYBODY involved in her restoration. You are a credit to the nation.

Martin Clark from Lincoln

Posted at 10:24am on Sunday, August 15th, 2010

I'm not absolutely certain of this but I think my father was the last man ever to bale out of a Vulcan...I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong....17th January 1977....Ram Air Turbine and a fuel leak....crashed near Spilsby...he had well over 2000 hrs on Vulcans....name check? Fl Lt John Clark....

Daniel Butroid from Hull

Posted at 12:52pm on Friday, August 13th, 2010

I have many memories of the Vulcan from my childhood because Scampton and Waddington are not far from the family home. In particular, I remember - on more than one occasion - seeing a Vulcan flying north at high altitude, as I returned home from school for lunch. The engine noise could be heard for the whole dinner hour! I was very pleased to see XH558 at RAF Marham open day in 2009 and also yesterday. I must admit that both displays left me with tears in my eyes. A fantastic aeroplane!

Ron Dunster from Delisle, Sk.

Posted at 8:56am on Monday, August 9th, 2010

Beautiful aircraft. I am 61 and have a 1-72 Vulcan in my collection. Makes me sad to think we scrapped our Avro Arrow. She would look nice flying along side the Vulcan. The Vulcan is a great bird. Keep it going as long as you can folks.

Jordan Fenton from clacton-on-sea

Posted at 11:35am on Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

the vulcan is awesome plane i love it to bits. i did a presentation on it when i was in primary. plus does anyone know if its gonna be at clacton airshow if you know plz let me know.

Ray Hifle from Devon

Posted at 10:20am on Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

Great to see the old lady airborne again. I flew on the display crew with Dave Thomas as AEO in 1982 and a very young Barry Masefield was a student of mine back in that wonderful time when the Vulcan ruled supreme. I attended the Dawlish Airshow last year and the old lady brought a tear to my eye. All the best for this season.

Avery Hilditch from Australia

Posted at 4:24am on Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

Without a doubt, and IMHO, the most beautiful and awe-inspiring aircraft ever to take flight.

Kim Ormsby from Herts

Posted at 10:06pm on Monday, July 19th, 2010

Did the Vulcan fly on Sun 18th at Fairford, if not does anyone know why?

Webmaster response: Yes, it did

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