When the final flying Avro Vulcan B2, serial number XH558, landed at Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome on Tuesday 23rd March 1993 very few expected to see this historic type grace the skies of Great Britain again. This Cold War giant was expected to spend its twilight years undertaking fast taxi runs down the runway at the site of the former RAF base. However, not known at the time, ‘The Delta Lady’ would become one of the most inspiring educational tools the UK aerospace industry has witnessed. Now the aircraft is conducting what has been confirmed as the final display season, James Innes examines how 558 made its ground-breaking legislative journey from a ‘National Defender’ to a ‘National Icon’.
History of XH558
The airframe in question, XH558, first flew on Wednesday 25th May 1960 from the Avro factory in Woodford, Greater Manchester. Following flight trials, ‘558 was delivered by Avro Test Pilot Tony Blackburn to No.230 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire. Shortly after its delivery on the 1st July 1960, the aircraft was moved to RAF Finningley (now known as Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield, and appropriately the current home of XH558). After spending eight years with the OCU at Finningley, 558 was moved back to Waddington with No. 50 Squadron and was converted to a B.2(SR2) Maritime Reconnaissance Configuration in 1973, and flew with No.27 Squadron.
By this point 558 had travelled round many roles within the RAF, yet had remained a unusually low-hour airframe and was one of six Vulcan B2 aircraft to be converted to the K2 variant in an air-to-air refuelling role in 1982. However, changes in requirements led to the aircraft being reverted back to a standard B2 configuration in 1985, following the retirement of the type from RAF service in 1984. This allowed XL426 to be relieved from flying display duties, and XH558 to take over the role. Because of the amount of time 558 was grounded due to upgrades, at the time of retirement it remained a very low flying-hour aircraft. Despite the changing military requirements, which ultimately led to the retirement of the Vulcan, the Olympus powered delta bomber remained a favourite at airshows up and down the UK. This was to be 558’s final challenge, and one that would bring the final Vulcan operated by the RAF, to the attention of the British Public.
In 1986 XH558 became the sole aircraft on the RAF’s Vulcan Display Flight (VDF). Whilst her powerful and emotive displays continued to captivate audiences across the British Isles, even the most ardent supporter knew this ageing and fuel hungry giant could not fly forever. Unfortunately this was the inevitable case, and in 1992 XH558 was grounded by budget cuts within the Royal Air Force. Many thought the aircraft’s farewell display, with the Red Arrows at Cranfield, would be the final time anyone ever saw the thunderous display of the legendary Avro Vulcan. However due to the admirable actions of David Walton, on behalf of C.Walton Ltd, the aircraft was to be bought and kept in a serviceable condition, to keep alive the possibility of her flying once again.
The final flight of the Vulcan as an RAF asset took place on Tuesday 23rd March 1993 in order to ferry XH558 and an abundance of spares, from RAF Waddington to her retirement home at Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome (formerly RAF Bruntingthorpe). For the following decade XH558 was kept in a serviceable condition by the Waltons’ team of volunteers and starred as the headline act at Bruntingthorpe’s ‘Rolling Thunder’ events. However, the Waltons were not content with seeing this aircraft earth-bound and under the surface plans were bubbling to return the Vulcan to the sky.
In 1997, following years of fast taxi-runs, C Walton Ltd was approached by Dr. Robert Pleming regarding a final attempt at a feasibility study as to what it would take to get XH558 airborne again. Even at the early stages the challenges and expense of any proposed project appeared overwhelming and technically improbable – but not impossible. No ex-military complex jet aircraft, like a Vulcan, had ever been operated by a civil organisation on the UK civil register, and this introduced a challenging a number of firsts ‘The Vulcan Operating Company (TVOC)’ would have to achieve in order for the project to succeed.
The project faced two massive issues: raising the required funds and satisfying UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) safety requirements. With nothing like this previously considered by the CAA, the Vulcan Team had to ensure that all necessary steps were taken to ensure the safety of those in the air and on the ground. In order for the proposed restoration to be taken seriously by the CAA, the engineering work must have had the support of an engineering organisation that had worked on a wide range of restoration projects and had the ability to ensure the quality of any work undertaken. Ideally this would be carried out by the aircraft’s manufacturer or the holder of the Type Certificate. In place of the Type Certificate, the restoration team began working with the support of Marshall Aerospace on an extensive study into the design of the aircraft and the work that would be required by CAA requirements. This study was to ensure there were no major hurdles that could stop the project or risk the success her restoration.
Leading up to the Millennium the team were in the process of fully realising the magnitude of the task now faced, and had begun confirming the support of component manufacturers and the continued support of Marshall Aerospace as the designated airworthiness engineering organisation. The obvious major problem still facing the project was funding, and with an estimated cost of £3.5 million, the charity faced not only a technical hurdle but a financial one as well. Compounding their woes was the news of a failed application to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) which if approved could have assured the financial viability of the project. As it did in service, XH558 faced the constant threat of the project being terminated due to lack of funding. However, following the failed HLF attempt the team were advised as to how to proceed with resubmitting a future application for funding. These hints led to the “rebranding” of XH558 as a cold war icon and mobile advertisement for careers in aerospace, to inspire the future generation of UK aerospace professionals. The following attempt in 2003 was successful and the restoration team were awarded a grant of approximately £2.7m and – combined with approximately £1m raised by the aircraft supporters – gave the project a solid footing and enabled the continuation of the design work.
In 2005 the Waltons, on behalf of TVOC, moved the ownership of XH558 to an organisation which had been set up to not only oversee the project but fundraise for the future survival of the aircraft – suitably titled the ‘Vulcan to the Sky Trust (VTST)’. After 6 years of planning and negotiations with the CAA, the physical restoration work was able to begin on the aircraft in the Bruntingthorpe hangar now owned by the charity. All the major work that was carried out on XH558 was overseen by Marshall Aerospace’s Engineers acting with the approval of the CAA. Marshall Aerospace played a massive part throughout the project and were responsible for approving all new components built for the aircraft. Rather obviously, spare parts are not manufactured for an aircraft that hadn’t flown in 12 years, making the possibility of receiving parts from the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM’s) nearly impossible.
Something VTST had been very successful in doing, was drawing on the national love of the aircraft, and that it was a favourite of many ex-RAF Engineers whom had worked on the type in the 70’s and 80’s. These talented engineers combined with the support of the British public, Marshall Aerospace and the CAA had given VTST a solid foundation from which restoration work could progress.
However, as with most major restoration projects XH558 was plagued by critical funding shortages which repeatedly threatened to end any hopes of XH558 returning to the sky. The most critical shortage came in April 2006, just over a quarter of the way through the 24-month restoration. The charity had noticed that significant funding was required to keep the project moving past August of that year. Fortunately due to the substantial fundraising efforts continually being carried out by the Vulcan to the Sky Club, approximately £1.3m was raised by the end of August to allow the project to continue. £500,000 of this was generously donated by Second World War RAF pilot and former owner of Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club, Sir Jack Hayward. Financial contributions to the charity, such as this, proved to be vital to the continuation of this monumental restoration project.
Following the temporary removal of the funding blockage, XH558 made its first public appearance on the 31st August 2006, following 7 years behind closed doors. This appearance allowed the public a view of their aircraft which they had financially supported throughout the recent period of project insecurity. After this brief PR appearance, the aircraft was once again returned to its hangar at Bruntingthorpe for the final stint of restoration work.
One of the most critical components of the aircraft that was given additional scrutiny were XH558’s set of Rolls Royce Olympus 202 turbojets. With a remarkable display of forethought, David Walton had – alongside the purchase of XH558 – procured a set of eight zero-hour Olympus 202 engines from the RAF in the early 90s. These “brand new” 32 year old engines would later prove to be a lifeline for the aircraft. By 16th August 2007 VTST and Marshall Aerospace were able to begin engine tests to ensure the safety and reliability of the aircraft. All four engines were new units taken from the stock of eight, replacing the set which had been in place since 1982. It was this reliability that the VTST had to ensure before it was granted its Permit to Fly from the CAA.
Return to Flight
Following the completion of all restoration work the aircraft was complete, and after 10 years of hard work XH558 was once again ready for flight. However a combination of bad luck and typical British weather forced the planned test flight date to be pushed back to mid-October of 2007. Finally on the 18th October 2007 XH558 was cleared for takeoff from Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome for her first taste of flight in over 14 years. In the hands of test pilots Al McDicken and David Thomas the Vulcan was once again – albeit briefly and with a large amount of restraint – allowed to roam where she belonged. The test flight lasted all of 34 minutes and consisted of general handling in order to establish the stability and controllability of this much lightened aircraft (many items of mission equipment were removed from the aircraft during the restoration).
The aircraft returned to a fanfare at Bruntingthorpe, and following a flypast, XH558 touched down with a smooth landing to be greeted by the gathering of supporters who had lined the runway to witness the flight.
At a cost of more than £20,000 per hour of flight, VTST had several decisions to make. Firstly with the cost of flying the Vulcan they had to minimise the length of its test flights yet still perform enough to demonstrate its airworthiness to the CAA. However, the longer the aircraft could spend in the air, the more people that could see it possibly increasing funding. The mobile billboard began its test flight programme in earnest during April 2008 and included a visit to RAF Cottesmore, which ended prematurely due to a fault with the landing gear’s door.
A crucial but relatively unknown process required during the testing of any aircraft is the Compass Swing. This requires facilities only available at certain airfields and consists of an oriented star marked on the ground. The aircraft is then required to line up upon certain points of the star and any deviation shown by the compass is noted and corrections are made. This process ensures that the aircraft’s compass is correctly calibrated – again to ensure safe operation and efficient navigation. This formed part of the aircraft’s fourth test flight on 6th May 2008, when XH558 departed Bruntingthorpe and flew to the home of the BBMF at RAF Coningsby to complete the trials, before returning home on 9th May.
The supposed final test flight for XH558 took place on the 9th June and having completed its test flight it was able to practice manoeuvres for its public display routine. However once again, fate intervened and following some faults with the avionics suite, XH558 was required to carry out another flight on 22nd June and although shorter than the previous flights, the flight crew were able to fit in more flying display practice in anticipation of the rapidly approaching display season.
On the 3rd July 2008, Avro Vulcan XH558 entered the history books as the most complex ex-military aircraft to ever be given a Permit to Fly on the CAA’s register. This staggering achievement had been the result of years of hard work and represented a real milestone in UK aviation history. A private company had taken an ageing ex-military nuclear bomber and restored it to an airworthy condition without a large industrial sponsor and relying purely on support of the Great British Public. Signed by A.C. Love, CAA Airworthiness Approval Note 27038 was the evidence of their hard work over the previous decade. Operating on the civil register as G-VLCN, XH558 was almost ready to begin its nostalgic return to the display circuit.
Following the granting of its CAA Permit to Fly XH558 immediately departed Bruntingthorpe for its old home RAF Waddington where it planned to fly in that weekends airshow. But there was one more obstacle in the way for XH558 and her crew, they had yet to receive their Public Display Authorisation (PDA), which is a requirement for all acts in order to be able to perform at public events. She therefore flew several practice displays in the lead up to the show and her Captain, Dave Thomas, was fortunately awarded his PDA ahead of her home show.
Her first public display took part on Saturday 5th July 2008 at the Waddington International Airshow, the standout performer took part in its own solo display as well as a flypast behind Roy Chadwick’s other wonderful creation – the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Avro Lancaster (a sight which has strangely never been repeated). The second UK airshow appearance was to be at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) the following weekend; however to the frustration of thousands, the airshow was cancelled at last minute due to the chaos caused by the appalling British weather! With the absence of a major industrial sponsor, XH558 had been publically funded throughout her first display season. Part of the requirements that allowed XH558 to fly with military markings, and in military colours, was that the exterior had to remain clear of and sponsors and any feature that may alter the aircraft’s appearance from its original military marking. This required innovative thinking by the team and eventually they had developed a method of increasing sponsor revenue at the same time as keeping the airframe authentic. This plan was to include sponsors logos on surfaces that were invisible in flight, but highly visible while parked on the ground most obviously the landing gear door inner surfaces.
Other areas of cost savings were required to maximise the chances of XH558 remaining airborne, and to offset the shortfall generated between the difference in display costs and income. In April 2011 XH558’s home was moved to Robin Hood Airport near Doncaster. Some might say that moving house costs more than staying where you were, however this was not the case for XH558. Operating out of an un-licensed airfield meant that in order to satisfy CAA safety requirements fire and rescue services were required every time she flew, creating an expensive logistical nightmare. Also, due to the primitive design – by modern standards – of XH558’s turbojet engines(in a turbojet, all air drawn in by the engine passes through the compressor, burner and turbine, with no bypass duct), the Vulcan is more sensitive to Foreign Object Debris (FOD) and even small objects, if inhaled, could cause irreparable damage to the aircraft’s engines. This risk made the move to a licensed airport with a maintained and qualified runway even more necessary. Tuesday 29th March 2011 saw the arrival of XH558 to her new home at Robin Hood Airport, the site of her former base during the 60’s RAF Finningley.
This article has analysed the issues faced by TVOC and VTST during the restoration and flight tests of 558, and how on multiple occasions the project came close to a premature end. Part Two of this report will feature an exclusive interview with XH558 Display Pilot Kev Rumens, and focusses more on his experiences flying the legendary aircraft itself.