Having discussed the ‘Delta Lady’s return to flight, James Innes interviews Kevin Rumens, one of XH558’s Display Pilots. Better known as Kev, he is lucky enough to have displayed the aircraft both in service with the Royal Air Force and in civilian hands post-restoration.
Balancing his role of flying 558 with flying Airbus A340s, and more recently Boeing 787-9s, for British carrier Virgin Atlantic, Kev had a long career with the RAF stretching from 1984-2004. Flying the Handley Page Victor K.2 and both the Panavia Tornado GR1 and GR4, he also spent a period instructing on the BAC Jet Provost and Shorts Tucano as well as flying the Vulcan for a number of display seasons. This interview will look to give an insight into what we as spectators cannot experience – what it’s like to fly the mighty delta.
James Innes (JI) – Many people would consider that your Saturday job is arguably one of the best in the world. How did the opportunity come about to fly the ‘people’s aircraft’ once again?
Kev Rumens (KR) – I flew the Vulcan as a display pilot for two years as part of the Vulcan Display Flight (VDF) back in the late eighties. The RAF had disbanded its operational Vulcan squadrons and had kept just one aircraft flying (XH558) as a display aircraft. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and offered a place on the team. Unfortunately, when I left the Victor Squadron I was on at the time to start flying fast jets, I was not able to carry on displaying the aircraft so another pilot took my place and flew the remaining displays until the RAF sold the aircraft to the Walton family in 1993.
The Walton Family, specifically David, had a dream to restore 558 back to flying status and with the help of Robert Pleming this was successfully carried out. Throughout the restoration process, Dave Thomas was heavily involved with the project and was always going to fly XH558 when she first flew after the restoration. However, I had flown with Dave during my VDF days and we kept in contact throughout the restoration process and it was planned that I would be one of the pilots if and when the aircraft flew again.
I was never really that hopeful of 558 flying again – the restoration process alone was massive! That said I was not sure that even after she was restored as to whether the Civilian Aviation Authority would give their permission for her to fly. So, it was a big shock to me after 15 years of phone calls with Dave Thomas that he one day phoned me up and told me 558 was going to fly again!
JI – October 18, 2007 was without doubt a very proud moment, not only for the engineers and supporters of XH558, but also the British public. Can you describe your feelings following the first post-restoration flight? Did you see it?
KR – Unfortunately, I wasn’t there as I was overseas with Virgin – I had to watch it on the news and YouTube! As I was not part of the first flight, I did not really have the same rush of emotions that I know Dave Thomas, Robert Pleming, David Walton plus all of the engineers and volunteers felt! However, for me personally my first flight in 558, after a 19-year absence, was really something. I’m not all that emotional so I took flying 558 again in my stride but I am very proud to be part of the team that have moved on from the restoration process of the aircraft, into the displaying of 558 in the air and on the ground.
JI -The Vulcan is obviously a much larger aircraft compared to the other aircraft you flew throughout your career in the RAF, how does 558 handle and feel to fly compared to them?
KR – The Vulcan has eight elevons at the rear of the wing and these are big control surfaces. Despite being electrically signalled, they are hydraulically operated which means the aircraft has exceptionally powerful flying controls. Due to the shape of the delta wing and the slow speeds that we fly 558, she does not feel anything like the big aircraft that she is. In terms of her length and wing span XH558 is about the same size as an Airbus A320, however, she feels and handles like a small fighter!
JI – Compared to the aircraft’s final displays in RAF Service, how do the post-restoration Vulcan displays feel?
KR – 558 is roughly 10,000lbs lighter than she was in her RAF days so the handling is slightly better. However, during my days on the VDF as an RAF Display Pilot, we did not have fatigue management issues with 558 that we have now when flying displays. Therefore, the RAF displays were flown that little faster and used a little more G. Overall, I think the only real difference that would be noticeable to someone on the ground is that the old displays were a little tighter and generally noisier because higher power settings were used throughout. However, these differences are only slight. Today we fly a similar display but now we are looking after the engines and airframe a bit more.
JI – Formation flypasts are very popular at UK airshows. With XH558 flying alongside display teams such as the Red Arrows and The Blades, which has been your favourite?
KR – I have flown in formation with the Reds, The Blades, Tornados, Typhoons, F16s, Hunters, VC10s, RV8s, Jet Provosts and a whole host of civilian photo shoot aircraft. I love that kind of flying although it is very frustrating because when other aircraft are formatting on the wing of the jet, we often do not see them due to the restricted view out of the cockpit. Two years ago, I opened the 2012 Farnborough Air show in formation with the Red Arrows. For that flypast, we were formatting on the Reds so I enjoyed that immensely! However, I think my overall favourite formation experience came at the Royal Dutch Air show out in Volkel a few years ago. After we had flown our display we were joined by the Dutch ‘Orange Lion’ F16 and their Historic Flight’s Hawker Hunter. We had one aircraft on each wing and we ran in and then flew almost a full display minus the big wingovers – it looked and sounded fantastic!
JI – The ‘Vulcan Howl’ is a well-recognised sound around UK airshows and is a major feature of this iconic type. While sitting in front of the intakes are you able to hear the howl in the cockpit, if so what conditions and power settings are required for the best howl?
KR – Yes we can hear the howl! To get the engines to do it we need to be flying slowly and then slam the engines to full power. At slower speeds, the engines need more air in the intakes than the forward speed of the aircraft is providing. The air is sucked into the engines from above and below the wing surfaces and as it comes around the air intakes a howl is produced – a little like blowing over the top of an empty bottle. This combined with the extra noise that the engine naturally makes at full power is where the “Vulcan Howl” comes from.
JI – The fundraising for the recent wing modifications demonstrated just how united the aviation fan-base is behind the aircraft. However at many points it could have been noted that the future of XH558 was far from certain. Were there any points over the past 6 years where you felt that it might be your final time flying this beautiful bird? If so, how did they make you feel?
KR – Unfortunately, every time I fly 558 it could be my last ever Vulcan flight – we are always struggling for funds. The public have been simply amazing in the way they have donated and kept the Vulcan flying. However, it costs millions each year to keep XH558 flying and the Trust never has much money in the bank. If something were to go wrong with the aircraft that would cost a lot of money to repair she could be grounded forever. To date we have only had a couple of technical setbacks but with public funding and the excellent work of our engineers, we have never been ground bound for more than a few weeks. Despite that, we live on a knife-edge financially so we can keep flying 558. That said we are always aware that this might be ours (as the crew) and Vulcan’s last ever flight!
JI – Now that the Trust has announced that 2015 will be 558’s final season does this allow you to build up for the goodbye or does knowing the date make it harder for you and the rest of the crew to fly the final season?
KR – Now that we have entered the Vulcan’s last ever year of flying we plan to try and get to as many events as possible so that the British public can see 558 fly before she is grounded. The Trust has a few plans for flights around the country that have been announced publically. However, I must just point out that XH558 is still an old lady who needs lots of TLC. We will be displaying her as best we can but within both the aircraft’s engine and airframe limits as well as keeping within the rules that we have to fly to – we will not be doing anything “wacky” this year!
Many thanks to Kev for his time, as you can imagine he has probably been very busy recently gearing up for Vulcan’s final bow! Here’s to a safe and memorable final season for ‘The Spirit of Great Britain’, for those of you attending the UK’s major airshows you should get to see plenty of her during the remainder of the season including Yeovilton, RIAT and Bournemouth among many others.*
Here’s to a safe and enjoyable final season for the legendary Delta Lady – Avro Vulcan XH558!
*All displays and appearances are subject to aircraft serviceability and weather conditions on the day.