Vulcan XH558 has touched down after a last flight that was initially kept secret, as its flying career comes to an end.
Officials had been worried that publicising the flight would see large crowds try to see it soar through the skies one last time, disrupting operations at its take-off point of Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster.
Operated by charity Vulcan to the Sky Trust, Vulcan XH558 is one of the world’s most popular aircraft and a powerful reminder of a remarkable era in both politics and technical innovation. Designed to a brief issued in 1947 for a new type of high-altitude, long-range peace keeper, Avro Vulcans come from a time when British aircraft engineering led the world. On the opposite side of the continent, the Soviet Union was drawing the iron curtain, dragging us into an astonishing period of global tension that became known as the Cold War. XH558 joined Britain’s V-Force in 1960 and served in a wide range of roles until 1984, followed by a period in the RAF’s Vulcan Display Flight until being sold to a private collector in 1993.
Since she was returned to the skies in 2007 following what is believed to be the most ambitious engineering heritage restoration programme ever undertaken, Vulcan XH558 has flown for 346 hours on 228 flights, to thrill two-to- three million people every year. When she touches-down for the last time, it will be to extend her role at the heart of a new type of education and heritage centre designed to inspire future generations of engineers.
“XH558 is an iconic example of that remarkable period of intense post-war innovation that made British aviation technology the envy of the world,” says Dr Robert Pleming, who initiated and led the return-to-flight programme and is now chief executive of Vulcan to the Sky Trust. “In her new life, still able to accelerate dramatically along the runway, XH558 will build on this exciting provenance to inspire and educate new generations of young people, helping to deliver the technical and aviation skills that Britain so badly needs.”
Talking to supporters of the aircraft whose generosity has made the project possible, Pleming said the aircraft would not have flown for eight more seasons without their commitment: “I can’t thank enough all those who have donated and volunteered because they shared one remarkable vision.” He also paid complements to the professional team working for the charity, and to the many companies who have provided support, often without any commercial return. “The breadth of expertise applied to this challenge has been staggering, from the more public skills of engineering and aviation to the backroom skills of marketing, fundraising and sensitive negotiation, to name just a few.”
Far from retiring, Pleming intends to find new challenges to engage this remarkable team. “It has taken almost two decades to learn how to do this really well, both technically and commercially. Those skills are now available to other aviation heritage projects,” he explains.
In a cruel twist of fate, Robert Pleming is not at Doncaster today as having devoted close to twenty years to ensuring there is a Vulcan in our skies, he could no longer put-off a vital heart operation and was admitted for surgery the day before the final flight. Chairman of the Vulcan to the Sky Trustees, John Sharman paid tribute to Robert’s remarkable energy and vision; “On behalf of everyone who has enjoyed seeing XH558 fly, I wish Robert the very best of luck and thank him and his team, and all those who generously supported the project, for giving us eight more years with this beautiful, powerful, agile flying machine.”
The remarkable story of Vulcan XH558 will be covered in a fascinating new book to be published by the Trust in time for delivery before Christmas. This and other Vulcan items can be ordered from the Trust’s website with all profits helping to maintain the aircraft in superb, ground-running condition so she can continue to thrill visitors to the award-winning Vulcan Experience tours (details at www.vulcantothesky.org, entry by pre-booked ticket only).