Vulcan was the Roman God of Fire and we are in our trusty motorhome heading north up the A1 on a pilgrimage to visit the winter lair of ‘our’ Vulcan, Xray Hotel 558.
Her ‘lair’ is now known as Hangar 3 at Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield (what a daft name!) better known to many by its old name of RAF Finningley.
Avro Vulcan B Mk2 XH558, to give her her full name, was the very first of the Mk 2 bombers to be delivered into RAF service when she was flown from the Avro factory at Woodford (near Manchester) to RAF Waddington (near Lincoln) by the then Avro test pilot Tony Blackman on 3rd July 1960. Very soon afterwards she was allocated to 230 OCU (Operational Conversion Unit) at Finningley where she stayed for 8 years. She is now living back in her old hangar, although with its highly polished floors and smart offices it is a very different place from the old RAF days.
In an effort to raise a little more money to help keep this old bird flying, the East Anglia rep of the Vulcan to the Sky Club, Lee Gosling, organised a group visit by members of the Club forum. Despite having visited the hangar several times before, we decided it would be a good excuse to meet up with friends as well as pay our respects to a lovely aeroplane.
Rather than make the long trip from Suffolk in one day we thought a few days in Lincolnshire, at one of our favorite sites, was called for and so on the Monday morning we left home for the 120 mile drive to Woodhall Spa. Just short of our destination we stopped at RAF Coningsby for another dose of Jet noise and were delighted to be greeted by a practice display by the Hurricane of the BBMF (Battle of Britain Memorial Flight) swooping and soaring above the aerodrome.( http://www.raf.mod.uk/bbmf)
After a noisy afternoon of Eurofighter Typhoons taking off and landing we drove the short distance to the peace and quiet of our site at Oaklea (http://www.oaklea.co.uk), set in a woodland clearing on the edge of the pleasant town of Woodhall Spa. After a peaceful night, disturbed only by the owls calling, we returned to Coningsby on Tuesday for more jet action with multiple sorties from Typhoons and Tornado’s. RAF Coningsby has a great viewing area, plenty big enough to park our ‘big bus’ in, and there is always lots going on to keep you entertained. At lunchtime the parking area was almost full and as it was school holidays there were lots of children with parents or grand-parents watching the jets. During a lunchtime lull in normal take offs and landings there was a special treat in store as the BBMF Hurricane and Spitfire taxied out to play.
The Hurricane was first to go with a lovely elegant practice display accompanied by the wonderful background music of the Merlin engine. To our amazement many of the parked cars, including lots with children on board, started to leave the car park. Do these people see so much of WW2 aircraft displaying that it’s just ‘old hat’ and not worth bothering with? Do they not want to teach their children about the importance of these aircraft to our nations history? As soon as the noisy jets disappeared, so did they – we were staggered and saddened at the lack of interest in historic and heroic aircraft.
Still, we thoroughly enjoyed the display and soon the Spitfire took over the aerial stage for her practice. This time the sound track changed slightly with the gruff bark of a Griffon engine instead of the silky Merlin.
Wednesday morning and an earlier start than usual for our drive to Doncaster. Not knowing what the traffic would be like we were pleasantly surprised at how empty the roads were. It would have been a more pleasant drive if it were not for the appalling state of the roads in that part of Lincolnshire – they must be the worst this side of Afghanistan. There are potholes in the potholes and there are broken patches on top of old broken patches. When you are driving a large vehicle with 80psi in the tyres you tend to feel every tiny ripple in the road surface. Once we were clear of Lincoln the roads improved and we had a smoother drive north.
We arrived at Hangar 3 in plenty of time and soon met up with friends and acquaintances from the Club. At 11:00 we all filed in to be given our ID tags as the hangar is classed as ‘airside’ and there has to be extra security. There, dominating this huge hangar and gleaming under the lights, was ‘our’ lovely aircraft. Whenever one sees the aircraft up close her sheer size and presence is enough to take your breath away and cause the involuntary “WOW”! No matter how many times we see her up close the effect is always the same.
After a quick welcome and briefing from Steve, one of the hangar volunteers, we were free to wander round and under the aircraft and chat with the engineers. It has been a long standing convention that the engineers live on Jaffa Cakes and Stella (or Guinness) beer so many had bought boxes of Jaffa Cakes to keep them going. Sam, the airframe rigger, collected all the donations and ended up with carrier bags full much to his delight.
Much of the winter service had been completed but there were still a few panels open or removed as last minute things were being checked, adjusted or lubricated. It meant that we were able to see some of the interior workings of this complex machine as well as look at all the names of donors and sponsors listed on the plaques lining the inside of the enormous bomb bay doors. Two of our aircrew had kindly given up their time to come along as well and we were all delighted to have the opportunity to talk to Air Electronics Officer (AEO) Barry Masefield and Navigator Andy Marson.
Tea, coffee and a buffet lunch, lots of photos and chat and it was soon time to leave as another party were due to arrive during the afternoon. After more chat, farewells and promises to meet again at airshows during the year we headed south again with a diversion for a brief visit to another Vulcan, this time XM607 at RAF Waddington. The aircraft stands proudly on a plinth by the side of the A15 near the end of Waddington’s runway but despite a recent re-paint is in a poor state of repair after years suffering the elements.
XM607 is the actual airframe that made history when she completed, what was then the longest bombing raid ever, to drop bombs on the runway at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. She was piloted by Martin Withers, now our Chief Pilot, who was awarded the DFC for his actions.
We spent a while in the Waddington viewing area and were delighted when the BBMF Dakota arrived to do some touch & go’s and practice displays but we had to leave as they were closing the cafe and the barriers. Back to Coningsby just as the Dakota arrived back home to carry out more practice displays and in time to watch the afternoons sorties of Typhoons return to base.