The Vulcan Effect
It is early July 2008 and the RAF Waddington International Airshow is jam packed. Outside the airfield there is traffic chaos as police and local radio advise people not to try and gain entry to the show as the car parks are already full. Cars are abandoned on grass verges as people walk the remaining distance to the entrances. The flying display has not even started and it is a full house of something like 150,000 people.
Two days earlier we, along with crowds of others, were anxiously waiting next to the airfield for news that the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) had signed the documents that issued a Permit to Fly to an aircraft that had last left her old home of Waddington fifteen years earlier. Vulcan XH558 had been undergoing an ambitious restoration to flight and this was to be her first public appearance since leaving the RAF Vulcan Display Flight in 1993.
Finally a text message told us that the Permit had been issued and she was on her way. All eyes were focussed on the southern horizon where eventually a tiny, slightly smoky, dot appeared to be heading towards us. The dot grew larger and changed into the delta shape of the Vulcan as she flew majestically down the runway with a waggle of her wings to greet her old home base. Finally the dream was reality.
Back to the first day of the airshow and time for the Vulcan to take off for her first display. Every beer tent and trade stand emptied out as everyone wanted to see and hear her depart. After take off she flew to the east to hold while the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight gave their usual immaculate display but even the sight and sound of the Lancaster was ignored as every head was facing east and watching that tiny, smoky dot several miles distant. As the Vulcan approached every one of the huge crowd were on their feet and there was total silence…….the Vulcan Effect was born.
Fast forward to June 2009 and we are sitting in our brand new motorhome in a pub car park outside RAF Brize Norton where we meet up with fellow volunteers who are helping to man a fundraising stand at the base’s family day…….Vulcan was to be the star act for her first display of the year. There are only a couple of vehicle passes to allow a bunch of us to get on base so we pile as many as possible into the M/H including Adrian from Planes TV, who produce aviation DVD’s. While we wait at the guard room for our passes and escort, Adrian asks for suggestions for the title of the latest Vulcan DVD. My idea was a take on the Pink Floyd album “The Delicate Sound of Thunder” but someone suggested “The Vulcan Effect” and indeed that was the next title.
After clearing up at Brize we headed north west to the borders of Shropshire and Staffordshire and the first major airshow of the year at RAF Cosford which was to be held on the following day….once again the star of the show was to be the Vulcan with her first appearance there since her RAF days. Sunday morning, show day and the place is packed. The car parks are closed early as they are full and the local roads are clogged with traffic as people try to find a viewing point to see the Vulcan from outside of the airfield. The queues stretch back onto the motorway and Sky News, who hope to broadcast live pictures of the Vulcan display, have to enlist the help of the police to escort them to the airfield. The Vulcan Effect is well and truly under way!
The Vulcan Effect became the words used from then on by the media and everyone else, to describe the amazing effect the aircraft has on airshow audiences every time she appears. The same effect we had witnessed the previous year at Waddington.
So, just what is the magic that can hush an enormous crowd and bring them, applauding, to their feet, add perhaps twenty percent to the gate of an airshow and can quite frequently bring grown men to tears?
Why all the effort and huge cost to restore and fly one aircraft?
Why should we care if it corrodes and falls to bits or is cut up for pots and pans?
To answer those questions one needs to go right back to the late 1940’s when the government of the time decided that it needed to have a nuclear deterent. To deliver a bomb one needs a means of delivery and at that time the state of the art bomber was the Avro Lincoln, developed from the wartime Lancaster. The aircraft manufacturers, of which there were many in those days, were asked to submit designs for an aircraft that had the capability to fly fast and high, so be out of reach of enemy fighters, carry a large bomb load (the nuke it had to carry would be the size of a builders van) over a huge range and still be light enough to be able to use existing Bomber Command runways.
It was all a very tall order but several designs were submitted out of which three were eventually given the go-ahead.
One design, from Vickers, was a fairly ‘safe’ design while the plans from Handley Page and Avro were much more futuristic and were considered something of a gamble.
Avro’s chief designer, Roy Chadwick who had previously designed the Lancaster, had the idea of using a triangular or flying wing layout which had never been used before in anything larger than a small glider. Nobody knew if this type of design would work and so smaller aircraft were built to test the theory and eventually he was proved right. The new Avro first flew in 1952, just eleven years after the first flight of the Lancaster. Unfortunately Roy Chadwick never saw his aircraft fly as he had been killed in an aircraft crash a few years previously.
Just days after first flight the Avro test pilot, Rowland (Roly) Falk took the new highly secret prototype to the Farnborough Airshow and her first public appearance. The crowds were stunned, they had never seen anything like this machine which looked as though it had arrived from outer space.
The three bombers were named Vickers Valiant, the Handley Page Victor and the Avro Vulcan……the V Bombers.
The V bombers were the deterent that was on permanent standby to defend our country and the west from the Soviet threat throughout the dark days of the Cold War but it was the Vulcan that always seemed the most charismatic of the three. After the navy took on the deterent role with submarine launched missiles the bombers went on to a conventional bombing role. The Valiant was soon found to suffer high levels of airframe fatigue at low level operations and was retired, the Victor was eventually converted for air to air tanking but the Vulcan with its strong wing design and superb maneuverability was ideally suited for low level bombing.
By the early 1980’s Vulcans were being phased out as the smaller Tornado took their place but in 1982 the Vulcan was called on to help re-capture the Falklands by putting a bomb onto the runway at Port Stanley airfield and preventing the Argentinians operating their fast jets from there. The ‘Black Buck’ raids went down in history as the longest range bombing raid ever attempted. The reputation of the much loved Vulcan received an enormous boost among the public.
The Vulcan was always a huge favourite at airshows and as Vulcans were being cut up for scrap the RAF kept one flying for the Vulcan Display Flight. This aircraft, XH558 which had been the first B Mk2 Vulcan to be delivered to the RAF in July 1960, carried on delighting the crowds until the time came that she required a major service and the MOD decided that it was too costly and the aircraft would have to be disposed of.
By this time, 1992, the Vulcan had become a firm favourite with the public. There was an enormous campaign to keep the aircraft flying culminating with a petition containing tens of thousands of signatures being delivered to Downing Street. It was all to no avail and the aircraft went to auction with the successful bidder being C. Walton Ltd. who owned Bruntingthorpe Airfield. They already owned a number of old jets and they intended to keep the Vulcan in running order and use it for fast ground taxi runs at their public displays. In 1993 she left RAF Waddington for what everyone thought would be the last time, for a tour round some of her old haunts, before landing at Bruntingthorpe.
A team of volunteers fussed and fettled her and kept her in fine condition for several years until Dr. Robert Pleming, over a beer with friends, had the visionary (some said mad) idea of trying to get her back in the air. After years of trials and tribulations, not least with trying to raise funds, the team succeeded with the first ever “complex’ ex military aircraft restoration in the world. Her historic first flight was on 18th October 2007.
That huge delta-wing shape with its military camouflage colour-scheme that looks so menacing when on the ground takes on the appearance of a huge moth when in the air. For the public the magic starts when the pilot releases the brakes for the take off roll and the engines spool up to full power. As the roar increases the prodigious quantity of air being sucked into her intakes sets up a vibration in the surrounding panels that emits an enormous howling sound, something no other aircraft before or since has done. The ‘Vulcan howl’ soon became famous and is still one of the parts of any display that everyone looks forward to hearing. After a very short take off roll the aircraft leaps into the air and climbs steeply away.
She will turn in the distance and head back down the runway simulating a low level bombing run….250ft and 250 knots…. almost silent, like a glider, as she approaches and whistles past the crowd. At the far threshold the throttles are opened and she climbs steeply and goes into a high angle wing over…..the thunder from those four Olympus engines then rolls back over the crowd and the earth literally moves….Wow!
For such a large aircraft she will twist and turn within the airfield perimeter as she shows her best sides to the spectators…bomb doors open….circle round….bomb doors closed….climb away…..huge noise and wing over….turn towards the crowd…..throttles opening to full power and that ‘howl’ again as she goes into a steep spiral climb….up and up, corkscrewing into the sky while the engines continue to bellow away. By now car alarms are going off in every direction. Suddenly there is peace (apart from the car alarms) as the throttles are cut and she sinks lower to fly past low and ‘dirty’ with her ‘Dunlops dangling’ before climbing away again to line up for landing. One moment she is elegant, quiet and graceful with the sun glinting off her much polished paintwork, the next moment howling and roaring with pure power and airborne menace.
As she lands the crowd will all be on their feet applauding and many, blokes included, will be feeling the emotion that this aircraft somehow stirs, damp eyes being quietly dabbed with tissues. Us band of regulars and volunteers blame the grit and dust blown up by those engines but everyone knows that is just an excuse. One of our colleagues, a big, burly ex RAF scouser complete with tatoos down his arms, (you get the picture?) is always in tears when she fly’s but none of us can quite explain why just an aircraft should have that effect. One thing that has always amazed me is the number of women that love this aircraft. When you think of big noisy military aircraft you think ‘boys toys’ but this one appeals to the ladies just as much as to men. It must be that elegance and grace in the air. When she displays it is almost an aerial ballet.
As I write this, Easter 2013, there is once again a struggle to keep this important aircraft in the sky where she so belongs. She is a big, thirsty and complicated aircraft and so is expensive to run. She requires a team of professional engineers to look after her and a large hanger to protect them and her from the weather. Insurance costs are enormous and fuel prices always seem to be rising. None of this is paid for by government or the RAF but by fundraising from the public by the charitable trust that own and operate the aircraft for the public. In the order of £2,000,000 a year has to be raised, a very tall order in these days of cut backs and austerity.
It is possible that 2013 could be her last year in the air before being retired for good to just ground running. There are significant engineering challenges required, not to mention finance, to extend the life of the airframe to give her a few more years flying. Once XH558 is grounded there will never be another like her in the air. The defenders of our country’s peace during the cold war will never fly again and will be reduced to museum exhibits. It will be a very, very sad day!
If you would like to know more about this iconic aircraft go to http://www.vulcantothesky.org
If you can help keep her in the air it would be even better. Thanks.
In October 2015 Vulcan Xray Hotel 558 flew for the last time.
For us volunteers and everyone involved in keeping the aircraft flying it was a very sad day but one that we all knew was bound to come soon.
When the return to flight happened in late 2007 it was hoped that she would fly for up to eight years and that is what was finally achieved.
Although the aircraft was in superb condition and could have safely continued to fly for years the safety regime imposed by the CAA meant that she had to be supported by three major companies to be certified for flight each year.
Those three companies, Avro the original builders, now BAE Systems, Rolls Royce, the engine manufacturers and Marshal Aerospace, the design and maintenance authority appointed by the CAA to oversee the operation before restoration, all had to support flying. As the expertise in servicing and maintaining the rather elderly component parts of the aircraft were now being lost, due to the age of those with the knowledge and experience, one of the companies began to get ‘cold feet’. Without full support there would be no Permit to Fly therefore no more Vulcan flights.
It was a glorious final display season, the highlight of which must have been her display at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) where, after stunning take off and display, she one again joined the Red Arrows for a fly past.
There was a final tour around the country where thousands turned up to see her at every way point and her last flight was at Doncaster in October 2015.
UK airshows won’t seem quite the same now that the ‘star’ has gone. XH558 was undoubtedly the star of the shows during the years she flew. Airshows that booked her were almost always a sell out, particularly in the last few years and when Farnborough asked their fans to vote on the most popular display, the Red Arrows came second to Vulcan. Well over 12 million people have watched displays by XH558 since her return to flight, plus countless millions who have seen her in the air as she transits across the country.
The aircraft will still be maintained and looked after and it is hoped to fast taxi her down the long runway that was built for Vulcans all those years ago. She will also reside in one of the original Hangars the she lived in the 1960’s.
For future plans I can’t do better than copy a section from the website of Vulcan to the Sky:-
When XH558 lands for the last time at the end of a spectacular Farewell to Flight season, eight years after that remarkable return to the skies, it will be to become the centrepiece of a new type of education initiative. The exciting Etna project will build on XH558’s inspirational qualities to encourage the development of the technical and aviation industry skills that Britain so badly needs, continuing XH558’s success as an icon of British achievement.
To deliver the first phase of XH558’s new life, we are working closely with the Aviation Skills Partnership (ASP) to develop plans for a Vulcan Aviation Academy & Heritage Centre at her home at Robin Hood Airport near Doncaster. The plan is supported by a core group of founding partners which includes Peel Airports Group, Doncaster College and University Centre, Skypeople, Aviation Shake, the Spirit of Goole Youth Build-a-Plane Project, and the Light Aircraft Association Educational Trust. The Academy will focus on six areas of aviation skills: piloting, air traffic controls, airport ground operations, aircraft operations, cabin crew and aviation engineering.
XH558 will be cared for at an adjacent heritage centre from where she will continue to delight visitors of all ages as she does today, with the added excitement of regular fast taxi runs.