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Motorsport & AD Group News 2008
Vulcan to the Sky over Silverstone. Issued September 17th 2008

Vulcan to the Sky over Silverstone

There was a moment during last weekend’s Le Mans Series epic, at just before four on Sunday afternoon, when all eyes were drawn away from the action on the track for a few minutes. It takes something pretty special to achieve that, especially when you’ve got what was probably one of the best endurance races seen in Britain for years unfolding before you. No matter how titanic the battle between Audi and Peugeot, there’s something unmissably majestic and wonderful about the sight of an Avro Vulcan trailing wisps of grey smoke across a clear blue sky.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMCXH558 was on her way back from Leuchars in Fife, Scotland, and bound for her current (temporary) base at Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. The sole surviving airworthy Vulcan had been scheduled to display at the RAF Leuchars Air Show the previous afternoon, but bad weather had prevented her taking off.

Luckily for those at Silverstone, Sunday’s skies were clear, and she was able to complete her return flight and pass over the circuit. Despite the petulant wail of forty sports and GT cars tearing around in circles, the throaty roar of her four Olympus 202 jet engines could still be heard as she swept overhead. It’s one of those wonderful sounds that needs to be felt, deep down in the pit of one’s stomach, to be truly appreciated.

Well, if that sort of experience is for you, and you missed her chance flypast on Sunday, don’t despair. She is due to make a repeat appearance this weekend, not only at Silverstone to mark the start of the Britcar 24 Hours, but also above Goodwood on Sunday. The timings are a little vague at present, but we’ve been advised that XH558 should shake the Silverstone grandstands at some time between four and four-thirty on Saturday afternoon, and similarly, mid-afternoon at Goodwood the following day.

The link between a fast, noisy and enormously impressive aircraft, like the Vulcan, and the fast, noisy and exciting racecars of Silverstone and Goodwood, is more than just a “boys toys” thing. Actually, far from it, because it’s more tangible than that, and there really is a surprisingly close relationship between XH558 and motorsport, but more on that later. First, a bit of background . . .

What is it about an Avro Vulcan that can bring tears to the eyes of grown men – and women for that matter? It’s easy enough to understand when one sees, for example, a fly-past by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMC

The distinctive drone of the Rolls Royce Merlin engine, whether it’s powering a Spitfire or a Lancaster, is a unique and very emotive one, and the glimpse of those aircraft, still gracing the skies after sixty years never fails to send a shiver down one’s spine. It conjures up mental images of young men in leather jackets, the thud of ack-ack, boundless bravery, and crackly speeches over the Home Service wireless. It’s heady stuff - Britain’s “Finest Hour” and all that - so how can a plane that only retired from active service twenty years ago achieve much the same effect? Pride, certainly, but there’s also a fair amount of that “Shock and Awe” that we heard so much about from the US Air Force a few years ago. The Vulcan is, truly, an awesome bit of kit.

Photo: RAF ArchivesArising from the dark and sinister era of the Cold War, the Vulcan was one of three so-called V-Bombers, designed and created in the years immediately after the Second World War to carry and deliver Britain’s nuclear bomb to the Soviet Union.

The first of these, the Vickers Valiant (left), made its debut in 1951, while the Avro Vulcan and Handley Page Victor (below) followed a year later. For twenty years this Strategic Nuclear Strike Force formed the backbone of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. At its peak in the mid-Sixties there were 50 Valiants, 39 Victors and 70 Vulcans patrolling the skies, and perhaps the fact that never once did they fulfil their role in anger suggests that they performed their duties perfectly.

Photo: RAF Archives

Photo: RAF ArchivesWhen the time came for the V-Bombers to be withdrawn from service, they did so in the same order they’d appeared. The Valiant, which was a more conventional aircraft in design and construction, was the first to end its active days. The plane suffered from premature metal fatigue at the base of its broad wings, and was withdrawn in 1965. The Victor – perhaps the most shapely of the three – was converted to an airborne refuelling role, and continued in service until the first Gulf War in 1991. The Vulcan (right) was also converted to tanker duties during the 1980’s, but retired from the RAF front-line in 1984.

Prior to this, and having been stood down from their nuclear role following the introduction of the ICBM, the Vulcans were converted to carry conventional armaments, and could deliver a payload of twenty-one 1,000 lb bombs.

Famously, of course, it was the Vulcan that carried out what remains to this day the most logistically demanding and remote bombing mission ever attempted - Operation Black Buck. This required Vulcans of the Royal Air Force, temporarily based at Ascension Island in the mid-Atlantic, to carry out five bombing raids on Argentine positions at Port Stanley airfield in the Falkland Islands in 1982 – a round trip of some 8,000 miles. (The record was technically broken when USAF B52s based in the UK bombed positions in Iraq in 1991, although these aircraft benefited from in-flight refuelling supplied by remote aircraft en-route, not by others flying alongside.)

Two years after this, having been converted to in-flight refuelling tankers, the final Vulcans were retired from active service. One, however, XH558, was retained by the RAF, and for the next eight years she wowed the crowds at air displays all around the country. Stripped out and lovingly maintained, she was lighter and fitter than ever before. I recall seeing her at the last-ever Upper Heyford air display in 1992, where slack-jawed F-111 pilots stood in amazement as this massive aircraft performed turns and rolls with the agility of a fighter. Aptly named, the sheer gut-wrenching howl of the Vulcan at take-off, when those four Olympus 202s were at maximum thrust, was like something erupting from the furnaces of Hell.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMC

Sadly, at the end of that year, the RAF declared that the cost of keeping her airborne was too great a burden, and she was packed off to Bruntingthorpe in Leicestershire and hobbled. Yes, she could taxi up and down the runway, but never again would she grace the skies. That was until the Vulcan to the Sky Trust was formed. Over the last three years the Trust has battled to get the last surviving Vulcan back into the air, and they finally achieved their objective on 18th October 2007, when XH558 completed a 34-minute test flight. The restoration had cost more than £6 million, much of it by private donation, as well as countless hours of hard work by volunteers and enthusiasts. Just over £2½ million came from lottery funding, as well as individual donations varying between a few pence and £500,000. It was a monumental achievement, but the fight wasn’t over yet.

Just getting XH558 air-worthy again was only one battle in a lengthy campaign. One of the largest and most complex aviation restoration projects ever attempted had ticked so many boxes, but it still needed to acquire that official signature at the bottom of the form that would not only permit the plane to fly, but to perform at public displays. That was when the motorsport connection kicked in . . .

Photo: RAF ArchivesAnn Newton, wife of RML racing driver Mike Newton, has always been a plane enthusiast, and had seen the Vulcan at various air shows during the early 1990s. Then, soon after XH558 made that inaugural flight in October last year, she became aware of the new challenge facing the Trust.

Fortunately, her husband is a qualified pilot and shares her love of aircraft. “The interest was mine initially,” she admits. “My father was in the RAF, and I’ve always loved planes as much as cars. I’d been following the programme for a while, but when I learned of the Trust’s difficulties, I persuaded Mike that we should get involved. We wanted to help get the funding back on stream. The Trust had already put so much into the project, and just needed a bit more to complete the roll-out.”

“After that first flight, the Trust faced a serious shortage of money,” explains Mike. “We offered to fund the test flight programme, and although these flights weren’t seen by many people, they allowed the Vulcan to achieve her vital display certification. Once she was over that financial hump, she was then able to take part in a series of major air displays and events during the course of the summer.”

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMC

The couple’s association is on-going however, and after the initial input, Ann and Mike have now persuaded AD Group to take a professional interest. Using their hi-tech video imaging expertise, and AD Aerospace products such as FlightVu that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the RML MG Lola in action, AD Group is now involved in the introduction of video monitoring systems aboard the Vulcan. “We hope to have cameras fitted in the cockpit, in the bomb bay, and also to give views of the aircraft in flight,” explains Ann. “This was very much an afterthought, and we couldn’t introduce the cameras until the plane had received all its air-worthiness certificates, but with that now complete, AD Aerospace can get involved.”

Part of the requirements behind the Vulcan’s receipt of lottery funding was that she should become the centrepiece to an educational programme highlighting Britain’s role in the Cold War, and having the cameras aboard XH558 will give schoolchildren a much better idea of what it is like to “fly” in one of these awesome aircraft. “Taking the programme forwards into schools is the next stage,” says Ann. “There is also the question of finding a permanent base for her.” XH558 was at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire for six weeks from June, and then moved to Brize Norton for servicing and repairs in August. She’s been there ever since.

“The guys behind the Vulcan to the Sky Trust are all such wonderful people,” adds Ann. “They’ve made this aircraft such a huge part of their lives, and they’re so dedicated. It’s a very long-term project, and Mike and I are just delighted to have been able to help in some way.” Mike agrees. “It’s an amazing achievement by everyone concerned. Unfortunately, the Vulcan has a very finite life ahead of her, and in eight to ten years time she’ll have to be grounded permanently. We hope that having the cameras aboard and recording her every flight, we’ll be able to create something for posterity, and yet enjoy her to the full while she’s still in the skies above us.”

The Trust intends to keep XH558 flying for as long as possible, but the mechanical life of many of her components, including the airframe, means that she cannot be kept flying for ever. Her schedule is to complete about fifty flying hours per year at a cost of roughly £135,000 per month, and at a gross annual cost of just over £1½ million.

Photo: Vulcan to the Sky Trust

However, all this hope and aspiration may be for nothing. The current economic climate is not conducive to finding commercial sponsorship, and Robert Pleming, Chief Executive, Vulcan to the Sky Trust, gave this blunt appraisal a few days ago: “Despite the success of the Vulcan at airshows this summer, sadly I have to let you know that, by a significant margin, insufficient sponsorship funding has been found to secure the aircraft’s future. We understand that the reticence of potential sponsors may be based on three ill-founded concerns: perception of risk of accident (effectively negligible), a carbon footprint (we will be carbon neutral), and military connotations (something of which we all should be proud).”

“Our appeal to supporters for monthly donations has continued to provide a source of some optimism, with the total now amounting to over £10,000 per month. This regular monthly income is really important, because if it continues to grow, it could provide the basis for a happier future for XH558 in today’s difficult economic conditions. If you haven’t already, please consider a monthly standing order – even £2 per month with Gift Aid amounts to £30 per year.”

“XH558’s flying career could also still be saved if a few high-profile people came forward with offers of help. However, to be realistic, it looks as if the door may now be closing on the future of the Vulcan in flight. I think that anyone wishing to see a Vulcan in flight should do so as soon as possible. With the public’s help, the triumphant return of the Vulcan this summer became the not-to-be-missed spectacle of the season and I sincerely hope that 2008 will not also turn out to be her swansong.”

Photo: Vulcan to the Sky Trust

So, as you shield your skyward gaze with one hand this weekend, and marvel as the Vulcan passes overhead, dig deep into your pockets with the other, and promise yourself that, when you get home (or now, if you prefer), you’ll visit the website and offer whatever support you can. Click on the banner below to visit the website.

With thanks to the Vulcan to the Sky Trust for the two photos above, bearing their distinctive logo. The black and white photos are courtesy RAF Archives. All other photos were taken by Marcus / CMC Graphics at the Waddington Air Show in July 2008. Any reproduction elsewhere must include an acknowledgement.

Photo: Marcus Potts / CMC