The Avro Vulcan strategic bomber has a shape – and a presence – unlike any other aircraft. Hulking yet elegant, menacing yet slightly comical, with a camouflage scheme that made it look like an exotic salamander.
A product of the Cold War nuclear era and the peak of the British aviation industry’s golden age, it served in the Royal Air Force from 1956 to 1984, seeing operational use as a long-range deterrent to Soviet hostilities as well as combat use in the Falklands War against Argentina in 1982.
The Vulcan originated from the British government’s requirement for “a medium range bomber landplane capable of carrying one 10,000lb bomb to a target 1,500 nautical miles from a base which may be anywhere in the world” with a specified cruising speed of 500 knots at altitudes between 3, 000ft and 50,000ft. The design was intended to be able to deliver either conventional weapons or a nuclear bomb.
Equipped with no defensive weapons and not intended to rely on fighter escorts, it would have to rely on its high speed and high altitude capabilities alone to avoid interception.
A total of 136 Vulcans were produced between 1956 and 1965, and serial number XH558, the very first B.2 bomber variant, made her maiden flight on 25 May 1960. Initially issued to No.230 Operational Conversion Unit to train new crews on the type, she later transferred to an operational squadron based at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire.
In 1973 XH558 was one of nine Vulcans converted to SR2 Maritime Radar Reconnaissance configuration.
On 6 November 1975 XH558 suffered an incident that would ultimately save her life. On takeoff, a seagull was ingested into the number-3 engine, resulting in severe damage to her starboard wing. Major repairs lasting a number of years meant that she was grounded. In the economically unstable times of late 1970s Britain, nothing was certain and by 1979 it had been decided that the Vulcan fleet would be phased out, with the first airframe being scrapped in December 1980. The last operational Vulcan bomber squadron disbanded at the end of 1982 and XH558 gained a brief reprieve from the scrapper’s torch as she was converted to K2 tanker specifications to fill a temporary requirement for more tanker aircraft during the Falklands War.
Finally withdrawn from service on 17 September 1984, XH558 once again had good fortune smile upon her as she was selected to join the RAF’s Vulcan Display Flight in 1985. The reason for her selection was her low airframe hours – a result of her long stay in the repair hangars. So, while she was the oldest B.2, she had the lowest airframe hours and thus the longest lifespan remaining. She spent the next seven years flying displays at airshows until, in 1992, she was disposed of by the RAF.
It just takes a wink
On a bright, sunny day – 19 September 1992 to be precise – at the Wroughton Airshow, Dr Robert Pleming took a photograph of XH558 as she performed a low fly-past during her penultimate display flight. He had watched her at many previous airshows and he was absolutely captivated by her beautiful lines, her sound and her presence. But that photo was different. It was taken at just the right moment to catch the sun glistening off her canopy. He said she was winking at him, and he vowed to dedicate himself to ensuring she stayed in the air.
In March 1993 she was privately acquired by the Walton family who owned the British Aviation Heritage Collection and XH558 was flown to Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome in Leicestershire. Initially, they intended to keep her in serviceable but not airworthy condition at their museum on site. This meant that she could perform high speed taxi runs for the public but not get airborne.
In 1997, Dr Pleming, whose dream had never died, approached the owners to look into the feasibility of returning XH558 to flying condition. It was a huge leap of faith as it would involve her being removed from their collection as a ground-based attraction in order to be dismantled in order to begin restoration. Furthermore, parts and expertise on type were in very short supply and corporate and individual partners would have to be sourced.
In 1998, the decision was taken to go ahead with the restoration and the Vulcan to the Sky Trust was established to raise funds, including applications to the Heritage Lottery Fund which was initially declined but in 2004 was granted.
Let restoration begin
Work began on the restoration in 2005 and the Walton family formally transferred ownership of XH558 to the Trust that year.
A huge amount of restoration was needed and original parts manufacturers were brought in to assist. BF Goodrich supplied 84 components, including five flight-critical ones. Among these were the fuel systems for the Rolls Royce Olympus engines. The fuel tank refurbishment alone was a mammoth task requiring 250 man hours of labour as the soft bladder fuel cells and fuel pumps had to be re-installed through small access panels, requiring someone to be inside the wing space to guide each cell into position.
The hydraulic system had to be completely rebuilt and all pipes had to be flushed first with phosphoric acid, then demineralised water and finally blown through with nitrogen to dry them out.
The cockpit had to be entirely stripped and all wiring and avionics checked with much of it needing replacement and a number of modern avionics systems needing to be fitted in order for the UK CAA to certify it as airworthy. The rudder and elevons also needed replacement.
Eight zero-time Olympus 202 engines were sourced having been in storage since 1982 and the plan was to rotate the engines which had an estimated seven-year on-wing operational life with four installed and four in reserve at all times, in order to ensure even wear across the inventory and extend XH558’s airworthy lifespan. A six man team of technicians was tasked with installing the engines, which proved to be an extremely delicate task involving winching the enormous powerplants and then installing three locking pins with minuscule tolerances.
Back in the air
Everything was proceeding smoothly and a return to the air was planned to coincide with the Falklands 25th anniversary flypast over London on 17 June 2007. These plans were shelved however after corrosion was discovered in stringers in both wings, necessitating gaining access to large areas within the airframe, which needed to be corrosion-treated and 50,000 rivets removed and replaced. The further delays and expenditure accounted for the last of the Trust’s remaining cash reserves.
The restoration team received two major morale boosts however, when Baroness Thatcher and some of XH558’s original Falklands War crew visited her, and Dr Pleming was awarded the Transport Trust’s “Preservationist of the Year” award for his efforts in restoring XH558.
Final items to be completed included refitting the bomb bay doors and installing a 476 lb steel weight in the radome to replace the original H2S radar. Two months of testing and engine runs followed and a highly qualified former Vulcan pilot and graduate of the Empire Test Pilots’ School with over 10,000 hours , Al McDicken, was asked to perform the first test flight. Given the civilian registration G-VLCN, she received her airworthiness papers and GBP6.5 million and thousands of man hours later, on 18 October 2007 she returned to the air.
XH558 appeared extensively on the airshow circuit between 2008 and 2015, thrilling crowds with her sheer presence, grace and thunderous sound. Getting her into the air had been one thing, however keeping her there would prove to be quite another. The annual operational budget was just on GBP2 million and the prospect of grounding was a constant worry, in tandem with airframe component longevity.
Sadly, in 2015, it was announced that XH558 would no longer be receiving support from third party maintenance companies, meaning that compliance with airworthiness requirements would no longer be possible and her flying days were finally over.
In 2022, it was announced that Doncaster Sheffield Airport, her home, was to be sold and the land developed. She was given until June 2023 to vacate the site. At time of writing a new home had not been found.
This article first appeared in Smoke On…Go! Magazine. Subscribe here.