Up Close And Personal With XH558

XH558. Two letters and three numbers that mean a lot to anyone with a passion for aviation and British engineering. XH558 is the RAF serial number of sole remaining airworthy Vulcan bomber. Registered G-VLCN on the UK civilian register, she is the final airframe left flying from a total production of more than 100 aircraft, with just a handful of other static displayed examples existing in various states of repair. She’s incredibly rare, incredibly expensive to operate and in my view, priceless.

Safe and dry in Hangar Three, Yorkshire

These days, she lives in Yorkshire, in Hanger Three at Robin Hood Airport, formerly known as RAF Finningley and in fact, a former air base that she served at when being operated by the RAF. Hanger Three is water tight, heated and equipped with everything needed to operate an ex-military jet to the high standards required by the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority. Unlike the few surviving her colleagues of the time, she’s preserved from the brutal British weather, sitting inside, patiently waiting to fly. And today, we’re invited to open the doors and step inside not just Hanger Three, but to climb inside of XH558 herself. For me, it’s a very special day. Short of flying in the aircraft, this visit completes a cycle that began when I was an aviation mad kid in the 1970’s.

A true aviation geek as a kid, I’d be constantly gazing skywards and through the fence at my local airport, notebook never far away, noting down entries such as Dan Air Boeing 727’s, listening to the shriek of Dart turboprops as the Vickers Viscounts from British Midland started up. But above them all in my imagination, right up there with the RAF’s Lancaster, was the Vulcan bomber. They could be seen on clear days transiting northwards at high altitude, a shiny triangle at the head of a vapour trail, often still painted in nuclear flash white. As a small boy, what they were doing high above in terms of the nuclear deterrent and the significance Britain’s V Force aircraft was of little consequence to me. They just looked far far cooler than any other jet and I wanted to get closer. I’ve waited a long time to take those final steps.

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Into the cockpit…..

You can read the full story of her incredible restoration to flight on the Vulcan trust website here and I urge you to do so. I could tell you about the millions of pounds that have been spent, the years of preparation and the frustrations of spiraling costs and criticisms of people who questioned whether the whole project was worthwhile. For sure, at times even I wondered just how on earth it should take such a vast amount of money to return her to the skies, but that’s a debate for another time. Today, I just want to get as close as I can.

We start with a presentation by Dr Robert Plemming, giving an overview of the project and a brief but fascinating presentation of the whole project. The more I listen, the more I realise just how complex this aircraft can be to operate. It wasn’t exactly easy back in the day, with a manufacturer close on hand, plentiful current spares support and a government with a far more generous view on military budgets than today. In 2012, with expertise, spares and funds in short supply, it’s a task that might seem impossible. Had it not been for the foresight of the aircraft’s first civilian owner, that task would have been quite impossible.

After a long RAF career acting as a deterrent to the Eastern Bloc threat throughout the Cold War, XH558 continued in RAF service for several years after her colleagues had been scrapped or consigned to a lifetime sitting outside as a gate guardian or a static display exhibit. Neither of those futures bode well for the long term health of an aircraft as complex and as large as a Vulcan for a variety of reasons, so XH558 is incredibly fortunate in her current home. The RAF continued to operate her as an airshow act four more years after retiring from active service and for a while, many thought that perhaps the Ministry of Defence might just add her to their other publicity arms, the Battle of Britain Flight and the Red Arrows and she might continue as an ambassador for RAF recruitment. However that was not to be and after four years she was sold by private tender.

Engineering support and archives

When XH558 was offered for sale by the MoD, a sealed bid submitted by a Mr D Walton was the winner at £25,000. A surprised new owner acted quickly and was able to secure all of her service records and then additionally invested a further £100,000 buying up every item of Vulcan spares he could find from our government. At the time, there was little prospect of the CAA giving permission for a private individual to fly a Vulcan, but you never can tell. The full story of her restoration and first flight is told elsewhere, with public appeals, lottery funding, corporate sponsorship and spirally costs that at times attracted bitter criticism from onlookers all contributing to the story. Through it all, the dedicated team of engineering personnel and volunteers surrounded ‘558 and steadily worked to get her airworthy. Today, we’re about to see the results of their labours.

Presentation over, we’re warned of the ever present hazard of FOD, Foreign Object Damage, and read the riot act about dropping small objects when walking in the vicinity of her. Then we walk down to the main hangar area. We’re bleeped through a security door and at once, there’s a whole raft of emotions running through me and I can feel hairs stirring on my arms and neck as I walk up to her. She’s plugged into ground power and as I walk past the ladder that leads up to the cockpit, there’s a gentle humming sound and that unmistakable aroma that all old military aircraft have, a unique smell that’s difficult to describe. A combination of hydraulic fluid, old leather, worn alloy and aviation fuel. I walk out beyond the nose a few metres before turning and looking back. This close, the V Bomber outline looks more like something from modern day Area 51 in Nevada than the UK 1950. It’s hard to conceive that less than a decade separates the Vulcan from her ancestor, the Avro Lancaster.

Delta wing looks like something from Area 51, Nevada

From the front, huge air intakes dominate the wing root, supplying air to the huge Bristol engines but outboard of that, the wing thickness tapers significantly, so that by the wing tip, it’s a thin blade of a wing. Walking out to the wingtip, we climb a gantry of stairs leading to the engineering offices, a vast library of technical manuals and service records document every move that XH558 has ever made, each item carefully recorded from day one. I turn around to return to the hangar floor and just stop and take in the view. That vast delta wing platform is sitting just a few feet away, we can almost take a step forwards and walk out onto the wing. I could happily stand there all day, just looking at the shape, recalling how I used to view them from afar all those years ago. But we’re being beckoned to the cockpit.

Cockpit access for the crew is via a belly hatch just behind the nose gear leg. We climb up the alloy ladder, polished with what classic car dealers call ‘patina’ and enter the soft lighting of the crew area. There’s a surprising amount of room for the three rearward facing crew members. Originally a crew of five or even more, today, she’s operated by just three, pilot, co-pilot and navigator. The vast array of radar systems and valve driven navigation equipment is gone, replaced by a tiny Garmin GPS. A further climb upwards and I’m standing between the pilots ejection seats. The cockpit itself isn’t especially large, but the view is immeasurably better that the dark hole occupied by the other crew members. Our time here is all too brief, but there’s a queue of eager faces looking up, so we descend to the ground.

I walk to one side for a moment before turning around to just stand and take in the experience of being there. The aircraft is immaculate, no scuffed access hatches, work paintwork or stains from fluid leaks. With a team of engineers dedicated to maintaining just a single aircraft indoors, instead of an entire flight line outside in a Yorkshire winter, faults are quickly traced and technical issues are far far fewer than the Vulcan ever experienced in military service.

As I write this, I’m receiving news that XH558’s winter service schedule as had to be suspended. In these difficult times, corporate sponsorship for an ongoing project like this is very, very hard to find, so the work is funded by public donations. This year is proving difficult and with significant winter bills looming, right now XH558’s future hangs in the balance. There’s little doubt that this project has been the most expensive restoration ever to bring an ex-military aircraft back into the air. The project has often been criticised for the vast sums of money required and the ongoing appeals for cash and I can understand why. But the Vulcan was never a cheap machine for the RAF to operate and in service was constantly requiring attention. To undertake the safe operation of this aircraft, insure it and satisfy the CAA is a continual financial drain.

As it says, really…….

So, will XH558 fly in 2013? She will if the funding is in place. The engineering team has a vast knowledge base and talking to them shows the confidence that they have to overcome many hurdles to see her in the air once again. But money is needed. Yes, you’ve heard it before, I know, but if you wish to see her in the skies once more, then need you to give financial support. She’s cost millions so far and will continue to cost as long as we want to see her in flight. Forget a wealthy benefactor, it’s down to you and I to do something about it.

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Author: Neill Watson

If you love the sound of the Cosworth V8 as much as the V12 Merlin, the smell of Jet A1 as much as Castrol R and admire the late Ray Hanna as much as Sir Stirling, you’ll find you’re both on the same page. Neill's love of art deco buildings means that his ideal home would be a brilliant white, 1930′s control tower in Southern France, with crisply mown grass, biplane parked on the driveway and a Ferrari 288GTO in the garage. This is something that those around him tolerate, though it does concern them from time to time.

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