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Vulcan’s eleventh hour

Stripped in Bruntingthorpe's main hangar, '558 awaits a suitor

Gary Parsons reports from Bruntingthorpe on the plight of XH558

Twelve months have elapsed since the newly formed Vulcan Operating Company (VOC) announced that it intended to restore B2 XH558 back to full flying condition. Apart from a high-profile presence at Farnborough, until now things have been relatively quiet from the Bruntingthorpe-based concern, but a call from 'Aircraft Illustrated' magazine meant it was time for an update on the status of the project. We asked David Walton, Director of The Vulcan Operating Company and Managing Director of C. Walton Ltd., owners of XH558, how it was going.

DW: "We’ve reached the point where we can’t go any further until we are confident we can fund the whole project. The main reason for that is to get on to the next phase involves Marshall of Cambridge Aerospace, the CAA and BAE Systems, so the clock’s ticking as far as complying with the regulations for airworthiness. We need to recruit a suitable team of people and train them. Some of these people will be leaving their current employment, so it’s a big commitment from their point of view to go onto a project that is effectively only a twelve month one. It would be unreasonable to expect people to come and to go through that procedure and start on the process of restoration if we couldn’t see that process completed. Until we’ve got the comfort of knowing we can fully fund the whole programme we can’t get to the next stage."

Air-Scene UK: "Is there a deadline for a decision?"

DW: "We need to meet deadlines to be display worthy by the start of the 2002 display season. It will be a very critical year for this project – it’s the fiftieth anniversary of the first Vulcan prototype flight and its first appearance at Farnborough; it’s also the Queen’s golden jubilee which gives all sorts of possibilities for potential sponsors, plus the Commonwealth Games year in Manchester, the city where the aircraft was originally built.

So, working back from May 2002 display season beginning, there’s twelve months work to do on the aircraft, a flight test schedule to meet, so we need to have completed the major overhaul and flight test schedule by the end of 2001. Then, we’ve got a few months in which to bring the crew up to speed with display authorisations. So, if we slip beyond the end of 2001 it will make things very difficult."

Air-Scene UK: "So the next three months are crucial to the project?"

Up where she belongsDW: "What we’re looking at the moment is what we call a ‘soft-start’ option with which we have support from Marshall’s to proceed. If we have the confidence that we will meet the full funding commitment, but may not have it in position at the time, we will remove the major components that have a long lead-time for overhaul by the original suppliers – things like undercarriages and engines; the complicated items that need to be bench tested with specialist equipment. The on-aircraft work that needs to be carried out is probably four to five months. If we don’t actually start that work until after Christmas it isn’t too critical, but we certainly need to be into the structural work by the end of the first quarter of next year.

A lot of the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) will be doing the work at no charge to us – so if we can get components off to them early, they can fit them into their work schedules.

It’s all a matter of building confidence – we’ve just reached a point where we (C. Walton Ltd.) can’t afford to fund the project any further. We’ve funded it to the tune of half a million pounds in the last twelve months, and we’re only a small family business. We can’t possibly afford to fund the whole project, and we can’t afford to get any further down the line, because what we might end up with is an aircraft in thousands of pieces that we can’t then afford to put back to together, which would be the worst of all worlds."

Air-Scene UK: "How has the last twelve months gone in terms of funding? Has it met expectations?"

DW: "Very frustrating. From the very first commitment to this project the technical side was always considered to be the major obstacle and that funding would be a straightforward exercise, because there was a huge amount of national pride out there that was going to make this happen – but that hasn’t materialised. Everybody that we’ve spoken to thinks it’s a wonderful project, it’s absolutely fantastic, they wish us all the best but go away and don’t put their hands in their pockets. They all think it’s such a good project somebody else is going to fund it."

Air-Scene UK: "There has been some criticism from the general public that the minimum donation of 40 is too much."

DW: "The 40 is only a minimum donation to get your name printed on the bomb bay doors – there is no minimum figure. We’ve had old ladies give us 5, whatever they can afford."

The VOC has a good supply of new engines, direct from storage at StaffordFor those wishing to send smaller donations, the Vulcan Operating Company and its supporters’ organisation, the Vulcan 558 Club, have joined forces with a registered charity, the Vulcan Restoration Trust, to allow donations through the Gift Aid scheme. Details are at the end of this article.

Air-Scene UK: "In terms of getting major investment quickly, are you seeking one or two major sponsors?"

DW: "Yes, we’re looking for a small number of major sponsors. In an ideal world, one high-profile sponsor can benefit from the aircraft decaled-up in their corporate logos. We have also talked to one or two silicon-valley billionaires!!

Air-Scene UK: "Is that a problem, that you may have to have a paint scheme that is not very authentic? For example, if someone like Pepsi insisted it had to be all blue with the logo across the wing, would you agree to it?"

DW: "Not a problem. Personally, I believe that this is probably the most photographed ex-military jet aircraft anywhere, so everyone’s got pictures of it in camouflage. It would be nice to see it in camo in some respects, but I think if that happens everyone will think the RAF has been responsible for the Vulcan’s return. It would look nice in white or any other tasteful schemes – I don’t have a preference personally, but I think there’s some very dramatic colour schemes that could be applied to the aircraft which would not degrade the heritage aspects at all. If the aircraft does display in RAF colours, then we would want the public to realise that this happened due to the efforts of a civilian team. If the only way we could get the funding together was to paint it all blue, then yes. Which is more important, the aircraft languishing in the hangar as she is at the moment or to have it fully funded and flying in somebody’s colours? I don’t think, at the end of the day, that if it’s done tastefully the viewing public would criticise that choice. What we would say it that once it reaches the end of its flying career, and it returns to a museum exhibit, it would be returned to an authentic RAF colour scheme."

Air-Scene UK: "Would it stay under the ownership of C. Walton?"

DW: "It’s not that important as far as we’re concerned. If the only way to return XH558 to flight involved selling the aircraft, then reluctantly we would be prepared to go down that route."

Air-Scene UK: "Once she has stopped flying, would you keep it in a serviceable condition?"

DW: "Yes. She needs to be hangared, but the cost of hangarage is very expensive. Within the funding we will hopefully achieve there will be an allowance to construct a hangar facility for her."

Air-Scene UK: "If this project is successful, would you look for something else to take on, such as the Victor or another Vulcan?"

DW: "Ha! No, this is the one and only chance to get this type of aeroplane back in the air. If we had realised the undertaking we were entering into at the time, we would have had second thoughts! It’s a very exciting programme to be involved in, but a very expensive one."

Air-Scene UK: "So, what is the strategy for the next three months?"

DW: "We are raising public awareness – the bit we always thought was going to be difficult, the technical challenge and getting both BAE Systems and the CAA on board, has been overcome. They’re really enthusiastic. The thing that we thought would be easy, the fundraising, hasn’t. When it comes to companies digging into their pockets, they disappear."

This was the model used in the James Bond film 'Thunderball' - it was retrieved from a garden near WoodfordMany well-known names have been approached, but as yet with little success. A popular question to the VOC why the National Lottery will not contribute – the commissioners of the Heritage Lottery Fund have confirmed they will not fund any project that involves returning an aircraft to flight for safety reasons.

DW: "Airlines are nervous of getting involved with private operators of aircraft, as the potential hazard to their business if something went catastrophically wrong would more than outweigh the benefits. You could say that of any major corporation getting involved with a project like this. I think the most important thing is that this is going to be done on a very, very professional basis and the aircraft maintained to the very highest standards, flown by the most experienced Vulcan crew in the world and with the support of the design authority, which is unique. There are no corners going to be cut."

Air-Scene UK: "You started out with a professional PR company, but they seem to have disappeared off the scene – what went wrong?"

DW: "We were paying a PR company for almost twelve months on a retainer plus expenses, but were disappointed in the results and we reached a point where funding was difficult. A lot of money had been spent with this company who hadn’t achieved any funding results so we thought we stood as good a chance ourselves. At the moment we’ve got engineers marketing the project – they’re not marketing people, but we have made significant progress over the last six weeks or so."

Air-Scene UK: "Enthusiasm over-riding the lack of marketing experience?"

DW: "That’s exactly what it is. The important thing is to get people here, because when they walk into that hangar and see that aircraft, it is an awesome sight. There’s no other ex-military jet that has such a broad following or presence. It’s a unique shape, and a big aeroplane!

If it doesn’t happen now, it’ll never happen. The generosity of the members of the public is great, but the money we’ve received so far from the bomb-bay sign-up is only one percent of what’s required. To a major commercial corporate sponsor, the funding we’re looking for is back-pocket. Two and a half million pounds; at the end of the day, some of these companies will blow that on producing one TV advert. This is something that is going to appear to very large audiences, at airshows, Grand Prix, seaside events – wherever there can be a display aircraft."

Air-Scene UK: "How does the fund stand at present?"

There is little evidence of corrosion on the airframeDW: "We’re a third of the way there, and that is almost exclusively from the States. We’ve raised nearly 700,000, and I would say 90% has come from the USA. I would say that the British aerospace industry is helping significantly in product, services and in time, but it’s frustrating that no-one has helped in cash terms on this side of the water, apart from the general public. We have tried to market this project on the theme of British engineering excellence, and indeed there is a tremendous amount of goodwill towards the project, but funding from British companies, apart from the aerospace industry, has been totally lacking. What it needs is a major company that wants to promote brand awareness."

Air-Scene UK: "It seems the project is very much sustainable, but at a very real risk of folding at present."

DW: "The biggest problem we have is that companies can’t see a payback for two years until the aircraft is flying. That’s not actually correct, as the hangar is going to be decaled-up and bannered with sponsors names and there’s a documentary being produced that has a very good chance of going out on prime-time terrestrial TV. That’s a huge amount of kudos for a potential sponsor, getting an hour of prime-time TV!

There is an ongoing operational expenditure once the aircraft is flying, and we’re getting good feedback that people are prepared to fund that, but they don’t want to be committed to the up-front costs. I think it’s something that will snowball – if we get a corporate sponsor for half a million and name him, then others will follow. Unfortunately, with the funding that we’ve got so far from the States, we can’t name the sponsor, so we can’t promote that – again, very frustrating. A message for your readers is that private donations are very welcome, and in addition we want you to speak to the bosses of the companies you work for. This project is going to happen through personal contact – that’s been borne out by the money we’ve paid to a PR company because all they were doing was ‘cold-calling’."

So to some extent the VOC has been a victim of its own professional image. The VOC agrees with that, its well-organised approach giving the appearance of a well-funded project. Such is the enthusiasm of the team and their drive to succeed that they will not contemplate failure. Typical of their dedication is that of the Project Director, Dr Robert Pleming, who is currently full-time unpaid, having left a prominent position in a high-profile international company.

As for the aeroplane itself, nothing was removed when she was delivered to Bruntingthorpe, unlike many other earlier deliveries to museums, as the pilots simply shut the door and handed over the key. This makes ‘558 the most complete example surviving.

So, will 2002 see the return of XH558?Andrew Edmondson, Engineering Manager for the VOC and former RAF Engineer, explained some of the technical challenges and hurdles that need to be, and have been, overcome. Although he has no operational experience with the Vulcan, having worked on Phantoms with 29, 56 and 74 Squadrons, he has been with XH558 ever since she arrived at Bruntingthorpe as crew chief for the museum and has grown to appreciate the brilliance of the design, for what was a remarkably radical concept in the early fifties.

As a Vulcan is considered by the CAA to be a ‘Complex’ one for the purposes of obtaining a permit-to-fly, an approved (under BCAR A8-20) engineering organisation is required; this is where the initial help from BAE Systems and Marshall Aerospace has been crucial, in preparing the specification for the technical survey.

The survey has proven the airframe to be in remarkable condition, with little corrosion evident although she has spent the majority of the last six years outside at Bruntingthorpe. Some electronic systems are currently unserviceable – to be expected - but every system on the aircraft can be returned to airworthiness.

AE: "We have checked inside the wing as far as we can – you can crawl down as far as the Skybolt mountings, but it was in remarkable condition. The Vulcan was assembled in sections at Woodford, parts being brought in from places such as Chadderton. Just four large bolts hold the wing section in place at the front!"

At present all components are considered unserviceable, only becoming serviceable once the extended major service has been complete and the necessary proving checks complete. The cockpit will be stripped and all the gauges will go back to the OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers). All electrical switches will be overhauled. We asked how deep the major service will go:

AE: "Much deeper than you see here. All the hydraulic pipework will be removed and inspected, although there isn’t actually much of it, being an almost all-electric aeroplane. If you want to rebuild an MG for concours condition, you take everything apart; it’s that sort of principle."

Air-Scene UK: "There was a thought that the main spar would need some work; is that so?"

AE: "The rear spar is the one that gets all the fatigue. Although it’s a very rigid aeroplane, the RAF strengthened the rear spar during its service life by adding a strap to cope with the stresses of low-level flying, moving the flight loads towards the centre of the wing. This aeroplane had its phase one conversion done and went for its phase two, but because it had a short service life remaining British Aerospace didn’t put the strap back on. What’s happened now is that the rear spar has come to the end of its second life, but because of its low usage the spar is in fantastic condition. To change it and add the strap is a thirty-day modification; that’s quite an easy modification for us.

Having completed the feasibility study, the problems found are very, very limited. BAE Systems, being the design support authority, are on board. The reason for the feasibility study was to ensure there are no potential ‘showstoppers’ that could have been identified half way through a major service. For example, if the rear spar had corroded away, or one of the main fuselage arches was cracked.

AE: "We’ve bought 650 tonnes of spares with their documentation from the RAF, at obsolete component cost, including the last seven unused Rolls-Royce Olympus 202 engines previously stored at RAF Stafford. We’re are going to use those new engines. We’re working with General Electric who are pursuing the possibility of testing the new engines for us, which would be an absolute godsend for us.

It’s a bit more than a normal major service; BAE Systems have stipulated an ‘extended major’ service is required, and Marshalls are very keen to get started."

When ‘558 is back in the air where she belongs, it would be impractical to operate from Bruntingthorpe, so the VOC is negotiating with the RAF to house her at an operational airfield, "somewhere in Lincolnshire, where she belongs".

Dictating her remaining five to seven year flying career is the availability of future spares, especially the engines. It is not simply a matter of refurbishing the old engines as the tools have long since disappeared from Rolls-Royce, and those fitted to Concorde are a completely different animal. But, careful management and a certain amount of luck avoiding engine failures should see ‘558 in the air until the end of the decade.

This is by far the greatest aeronautical opportunity of the forthcoming decade, and it's a shame that as yet no British company can see its potential. Maybe you are in a position to make the difference; if so, call the VOC today! ‘558 awaits a suitor – she is ready to rock ‘n roll, but as yet cannot afford the ticket to the ball…

For Gift Aid donations, please make cheques payable to "Vulcan Restoration Trust Appeal", and send them with your name and address to The Vulcan Operating Company, Bruntingthorpe Airfield, Lutterworth, Leicestershire, LE17 5QS, or phone the donation line on 0116 247 8145.

For further information visit the VOC website.


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