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She flies!

Fred Davis was at Bruntingthorpe for Air-Scene UK as Vulcan B2 XH558 took to the skies once more

Itís 18 October Ė after fourteen years and a few false starts, the day has finally arrived. The sun peeks through morning mist and the ground frost sparkles. Get going, drive across country as the sun rises, revealing a bright blue sky - the forecast is good, surely it will happen today, after two postponements over the last forty-eight hours. At 09:00 Iím queuing at Bruntingthorpe, and once inside surrounded by TV vans, satellite dishes and hoards of people with tripods and microphones.

A momentous day

The hangar doors are closed, except for one where I can peek inside Ė but I canít pass the barriers. The crowd is alive with anticipation - everyone has a story to tell about previous airshows, aircrew, sorties and fun-times.

Then, the doors are wound back and, to the clicking of cameras, G-VLCN, better known to all as XH558, is slowly rolled out of the shadows. Glistening in the morning sun, she comes to rest and there is a round of applause. Then the serious business of press interviews starts.

Director of the Vulcan to the Sky Trust, Dr Robert Pleming, is everywhere. Big smiles from the ground crew, but there is no sign of the pilots. Interview after interview, shots of the restored Vulcan bomber are taken to be beamed instantly around the world. Shouted commands herd us back to the edge of the concrete, and XH558 is slowly moved back and turned, the wingtips almost touching the tops of the cars and vans packed in around the hardstanding.

Fire trucks burn past, the police are on the move, marshals gather and the Subarus with flashing lights escort the Vulcan away to the engine-starting bay. We are off in our cars to the other end of the runway. Quick, find a good spot!

We set up and wait. There is a growing whine from the starting bay as the Vulcan's Olympus engines are progressively brought to life. Ten minutes go by and there is a buzz as the Vulcan serenely rolls out to the perimeter road. Pulling up the rise you can sense the power waiting to be released; she stops, final checks are made and then she taxies down the runway to the north-eastern end.

Twitching and crouching, everyone has their camera ready, so as not to miss the moment - after all, it's been fourteen years of waiting. Power on, she's rolling, gathering pace, Chief Test Pilot Al McDicken lifts the nose-wheel and she lets go of the ground after a remarkably short run, as if she can't wait to feel the air beneath her wings once more. Itís 12:28. The engines crackle as she passes overhead, banks to the south and flies free. I can hear cheering.

Twenty-five minutes later we see her returning, and she does a slow run over the airfield, silhouetting her profile against the deep blue sky. She turns back round the airfield anti-clockwise and then lines up for landing; air brakes on, she drops slowly with a black trail behind, her shadow sweeping across the perimeter trees. Very gracefully, pilots McDicken and Dave Thomas bring her undercarriage back down onto the ground. The nose stays up, but as the speed drops her front wheel finally lowers to touch the runway. Braking steadily, she comes to rest.

Colin Marshall and Pat Bowyer in Vulcan Control have been overseeing proceedings from the control tower and they have tears in their eyes. The bomber turns and taxies back to the reception area where she comes to rest and the engines are stopped.

Hugs and claps all round as the ground-crew and volunteers assemble under the plane. There is a wait (quick debrief on-board) and the aircrew emerge to applause from everyone.

The pilots face a bombardment of questions from the press. Then, together with Crew Chief Taff Stone, Robert Pleming and Chief Engineer Andrew Edmundson head to the reception area where they give a press conference to the press and invited guests. Al explains that she flew beautifully Ė "better than she did when she was regularly flying" Ė and compliments the team who rebuilt her. David explains "In the morning there was no time for emotion Ė there was a job to do", only allowing the elation to take over after safely landing. "We actually shook each other's hand at the end of the landing run. It was a relief in many ways; we'd flown the aircraft, got it back and there was nothing we could see that was wrong with it." Al McDicken, who retired as a Squadron Leader in 1981 after serving on 9 and 50 Squadrons, went on: "Now we have probably two more test flights, after which we think the CAA will be in a position to grant the display permit - all hopefully before Christmas. We are all looking forward to displaying her to the British public next year."

Crew and volunteers are all having their photos taken around the plane. Robert and Andrew compliment the supporters and sponsors. Groups are hugging and chatting. Itís strange, I suddenly feel like a gatecrasher at an intimate family party. But as I drive home, do I feel good!

So, Vulcan to the Sky Ė the dream has come true. I feel such pride in the teamís achievement. It was such a privilege to be there when Vulcan XH558 flew again.

To get this far the multi-million pound project has needed thousands of man hours and caused more than a few sleepless nights. Each operating year from now on will cost an estimated £1.6 million. This figure includes airshow appearances, a full educational programme, public access and other activities with most of this money expected to be raised through commercial sponsorship. Although the unique appeal of the show-stopping bomber should attract substantial corporate interest, however, it is also expected that the flying fund will have to be boosted by more public donations, at least in the interim, until sponsorship deals are signed. So, if you've just won the lottery, you know what to do with it...


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