Gary Parsons reports from RAF Cottesmore on a historic visit by Vulcan B2 XH558/G-VLCN
2007 Preservationist of the Year, Dr Robert Pleming, stood at Cottesmore alongside Vulcan B2 XH558/G-VLCN, almost exactly fifteen years since it last set foot on an active RAF station. The Rutland airfield was a fitting destination for the 'big tin triangle's second sortie, as the airfield had been home to squadrons of Vulcans in the sixties, although its V-Force tenure was shorter than most, ending at the turn of that decade. It was a significant step in the process of returning XH558 to flight, as it was the first land-away, necessary to perform compass-swing checks in gaining its Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) Permit to Fly.
The Vulcan to the Sky Trust's journey from inception to Cottesmore has been well documented in the press and on this website over the years, so few are unaware of the turbulent times the project has endured. Many thought it would never be successful, yet here we are some eleven years after the start, and XH558 is indeed flying - that in itself is a remarkable achievement, and for all the project's faults and financial tribulations, the team's dedication and determination cannot be questioned. Yet there is still a rocky road ahead - the test flying does not guarantee a season of airshow appearances, as the funding only takes XH558 through the test flying phase.
"I'm incredibly pleased and proud," said Pleming at a cool and breezy Cottesmore. "It's taken an enormous effort, not least by all of our supporters in terms of funding, but today will be the culmination of all the restoration work - its final test flight, checking out the avionics - it's a very big milestone. I've been with the project eleven years, through thick and thin - it's been real roller-coaster ride! I'm immensely proud for the team, as it's been a huge team effort - not only for the people at Bruntingthorpe, but also the hundreds of people around the UK. There's the best part of thirty at Marshall Aerospace, who have been absolutely brilliant - they've shouldered not only the technical effort, but have helped hugely with the funding effort too. We also have to thank the hundreds of thousands of people who have supported us over the last ten years; the Station Commander here at Cottesmore, C. Walton Limited, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Vulcan to the Sky Club - without whom none of this would have been possible."
"The plan is we want to make it to the airshow season, then through the season - our assumption is that once we appear, it will galvanise more streams of funding - more donations, more club memberships, but also elements of commercial sponsorship. Just doing nothing costs us £50,000 a month - once we start flying in earnest, our costs will double. It is an expensive, but very important aircraft - the amount of money is trivial compared to Formula One. We have even approached Bernie Ecclestone, but we're waiting to hear back from him! These high-wealth individuals have several 'gatekeepers', so unless you know someone personally it's very difficult to get close to them."
Pleming and his team now stand at the pinnacle of one of the greatest achievements ever to be realised by a heritage preservation project. The documentation necessary for the grant of a CAA 'Permit to Fly' will soon be submitted for review, as Pleming explained: "The CAA Permit to Fly is essentially the equivalent of a Certificate of Airworthiness, and will confirm the Vulcan's return to flight. The submission of the paperwork from the test flights will mark the culmination of years of work and the last thing that we have to do to gain the Permit. We'll have done all we can. We are also very grateful to Marshall of Cambridge, without whose unique Design Authority management, expertise and most generous financial contribution we could not have restored and transferred the Vulcan to the Civil Register. It won't take us very long to gain the Display Authorisation once we have the Permit to Fly - about four or five sorties will be needed before the first airshow, scheduled to be Cosford on 1 June."
Key to the success of the restoration is Andrew Edmondson, Project Engineering Manager, who has been with the project from the start. How did he feel today? "Tired! It's been a long three days, but everything's ready to go - I'm as nervous as I am for any flight. Monday was quite stressful - the 'Mayday' call was an indication fault, but the crew did a very professional job - they followed the correct procedure and got the aircraft on the ground as quickly as possible. We've changed the faulty component and checked the APU and everything's fine. The APU sits in its own fireproof box and there was no visible damage on first inspection, so I knew then that if there had been a fire it would have been contained in the box - it would have been a simple matter of changing the APU. My crew, who are all very experienced, knew the snag and traced the problem to a box that controls the warning light."
"We've had a few minor snags so far - an interior bulb, micro-switches on doors need a little bit of resetting, that sort of thing. You set an aeroplane up to the 'book' on the ground, but when it's in the air it's getting hotter, colder and those tolerances can get a little bit close, so we'll get her back at Bruntingthorpe and reset everything with the knowledge that we've gained."
"Chief pilot David Thomas has said that it's much more responsive on the ground - the brakes are great, but in the air it's very similar to before. The weight of the aircraft hasn't changed - the basic weight has come down, but the operating weight is the same as before. When they land it's only about two tonnes lighter than before, but the thing that we've noticed is that it just 'hops' on take-off - that's probably down to the fresh engines."
Completion of the project has added significance as it will be the first time any ex-military aircraft designated 'complex' will have been restored to flight. "We've completed about eighty percent of the first test flight, there's just some low-speed handling to complete," said Edmondson. "We'll next move on to the avionics element of the test flying - we have to check all of our equipment against a known airport; the ILS systems, the compass headings, radio and beacon and so on. That will sign the aircraft off for the test flying programme. Every test flight is very concise, it's about getting the data down on paper. Because Marshall's is the test flight authority it's all done to CAA regulations - what we've done is used known test flight data from the RAF, post-production data and the latest CAA data for the new-fit kit. This combination from the three activities will prove the aircraft's in-flight systems."
XH558 was flown to Cottesmore by ex-RAF display pilot David Thomas (who delivered XH558 to Bruntingthorpe in 1993) and Falklands veteran Martin Withers (leader of the famed 'Black Buck' mission to bomb Port Stanley runway), supported by Air Electronics Officer Barry Masefield, and Marshall test pilot Ian Young as an observer. It's been long wait for Dave, who was synonymous with XH558 in the early nineties. "Coming back to an RAF station is like coming home - I was stationed here between 1965 and '67 on Vulcans with 35 Squadron. I first started displaying the Vulcan in 1972, so sometime between then and now I'm sure I displayed one here at Cottesmore!"
"Once we climbed out of the aircraft at Bruntingthorpe on 23 March 1993 I thought that was it and it would never fly again. I've always supported restoring the aircraft to flight, even though it's taken a lot longer than I thought - my concern is now my greying temples! But it's absolutely wonderful - there's no reason it shouldn't fly for another ten years."
"It feels very agile - we have a lot more spare power, but with 'g' limits on the airframe we won't be able to use it all. We'll be working up progressively with the display and it won't be fully evolved until maybe a year's time. We'll start the DA process with some circuit training and then change that to manoeuvring within the airfield - after that we'll pull something together."
Alongside Dave Thomas in the cockpit is perhaps the most famous Vulcan pilot, Martin Withers, recently immortalised in the novel 'Black Buck' about that famous raid in 1982. A reserved character, Martin has spent many years out of the limelight, but is now getting used to the constant press interest. How was he finding the return to an active Vulcan's cockpit after twenty-five years? "Very exciting, very satisfying, very enjoyable! I've a great affection for the aircraft - it was my first operational aircraft, I first flew it in 1971 and for the last time in 1983. It hasn't changed much - it's remarkably familiar, just like pulling on an old boot. As it was my first operational aircraft, I feel I know it so well - I did three tours on it as a co-pilot, pilot and then instructor. We know one another quite well!"
"Nothing seems to have changed - I don't feel any older. I did a little bit of display flying in the air force, but generally I'm not used to flying it at a very light weight, unlike Dave. It certainly is quite something - we're flying with twenty tonnes of fuel today, but for displays we'll have little more than five tonnes, so it'll certainly be sprightly. More fun than the 767s I normally fly!"
In front of a strong media presence and live BBC broadcast, XH558 leapt off the Cottesmore runway in just 2,500 ft, that familiar Olympus 'howl' once again reverberating around the Rutland countryside. Like a petulant youngster, she refused to behave impeccably as the starboard undercarriage door refused to close, the fault eventually traced to one of those micro-switches Andrew Edmondson had talked about prior to the flight. With such an extensive rebuild and with many tolerances to check, these snags are to be expected, but to reduce stress on the open door Dave Thomas elected to cut the test flight short and returned to Bruntingthorpe for a text-book landing, complete with parachute for the waiting media. A further test flight would be necessary to complete the process, an extra financial burden for the team, who remain positive.
'Honouring the past, inspiring the future' is Pleming's strap-line for the project - "Join the club, make a donation, that's the best way to help us. Just spread the word - the momentum is building. The Vulcan is fast becoming the aviation icon for a generation too young to remember Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters flying overhead. Its return to airshows will excite hundreds of thousands of people, but we have so much more to offer to so many more people. We now want to inspire the next generation of British engineers and designers by instilling pride in what can be achieved by this country. Our educational programme is proving a great success with all of the schools that come in, and what better backdrop to learn about physics, design and history than in front of the awesome Vulcan? Unfortunately this comes at a cost, and we must continue to raise fifty thousand pounds each month from donations and Vulcan to the Sky Club membership subscriptions until a commercial sponsor comes forward to help us achieve our long-term goals. To be associated with such an outstanding example of British heritage, held in such high esteem by so many people, presents a unique opportunity for any organisation."
Andrew Edmondson added "We need to get the company stabilised - the general public has been very supportive, it's their aeroplane and they've done it. Response lately has been brilliant - it's now proven it can fly. We need to maintain the club's impetus, because that's the best way to support us. Become a club member - you'll get a lot of information, you'll be a friend of the aeroplane and will be able to visit."
Donations may be sent to VTST, Bruntingthorpe Airfield, Lutterworth, Leicestershire, LE17 5QS, or by phone to 0116 247 8145. More information on the project and how to join the supporters club can be found at www.VulcanToTheSky.com.