Bob Franklin reports from Farnborough and Guy Harvey from Bruntingthorpe as Vulcan XH558 makes its last flight of 2008; maybe its last flight ever. Additional pictures courtesy Damien Burke
Farnborough, 11 November: It's midday, and the country's press gathers as Vulcan B2 XH558/G-VLCN is prepared for its flight back to its home base at Bruntingthorpe in Leicestershire. XH558 has been here for some three weeks following the Cody Centenary celebrations, but brake problems have since delayed its departure, and the recent heavy rain has played havoc with the electrical systems, water finding its way into every nook and cranny. Yes, Vulcans were designed to spend their lives outdoors, but would be run and operated every other day; maintenance would be done in a nice warm hangar, not on the edge of a remote airfield two hundred miles from home.
Bill Perrins is due to captain XH558 for the first time - Bill served nineteen years in the RAF, during which time he flew tours on the Vulcan, Hawk and Jet Provost trainers and the Tornado F3. He has over 12,000 hours flying and now works as a Training Captain on Boeing 747-400s with Virgin Atlantic Airways. Bill flies a variety of smaller aircraft in his spare time, having around 1,000 hours in tail-wheel aircraft, and the privilege of displaying a Spitfire at airshows. But it's not Bill's day - water has got into the transformer on number two engine, and the technicians try in vain to rectify the problem. After much soul searching, the decision is made to shut down all systems until the component can be replaced - a phone call is made to Bruntingthorpe for the part to be sent to Farnborough. So the sortie for today is scrubbed, but low cloud would have made the transit flight difficult anyway, and with the promise of better weather for tomorrow it may be a blessing in disguise. Bill has work commitments, so he will have to wait for his turn another day.
At Bruntingthorpe the waiting press pack disperses with the news, grateful for an opportunity to get out of the Siberian wind. With the airfield chock full of unsold Saabs and Vauxhalls, pressure is on the team to get the aircraft back before moving around the hangar apron gets too difficult - tomorrow promises to be better.
Farnborough, 12 November: Good news; the sun is out, the transformer has been fixed and the aircraft is ready for a departure time of 13:00. New captain for today is Kevin Rumens, making his first flight under the supervision of Falklands veteran Martin Withers. Other crew members are Andy Marson (Navigator) and Barry Masefield (AEO). The reception by the public of the Vulcan around the country during the summer has been nothing less than astounding, with the media reporting a huge 'Vulcan Effect': air show audiences surging, and a rapturous response wherever she appears. Today is no exception, with spectators surrounding the airfield, taking advantage of any vantage point. Dr Robert Pleming, Vulcan to the Sky Trust Chief Executive, is present for the media. "Vulcan XH558 is the last and greatest example of the British aeroplane industry's creations to be restored to flight, and is an inspiration to today's youngsters of what imagination and determination can achieve. Once again, we appeal to the public to help ensure that 2008 doesn't turn out to be the swansong of the mighty Vulcan. But this time, the help we need most is your vote to keep the Vulcan flying."
The Vulcan to the Sky Trust needs on average £135,000 per month to keep flying, but current income is forecast to cover only about half of what is needed. A 'skeleton' plan for the winter will reduce the commitment, but next year's activities will require a major sponsor to be found. Pleming: "If you look at the impact we've had on airshow audiences, the money has been extremely well spent. There's little that inspires young and old like this aircraft - it is quite an amazing sight."
Vulcan to the Sky Business Development Director, Michael Trotter, adds: "We are struggling to find a secure source of ongoing funding. It is extremely frustrating that, having returned XH558 to the air display circuit and demonstrated the 'Vulcan Effect' at many airshows, we have not yet attracted a major sponsor to secure our future. People should now be in no doubt that without new funding, 2008 may turn out to be the last flying season for XH558 and that would be a complete tragedy. We need to raise sufficient money to cover all of the costs that we incur to operate the aircraft. If we are unable to do that, our future, and implicitly that of XH558, looks dire. It is not overstating our predicament to say that this week could sadly see the final flight of Vulcan XH558 and after that she may have to be mothballed."
The Cold War relic finally takes to the sky just after 13:00 with perhaps its most spectacular take-off of the year - if it is her last, it is a fitting way to go, like a rocket with amazing grace. Let's hope we will hear that howling noise again in the future. A flypast at Odiham is done before heading north to Leicestershire.
Bruntingthorpe, 12 November: the press has again assembled in the hope of catching XH558's last landing of the year, but at least today is relatively warm for mid-November, the sun is shining and the breeze is light. A solitary Vectra is squealing around the test track and will soon have to curtail its activities as the runway is swept and the bird scarer chases the crows. Bruntingthorpe's runway isn't as long as one may think - despite being some two miles long, only about a half is cleared for flying use, so the expectation is that the crew will deploy the braking chute in order to save the newly-fitted brakes.
At 13:30 XH558's distinctive profile is spotted away to the south - flying at 250 knots and about 4,000 feet, the journey from Farnborough has taken about twenty-five minutes, a short hop for an intercontinental bomber. Kev brings the Vulcan around for two missed approaches, checking out the airfield and inspecting the landing conditions. At 13:43 on his third approach, Kev touches XH558 down and she is home at last after some five months lodging at Waddington, Brize Norton and Farnborough.
Martin Withers: "We're thoroughly enjoying flying it - she flies beautifully. We get a great welcome everywhere we go." The welcome at Bruntingthorpe was quiet, as behind the smiles everyone knew it could be the last time - it would be nothing short of a tragedy if so, as the team has produced a minor miracle in achieving its ambition. XH558 performed at twelve airshows in 2008, something few thought would happen just a couple of years ago. It's not just British engineering on display, it's British doggedness, determination and perseverance too.
To find discuss fund-raising and sponsorship ideas, please call Michael Trotter on 07803 141483 or visit the website.
Sign the petition to help keep XH558 flying in the future!