I have always been fascinated by aircraft of all sorts, whether it be the older type where the science of flight was still in its infancy or the modern day aircraft ranging from the small and fast to the large heavy lifters with everything in between, both civilian and military.
As a result, one of the things I have grown to love doing – though I don’t do it often – is go to airshows. One of the mainstays of the big shows in the UK in recent years is XH558, the only remaining airworthy Avro Vulcan, and this year is her final year of flying. This year is her #Farewelltoflight tour, and she is appearing in as many shows as possible as part of the send off.
As such I thought I would put together my own little tribute with information gleaned from various places together with a series of my own photos from the number of times I have seen XH558 in flight, plus a few of the other Vulcans that can be seen on static display in different places. All photos were taken with my Fujifilm Finepix HS20EXR apart from the header photo and the black and white version at the end which were taken with a Fujifilm X-E2 with the 18-55mm lens.
In 1947, in response to the potential threat of nuclear attacks, the Air Ministry laid out specifications for an advanced jet bomber that would be the equal of anything the US or USSR had. The guidelines proposed a medium-range bomber capable of carrying one 10,000 pound (4535kg) bomb to a target 1500 nautical miles (2775km) from a base that may be anywhere in the world. The request also indicated a maximum take-off weight of 100,000 pounds (45,400kg), a cruising spped of 500 knots (925km/h) and have a service ceiling of 50,000 feet (15,200m). This far out-stripped anything the RAF’s then current jet bomber – the English Electric Canberra – was capable of.
In the end, three aircraft went into development and production as a result. They were the Handley Page Victor (development started in November 1947), Avro Vulcan (development started in January 1948), and the Vickers Valiant (development started in April 1948). Both the Victor and the Vulcan were quite radical designs, so it was decided that the Valiant should also be developed for its more conservative design as an insurance measure for the more advanced designs failing. The three came to be known as the V-bombers.
Though full development of the Vulcan did not begin until January 1948, the initial designs were drawn in 1946 by Roy Chadwick, who is best known for one of his other designs which first flew just five years previously in 1941 – the Avro Lancaster. Roy Chadwick never saw his design come to fruition as he died in 1947 in a plane crash, and the design was picked up by Stuart Davies who lead the team to complete the design and development.
The first full-scale prototype of the Vulcan flew in 1952, just 11 years after the Lancaster, though the two look light years apart. The initial variant of the Vulcan – B1 – entered service in 1956, with the upgraded B2 entering service in 1960. No B1s were upgraded to B2 standard on the grounds of cost, but were instead partially upgraded to B1A standard incorporating some of the improvements of the B2 but not all.
From 1957 to 1969, the Vulcans were the main British contribution to the NATO strategic nuclear deterrent.
Initially Vulcan’s were armed with Britain’s first nuclear weapon, the low-kiloton yield gravity bomb Blue Danube. After this came a succession of other nuclear weapons before the introduction of Blue Steel in 1962, a rocket-powered stand off bomb with a 1.1megaton yield warhead.
Once the Polaris submarines entered service with the Royal Navy the Vulcans were retired from their nuclear deterrent role. This also saw the retirement of the Blue Steel missile. Vulcan’s did however retain a nuclear tactical strike role for some time longer carrying the WE.177B, though this required a change from high altitude flight to low altitude which the Vulcan had not been designed for.
The Vulcans remained in service not only as tactical nuclear and conventional bombers but proved versatile enough to be converted for other roles as well such as maritime reconnaissance, air-to-air refuelling, and use as an engine test bed.
By 1984, only two Vulcans were left in RAF service in the air-to-air refuelling role and these were retired in March that year.
Despite being in service for almost 30 years Vulcans only flew in anger in one campaign – the Falklands. In 1982, Vulcans flew record breaking bombing sorties from Ascension Island to Port Stanley airfield, a round trip of 8000 miles taking almost 16 hours. The first of these sorties saw two Vulcans (XM598 with XM607 as a backup aircraft) supported by 13 Victor air-to-air refuelling tankers and carrying 21 x 450kg bombs. XM598 had to return to Ascension soon after take-off due to pressure seal failure so XM607 continued on the sole bomber. Due to difficulties with the approach and equipment available just one of the 450kg hit the runway that was targeted but this was sufficient to decommission it and complete the mission.
Vulcan XM607 is now the gate sentry at RAF Waddington.
After retirement from active duty, the RAF kept a Vulcan flying for display purposes only. This continued to fly in displays until 1992, with the final flight in 1993 to its new home, Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome in Leicestershire. That Vulcan was XH558. XH558 was the first Vulcan B2 to be delivered to the RAF and was the last in service having been converted for a time first to maritime reconnaissance and then again to air-to-air refuelling duties before being returned to B2 configuration for the Vulcan Display Team.
XH558 had been bought from the MoD by C Walton Ltd, a family firm who purchased and maintained her with a view to one day returning her to flight. It was not until 1997 that a team lead by Dr Robert Pleming started to plan returning XH558 to flight; it was already known that it was to be a challenging and costly enterprise.
Marshall of Cambridge Aerospace was recommended and agreed to act as the Engineering Authority for the restoration project in 1999, and between 1998 and 2000 all the support necessary from manufacturers was formally confirmed. All that remained was to raise the money to begin work. Initial estimates were that over £3.5 million would be required, and this proved to be far less than would be required.
In 2003, the Heritage Lottery Fund announced a grant of £2.7 million for XH558’s restoration, the rest still needing to be raised.
XH558 was bought for the nation by the Vulcan to the Sky Trust in March 2005 and the team – many of whom had worked on Vulcans in the RAF – began the restoration work in August 2005.
In August 2007, the Olympus engines were fired up for the first time after which two months of ground tests were carried out to ensure XH558 was ready for flight.
On 18th October 2007, with over £7 million spent on the restoration and more than 14 years after its last flight, XH558 took to the skies, once again the Vulcan proving a success story for British engineering.
After this, XH558 was granted her Permit to Fly on 3rd July 2008 and returned to air displays only 2 days later at RAF Waddington – her former home. In 2010, XH558 was given the name The Spirit of Great Britain.
I have seen XH558 fly on a number of occasions both whilst she has been on route to/from airshows from her current home – Robin Hood Airport, Doncaster – as well as performing displays at airshows.
The first airshow I saw XH558 was the RAF Waddington International Airshow in 2011. I had been a fan of the Vulcan for a long time anyway, but seeing such an enormous plane being thrown around the sky like a fighter rather than the bomber she was truly awe inspiring. Together with the roar of the four Olympus engines, it was an unforgettable experience.
This airshow was one of the things that prompted me to buy my Fujifilm Finepix HS20EXR. At the time I was using a small point and shoot which was quite reasonable for what it was, but the zoom wasn’t enough to get any inflight shots, and I quickly realised that I needed more control over the camera settings than I had. I bought the HS20 in the December that same year.
The following year unfortunately XH558 was unable to fly at Waddington due to engine damage. She was unable to have a new engine fitted and be fully tested for certification for display purposes in time for Waddington but was flying again for the following weekend at the RIAT.
I then saw XH558 at the following two Waddington airshows as well as a couple of times over Wittering displaying for the families day and also whilst in transit from one place to another.
The most recent time I saw XH558 was just last weekend in the Military Pagent at the Shuttleworth Collection. You can read a review of the airshow as a whole at the link below:
The following video is of the first fly past:
The display was fantastic and awe inspiring as always. The pilot on the day was Martin Withers who captained XM607 on the Black Buck 1 mission during the Falklands conflict.
Here is another flypast from the Military Pageant with XH558 going into a near vertical climb:
It was the first time XH558 had displayed at the Shuttleworth Collection and there will only be one more appearance made at the collection at the start of October as The Spirit of Great Britain is to be retired from flight displays at the end of this airshow season due to a number of factors. The show on 04 October is to be the last airshow that XH558 appears at, though a tour of as much of Great Britain as possible is hoped to be made in October which id dependent on funding and serviceability.
If you have not seen The Spirit of Great Britain flying, I cannot speak highly enough of the experience – a list of her final appearances can be found at the link below:
If you are able to, make the most of the remaining opportunities. Every airshow XH558 has taken part in this year has been sold out so be prepared.
After retirement from flight, XH558 will be a centrepiece for a new education project to help inspire the development of technical and aviation industry skills in Great Britain. Though not flying, XH558 is to be kept in a condition capable of fast taxi runs which will be carried out regularly.
This is only a very brief history of the Vulcan bombers. To find out more – in particular about the story of and future plans for XH558 – the Vulcan to the Sky website is a very good place to start: