Standing in the shadow of greatness

Toni Hunter, Vulcan Access Manager, pictured during the Vulcan tour. Picture: Marie Caley D2891MC
Toni Hunter, Vulcan Access Manager, pictured during the Vulcan tour. Picture: Marie Caley D2891MC

SINCE touching down at her new home just over seven months ago, Doncaster’s historic Vulcan bomber has rapidly become a much-loved tourist attraction with scores of excited onlookers flocking to Robin Hood Airport to see the mighty aircraft roar through the skies once more.

After a summer of jaw-dropping air show flypasts, the old girl is now taking it easy for the winter in her original Finningley hangar - but she’s still open to visitors as enthusiasts can now get up close and personal with a true icon of the air.

Tours around the Vulcan are now available at Robin Hood Airport. Picture: Marie Caley D2895MC

Tours around the Vulcan are now available at Robin Hood Airport. Picture: Marie Caley D2895MC

Features editor DARREN BURKE joined one of the first guided tours of the delta lady in her new surroundings...

EARLY autumn sun shines softly through the upper hangar windows, gently illuminating the hulking camouflaged frame of Vulcan XH558.

The rays glint off the cockpit and there’s an almost reverential silence in the light and airy surrounds of her gargantuan home. Somewhere in the distance, there’s the sound of birds twittering and the occasional clang of a dropped spanner as aircraft technicians elsewhere go about their work.

We are in the presence of greatness and it seems words should be quietly whispered for fear of waking this beast from her slumbers. Like a lion dozing in the heat of the African sun, its hard to believe this serene and still legendary aircraft is capable of such terrifying noise, ear-trembling roars, breathtaking speeds and which has the power to make grown men openly weep.

Sisters Kathleen Hendry, of Epworth and Doris Thacker, of Luton, enjoy a closer look at the Vulcan. Picture: Marie Caley D2899MC

Sisters Kathleen Hendry, of Epworth and Doris Thacker, of Luton, enjoy a closer look at the Vulcan. Picture: Marie Caley D2899MC

But for now she’s in hibernation for the winter months, her dedicated crew tending to her every need after a gruelling summer schedule which has seen her perform at more than a dozen air shows from locations as far afield as Scotland and Bournemouth to the Isle Of Man and Sunderland.

On each and every occasion the Vulcan has taken to the skies in the last few months, enthusiasts from across the country have descended on Doncaster to see her soar gracefully through the air - and to hear that infamous and spine-tingling “howl” - an ear-splitting roar that sends shudders through your entire body and the decibel level off the scale.

Not bad for a 51-year-old.

XH558 is the world’s only remaining airworthy Vulcan - and keeping her in the skies is an enormous task. But thanks to the 19 employees of the Vulcan To The Sky Trust, she has no plans to slow down just yet and visitors can now see her in her original Finningley home and quiz the people who look after her about every specification and detail or simply gaze in awe at the Cold War and Falkands veteran.

Ray Watts, Propulsion Technician. Picture: Marie Caley D2900MC

Ray Watts, Propulsion Technician. Picture: Marie Caley D2900MC

For while she sits silently now, in her infancy, this plane was Britain’s nuclear deterrent - ready to go into battle at the drop of a hat. Indeed, and quite remarkably, four fully armed Vulcans could be scrambled within just 90 seconds - the country’s show of sabre rattling against the might of the Soviet Union and an aircraft capable of unleashing hell, death and destruction in large measures.

As it is, XH558 was only used once in anger, taking part in the 1982 Black Buck missions in the Falklands War when its bombs were dropped on Port Stanley airfield in the world’s then longest bombing raid - a staggering 15 and three quarter hours and undertaken by the trust’s current chief pilot, Martin Withers.

Now the old girl is seeing out her days as an air show regular - which is where tour guide Toni Hunter first gazed in awe at the delta winged beauty.

She said: “I was only young but I heard those four mighty engines power up, saw it rise gracefully into the sky and just thought “wow.”

“To me it looked like a moth and I can remember the howl it made as it rose through the skies. It was a truly remarkable sight and from that day on I was hooked.”

And it seems Toni’s love affair with the Vulcan is a common one - aircraft enthusiasts from as far flung as Gloucestershire and Suffolk have already signed up for the two hour guided tours online with several of the forthcoming trips already fully booked. She added: “This is an aircraft that people are genuinely wowed by. It has that real draw-jopping presence when people see it up close for the first time.”

From beneath the shadow of those huge wings (111 feet from wing tip to wing tip if you were wondering and 106 feet in length), I peer up into the bomb bay, its inside a muddle of wires, rivets, boxes and pipes, trying to imagine, the absolutely mammoth task the crew must have faced in returning XH558 to the skies.

The restoration team scavenged far and wide for parts - more than 800 tonnes of spares were shipped in from across the country for one of the most complex engineering projects ever undertaken in this country.

Even though the interior looks like the control room of a 1950s’ power station, the Vulcan is in remarkably good nick for a piece of engineering that first flew more than half a century ago, save for a few drip trays here and there to pick up the odd dribble and leak.

And its those dribbles and leaks that engineer Ray Watts is on hand to fix.

Gravesend-born Ray is one of six experts given the huge job of keeping the plane airworthy. Good job then that he knows the Vulcan inside out, having cut his teeth on them as a raw RAF recruit at Waddington in the late seventies and early eighties. He said: “I am absolutely passionate about it. When they were taken out of service I never thought I’d work on one again, so its a real pleasure to be involved. It keeps me young for one thing!”

Ray and his colleagues know every last inch of XH558 - and there’s a lot of inches - if the plane were to be stripped apart its panels and components would cover one and a half football pitches and have the task of checking her over with a fine tooth comb before and after every flight.

He added: “There’s always something new - no two days are the same. We have to be reassured that she’s good to fly. We can’t take any risk at all - if there’s a problem, she doesn’t go up. Simple as that.”

But when she does fly? “It sends a shiver down my spine every time,” he said. “My job satisfaction is seeing children standing there open mouthed at an air show. There’s nothing more inspiring than that as children are the future of looking after the Vulcan.”

There’s the bitter tang and the slight whiff of aviation fuel in the air as I catch up with sisters Kathleen Hendry and Doris Thacker as they gaze up towards the Vulcan’s nose cone, emblazoned with the wording The Spirit Of Great Britain - a name that couldn’t be more apt.

Said Kathleen, who lives in Epworth: “Isn’t it fabulous? Absolutely beautiful - but much bigger than I thought.

“My daughter works at the airport and when I saw it through the glass I knew I had to come and see it.

“It is a privilege to be able to see it this close and its a true part of our heritage. Its name couldn’t be more appropriate.”

As the two hours come to an end, and Toni ushers us back towards the main terminal building, I take a last peek back at the glowering Vulcan, its four huge engines protected by covers, silent and still and think back to seeing her fly for the first time in more than 15 years at last summer’s Waddington Air Show.

On that baking summer’s day, I was lucky enough to hear the howl and the roar as she eased gracefully through a cloudless blue sky above the Lincolnshire countryside and my two children, as required by the drill, stopped kicking their football around and looked on, jaws slack and eyes wide.

Believe you me, she’s as every bit as impressive and beautiful up close and on the ground. Go along and find out for yourself. The beast is only sleeping...

* To book a place on the Vulcan tour call 01302 776411 between 10am and 4pm on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday only.

Full payment must be made at the time of booking. Prices are £10 for adults, under 16s £3, OAPs £6 and family tickets (two adults and up to three children) £24.

More details at www.vulcantothesky.org where donations can also be made to keep the Vulcan flying.

VULCAN FACTFILE

* Avro Vulcan XH558, The Spirit Of Great Britain, is the only airworthy example of the 134 Avro Vulcan V-bombers that were operated by the Royal Air Force from 1953 until 1984.

* It was the twelfth Vulcan B2 built, first flew in 1960 and was delivered to RAF Waddington on 1 July 1960. Almost immediately the aircraft moved to RAF Finningley where the aircraft spent some eight years before returning to Lincolnshire in 1968.

* Vulcan XH558 served with the RAF between 1960 and 1985 in the bomber, maritime reconnaissance and air-to-air refuelling roles. The RAF operated XH558 as a display aircraft from 1986 until 1992, when budget cuts forced its retirement.

* The Vulcan was bought in 1993 for the sum of £25,000 by businessman David Walton who had the vision of getting the plane airborne again.

* The engineering staff of the Vulcan Operating Company (the engineering arm of Vulcan to the Sky Trust, owners of XH558), worked to return her to flight, with the first test flight taking place on 18 October 2007.

* It is presently operated by the Vulcan to the Sky Trust as a display aircraft, funded entirely by charitable donations and the UK Lottery’s Heritage Fund.

* On 29 March 2011, XH558 landed at its new home Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield.

* The medium-term aim of the Trust is for XH558 to fly down The Mall on 4 June 2012 in celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.