Thursday, 23 July 2009

On Delta-Winged Beauty

During the late 1970s, my Dad used to take me and my little brother to RAF Finningley to see the Air Display. We lived within fairly comfortable walking distance of the airbase, so it was an easy day out. I don’t remember a huge amount about the planes we saw, or what really went on – I was quite young at the time. However, I do have two very vivid memories from that time. One was owning a polystyrene Boeing 747 which didn’t fly very well, and the other was hearing a very particular noise coming from a very large triangular-shaped aeroplane. That plane was, of course, the Avro Vulcan and I loved it!

By 1982 I was a bit more aware of the world around me and was starting to take an interest in news and current affairs. I was also still interested in aeroplanes. I distinctly remember the morning that my Mum came into my bedroom, woke me up and told me that we were now at war. The Falklands conflict had been building for weeks and I was just old enough to be fascinated by what was going on. The notion of “war” was also something rather new to me – all I had previously known was that it mostly involved powdered egg, Anderson shelters, and blowing up German dams.

So I followed this new war to see what would happen. The eggs remained resolutely normal, but there was a lot of talk on the news of other exotic sounding things. Brian Hanrahan counted Harrier Jump Jets, Mrs Thatcher made a lot of fuss about sinking The General Belgrano, and I discovered there was an island in the middle of the Atlantic which had an airport called Wideawake (which I thought was a rather nice name). I also remember that they bombed the airport at Port Stanley – and the plane they used was the amazing delta-winged Vulcan that I loved seeing so much at the airshows! I was impressed!

A few years later I became a teenager, stopped going to airshows with my Dad, and didn’t take so much notice of aeroplanes.

I started to get seriously interested in them again when I first went in one. When I was in the sixth form my parents agreed to let me go on a school trip to Russia if I saved up half the money from my Saturday job. So it was that at age 17 I boarded an Aeroflot jet bound for Leningrad and flew for the very first time. AND IT WAS MAGICAL! I had always loved looking up at clouds, and now they were below me. WOW!

Fast forward a few more years, and I made a new friend. He too was passionate about aeroplanes and we started to go to the Royal International Air Tattoo together, which took me right back to my youth. However, by this time, there were no Vulcans. Admittedly, the B1Bs and the BBMF Lancaster were pretty cool (it’s always the bombers I love the most), but sadly the Vulcans were no longer around, having done their last displays in the early 1990s.

One year my friend bought me a trial flying lesson for my birthday – one of the best birthday presents I’ve ever had. He even got me the deluxe version, which included aerobatics – barrel rolls, aileron rolls, inside loops, and several others. I became even more keen on planes!
He also bought me an Airfix kit so I could build a model Vulcan. Inevitably I chose a bomber, and of all the bombers available I selected the wonderful plane from my youth. I bought all the paints and bits needed to complete the model, but, as these things do, it sat in my wardrobe and gathered dust for several years.
I did eventually start building though. About half-way through construction something else happened; Rowland White’s book Vulcan 607 was published. It was, of course, a must-read for me, and I dropped everything and read it avidly. There’s no doubt that it’s a great story, and greater because it’s true. However, given that I half-remembered some bits of it from my youth, was already a big fan of the Vulcan, and was in the middle of building a model Vulcan it resonated even more strongly. The characters in the book, all real people, instantly became heroes of mine, especially the captain of XM607: Flt Lt Martin Withers. Who could fail to be mesmerized by someone who had flown a Vulcan through the Grand Canyon on his way to Red Flag?

After reading the book, I hastily went to the model shop to buy dark sea grey paint in order to camouflage my model for stormy South Atlantic skies. Here is my finished model, and a view of the grey underside:
But while I was building a 1:72 model, some much more dedicated and much more skilled people were working on restoring the real thing. I had previously seen their stands at RIAT, bought their merchandise, and given small amounts of money to the cause. Here is the “nose” which appeared at Cottesmore in 2001:
I can’t remember when I started seriously believing that they would do it and that a Vulcan would fly again. I started to follow progress avidly from around 2005, first on the news and then on the internet. The whole story is much too long and much too full of twists and turns to describe here, but if you want to find out more, a short history can be found by clicking here!

My personal part of the story continues on 18th October 2007, when the restored Vulcan XH558 made her first flight. I watched, spellbound, on the television, and hoped that she would be at Fairford for RIAT 2008. However, RIAT 2008 was not to be. Torrential rain in the days leading up to the show forced the cancellation of the whole show (scroll to the bottom of the link). My friend and I consulted our diaries and looked at the flying schedule for the Vulcan. We couldn’t make anything fit. Work commitments, family commitments, pre-booked holidays. Sadness & disappointment ensued and I tried very hard NOT to think about Vulcans.

Maybe 2009 would be better? By February it didn’t appear so. The Vulcan to the Sky website posted grim news, and my hopes of ever seeing a Vulcan fly again plummeted. Nevertheless, RIAT 2009 remained on the calendar – the airshow would still be fun without a Vulcan wouldn’t it?

After spending a week nervously watching the weather, I got up at 5.15 on Saturday morning and set off to collect my friend and head to Fairford. The sun was out, the sky was cloudy, but not excessively so, the queues were not too severe that early in the morning.

I had also been following @XH558 on Twitter all week so knew she had arrived at Fairford. She was the first plane we saw as we drove in to the car park. Looking GOOD! Vulcan village was in full swing, so I bought a bag full of Vulcan merchandise. We then went over to admire XH558 in all her beauty:
Having parked ourselves at the “right hand” end of the runway, nearest to XH558, we settled down to enjoy the flying displays. Then, mid-afternoon, we heard a familiar engine noise just behind us. Abandoning our stuff we headed over to watch. Lights were on, chocks were being removed. Then she started to taxi. The crowd broke into spontaneous applause, and we hurried back to our spot by the runway. Here she is, firing up for take-off:
Already trembling with excitement as she left the ground, I was thrilled to hear that Martin Withers was at the controls. How much more exciting could this get? I tried VERY hard to concentrate on whatever else was flying while XH558 headed for Cosford to do a fly past, before returning to display for us. And what a display it was. Throttling up to full power so we could hear the might of the engines, opening bomb doors, banking and turning, and looking SO beautiful, silhouetted against the grey clouds:
Then she came in to land. A majestic sight, airbrakes deployed. Just stunning! More applause from the crowd.
As she taxied back to her own special “parking spot”, all eyes continued to focus on her, even though another display had just started. She is such a beautiful and mesmerizing aeroplane.

Before we started heading for home we went over to take one last look at XH558, now fully parked up again. As we approached, I saw that the crew were there, and were signing autographs. And there was Martin Withers!! Somewhat starstruck, I approached him, told him he was my hero, and he signed my programme! Perfect end to a perfect day. WOW!

All that remains to say is thank you so much for reading another lengthy blog post. If you can bear just one more Vulcan picture, here is one that one of my wonderful tweeps @pbiggs sent to me of XH558 leading a B52 down Fairford’s runway on the Sunday:
And, from me, a BIG thank you to everyone at Vulcan To The Sky. Your hard work and dedication through difficulties and terrible funding problems is so very much appreciated. The Vulcan may initially have been created as an instrument of war, but it now represents, to me, a supreme human achievement. It is also an exceptionally beautiful aeroplane.


  1. Different strokes and all that. I hate the Vulcan with a deep intensity. It was one of the aircraft I trained on at Cosford. It's stunning to look at, I'll concede, but the avionics are truly horrible.

  2. Thanks for sharing your feelings. It's amazing how one can become attached to a think made of metal and wire, isn't it? I think my first such attachment was the Lunar Excursion Module (not a very appealing name.)

    You're almost certain to get a different opinion from the people who lived and breathed with it!

  3. Brennig - so sorry you hate the Vulcan so much. Maybe, as Buck says, she's a little different close up. I do have to admit that I've heard talk that the avionics are not the most user-friendly. However, I'm heartened to hear that you still concede that she's stunning to look at, and deeply envious that you've actually flown one!!

    Buck - Lunar Excursion Module sounds like a very appealing name to me. I'm quite capable of becoming attached to objects made out of metal and wire - maybe I should be worried about this tendency, but as rather a lot of other people seem to do it too perhaps it doesn't matter.

    Something that did please me was that an old schoolfriend of mine, who read this post via a link on my facebook wall, e-mailed me to ask for my VTTS club number as he was going to join too. Hurray!! Keep her flying!!!

  4. The 'Vulcan' is THE plan e to see fly. Fantastic story. I have many memories of the Vulcan and to see it fly again this year was the icing on the cake at Cosford.