Vulcan Bomber XH558: 'Grace and style' in the sky
- 3 November 2012
- From the section Sheffield & South Yorkshire
They were once the UK's most potent nuclear deterrent and were on standby for a role in the Cuban missile crisis.
But in recent years there has been just one that kept the flag flying for the Vulcan Bombers.
XH558 is the final airworthy aircraft of its type and has been admired by thousands of people each year at air shows as a result.
But soon it too could be grounded like all those before it.
The "tin triangle", which is more than 50 years old, needs "challenging modifications" to both wings which the trust that owns it has decided cannot be funded.
The Leicestershire-based Vulcan To The Sky trust, which bought the aircraft in 2005, says escalating costs and limited engine life mean soon it will be confined to the runway for limited displays.
The group has already spent more than £20m on keeping the aircraft in the sky.
Upkeep of XH558 has been funded through public donations but the trust has come to the conclusion that the generosity that has kept her flying cannot meet the challenges ahead.
Trust chief executive Dr Robert Pleming told supporters recently: "We know that you would do your utmost to fund this work, but for a number of reasons we have decided not to ask you to take this risk."
With a shortage of parts and spare engines, XH558's shelf life has far exceeded any expectations.
More than £2m is needed each year to cover general maintenance, fuel and insurance, with any repairs needing additional funding.
Funds have always been an issue. The trust's access manager Toni Hunter said it had "been so close to the brink so many times", leading to various appeals and fundraising events.
Chief engineer "Taff" Kevin Stone has worked on the plane since the 1980s, when he worked in the RAF and is now the man charged with the task of maintaining her.
"She's flown over 7,500 hours, that's 10% more than any other Vulcan," he said.
"She was only ever meant to fly for about 10 to 15 years service and here she is, she's 52.
"It's the sheer grace yet power of the aircraft. It just glides through the sky. Nothing compares to her. It's a very nice aircraft to fly."
XH558, which contains more than 15 miles of cabling and weighs about 50 tonnes, is now flown by a small number of pilots who trained in the RAF and originally flew Vulcans in the 1980s.
Martin Withers, who joined the RAF in 1968 and flew Vulcans for more than 10 years from 1971, is its chief pilot.
He became a key part of the start of the Falklands war, making the first strike on the country on 1 May 1982 in another Vulcan, only months after the air force started to disband the aircraft from service.
The mission was written about in a bestselling book, Vulcan 607, by Roland White and is an example of why the Vulcans are so popular.
"We miraculously dropped 21 bombs, because that's how many we could take on the bomb bay. We straddled the runway at Port Stanley, the only runway on the island," Mr Withers said.
"We managed to make a big hole in the runway. It all contributed to the outcome of the whole conflict."
The XH558 is now used to woo the crowds at air shows but keeping the 52-year-old aircraft in working order is a constant challenge for the engineers who work on her.
Chief engineer Mr Stone said he has had to have "words" with some of the pilots over the years who have pulled manoeuvres and airborne stunts which have made him "almost fall off his chair" as he watched from the ground.
'Nothing lasts forever'
The Vulcans were designed and built at Woodford, near Stockport, by A V Roe and company.
Bill Beton, a visitor to the hangar where XH558 is kept, remembers seeing them fly over his home in nearby Wilmslow in the 1970s and more recently at Southport Air Show.
"When I was a kid in the 70s there used to be big shouts of frenzy from friends because you could hear it coming. I've always had a soft spot (for them).
"Words defy me. It's majestic, it really is a beautiful thing."
"Nothing lasts forever though," said Mr Beton.
Toni Hunter, who gives guided tours around the Vulcan, said the aircraft would be used to inspire future generations.
"The legacy is what means an awful lot to us. Our aim is to reverse the trend away from engineering. We know there's a shortfall."
The generosity of public money is not just relied on by the trust but also people giving their time.
Judith Cocker, who lives only a few miles from the airport, in Finningley, decided to volunteer after her husband "roped" her in.
"She's iconic and just so wonderful. She's just so special," said Mrs Cocker.
"When you hear her go down the runway, just before she takes off and you get that howl. It gets all of the heckles up on the back of your neck.
"I still pinch myself everyday that I can be so close to her. She's just got this spirit."