Sheffield & South Yorkshire

Vulcan Bomber XH558: 'Grace and style' in the sky

Montage of Vulcan Bomber photographs
Image caption The XH558 Vulcan Bomber has been based at Robin Hood Airport in South Yorkshire since March 2011, after the aircraft moved from RAF Lyneham.
Inside the cockpit of the XH558 Vulcan Bomber
Image caption Only three people are allowed to fly in the Vulcan when it is performing at air shows - two pilots and an electronics engineer.
Knobs and switches inside the Vulcan Bomber cockpit
Image caption The aircraft has seating for five people, however the navigator and person charged with releasing the bombs are now redundant.
One of the manual sheets for the Vulcan Bomber
Image caption The engineers for the Vulcan Bomber have scores of manuals which they use for the systems on the plane. The XH558 has about 15 miles of cabling. Chief engineer Kevin Stone said five miles of cabling had been replaced since the plane was taken over by the trust.
Electronic engineer position in the Vulcan Bomber cockpit
Image caption Vision is very limited inside the cockpit as the plane was designed to release a nuclear bomb and withstand extreme blasts. The on board engineer is able to look through the view finder and see under and on top of the aircraft.
Equipment in the cockpit which is used to balance the aircraft
Image caption Mr Stone said about 15 tonnes of redundant equipment was taken out of the aircraft during its restoration. Heavy equipment then had to be put back in the cockpit to ensure it was evenly balanced.
The Vulcan based in hangar three at Robin Hood Airport
Image caption XH558 was given the name The Spirit of Great Britain in 2010 by the Vulcan to the Sky trust.
Painting of the Vulcan Bomber and the 14 people from the Vulcan to the Sky trust
Image caption Fourteen staff work across the last flying Vulcan Bomber. Local artist Mags Doig painted this piece for the staff, which hangs in the office.

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.

Image caption Kevin Stone has worked with Vulcan Bombers since the 1980s

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).

Image caption Bill and son Matthew Beton travelled from Cheshire to see XH558 in Robin Hood Airport's Hangar Three

"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."

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