A Huge Setback
During the early 90s, a serious problem arose among the Vulcan Association's officials. It was a highly contentious issue and one which is beyond the scope of this history to discuss in detail. I don't propose to name names here or to reveal my own opinion, but suffice it to say that accusations of fraud resulted in criminal proceedings against one of the VA's officials. There were, and still are, supporters of both parties in this very unfortunate case, and despite the prosecution securing a verdict against the individual concerned, neither side were adjudged to have been completely free of some responsibility for the financial collapse of the Vulcan Association.
The ugly repercussions of the court case had a devastating effect, in that the RAF and MoD distanced themselves very rapidly from the Vulcan Association, and following hard on the heels of what may well have been seen as a collapse of public pressure to keep the aircraft flying, the Ministry announced that XH558's flying career was over and put the aircraft up for auction. XH558 was due for a major overhaul to renew her airframe hours, and the Ministry refused to foot the bill.
Shell-shocked Vulcan afficionados rapidly banded together to try to overturn the decision. Several petitions began to circulate, including the Save The Vulcan campaign run by Bob Franklin. In total, around a quarter of a million signatures were gathered and carried to the House of Commons, along with the "Mini-Vulcan", the large scale model Vulcan which had starred in the Bond movie "Thunderball", and which had by this time been remodelled as XH558 by its owner, a former VA member. Amongst MPs supporting the cause were Harry Bromley and Harry Greenway, and the presentation of the petition was attended by several celebrities including TV presenter Raymond Baxter. A Save The Vulcan cake was also presented to MPs.
Even the Ministry were impressed by the ground swell of support for the aircraft, and a temporary hold was put on the sale of XH558, to see whether any viable plan for retaining the aircraft with public support would be suggested. Currency flights continued on a monthly basis but even after some months, no schemes had been put forward that were considered suitable, so the aircraft was eventually put up for sale, and suffered the somewhat ignominious fate of being advertised in the Exchange and Mart, for an undisclosed but undoubtedly knock-down price, rumoured to be about £25,000.
Tenders were invited and decided upon, and eventually it was announced that the aircraft would be retired to an aviation museum at Bruntingthorpe Airfield, south of Leicester, under the care of its new owner, David Walton.
Before that, however, it was announced that XH558's last public display was to take place at the Dreamflight Airshow, at Cranfield, in September 1992. On the day, she arrived in great style, sedately located in formation with the Red Arrows (see Video3). The display was an emotive one. The final run past the crowd was almost sideways, accompanied by the military music "Sunset". The commentator declared, "This is a day that, like Pearl Harbour, will live in history. You can save this aircraft, but you have got to be quick". His co-presenter commented, "If we can't save her, then we don't deserve her". After landing, XH558 was presented to the public: barriers were moved to allow the crowd to get closer to her, and with her huge wings, she sheltered dozens of people from a passing rain shower. Many people cried to see her last display and the rest of the show seemed to pass off almost unnoticed.
Final Farewell ?
The final flight of XH558, from Waddington to Bruntingthorpe, was scheduled for the morning of 23 March 1993. Around 4,000 supporters turned up at Waddington to see her off, many wearing black ties or black armbands. The sombre atmosphere was complemented by a freezing, gale-force wind as XH558 lined up on the runway for the last time.
At 10.10am. XH558 came up to full throttle and roared down the long runway, then leapt skywards in a skewed attitude due to the strength of the wind. The crowd were transfixed, with the majority discreetly wiping away tears and a good number sobbing openly. Both men and women, of all ages, were similarly affected. XH558 circled the airfield and returned low over the watching crowds, opening her huge bomb doors to reveal the word "Farewell" stencilled in huge black letters. Any composure left amongst the crowd melted away at that sight.
And then she flew off, waving her wings, to complete a tour of 28 airfields which had been associated with Vulcans when they were in active service. It is said around 4,000 people turned out at each of these airfields to pay tribute to their beloved "Delta Lady" as she passed by overhead.
Eventually, those who had waited at Waddington were rewarded by one more visitation, as XH558 flew low over Lincoln Cathedral, stopping the town in its tracks for one last time, before making a final pass over Waddington and climbing away, with much wing waving, headed for her new home at Bruntingthorpe. On landing there, in front of another large crowd, XH558 was handed over to her new owner, who was also clearly overcome with emotion.
The Lady at Rest
Thus commenced a long period of comparative rest for the aircraft. From time to time her engines were run up and she made fast sprints along Bruntingthorpe's runway, sometimes for the crowds at open days and sometimes purely for maintenance purposes. David Walton had stated when he bought XH558 that her chances of ever flying again were "fairly remote". Nevertheless, much effort and expenditure was made by the Walton family, helped by an enthusiastic team of volunteers including some of XH558's former RAF ground staff and aircrew, to keep her in peak condition so that if the chance ever arose, recovering lost ground would be minimised.
During this time the Vulcan 558 Club, later to be renamed the Vulcan To The Sky Club, was established to provide a means for fans of the aircraft to raise funds, keep up with any news and to be involved with XH558's maintenance. The Vulcan Operating Company was formed to facilitate the maintenance and take on the task of trying to restore the aircraft to flight and a charitable body, Vulcan To The Sky Trust, was put in place to oversee the fundraising. The project was to become the most complex return-to-flight restoration ever attempted.
Detailed plans were drawn up and the co-operation of necessary technical partners was sought. Principally, BAe and Marshall Aerospace were brought in, and with meticulous planning, an amazing hurdle was cleared - the Civil Aviation Authority agreed to allow the aircraft to fly in civilian hands once the restoration was satisfactorily completed and subject to all required safe operating procedures. Such an undertaking is not easy to obtain and other restoration projects have fallen by the wayside at this stage.
A further victory, against all the odds, was won when the Heritage Lottery Fund agreed, at the second application, to partially fund the restoration with a £2.75 million grant. Prior to this momentous decision, the HLF had always maintained it would not grant Lottery funding to return-to-flight projects, but the exceptional public support for XH558 and the completely professional commitment of the VTTST / TVOC persuaded the HLF that its first response was not perhaps the most appropriate decision in this particular case, and to the HLF's credit, they invited a second application which addressed some unresolved issues, and the grant was approved subject to the further raising of a specified amount by the project's own team.
By June 2006, there remained an amount of around £1.2 million needed to secure the aircraft's restoration to flight, and time was very tight - there was a legal requirement that the money had to be raised by 31st August or the project would have to cease. Club members pledged whatever they could and donations and pledges were received from many corporate supporters, but up until the end of August, an amount of around a half- million pounds was still needed. Despite the optimism of all concerned, it began to look as though the project would fall at the final fence. Then, at the last moment, a supremely generous donation of the desperately-needed outstanding amount was received from Sir Jack Hayward, and the project to complete XH558's restoration was given the go-ahead.
Rolling for take-off
XH558 was rolled out of her Bruntingthorpe hangar in celebration on 31st August 2006, having just had her undercarriage refitted after refurbishment - the first time she had stood on her undercarriage in over six years !
The aircraft, already purchased for the nation from the Walton family, is to be used for the education, enjoyment and heritage of the nation. After her newly extended flying career - probably some ten to fifteen more years when the restoration is completed, she will eventually be retired to the Imperial War Museum's Duxford branch to be preserved for the nation in perpetuity.
It was hoped that XH558 would return to the skies of Brtain in time for the Falklands 25th Anniversary commemorative flypast over The Mall in June of 2007. Time was always going to be tight to achieve that deadline but there was huge enthusiasm to be there at the flypast, so it was all hands on deck to complete the work. Sadly, it wasn't to be, as some extra corrosion was found during the restoration, but after completion of the restoration project at a cost of around £7million, XH558 is now flying again for the first time in more than 14 years. She took off on her first test flight at 12.25pm on 18th October 2007. The Vulcan Operating Company's website was immediately overwhelmed with massive numbers of hits.
In early July of 2008, all flight tests successfully completed, Vulcan XH558 received her final permission to fly and within a day or so, began Stage 2 of her display career. She attended displays at Waddington (her old base) and the International Air Tattoo at Fairford (12-13 July) which was sadly spoiled by bad weather and put on a fine, if brief, display (See Video clip) at the 2008 Farnborough Air Show (19-20 July). For the early displays, there are necessarily limitations on the amount of power and intensity of the manoeuvres employed, while the aircrew get used to flying her again and she acclimatises to life back in the air. I'm assured that as her display intinerary progresses, her displays will become as spirited as they were over 15 years ago.
There are, of course, large ongoing expenses to be met - annual maintenance and running costs. If you would like to see this magnificent aircraft continuing to grace the air display circuit as the pride of British technological heritage, please, please, check out the links page and find out about how to make a donation to the Vulcan to the Sky Trust project. Please don't try to donate via my website - I don't have any means to handle donations and I have no authorisation to receive any, I'm only trying to point visitors towards the team responsible for the restoration and ongoing operational costs!