The Last Flying Vulcan Touches Down at Her New Home: The Doncaster Airfield Where She Was Based in the 1960s

The last flying Vulcan, XH558, is to spend the summer based at the airfield where she once stood on Quick Reaction Alert during the Cold War. Now the UK’s newest commercial airport, Doncaster Sheffield is the former RAF Finningley, once ‘the home of the Vulcans’.

The agreement to base XH558 at Doncaster for the summer could be the first stage in the development of a visitor centre that will eventually be linked to a facility to inspire the next generation of engineers and technicians. “We are thrilled that the last flying Vulcan has come home,” says Vulcan to the Sky Trust chief executive officer Dr Robert Pleming. “We all feel that something very special could be created here but I must emphasise that these are early days in the discussions.”

Widely recognised as an iconic example of British technical innovation and an important educational focus for engineering and cold-war education, XH558 was returned to airworthy condition by the Vulcan to the Sky Trust following a mammoth ten year struggle. Today she is the world’s only flying Vulcan and the most complex all-British historic aircraft to be operated outside the RAF. She costs around £2 million a year to operate and receives no government funding, making her entirely reliant on public support.

Last year XH558 achieved a reliability record better than many modern military jets, allowing more than two million people to see her fly. This year, if they can raise sufficient funding, the Trust hopes that more than three million people will be delighted by her dramatic displays as she travels to more airshows, across more of the country than ever before.

Avro Vulcan XH558 was built at Woodford, near Manchester, painted in ‘anti-flash white’ and delivered to RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire, in July 1960. A year later she moved to Finningley where she was based for the next eight years. Vulcan to the Sky chief pilot, Squadron Leader Martin Withers DFC flew Vulcans (including XH558) from the site between 1972 and 1982 but is best known as Black Buck One, captain of the famous first 1982 Vulcan mission to the Falkland Islands. At the climax of an 8,000 mile round trip that required refuelling from eleven Victor tankers, Withers and his crew released the bombs that signalled the beginning of the end of the Falklands conflict.

“The V-Force ceased to be held on QRA when the submarine-launched Polaris nuclear missiles were introduced, but my generation of pilots still had the same war role to back-up the Polaris,” he explains. “We regularly practised ‘Generation Exercises’ to get as many aircraft as possible airborne and deployed to satellite airfields (including Finningley) where we sat on the ORP (Operational Readiness Pan) at the end of the runway with the crews nearby in the equivalent of Portakabins. The exercises lasted several days and would usually terminate with a simultaneous ‘Mass Scramble’ of all the aircraft involved in the exercise across all the bases and a lengthy training sortie.”

“Touching down at Finningley today was one of the most emotional experiences of my professional life,” said a thoughtful Martin Withers.”

As well as the crescent of purpose-built V-Bomber hangars, constructed in magnificent Modernist style from blast-resistant reinforced concrete, the site retains examples of the bomb stores built to house the British nuclear deterrent. Even the ‘pan’ survives, where Vulcans once stood ready to be armed and take-off in just 90 seconds should there be a sudden escalation in East-West tension.

“Doncaster would be a perfect long-term home for XH558 and we are working with Invest in Doncaster and with Doncaster Sheffield Airport to see how this could be possible,” says Vulcan to the Sky Trust business development director Michael Trotter. “Both organisations have been extremely enthusiastic in welcoming us.”

Craig Richmond, CEO of Peel Airports, which operates Doncaster Sheffield Airport, sees the opportunities that the Vulcan offers for the airport, for the region and for XH558’s supporters. “Having the last flying example operating from ‘the home of the Vulcans’, in the town that also hosted Britain’s first airshow, is a fabulous tribute to the bravery of the men and women who were based here when the airfield played a key strategic role in Britain’s defences,” he says. “Peel Airports is committed to developing all aspects of aviation activity at the airport and is delighted to be able to provide a home for this inspirational historic aircraft at what is today a modern commercial airport.”

Airport director Mike Morton adds: “We will do what we can to ensure that XH558’s many supporters have access to the aircraft for guided visits and are already working with the Trust to accomplish this as quickly as possible. If discussions go well, this will be the beginning of a major new attraction for the region and an important educational resource for Britain.”

Invest in Doncaster, part of Doncaster Council, also saw the potential opportunities more than two years ago and has been in discussions with Vulcan to the Sky Trust since. Manager of Investment Chris Dungworth said, "It was fantastic to see such an important part of Doncaster’s rich aviation heritage touch-down at Robin Hood Airport, which we hope will develop into a modern aviation centre for the region. Having the last flying Vulcan based here will significantly increase the profile of Doncaster nationally and, if we agree a longer-term commitment, will help us to attract new investment to create a major new visitor attraction based around this iconic aircraft."

Last flight from Lyneham

“Finningley is her home now, but we will miss RAF Lyneham,” says Dr Pleming. “I’d like to thank the RAF for allowing us to operate from their airfield and especially for allowing us to welcome so many of XH558’s supporters onto the site.” During the winter of 2010/11, more than 1,500 people visited XH558 at Lyneham, ranging from school groups learning about aircraft, engineering and the cold war, to Chelsea Pensioners with vivid memories of this terrifying period in world history.

Earlier in March, XH558 completed her £120,000 winter service at Lyneham and comfortably passed all the vital safety checks that will allow her to embark on her ambitious 2011 display season. Work is carried-out by the Trust’s engineering team, many of whom are ex-RAF, with the support of independent specialist contractors. The Civil Aviation Authority requires XH558 and her crew to meet amongst the world’s highest standards for aviation safety.

Also on-board the flight from Lyneham to Doncaster was the CAA’s Chief Test Pilot, monitoring every aspect of the performance of the aircraft. “Everything is now in-place to begin the last flying Vulcan’s biggest display season ever, which could be her penultimate year of major displays depending on airframe life,” confirms Dr. Pleming. “All we need now is the funding to take-off for this exciting season.”

Urgent fund-raising

Operating the last flying Vulcan, to aviation safety standards that are amongst the highest in the world, costs around £2million a year. To hit the 2011 season with stable finances, the Vulcan to the Sky Trust must raise £75,000 before the end of March, £125,000 during April and a further £150,000 by the end of May: a total of £350,000. According to Dr. Pleming, they have been hit by increased fuel costs and changes in VAT regulations that cannot be covered by the Trust’s growing commercial income. “We receive no money from Government or the RAF. Even with growing trading income, we are still dependent on the generosity of her supporters,” he says. “If we can’t raise this money quickly, the last flying Vulcan will not take-off for the 2011 display season.”

The aircraft was returned to the air in 2007 following exceptional support from the British public, the Heritage Lottery Fund and from a number of company sponsors. The project is thought to be the most technically complex restoration programme ever accomplished in any aspect of preservation. Since then, the Trust has strengthened its commercial activities and its engagement with the aircraft’s supporters. There is a new eNewsletter with fascinating pictures, news, competitions and technical updates, a Facebook page, the online shop has an extensive range of merchandise and supporters are encouraged to visit her whenever group access can be granted. “We are exceedingly grateful to the small band of visionary supporters who have generously donated so that we can get this far,” says Dr. Pleming.

But he concludes with a serious warning. “I have to tell you that however exciting the future looks, due to factors beyond our control we risk running out of money ahead of the air show season.Despite the hugely positive reaction from the millions of people who see the Vulcan in flight every year, it remains a mystery why so few are then motivated to contribute to keeping her flying.”

How to help

To raise the money, a package of supporter benefits is being launched that includes a special Summer Season Plaque that will carry the names of campaign supporters on the famous bomb-bay doors. Supporters can also buy insurance cover for the Vulcan, which earns them a specially-commissioned umbrella carrying the legend ‘I helped cover the last flying Vulcan’. Supporters can also donate via the Vulcan to the Sky Website (please remember Gift Aid) or buy from the vast range of Vulcan merchandise.

“It is absolutely vital that everyone who values the sight of XH558 appearing over the trees around the country helps however they can,” emphasises business development director Michael Trotter. “Despite the growing success of our commercial activities, we still rely on her supporters to keep her flying.”

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