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.