2011 Articles

APR 05 2011
Aviation News: Welcome Home - Vulcan XH558 returns to Doncaster

Vulcan XH558 made her final flight as an RAF display aircraft into Bruntingthorpe on the 23rd March 1993, a day on which she overflew a number of airfields displaying the message 'Farewell' in her bomb bay. One of those locations visited was RAF Finningley and the airfield itself soon entered its own period of retirement as it closed in 1996. The chances of life for either the airframe or the airfield at that time appeared to be slim.

Typical of what makes life so surprising sometimes, approximately 18 years later here she was again at Finningley, now Robin Hood Doncaster Sheffield Airport, arriving from RAF Lyneham to once again reside on the airport's spacious ramp. XH558 is no stranger to the South Yorkshire airfield, having previously known RAF Finningley as its home in the 1960s, back then as the first Vulcan B.Mk2 to enter service with the RAF.

The RAF Finningley of the late 1950s was geared towards the RAF's 'V' force, with examples of the Valiant, Victor and Vulcan all based there at some point during this period and throughout the 1960s. In 1957 the Vulcans of 101 Squadron moved in and in 1961 a swap with RAF Waddington's 230 OCU took place and this in turn brought XH558 to South Yorkshire. The aircraft remained at Finningley until December 1969 when 230 OCU moved on.

The Vulcan has remained a much loved aircraft in this part of the world, particularly as a performer at the RAF Finningley Battle of Britian 'At Home' Days. In the shows of the 1970s, a Vulcan 'scramble' would often be performed and she was a regular solo performer at each show until her last outing in 1992.

During her time on the display circuit since her return in 2007, the Vulcan has operated out of Bruntingthorpe, RAF Waddington, RAF Brize Norton and most recently RAF Lyneham. The assistance and hospitality given by the RAF has been greatly appreciated by the Vulcan to the Sky Trust (VTTST), but living at an operational RAF station has proven to be a drawback in terms of allowing the general public to come and view her up close and personal. Indeed VTTST Chief Executive Dr Robert Pleming sees the move as a welcome boost for the aircraft's future.

"It's part of the next phase of her life. What we want to do is to give the aircraft back to the people who paid for her in a much more positive way. I'm absolutely delighted that we're here at Robin Hood. We're working very closely with the airport to meet our objective of providing much better public access to the aircraft. It's something the airport is very enthusiastic about doing and of course being a commercial airport, it's much, much easier than being at a military one. So all in all it works for both of us."

Without using the phrase 'coming home' too much, it's clear to see that it means something more to have the aircraft back where she once resided as part of the RAF's Cold War inventory of assets. Robin Hood as it stands today provides the perfect location as an operating base for the 2011 airshow season and, whilst the Vulcan is enthralling millions of spectators, work can go on towards providing the necessary hangar space and provision for the public to visit the aircraft over the winter months.

As the aircraft taxied in and parked, Airport Director Mike Morton was there to greet the crew and I was keen to find out what this meant to the airport itself, as something of a unique partnership was born. "I think importantly for the airport it's a great opportunity to be able to go out and talk to people about what else we do here. I certainly think anything that you can bring into an airport that allows you to attract other businesses is always a fantastic advert and certainly the coverage on the back of the Avro Vulcan, around the country and around the world, will give a boost to the airport."

Robin Hood itself has recently undergone a change of ownership when in June 2010 Vancouver Airport Services acquired a 65% majority share in the airport's owners, Peel Airports Limited. Its assistance has been vital in getting the Vulcan to Doncaster as Mike explains: "I think the fantastic news for me is that our new owners, Vancouver Airport Services, and our new Chief Executive Officer, Craig Richmond, have been very, very supportive of this initiative. It's one that he wants to see go on to succeed and without Craig's nod of approval this wouldn't have moved forward, so I really appreciate the fact that he and the owners have given their support."

Thoughts regarding bringing the aircraft to Doncaster have been on the agenda for the past couple of years according to Mike, but the timing was never quite right. But the smiling faces of both parties are pretty convincing now that the arrangement is in place and everyone will be hoping that a prosperous partnership can flourish over the course of the coming airshow season.

As ever it seems, the Vulcan project requires further public assistance to help her through the 2011 season; the burden of a 2m+ operating cost per year still proving to be difficult to surmount. With increased marketing activity and a best ever year of airshow performances in 2010, in front of more than two million people, hopes were high that another drive for public donations would not be required in 2011.

But to get her through the 2011 campaign requires 350,000 to be raised by the end of May, as increased fuel costs and changes to VAT regulations have seen a hike in operating costs. Dr Pleming admits the project is on a 'knife-edge' financially and, whilst the winter servicing and test flight en route to Robin Hood were successful, if the necessary finance does not materialise, the flight into Doncaster may well have been her last.

The arrival into Doncaster itself was kept a well guarded secret and for a number of reasons. Firstly, publicising the flight and arrival into Robin Hood would have meant incurring extra costs, in terms of public liability insurance and policing costs around the airport. The numbers of people likely to have descended into the area would also have caused probable disruption to the airport too. It also did not seem right that the aircraft should leave RAF Lyneham under the gaze of too many watchful eyes at a time of sorrow for many returning British service people and their families from operations in Afghanistan.

The weather for her arrival, whilst sunny, was also quite hazy, and the approaching rumble of her four Olympus engines was the first clue that she was inbound. Flying across the airport she effortlessly slipped into the pattern for Runway 20 with an almost fighter-style turn and, looking as remarkable as ever, performed a graceful flypast down the runway before turning downwind for a final landing with brake chute deployed.

"I wanted to do something a little more exciting with a bit more noise!" quips Martin Withers as he faces the eager media frenzy. Other than that everything went well, we got the tests completed - it's passed its MOT test if you like - so she's ready for the rest of the season". A slight technical problem had prevented Martin and his crew from performing a more dramatic arrival, but the main thing was that she arrived safely in her new home.

Being a regular on the airshow circuit I was keen to discover if Martin had anything new up his sleeve for the 2011 routine. 'Perhaps nothing especially new,' was the answer, but a slightly longer routine is planned, which I'm sure any devoted Vulcan fan will not be disappointed to hear about.

It's clear that there is much to be gained for both parties with this new partnership arrangement which brings together a civilian airport with its former military resident. For Robin Hood it provides another diverse string to the airport's operations and the obvious publicity exposure that having the Vulcan on site will bring in the coming months ahead.

For XH558, the aircraft now has a home in which it can flourish. Provided that the necessary funding is raised, the airshow season is successful and the partnership works well, the airport can move forward with plans to provide a visitors' centre for the aircraft. Only then will the public who have given so much to see her fly again have the chance to see up close what they have helped keep in the air against all odds.

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