As Avro Vulcan XH558 (G-VLCN) approaches the end of its near eight-year post-restoration flying life in civilian ownership, pilot Bill Ramsey reflects on the aircraft’s award-winning displays at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) 2015 at RAF Fairford.
As this year of lasts for XH558 rolls all too quickly along, one significant finale came and went the weekend of 18/19 July with the Vulcan’s farewell appearances at RIAT. An event made more poignant for many by the aircraft’s probable last appearances in formation with the Red Arrows on both days as well as an absolutely incredible display by Kev Rumens on the Saturday (I should know as I had the best seat in the house next to him!). The weather was kind enough to allow us to fly the zoom climb (new for this year) on both displays which people seemed to like. Anyway, the folks at GAR have asked me to write something about the experience from my perspective which I hope you will find enjoyable.
Of course we knew very early this year the aircraft was going to RIAT which was a relief after the seemingly sometimes acrimonious events of last year, but we didn’t know who would be flying until the third week of June, so that’s when serious planning started for me when it became apparent I would be flying on both display days and the transits to and from Fairford. I also became involved with liaising with Red 10, Mike Ling, around that time to see if he could get the RAF to agree to VTTS’ request for a joint flypast (only on Sunday at that point but subsequently on both days). Huge thanks to Lingy for making it happen – by no means a given. At the same time we had to ask the CAA to approve my participation in a ten-aircraft formation, twice what I am normally authorised to fly in. Thanks to them for their help.
The Sunday prior to RIAT found us driving five hours home to Robin Hood after a successful Yeovilton weekend, only to reverse the trip on Wednesday ready to move 558 from Yeovilton to Fairford the next day. Thursday dawned bright and clear and was forecast to remain so. However, as we crewed-in the weather darkened ominously to the extent we considered climbing out again. Nonetheless we pressed on to make our arrival at Fairford, which we did after creeping around and below some pretty miserable weather. Of course the sun came out as soon as we had landed! Being processed in to such a big airshow took a couple of hours after landing before we had to meet Red 1 for a face-to-face briefing on how we would achieve the flypasts with the Reds safely. Luckily the Reds haven’t changed the way they do business much since my time so it was a fairly smooth process. During the brief I came up with the thought that it would look really good if the Reds primed their smoke systems in patriotic Red, White and Blue on the runway as we came past for the final zoom. I think that looked good from the ground but it was magnificent from our front windows. As others have said, a real lump in the throat moment all round.
Friday was a non-flying yet busy day for us. A chance to meet up again with our magnificent volunteers, sign a lot of our merchandise for people, catch up with old friends from the Red Arrows Association and see how The People’s Mosquito pitch was doing (brilliantly as it turned out).
So Saturday arrived, thankfully with nice if windy weather. Another morning of meeting many of 558’s amazing supporters including a few in tears at the mere thought of the aircraft’s impending retirement from flying. No matter what your opinion is of the XH558 story the wonderful support of so many people is indisputable and inspirational in its own right. As the clock ticked past midday our thoughts started to focus on the business end of our day – the flying part. Kev had briefed the trip earlier in the day so it was just a matter of getting to the aircraft about an hour and 20 before take-off to grab a quiet moment and enjoy the pleasant breeze below the mighty Delta’s huge wings. It was a slightly unusual start sequence for us as we had to be towed forward to start engines which kept us all on our toes. But, as has been the case all year so far, 558 hummed into life faultlessly. And off we went! Lots has been said and written regarding Kev’s display! I’ll just say it was the best Vulcan display I have had the privilege to be part of.
Many people have asked about the final zoom we did on both days. We accelerate to around 300 knots down the display line before a very gentle ease into the climb (so very easy to overstress the old girl at this point!). At around 3,000 feet the aircraft is at around our normal wingover nose-up attitude but a glance inside shows we are still at around 270 knots! We have to keep pitching up to let gravity slow 558 down! This gets us to 200 knots at around 5,000 feet in a steep nose-high attitude – a pretty good time to wingover and recover. This takes us to around 7,500 feet at the top so we need a nice day to do it. Yep, its mega fun! Just the flypasts with the Reds and a landing using the brake parachute in a stiff crosswind to go and Saturday is all over barring a cold beer.
Sunday was really pretty much of a repeat but with Kev and I swapping seats. The weather didn’t dawn very nice but by the time we flew it had changed to the most beautiful cloud-free blue sky. Even though we are all very experienced display people it’s still fairly unusual for us to walk to the jet through what is obviously a huge crowd which I knew from Saturday we could see throughout the entire proceedings. So, unusually, a little attack of butterflies before settling into the comforting routine inside the jet. The prospect of messing up in front of so many people isn’t a positive thought! Luckily, I enjoyed the display and on Sunday I think we nailed our formation position a bit better which led to those incredible images and videos. Later that day we found we had won the ‘As the Crow Flies’ Trophy for the best flying demonstration for our displays and formations over the weekend. A great moment not just for all the crew but also for our brilliant engineers and everyone associated with XH558.
On Monday Bill Perrins captained us on a three-hour return to Robin Hood via a flypast at RAF Benson, formating with the Blades and a display at Sywell. I finally got home around 1900 – five busy days after leaving.
I hope this has given you some idea of what goes into a weekend like RIAT, in particular the hard work all round by the whole team. We all thoroughly enjoyed XH558’s last hurrah at RIAT. I sincerely hope everyone present did as well.