Bill Ramsey reflects on the emotional rollercoaster of Avro Vulcan XH558’s final flights prior to its retirement in October 2015.
I thought I had better do this before the memory fades irrevocably into the rear-view mirror…
At the end of my last article, I left the dust settling on a hugely successful RIAT for XH558 and the crew, with high hopes of a spectacular last few flying months to come for the old jet. Yet within weeks the UK air display world changed profoundly following the two tragic accidents [at Car Fest and Shoreham – Ed.] and loss of so many lives.
My deepest sympathies are with all touched by them in any way. It puts into perspective the emotions which subsequently swirled around for the last flight of what is, after all, only a machine.
On the day of Shoreham we were just ten minutes away from my display there when we learnt of the accident, but not the scale of the disaster. After some discussion, we decided it was right that we should continue with our display commitments at Bournemouth and Dawlish. Prior to that, at the request of the organisers, we did a slow, quiet flypast at Shoreham. I’m told that it in some way helped many people in the crowd so I am pleased we did it.
It soon became apparent that XH558 would be subject to the overland display restrictions placed on other vintage jets by the CAA so we quickly had to get our heads round the implications of pitch and bank limits of 60 degrees; surprisingly difficult for us to achieve in comparison to our normal ‘big’ wingovers. However a week later Kev took us to Dunsfold to fly the revised display under close scrutiny. I’m delighted to say it was well-received.
We went on to display at Dartmouth and Rhyll, which was my last public (unrestricted) display. A lovely way to finish on a glorious afternoon. The very next day the weather beat us, for the only time this year I think, and we had to turn around on our way back down to Dunsfold – very disappointing all round.
Over the next two weeks 558 chose to remind us of her age (for the first time all season) with the undercarriage fault at Prestwick followed the next week by the complex fuel problem which caused me to cancel our displays at Goodwood and Old Sarum and creep home to Finningley. Thankfully, Taff and his mighty team managed to fix that in time for Bill Perrins to display for the Club Members at Coventry the next day.
I didn’t fly 558 again until the beginning of October when on a glorious Autumn day we took part in the dedication of the Bomber Command Memorial Spire in Lincoln. A great privilege. On this trip we also flew with two Tornado GR4s for the benefit of the cameras inside a C-130. Best of all, it gave us the opportunity to do the air-to-air filming (with an Augusta helicopter; yes, that’s quite challenging) for the Guy Martin programme on Channel 4 you may well have seen by now. The results were absolutely stunning and included a complete film of an unrestricted display practice at Scampton, filmed from the helicopter, which I think is the best I have ever seen.
Throughout all of this time, we flew some great formations including the memorable one with the F-15Cs of the Liberty Wing at Lakenheath, with many Spitfires at Coningsby and of course, Kev’s final flypast with the Reds at Southport – I thought the boy done good! We also flew any number of photo-chases with various people and aircraft in pursuit of ‘that’ Vulcan image [some of the results of which illustrate this article – Ed.].
You’ll have seen a few in the press and will hopefully agree it was worth the effort. Most memorably for me, we were chased on one occasion by a two-seat Spitfire as the photo-ship. Quite something!
Quite suddenly, the end was in sight, which seemed a bit unreal to me. The weekend of 10/11 October, we did the two tours in unseasonably good weather. These seemed amazingly popular with crowds in evidence in every nook and cranny around both routes. On the 13th, we flew for a final time with our friends The Blades and I did what turned out to be the last ever display, for the invited audience at Sywell. It was also my last landing.
In the background, the final flight was beset by problems because of police and airport authority concerns that Doncaster would be swamped by crowds of sightseers. It seemed likely to be cancelled in toto at any time. In the end a token flight was planned in relative secrecy for the 28th – the only day available left to do it for various reasons. Of course, the weather turned out to be appalling and forecast to remain so all day, but a close inspection of the weather radar showed the whole system was moving very quickly Northwards with a definite edge to the cloud at the back. Maybe a chance after all?
Because of the long lead time to get the aircraft out of the hangar pre-take-off, I had to gamble on the weather about two hours beforehand to let us crew-in. Of course, luckily, it did clear just in time to let me fly the last take-off and wingover (shame we hadn’t thought of that as a display take-off!) and touch and go, and for Martin to do a go around and, appropriately, the final landing.
So, 40 years or so after my first Vulcan trip, I captained the last ever one. I’d like to thank Mike Pollitt and all the aircrew of XH558 for giving me the chance. It’s been a blast.