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.
It may be to protet privacy, but the snowman at the LH side of the comments tkaes away a little of the personal touch.
(Oh yes, I was pleased to see the open bomb bay of the Vulcan (We
got a signal from a V out east which read “Am having trouble with BOMBAY heating (I never knew we had been there)!
Thank you for the great post, and an even bigger thank you to everyone involved in keeping ‘558 in the air over the past 8 years!
One question though – I was led to believe from conversations with VSST/XH558 Club folks over the course of this year that Martin was to captain the final flight (mainly down to his distinguished history with the Vulcan and role as chief pilot). Is there a particular reason this wasn’t the case? Just interested, that’s all!
Having been a Vulcan fan since the privilege and luck of seeing Roland Falk roll the prototype at Farnborough, have made the most of the “extra” years with XH558 last display for me was Southport and that was excellent, starting with the formation fly by with the Reds then backed up with (considering the age of our favourite old lady) an energetic display.
Thanks to all involved
All the Best for Christmas and the New Year to the whole team and other members of the VTTS Club and of course best wishes for the new ventures concerning XH558 and to Robert Pleming – hope you are gaining strength. Thanks also to Ron and at the shop and to Royal Mail – all the 7 official merchandise items recently ordered from the VTTS shop have now been safely delivered. Having just previously been diagnosed with asbestos related mesothelioma a life-threatening disease, I have to offer many thanks also to the maintenance team who made my Wife and I very welcome at the hanger visit on 17 June – brilliant visit well worth it brings back memories of Vulcans at Waddington. Great visits to Blackpool and the whole weekend at Bournemouth together with an unexpected flyover (twice) over our campsite near Weston S Mare on 11 July, for which we can only offer thanks to Martin and the aircrew. All the very best to you all in this final year of flight.
XH558 has thrilled our family – and won the heart of our 4 and 3/4 old granddaughter Phoebe – over the last few years at Farnborough, and we can’t quite believe that we won’t see her or hear that fabulous howl in 2016. The final flight over Farnborough airport brought a lump to our throats – it was a joy to have her roar over our heads one last time as we jumped up and down like lunatics!
Thank you to everyone who worked with and flew her, for your dedication and determination which has been so appreciated by all XH558’s fans – we’ll make that visit to see her soon.
Merry Xmas – and Happy Retirement XH558!
During the late 1950`s and early 1960`s I was a lorry driver for a Wholesale Grocer in Boston and during this time I had to stop twice at the traffic lights on the A15 at Waddington and had the pleasure of seeing a squadron of 5 or 6 Vulcans take off one after the other,and that was a sight to see (could XH558 have been one of them I wonder).When XH558 did her final RAF tour I was working in Wisbech and realised that her last RAF Station she visited was Marham at 12 noon, and that Wisbech was under her flight path to Bruntingthorpe.So at 12 noon I went out into our carpark and 2 minutes later she flew right over me,dead on time. I have seen her many times during the last 8 years,but the last time was a great surprise.Almost at the end of her flying days I was in my garden in Norfolk when she flew over going West to East with a Tornado on each wing flying quite high.Then to my great joy about 15 minutes later she came back (still with the Tornado`s) flying quite low dead over my house (on her way to Rutland I believe).What a thrill that was,and I have to admit it brought a tear to my eye.Many thanks Bill to you and everyone involved in keeping her flying,and a Merry Christmas to you all.
Wonderful Photographs and article. Body is all tingling with delight and sadness at the same time. Thank you for giving us followers such an experience of your displays and fly pasts. Two special memories for me, Climbing steps to Taff’s office and looking over the top of XH558 during an engineers talk, then coming out of house one saturday afternoon last year, looked up because of noise, low and behold my XH558 was immediately above me and my home, like it was meant to be because my late husband’s name is in Bomb Bay.
Such a remarkable memory you and all XH558 crews have given Great Britain over the last 8 years.
Loss leaves a memory no one can steal. XXXXX
Please do’nt forget if you decide to fly a proper aeroplane and not a suck and blow job, remember ( or learn ) how to swing a prop.
(thanks for the extra few years of 558 – A GREAT lady )
Thanks Keith. All the ones I flew had electric or cartridge start! I just had to count blades and the engine started by magic! Tailwheel – now that’s a skill!
Excellent article and stunning photos. Many thanks. I have been totally captivated by XH558 since first seeing her fly at an air show several years ago and feel very fortunate to have seen her fly many times since.
An excellent article Bill and some stunning photos. Thank you for all the amazing memories that you have created this year. I have loved every minute of it and am very appreciative of all the time and effort that everyone has put into making this such a magnificent final season.
Bill, there are pop stars and football players idolised by millions, for many of us mortals who have followed the Vulcan over the past years it is the crew of this wonderful machine who we idolise. Many thanks for giving me so much joy over these past years to you and all the other crew members and the people who maintained it.
I would like to thank everyone involved with xh558 for all the happy memories given to me. I have travelled thousands of miles over the years to watch displays and have never been dissapointed. I look forward to supporting the team with the mossie project and also coming to Doncaster to see 558 up close. I hope all the projects taken on are as successful as the Vulcan effect good luck and best wishes to you all
Just a thought, with a new build Mossie now flying in New Zealand maybe essential bits can be sourced from there? Systems will be very enthusiastic because they don’t build real aeroplanes anymore, let alone wooded ones!
If I might gently break in here; I’m hoping Bill won’t mind, since he and I, along with rest of the Board of Directors at The People’s Mosquito Ltd, have been involved with the planning to restore Mosquito RL249 for a while now. TPM have been working closely with companies and individuals in New Zealand, as well as the CAA, for some time. You can find out more about the process on our site. Actually, Mosquito wing ribs are being produced in New Zealand as I write this.
I might say that the site has three free videos which are must see, one showing a WW2 raid on enemy-held Europe (in colour), and the other two featuring another distinguished pilot – Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, RN, the Patron of The People’s Mosquito.
As Bill has already said, we would love to see as many of 558’s supporters as possible get behind this effort to bring a Mosquito back to life, and to British skies!
Well said Ross, take a look at the films and you’ll understand why the Mossie is such an important, and currently missing from our skies, piece of British and allied history.
I’m an ex-Vulcan man – a navigator so am used to the hot, dark, smelly facing-backwards inside of the aircraft. However, you and your colleagues have demonstrated to the aviation world that the Vulcan was an elegant, exciting, beautiful, awesome and second-to-none display aircraft. I could go on – but I just want to thank you and your colleagues for giving her one last blast before retiring her to a life on the ground. Well done.
Hi Chris, thanks for reminding me I’ve been remiss in these articles in not highlighting the vital role of our AEOs, Phil, Jonathan and of course Barry. They are very much the unsung heroes of the story. As you point out, a fairly horrid environment to work in,but without them we couldn’t even have started, let alone operated, the aircraft. So a belated big thumbs up to them.
Thanks for the memories. I’ve had 8 great years supporting 558’s Brake and rear crew parachutes and it was great to see one last stream as you landed for the final time.
We appreciate all the times you’ve streamed for us and it was fun to repack alongside her at Yeovilton and Fairford this year and to be able to bring dad out of retirement to pack alongside me and my son (making 3 generations of Jackman packers).
All the best for your flying future.
Thanks Dave, great to meet you guys ( and see you re-packing ‘in the field’). A second thanks for the fact it worked every time!
That was great Bill, thank you for sharing this with us. Was great to meet you at Vulcan Day at Waddington, and thanks for saying hi to Karen.
I was in the crowd at Shoreham on that fateful day. It was not until late in the afternoon that word of mouth began to filter through that there had been a number of civilian casualties, everybody was thinking that the Hunter pilot was the only one as no ejection had been observed and the pall of smoke and flame did not bode well for his survival.
But the flypast salute by XH558 had a calming effect and gave a focus for the crowd to concentrate on. There was dead silence as it passed overhead and as it flew away there was a spontaneous quiet round of applause.
Seeing XH558 perform an instance of (comparative) normality showed that life goes on even in tragic circumstances and made the long wait to exit the airfield bearable.
A huge thanks to you and the whole team for bringing xh558 back for a few years… I’m truly impressed by the marketing that has resulted in the Vulcan effect! Hope the mossie project has the same effect. I was at bruntingthorpe when she retired the first time..before the days of social media and that was very emotional … This time round its was different again!
I visited and saw the work aspecs did on the first mossie and it was stunning. I look forward, and hope the people’s mossie is a success. Are you going to get a type rating in the meantime?!
I wish! Thanks for the kind words.
Just realised it was you who performed that perfect touch and go on the last flight. Congratulations.the only time I have seen a Vulcan do a touch and go was at Biggin hill in 1993 when she made her very last appearance with the RAF. My first sight of her and of course love at first sight. Once again huge thanks to you and everyone who made the last 8 years possible. Marion
Thanks Marion, actually it was the only one I did in 558 in the last few years! This was because of the need to minimise our number of landings. As an aside I’ve seen several comments elsewhere, criticising us for not doing it as part of our displays. This was prohibited under the CAA rules I’ve talked about before for an aircraft like 558.
Thanks to you and everyone for giving us 8 years of seeing that beautiful lady. The touch and go on the last flight was the best I’ve ever seen.xh558 last did one in 1993 at Biggin hill on her last ever display with the RAF. I was there and became a follower then that was some time ago. My regards and thanks to you all.
I live just to the North of Finningley, and have spent the last few years watching you guys come and go over my house. I’m proud to say that I was at the last display of 558 at Finningley in ’92, and was at the last one at Finningley this time round.
All things must come to an end, but, at the same time, its great to end on your terms. I’ve loved the displays this year, brings back memories of what captivated me as a young child in the late 80s and early 90s.
I think everyone involved with this fine aircraft can sit back and know that they made a lot of people very happy.
Thanks Bill! You did a grand job, and such a fitting end to the final season for 558. As Captain Mainwaring might have said, “Well done, that man!”
Thanks Ross, let’s get that Mossie flying! I strongly urge all 558 s supporters to get behind The People’s Mosquito. Come on folks, feel free to ask me anything you like about it.
Thank you Bill for everything Vulcan! I don’t think I will ever forget any of this year, especially North Weald on the south route at the end when you went right over us! Cheers, Louise
Thanks Louise, it was a fantastic time and I know all of the crew really appreciated being able to bring 558 alive to so many people.