With funds once again depleted XH558 had to sit patiently in her hangar after her all too brief taste of freedom. It was April of 2008 before test flights could restart, as the Trust sought to demonstrate her airworthiness and gain the all-important Permit to Fly from the CAA. XH558 flew to RAF Cottesmore for compass alignment, and visited the home of the BBMF, Coningsby in Lincolnshire, where a photoshoot was organised with the Avro Lancaster and a Typhoon.
Not surprisingly after such a mammoth restoration there were a few snags, the most alarming being a fire warning light on the control panel of the Airborne Auxiliary Power Plant while airborne. The crew declared a full Mayday emergency, landing at Cottesmore, but fortunately the warning proved to be false, caused by an electrical fault. Another flight had to be abandoned when a main wheel undercarriage door failed to close, so it was the 9th June before her seventh and last test flight took place. An anxious wait then ensued as paperwork in support of XH558’s airworthiness was compiled, checked and submitted to the CAA. Would the permit arrive in time for her planned debut at the Waddington Airshow, only four weeks away? Funding too was still on a knife-edge, but the generosity of Aerobytes and managing director Eddie Forrester saw to it that funding was in place for the first scheduled appearances.
Thursday July 3rd turned out to be very busy indeed, as ‘Taff’ Stone’s engineering update reveals.
“Now things are starting to get exciting. Doug Webb of the CAA had been at Marshall Aerospace in Cambridge checking over the final details since 9am and was expected up at Bruntingthorpe early in the afternoon; on his arrival I allowed him a 10 minute break after his drive to have some lunch! At around 2pm Doug went out to inspect XH558 and to check that certain things were fitted as advertised. This lasted until around 3.30 when we returned to the hangar to check paperwork details, and at approximately 3.50 Doug signed the Permit To Fly. The Permit was then presented at the aircraft and I proceeded to crew in at 4.15pm. XH558 was then airborne around 5pm for her maiden flight to RAF Waddington as a Permit to Fly aircraft, a monumental achievement. On her arrival David Thomas carried out three practice displays in front of a CAA Display Authoriser, who had stepped into the role the evening before and had driven up from Kent that day! So from nothing at 2pm we now found ourselves with a Permit to Fly aircraft with an Authorised Display Pilot by 6pm. What a day!”
Two days later at a packed RAF Waddington Airshow XH558 taxied past her sibling (and Black Buck veteran) XM607, and took to the skies for her first air display since 1992. Unbeknown to the crowd, this was not to be just a display however, as her pilot had been busy behind the scenes. To mounting excitement Roy Chadwick’s other famous creation, the Avro Lancaster approached, in formation with XH558. There was not a dry eye on the airfield!
2008 was to prove a mixed bag though, with the British weather playing no small part. XH558 was prevented from flying on the second day at Waddington by weather and an alternator fault, and although she made the trip to Scotland for the Leuchars show, bad weather saw her grounded. The Permit to Fly restricts the Vulcan to flying in Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC), and on occasion only the skill of the aircrew in plotting routes around poor weather enabled XH558 to reach some displays. Weather also forced the cancellation of the entire Royal International Air Tattoo at Fairford for the first time in its history. RIAT’s loss was Farnborough’s gain though, as XH558 flew four times instead of the planned two. Even on trade days normally hard-nosed executives and salesmen rushed out of the exhibition halls and hospitality chalets to see the one and only doing her display.
Successful displays also took place at Lowestoft, Jersey, Duxford and Southport, and attendances were boosted by up to 20% by the ‘Vulcan effect’. There hadn’t been anything like it on the airshow circuit for years, with the Vulcan dominating, her presence stunning spectators into an awed silence.
As her home base of Bruntingthorpe was unsuitable for regular flight operations, XH558 used Waddington, and then Brize Norton as operating locations, courtesy of the RAF. As thanks for their support, displays were flown at Marham and Brize Norton Families Days and the Wyton Sunset Parade. Regrettably, several displays had to be cancelled, due firstly to a landing gear door bracket breaking, and then a precautionary engine change after higher than anticipated particle levels were discovered in the oil during routine checks. This presented a logistical challenge, as the aircraft was at Brize Norton, but the spare engine was at Bruntingthorpe! While arrangements were made to transport the spare, the engineers removed No. 2 engine and stripped it of all the auxiliary units that would then have to be fitted to the replacement.
The final scheduled event of 2008 was the centenary celebration of the first manned flight in Britain by Samuel Franklin Cody, which took place at Farnborough on October 16th 1908. XH558 performed a flypast and landing, and was visited once again by Lady Thatcher. Although the Vulcan was then to return to Bruntingthorpe for the winter, the gremlins had other ideas. A new brake unit, fitted only a couple of weeks before, decided to leak its hydraulic oil, and with all the spares used some unserviceable units had to be sent away for repair.
XH558 finally left Farnborough on 12th November, and despite the ‘Vulcan effect’ a financial crisis was looming once more. As the press release from the Trust put it, was this to be the last flight for the mother of Concorde? Major sponsorship was not forthcoming, and with the recession starting to bite the situation looked bleak. Also, much to everyone’s regret, David Thomas decided the time had come to retire from flying the Vulcan, although he was to stay with the Trust in a training capacity. Operations Director Mike Pollitt paid fulsome and richly deserved tribute to ‘Mr Vulcan’, emphasising not only David’s exceptional flying skills but also the incredible amount of work he had put in developing training aids for the aircrew, and fundraising (supported unstintingly by his wife, Pam).
A glimmer of good news came with the announcement that the restoration of XH558 had won a Royal Aeronautical Society Award. At the annual Wilbur and Orville Wright Lecture on 11th December, the Vulcan to the Sky Trust was awarded a unique Centenary Heritage Project Certificate, and in accepting the award, Dr Robert Pleming thanked not only Marshall Aerospace and the many companies who had contributed towards returning the Vulcan to flight, but also the thousands of supporters who had made it possible.
Those same supporters now refused to lie down, not accepting that the economic ‘Perfect Storm’ could ground their beloved ‘558. The Trust based its future on the public’s affection for the Vulcan and their desire to see it fly, launching a Pledge Campaign with the ambitious (or as some put it, impossible) target of £1million in pledges to be achieved by 6th March 2009. Vulcan To The Sky club members needed to raise awareness as well as funds, and with that in mind, father and son team Robert and Stephen Lowe conceived the ‘Vulcan Scramble’, aiming to visit all 15 remaining Vulcan airframes in the UK in just 24 hours. On 22nd February, accompanied by XH558’s Crew Chief, ‘Taff’ Stone, they drove the 897 mile route from East Fortune to Southend with a bare 9 minutes to spare, and added over £56,000 to the Pledge total.
Publicity from this and other initiatives attracted the attention of the media, as did a letter in the Telegraph from some high profile supporters. As the last days of campaigning approached XH558’s plight was picked up by the Mail on Sunday and ITN national news, resulting in over £500,000 being pledged in an incredible final six days.
While ground and aircrew toasted the success, Dr Pleming declared “This is the third time in seven years that the future of the Vulcan in flight has been saved by the support of thousands of members of the public, making XH558 “The People’s Aircraft”. Never has one aircraft owed so much to so many!” Sponsors Aerobytes Ltd and Judd Power now stepped in and committed cash to keep the Trust going for another month, allowing time for the pledges to be redeemed, and with activities on a more secure financial footing, the task of preparing the Vulcan for flight in 2009 could begin at last.