As XH558’s 50th anniversary year approached, funding was an issue once more. During 2009, the Vulcan had flown for some 50 hours (over 30 sorties), and, restricted by Visual Flight Rules, had to pass through turbulent low-level air. This had eaten into her Fatigue Index at a greater than anticipated rate, resulting in the need to bring forward planned wing strengthening modifications by a year. Coupled with the now due ‘minor’ service (involving the refurbishment or replacement of ‘lifed’ components) the Trust found itself with a target of £2.4 million to enable XH558 to fly during her birthday year. £1.6 million could be identified from existing and projected income streams, but that still left a significant sum to raise over the winter. Complicating this was the need for key contractors to be paid in advance of works being carried out, so if XH558 was to take to the air in 2010 the Trustees had to be confident they had funds in place to begin maintenance and modifications by the beginning of March at the latest.
Once more the Vulcan To The Sky Club came to the fore, with volunteers digging deep and manning stands at a range of events, including the Lincoln Christmas Market, AutoSport show at the NEC and the MPH Top Gear show at Earls Court, but the prevailing economic recession made the task harder than ever. Dr Pleming said: “Over the past few weeks, we have had countless people say to us that XH558 must carry on flying, and have backed that up with a pledge. But it’s also been very noticeable this year that people are less able to help, even if they would like to – the recession has made the progress of our campaign this year much slower.”
After months of uncertainty, when the prospect of Vulcan XH558 ever appearing at airshows again was looking unlikely, an anonymous donation of over £400,000 stunned everyone, and virtually guaranteed XH558’s return to airshows. Dr Pleming again: “The timing of this amazing donation could not have been better. I have to believe that XH558 has a guardian angel, who has now appeared more than once to save her when all seems to have been lost!”
John Sharman, Chairman of VTST’s Board of Trustees said: “This most significant donation comes as a very welcome surprise on top of all the thousands of donations and pledges received from XH558’s incredibly loyal supporters, and has enabled the Board of Trustees now to commit to the vital engineering programme, and to return XH558 to airshows this coming summer. On behalf of XH558 and all her supporters, a heart-felt thank-you to all who have helped.”
Although XH558 was based on an active military airfield, the Station Commander at RAF Lyneham generously permitted hangar tours at weekends, giving the Vulcan’s public the opportunity not only to see her, but also the servicing and modification work, which commenced early in March 2010. Included in the work (estimated to take 3-4 months) was a wealth of inspections, the removal of components (including the ejection seats and 21 extinguisher bottles) for servicing, jacking and stressing the airframe in readiness for modification work, and NDT checks. Initial inspections revealed a leaking seal on the entrance door, which was replaced from stock, engineer John Hufton wryly noting that “the manufacture date on the seal was older than the guy who fitted it to the aircraft!” By the third week of March the engineering team had been joined by four contractors from JMC Recruitment who would carry out Modifications 2429 and 2430. Sponsor Munters arrived to install de-humidification equipment (free of charge) to counteract the effects of damp air on the aircraft (particularly the engines) while hangared.
The time required for the work meant XH558 had to forego appearances at airshows early in the season, and the target was to be ready for the key Waddington show in early July. Key because not only was it the 50th anniversary year for ‘558, the show also fell within two days of the anniversary of her delivery into RAF service at Waddington on 1st July 1960. By early June the leading edge mod was completed, and the landing light aperture mod well underway. The ejector seats returned, and by June 23rd the refurbished port undercarriage leg had arrived and been fitted. Two days later, with functionals done, and after 8 months on jacks, XH558 was finally on her own legs again.
It was down to the wire now; on June 30th engine tests were completed successfully, and with a permit to test in place XH558 took off from Lyneham on July 1st, crewed by Martin Withers, Barry Masefield, Andy Marson and CAA test pilot Paul Mulcahy. Practice displays were performed at Kemble before landing at RAF Brize Norton for a compass swing. The flight concluded with no faults, and the next day the CAA issued the Permit to Fly, enabling the Vulcan to appear on both days of the Waddington airshow over the weekend. This is Lincolnshire reported record crowds of 100,000 on the Saturday, with Wing Commander Andy Pemberton saying: “I think there have been two main factors that have contributed to the show’s success, one is the Vulcan and the second is that people realised Saturday was going to be the hottest day of the weekend.” In addition to the Waddington displays XH558 also flew at Goodwood Festival of Speed on the Sunday, followed by RNAS Yeovilton the next weekend, and the Air Tattoo at Fairford on July 17th and 18th.
On July 19th XH558 left Fairford for the biannual Farnborough International Airshow, making a scene- stealing arrival in the company of the Red Arrows. Robert Pleming said: “Our goal is now to ensure that XH558 is able to commemorate the Diamond Anniversary of the first ever flight of a Vulcan in 1952, here at the Farnborough International Airshow in 2012. Of course we would be truly delighted to participate in the celebrations of Her Majesty the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee that year as well.” Over the course of the week the Vulcan displayed four times, unfortunately having to cancel the Sunday performance due to a brake failure. The VTS engineers had however received approvals allowing them to perform and sign-off certain tasks – reducing dependency on other organisations and enabling rectification of minor defects on the aircraft far more quickly than in the past. In part due to this, the Farnborough Sunday was to be the only missed display due to a fault all year.
Repairs concluded, XH558 visited RNAS Culdrose on the 28th July, followed by displays for Lyneham and Marham Families Days, and Lowestoft Airshow over the next few weekends. Capitalising on having a Vulcan in the air, efforts on the ground attempted to make the most of fundraising opportunities, with an enlarged Vulcan Village (staffed by unpaid Club volunteers) and in-house merchandising. Sales exceeded all expectations, and coupled with a revamped website, helped bring new supporters onboard.
Then followed the South Coast washout! XH558 transited to Hurn airport for a weekend scheduled to include displays at Bournemouth, Silverstone, Sywell and Shoreham, but the Weather Gods had other ideas. Rain and low cloud stranded the Vulcan at Hurn, missing the opportunity to fly for nearly three- quarters of a million expectant people at the six planned displays – a fifth of the 2010 season.
Disappointing though this undoubtedly was, the remaining shows of the season passed without hitch, with trips to Dunsfold, Uffington, Jersey, Leuchars and Filton, culminating in the Coventry Fly-in on September 26th in aid of Help for Heroes, where XH558’s appearance was sponsored by the VTS Club. Over 15,000 people flocked to see the Vulcan make a missed approach and land, streaming her brake chute to great effect. For the rest of the day until her departure to Lyneham mid-afternoon she was available for ground tours, and the Vulcan Village was packed shoulder-to-shoulder.
There remained one last sortie for 2010, as on October 13th at Sywell competition and auction winners were taken for a flight alongside XH558. Two very fortunate bidders from the BBC Children In Need’s ‘Money Can’t Buy’ auction (and two from a Trust raffle and auction) had the most spectacular view possible of the iconic Vulcan bomber. Each winner was flown alongside the giant delta-winged aircraft for over 30 minutes – a real “once in a lifetime” opportunity! The experience, auctioned by Terry Wogan on BBC Radio 2 earlier in the year, was donated by The Blades aerobatics team and by the Vulcan To The Sky Trust. Originally one seat was offered but the auction proved so popular that both organisations donated an extra seat, helping to raise £25,000 for the charity.
Despite a largely successful show season, the future for the Vulcan was as uncertain as ever, with revenues from airshows and donations significantly down as concerns about recession and cutbacks remained in the public eye. XH558 retired to her winter base, courtesy of RAF Lyneham, but as October approached the Trust had to announce a shortfall of £400,000. That shortfall had to be made up by October 31st if the Trustees were to remain confident of the Trust’s financial viability, and sadly the workforce were once again placed on notice. One key fundraising advantage lay in improved communications – nearly 25,000 registered friends of XH558 received the e-newsletter, a massive ten fold increase on 2009. Appeals went out via email and post, media contacts were approached, and parts auctioned. On October 29th Robert Pleming was able to report to the Chairman of Trustees that the shortfall had been reduced to £75,000, and the appeal momentum was such that the Board of Trustees were confident of the remainder being raised by the deadline.
Chairman John Sharman remarked: “What is most significant is the sheer numbers of people who donated – many thousands – the welcome result of active promotion by our core team of supporters and valuable coverage of the Appeal by the media. The fact that the Appeal has been such a success despite the current economic conditions once again proves without doubt the magnitude of the public’s affection and support for XH558.”
2011 approached and with it a renewed sense of optimism. Dr Pleming: “Our understanding of how to generate commercial income and maximise the available airframe life has increased dramatically.” Taking merchandising in-house had proved a big success, with distribution expanded by development of the Vulcan Village and a new web store. in the last six months of the season, sales brought in more profit than all the sales over all previous years combined. Future fundraising plans include hospitality and events, the sale of original heritage items from the Trust’s vast hardware inventory and further development of the successful merchandising activities.