Someone with a true understanding and passion for the Vulcan is retired Wing Commander Adrian Sumner, who has flown around the world in this aircraft. Now a volunteer at the Vulcan to the Sky Trust, he explains his remarkable journey with the Vulcan over the years with the RAF and why it is important to preserve this remarkable aircraft and preserve its heritage.
The Vulcan was my life for the 1970s. You could say I was connected with it for about 10 or 11 years. It became part of me at that time. It seems so long ago now.
I joined the air force straight from school in 1966 when I was 18 and probably very naive. I went to a place called [RAF] South Cerney in Gloucestershire for my initial officer training. I graduated from there in 1967 and had never flown an aircraft at that stage. I’d been through tests at Biggin Hill, and they had obviously worked out from the tests that I had the ability, that’s about all.
The first thing that they gave us was a course on the Chipmunk, a single piston light aircraft, and that was up at RAF Church Fenton just north of York. I did 30 hours on the aircraft and that was the course that told them whether I could fly aircraft or not. I was lucky enough to pass that course and then I moved onto jets and stayed up in Yorkshire at RAF Leeming near Harrogate. They put us through a course of 150 hours on Jet Provosts, a single jet aircraft.
From there we got our wings that aircrew wear on their uniform. It was then decided that I was going off to become a multiengine pilot, a decision which was made for me, as they looked at the various results from the jet course and decided which way you were going to go. In those days, you were assigned to an aircraft type, for example, multiengine, fighter, or helicopter, and you stayed with it all your career. Since then, things have changed, and people have moved around quite a lot.
I went down to a place called RAF Oakington in Huntingdonshire where I flew the Varsity twin, piston aircraft. That was the springboard because my aircraft after that was the Vulcan. So, I went from twin piston aircraft onto a four jet Vulcan and that was a swift learning curve.
The course for the Vulcan in those days had moved from RAF Finningley to RAF Scampton, but the simulator was still at Finningley. So, my first introduction to Finningley was in 1970. Having done the course there, there were three crews going through at the time and two were posted to IX Squadron in Cyprus and one was staying at Scampton. Naturally the sunshine in the Mediterranean appealed to me. I was posted to Cyprus for my first operational tour in 1970. I spent two years – not long enough – in the sunshine. It was a great tour and great crew. There, we were part of CENTO (The Central Treaty Organisation) and we were there defending the southern flank of NATO. We had some jolly good trips because I had a wing commander on my crew and the best trip of all was when we flew the Vulcan down to New Zealand. It was a wonderful flight I was so young at only 24 and to fly down there with a very experienced pilot, go that far and see what was organised in the planning, it was just beyond all my wildest dreams. I was so lucky.
Because I did well and was written up by the wing commander, I was sent back early for a captaincy on the Vulcan aged 24 and so I had to go back to Scampton again to do the captain’s course. And I ended up posted to 44 Squadron at Waddington.
The best trip of all was when I flew a Vulcan aircraft round the world. We used to have a commitment to support the Far East in those days which was a hangover from the Malaysian conflict which finished in the late 70s but still this was 1973 when we still had a commitment. They had staging posts around the world and so we could stage a trip either west about or east about to Singapore. I was lucky enough to go west about all the way around the world.
From 44, I went off to become a qualified flying instructor and I ended up on the University Air Squadron. Many of the universities around the country used to have an air squadron associated with them and anybody who was air minded at the university could come along and get free flying. Or, you had a commission in the Royal Air Force already and the RAF was sponsoring you through the university. I was posted to Glasgow.
From there, I was promoted to Squadron Leader and then I was sent back to Waddington on 50 Squadron, on the Vulcan again as a Flight Commander. So, I did three tours on the aircraft and that was wonderful because I’d flown the aircraft before. I was fully qualified on all sorts of things and I ended up being the squadron display pilot in 1980. Finally, from there I was posted out to America to one of the staging posts which was used by the Vulcan, Offutt Air Force Base, Omaha Nebraska. I ran a detachment there of 26 airmen, 24 of whom were Vulcan engineers. We used to support the Vulcans coming out there to do low level flying around the central states.
As the Vulcan was running down at that stage – we had the Falklands war of course while we were there – and there was no need for that detachment anymore which had been there 25 years, I closed it, and we auctioned off most of the equipment which included a Vulcan engine, and we all came home. That’s the story of my connection with the Vulcan. I am currently connected as a volunteer at Finningley, where I start the aircraft up and in recent years, I’ve been taxiing it again. But it will never fly.
What was it like to fly? It was a joy. You could get out of most scrapes if you found yourself low level with weather all around and the only way was up. You went up like a rocket. Once you got the hang of it, it was quite simple to fly.
I’ve got 2,300 flying hours on the aircraft and it’s just wonderful to be able to sit back in that seat again. All the memories start flooding back.
I think it is important to preserve the aircraft, especially if we can keep it going because there are only three Vulcans that they run the engines on. I’m just very keen on supporting anything to do with the aircraft and I will keep supporting it as long as I am able. The connection with the future, British engineering, and trying to link it in with the green side of the future is wonderful.