An unexpected gift from his wife for his birthday changed ex RAF and Red Arrows engineer, Tony Sykes and his son, Connors lives overnight. The duo were hooked from the moment they went to see Vulcan XH558 at Doncaster Sheffield Airport and have since dedicated much of their spare time to taking tours and helping to maintain the Avro Vulcan. In the latest in our series of blogs, Tony shares their story.
“I have to be honest when my wife told me that she’d bought me a trip to see the Vulcan as a present, I wasn’t really that excited. It was just an aircraft and not one that I’d had any desire to see. When you have lived your life inside and outside of RAF aircraft, you kind of lose interest after a while.
“I took my son Connor, then aged 12, with me and we were taken round by a tour guide called Dean. The story was amazing and from that moment we were invested in the plane, her history, and her future. We had to go and see her fly!
“What an experience that was. We were lucky enough to see her final flight too, we live in Doncaster and had heard that it would be her last flight.
“After that final flight we went back to the hangar and Connor was sat on her wheel that was still warm from landing and I knew that I wanted to volunteer. I spoke to a chap there, Jim, and asked what we could do. When Jim got back in touch to arrange for me to volunteer, I mentioned Connor and how much he’d learned about XH558 and his enthusiasm, Jim said he could volunteer too and at 14 years of age he became the youngest volunteer on the project.
“We both became tour guides and took groups of people around XH558 sharing her story and developed our own special tours, my tour was navigator focused and Connor wrote an engineering tour. This was a fantastic experience for us both and something that we loved doing. We both had many positive reviews on TripAdvisor and enjoyed the chance to bounce our knowledge off each other at every opportunity. It was interesting to watch how much my wife Suzy’s (Connor’s Mum), knowledge and love for the Vulcan increased over the weeks, months, and years.
“I’d joined the air cadets at 13, so just a year younger than Connor was, and gained my private pilots licence at 17. I’d always wanted to go into the RAF and joined as a tradesman initially. I was selected for officer training as a pilot and completed Cranwell training, but the rest of the story didn’t quite go according to plan and is a whole other story, so I completed my engineering training and was posted to the Red Arrows.
“It was there that I met Taff Stone, who has been a critical influence in the life of XH558, ensuring she is full airworthy and adhering to CAA and airport regulations.
“After a period of flying privately, I taught the air cadets to fly powered gliders at RAF Cosford on 633 VGS. Upon leaving the RAF I set up a business in projects and programme management.
“It wasn’t until I started volunteering with the Vulcan to the Sky Trust (VTST) that I realised I’d actually worked on the Vulcan systems. Because they were so complicated, we trained the apprentices on the systems, if they could understand those, they could understand anything!
“It turned out that I knew more about the inside of a Vulcan than most other people!
“When XH558 moved out of the hangar we weren’t able to take people out to see her and I became a volunteer engineer. I have worked outside on her in freezing temperatures, blizzards and blistering sunshine.
When I had fallen in love with her, my dream was that I wanted to be able to tow her up the runway, I’m now one of only two people with that responsibility.
“The volunteers are all fantastic, we all get our hands dirty and do what is needed to keep XH558 maintained to an incredibly professional standard.
“Connor is now 19 and doing his A Levels and will be following his brother to university soon to study Theorical Astro Physics, my older son Dan was already at university when we first got involved with the VTST so he missed our growing love for this iconic aircraft.
“What I’d love to see happen now is for the hangar project to come to fruition and I know that the VTST are fundraising to make this happen. This would enable us to take on some of the bigger jobs that we’d like to do. We could also welcome people back, reinstate the tours, concerts and weddings.
“The Green Technology Hub that is planned for the new hangar will be a stunning addition to the project, as we all need to focus on green engineering. Looking at the way that the Vulcan systems work – thinking about green technology now – it’s a really good link. There are going to be so many jobs in green energy in the next decade – it is going to be a huge industry. I’m hoping XH558 can play a really important part in enthusing the younger generation to become the engineers of OUR future.
“The one thing The Vulcan Experience will need, as we move to our new hangar, is young enthusiastic volunteers to support the project, just like Connor did. They will take the enthusiasm from the current team to a new cohort of supporters, which will not only amaze aircraft enthusiasts, but also inspire a generation of ‘Green Ambassadors’, many of whom will be able to positively influence the effect of many previous generations negative effect on the planet.