You may have seen a dark blue vintage van parked next to XH558 during our Airside Tours and Engine Ground Runs. This restored 1962 Commer Superpoise is one of the unsung heroes of the jet age – a jet starter vehicle that was indispensable for bringing aircraft like the Vulcan to life.
Before self-starting engines became commonplace, aircraft required external power to spool their engines up to ignition speed. The Superpoise housed a small jet engine that generated a blast of hot air directed into the Vulcan’s intake. This allowed the jet turbines to spin fast enough for startup. Hard to imagine today’s fighters needing a bump start, but such starter vehicles were an everyday necessity during the dawn of jet aviation.
The Superpoise was fully restored in 2014 by our skilled volunteers. Though it no longer sees routine use, it remains ready to demonstrate its starting abilities and educate visitors about this lesser-known aspect of the Vulcan’s operations. Its restoration has preserved this unassuming workhorse for future generations.
You may have wondered about the history of this blue stalwart that still supports our Vulcan activities. Here is the story of how our dedicated team brought it back to life…
The story follows a Blackburn Air Starter unit mounted on an original Commer truck and lovingly restored by volunteers over two years after being gifted to the Vulcan to the Sky Trust.
Originally acquired by the Trust in 2012, the van had spent its days at RAF Woodford starting Nimrod jet engines. With just 13,000 miles on its odometer, it had likely never left the airfield prior to restoration. Unregistered for the road, its year of manufacture was uncertain, though it has now been confirmed as a 1962 model.
As well as the obvious work needed on the bodywork and interior, there was not only the Commer’s engine to overhaul, but the small matter of a rather more complex Turbo Air Starter unit sitting in the back!
The Superpoise’s journey began in the early 1960s when Blackburn Engines, then a division of Hawker Siddeley Group, manufactured a range of ground support equipment for air starting aircraft. As their adverts stated, these turbo jet starters provided compressed air to rotate jet engines to the proper speed before ignition, avoiding the need for onboard cartridge systems.
The Superpoise carried a Blackburn turbo jet starter unit featuring a Rolls-Royce Palouste gas turbine auxiliary power unit. This compact jet generator created the hot compressed air needed to spin the Vulcan’s engines up to start speed. The starter and its distribution hoses were housed in the van’s rear compartment.
When the Trust acquired the van in 2012, the Commer truck was remarkably complete but needed a full restoration. The body panels were dented and rusted, the interior worn, and mechanical systems in need of overhaul. Our volunteers fully disassembled the van, repairing metalwork and corrosion as needed before repainting it in period-correct Fordson Blue. New decals and signage were added to match archive photos of similar vans.
The interior was refreshed by up-cycling Vulcan materials like surplus seat fabric and genuine cockpit floor mats, retaining a connection to its original purpose. The Humber Hawk engine required only minor repairs, but electrical and brake systems were upgraded to modern standards.
The Palouste starter turbine posed a greater challenge without factory manuals. After a thorough cleaning and some sensor replacements, the team attempted their first test startup fully expecting issues. But with a filter change the starter performed flawlessly.
After completing road-worthiness certifications, the restored van debuted at Trust events in 2014. Though it no longer starts aircraft daily, the Superpoise remains active in ground operations. By preserving this unsung workhorse, our volunteers have ensured it can still showcase a forgotten facet of aviation history for years to come.