It started with a wink

26 February 2021

The Wink

It was a bright, sunny day at the Wroughton Airshow, the day Dr Robert Pleming first laid eyes on Vulcan XH558 in the late 1980s.

Robert saw XH558’s airshow displays with the RAF Vulcan Display Flight (VDF) for many years. On 19 September 1992 he was back at the Wroughton Airshow watching XH558 make her penultimate public display with the VDF. Raising his camera to photograph the iconic aircraft as the sunlight poured across her, the light glinted sharply on the cockpit window, sending Robert a signal that would change both his and XH558’s life forever.

She had winked at him, he would later say, sparking a lifelong determination to preserve her legacy for generations to come.

To the sky

In 1993 Robert watched Vulcan XH558’s last flight in RAF Service.

Watching the magnificent aircraft that had captured his heart at Wroughton roaring overhead, he vowed to his family that he would “do his damndest” to ensure she flew again.

And, as they say, the rest is history.

In early 1997 Robert began to explore the feasibility of returning Vulcan to flight and, in 1999, the project received the positive support of BAE Systems, who had inherited the design responsibility from A.V. Roe.

By 2000, Robert had assumed the full-time, unpaid role of leading the charge to return Vulcan XH558 to the skies of Great Britain.

It was to be the most complex return to flight project ever attempted – returning an ex-military, heavy, powerful and complex aircraft to flight, under civilian ownership.

On Thursday 18 October 2007, Robert’s determination, enthusiasm and drive was rewarded as he and his team saw XH558 take to the air for her first flight after restoration and for the first time in 14 years.

The aircraft wowed and entertained millions of people at UK airshows for eight years.

Preserving her legacy

Sadly, in 2015, after Robert had led the project to restore her to flight, Vulcan XH558 was grounded and she is now kept in full ground-running order, maintained by the Vulcan to the Sky Trust team in Doncaster.

But Robert’s mission to preserve XH558’s legacy didn’t end there. Robert’s determination to keep XH558’s spirit alive continued with plans to build her a new and exciting home where she will be shown off to her supporters.

Robert wanted generations from all walks of life to be engaged by the sight and sound of the Vulcan, just as he was years ago at Wroughton.

He was passionate about creating a place to inspire young people into a career in engineering and to celebrate XH558’s legacy for all to see.

In 2020, the Vulcan to the Sky Trust launched the Operation Safeguard campaign, spearheaded by Robert, to realise this ambition.

However, in February 2021, Robert sadly passed away, meaning he will never get to see his vision and decades of work and devotion become reality.

“Robert was a true visionary whose determination to restore Vulcan XH558 to flight captured the hearts and minds of millions of people. His determination was an inspiration and an exemplar of how to bring a difficult project to fruition.

We will continue our work on his vision for the future of XH558 as an inspiration for green technology as well as an aeronautical milestone. His mission was to engage young people in the possibilities that a career in engineering can create to tackle the challenges facing the world today.” – John Sharman, Chair of the VTST

Robert’s passing has been a huge loss to Vulcan to the Sky Trust and all of XH558’s loyal followers, as well as the generations of aviation enthusiasts and engineers to come. But, at the Trust, we know he would want work to continue in his name.

And so, the Operation Safeguard campaign continues. We are determined to not only create a new home for XH558, but to honour Robert’s own incredible legacy, too.

From the earliest days of the Vulcan to the Sky Trust’s work, the charity has always had two guiding principles, to honour those who served us in the past and to inspire future generations to help maintain the United Kingdom’s historic role at the forefront of innovation in aviation.

You can help to complete Robert’s vision to tell the story of the famous Avro Vulcan XH558 and the V-Force, the RAF and its people, the Cold War, and to inspire future generations to help maintain the UK’s historic role at the forefront of innovation in aviation.

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The Vulcan to the Sky Trust is registered with the Fundraising Regulator

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Registered Address: Vulcan to the Sky Trust, Unit 4 Delta Court, Third Avenue, Doncaster Sheffield Airport, Doncaster, South Yorkshire, DN9 3GN Company No. 4478686. Charity Reg No. 1101948