Vulcan to the Sky volunteer Geoff Higley, who lives in Grantham, was in the airforce for 20 years as a navigator.
Here in our Q and A he chats about his experience with the XH558 and how he shares his knowledge with those who wish to know more about the Vulcan.
How did you become a volunteer and where did your interest for the Vulcan stem from?
I was in the Vulcan force for four and a half years at Waddington. I was the squadron commander’s navigator on two squadron commander’s crews for the four and a half years. When the Vulcan started flying again after refurbishment, I started doing tours at Doncaster Sheffield Airport.
What is your role as a volunteer?
I volunteered to do tours up there and had a brief chat with the people who were involved in that area for a period of time and more or less went from there. I was maybe one of the earlier [volunteers] not the earliest by any stretch of the imagination, but one of the earlier ones to start doing the tours when she was in the hangar.
Why did you become interested in flying and what made you want to become a navigator?
It all goes back to national service or conscription back in 1952 and signing on. At the “signing on” interview a question was, air crew or ground crew? Naturally [it was] air crew, then of course pilot/navigator. So, it stemmed from there.
What does a navigator’s role involve?
There were two navigators in the Vulcan. One in fact was a straight navigator who directed a plane to where it needed to go, the other was a navigator radar who used the radar bombing system as a navigational aid and bombing system. The pair of us navigated the aircraft to the target and beyond.
What was it like to be a part of the Vulcan crew?
Royal Air Force crews form at the Operational Conversion Units. Individuals meet and find others that seem to fit to become a ‘crew’. You had to ‘fit’ and work as a team, especially the rear crew. The pilots looked after the aircraft and the backroom boys directed it to its destination (target).
What was it like to in the crew compartment?
I won’t say cramped, but when my wife experienced the compartment, she felt very claustrophobic because it is an enclosed space. I was the navigator/plotter, so I was always in a middle seat of the three of us at the back with the air electronics officer on my right and the navigator radar on my left. On overseas trips up to two crew chiefs were also on board. They had two very hard seats in the well, just above the entry/escape door.
A lot of volunteers have a fascination and fondness for the Vulcan. Is that something you have developed?
It was not the best tour I’ve ever had. Unfortunately, I’d been on a Canberra squadron in Germany which was a low level photographic operation. My pilot and I seemed to very good at it, which allowed us a certain amount of freedom to fly almost anywhere in Europe. If we wanted to go and photograph something we would probably be given permission to do so. We took part in two of the NATO photographic competitions.
The Vulcan force was a much more constrained unit of course, because it was a strategic bomber and part of the deterrent force, therefore somewhat more restrictive. Although having said that, I went to a wider range places in the Vulcan than I’d ever done in the Canberra. West to Hawaii, East to Singapore and Australia, and the joys of Goose Bay (Labrador) in February three years on the trot. Our Pug enjoyed the large of Smelt that we caught fishing through the ice and brought back for her.
What made you want to be a volunteer?
I had retired back in 1996 and then we spent 13 years in France. Then we came back to Lincolnshire because we’d bought a house in Grantham whilst we were still in France. Being retired I needed something to occupy my time. I volunteered at Belton House for the National Trust and became a basement tour guide there. That was something which I felt I could do equally well with Vulcan to the Sky.
What’s the best thing for you about being a volunteer?
It gave me a focus, and I’ve got other activities as well. In fact I’m a volunteer tour guide at the International Bomber Command Centre (IBCC) in Lincoln and still a volunteer at Belton House. At the IBCC tours have started again. Volunteering allows me to interact with people and I am able to pass on knowledge which helps visitors, I hope, to appreciate their visit.
What is it that inspires you about the Vulcan?
I think its size and its aerodynamics. It was the only delta winged aircraft there was and having flown in it I like to pass on my experiences to other people. It would be nice to able to get back up to her and pass on my knowledge to all those that find the aircraft interesting. I have found in all age groups they are all unaware of an awful lot of what it could do, where it could go. They can get close to [what was] a very effective deterrent during the cold war.
Why do you think it’s important to inspire the next generation about aviation?
It just so happens that my grandson is studying aeronautical engineering at Bristol University at this time. Seeing some of the work that he’s done is way, way, beyond what I have ever experienced, which proves the point that there is an ongoing requirement to encompass changes, especially from environmental perspective in aviation.
Read more about Geoff’s RAF career and his time with a Canberra Squadron.