Saturday 29th September, was the day of XH558’s final flight for 2012. It was a day that, for those of us who fly the aircraft, was tinged with a certain amount of sadness. I’ve said many times before that we aircrew are never happier than when we have 558 strutting her stuff up where she belongs and to know that she is going to be taken away from us for the next six months or so is quite saddening. However, we’re cheered by the fact that when we do get to fly her once again she will have had her annual winter servicing, subject to raising the appropriate funding of course, and will come out of the hangar in pristine condition ready to fly during the 2013 display season.
The trip on Saturday was designed to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the 1st flight of the Vulcan and to make the sortie special we were to visit many factories, airfields and institutions that have been associated with the Vulcan over those six decades. In order to try and generate some income from this event the approximate route that we were going to fly had been well publicised on the VTTS website in the hope that those who were near to the proposed flight path would donate cash to pay for the fuel as we flew by. Sounds like a good idea in principle but it produced some concerns for us who were to fly the aircraft. Historically we have never before published our intended route for one very good reason – flight safety. We have had some alarming experiences in the past when pilots of light aircraft have heard from my radio transmissions that we are in their vicinity and have turned their aircraft towards us to get a closer look at us and sometimes getting just a little bit too close for comfort. I think that they forget, or possibly are not aware, that the visibility out of the Vulcan cockpit is quite limited and it’s not like their own cockpits where they have good all-round visibility.
When we aircrew for the Saturday’s trip saw that the route has been publicised we were just a bit alarmed, but having seen that it was only an approximation of where were likely to go we let it pass without further comment. Knowing that in essence the idea was to generate income by letting people see where we were going to be, we eventually warmed to the idea but tempered it with a great deal of caution. However, it did generate an awful lot more work for Bill Ramsey, who was captain for that trip, and Andy our navigator because they had to do a lot of extra telephoning to the airfields we were going to fly over to ensure that their aircraft were going to be grounded as we flew by.
Fortunately, they all agreed and did indeed ground all of their aircraft which ensured we had safe passage through their area. Even then though, I could hear on the radio at one of the airfields we flew through a helicopter pilot who heard that we were coming through and positioned his helicopter so that he could take photos of us. Because all the aircraft from that particular airfield were grounded by the air traffic controller he just simply climbed above the airfield air control zone where he could do as he pleased without needing the permission from that airfield’s air traffic controller.
Of course, it wasn’t only nearby aircraft that we had to contend with. Because the approximate route had been publicised, ordinary members of the public were ringing the VTTS to ask for their own personal ‘fly-by’ and even right up to the time of, and during, our pre-flight briefing the telephone was ringing with fans requesting an over-flight of their particular location. By this stage we had to let them know that the routing had been finalised and because of timing and fuel constraints we couldn’t accede to their requests. Not a popular answer but a necessary one unfortunately. However, the purpose of the route publication seemed to do the trick and although we approached it with some trepidation from what I heard there were many donations being texted in as we flew over our faithful fans so it had all been worthwhile.
Most of you will, by now, be aware of our intended routing, but just in case you aren’t -we planned to take off from Doncaster with the crew comprising of Bill Ramsey who was captain for the day, Kev Rumens as co-pilot, Andy Marson our navigator, and yours truly as the AEO. We were to head south to overhead the Newark Aviation Museum, the venue for the bi-annual V Force reunion, before continuing on to Bitteswell, which in years past had been the main Vulcan maintenance unit. From there we were to fly over Coventry Airport before turning north west to then overfly Birmingham Airport and then on to RAF Cosford for a fly by there. Having flown over those airfields our route was to then take us southwards towards Gloucester Staverton Airfield for yet another fly by. It was on this leg that we had planned to do some air-to-air photography with some aviation photographers aboard a Skyvan aircraft.
We have tried to do this sort of thing with a Skyvan on previous occasions and because of the incompatibilities of our respective airspeeds it can be quite tricky. The Skyvan is going at full speed while we’re virtually falling out of the sky because we’re going so slowly!! Slight exaggeration but you get the gist of what I mean. However, we called him on the radio to establish his position and once we had sighted him Bill Ramsey slotted 558 in behind him ready for the photographers to take their photos.
Time was of the essence now because we had a time to meet for our over-flight of Gloucester but more importantly after Gloucester we had to be at Kemble at a specified time for Bill Ramsey to perform a display in front of an authorised CAA examiner in order to obtain his display qualification. The air-to-air photography had to be cut short unfortunately to make these timings. The over flight of Gloucester done we headed southeast towards Kemble and after establishing over the radio that the examiner was in position, Bill commenced his display. Yet again, it was a corker of a display and the examiner couldn’t have failed to have been impressed with Bill’s performance. We heard subsequently that indeed the examiner was more than satisfied with what he witnessed and had no qualms in awarding Bill his display qualification which will last for a year and so will be valid for the 2013 display season. Congratulations to Bill, what a couple of weeks he has had. Not only has he become a Vulcan captain but he is also now authorised to display your aircraft for the next twelve months. Wiping the crocodile tears away of joy at his success we continued our flight profile which then took us out over the Bristol Channel before turning south to overfly Bristol Filton.
Filton of course has a long affinity with the Vulcan, it being the home of the Rolls Royce establishment in days past where our Olympus engines were tried and tested. Not only that, some of you will recall that it was out of Filton that the Vulcan flew with the test version of the Concorde Rolls Royce Olympus engine strapped underneath. That fly though completed, Bristol Lulsgate was our next destination for a fly by. We had so far flown through three international airports and at each and every one of them the controllers had held off commercial aircraft to allow us to fly through. When you consider that time is money for civil airlines, it is amazing that they allowed us the privilege of flying though their airfield at no cost to us and with the concurrence of the civil airliners who were possibly inconvenienced by our presence. It was really gratifying to hear the comments over the radio from those airline pilots who saw us, all of whom sounded in awe of the Vulcan as we flew by. Such is the presence and love of the Vulcan. The Vulcan Effect lives on and long may it do so.
It was now time to go ‘overseas’ and head back out across the Bristol Channel to Cardiff airport, who like the previous airfields held up their airline traffic too to allow us through before we then flew a few more miles to what was RAF St. Athan. Lots of you ex RAF people will recall that St Athan was for many years the home of the big maintenance unit tasked with the deep servicing of the RAF’s V force aircraft and I’m sure that 558 will have been serviced at this unit on numerous occasions. Heading north from St Athan we headed up through Wales towards the Brecon Beacons. The weather was glorious and we could see for miles. I stood on the ladder between the pilots to witness the view of the hills that I had walked over on many occasions. I can still feel the pain of the blisters even now!! We could see walkers on the top of Pen-Y-Fan who would have had a magnificent sight of us as we flew past beneath them. I do hope that they had their cameras with them to capture the event. They would have captured the shot of a lifetime looking down on the magnificent plan form of a Vulcan as we passed by beneath them. Who knows when 558 will ever be in that area again to give other walkers that experience.
The Beacons slipped behind us as we continued flying northbound passing Hereford before turning south to head towards the main event of the day – a fly-by of a memorial service held in memory of a friend and client of Eddie Forrester our long term supporter and benfactor. This was being held in the small settlement of Bishopswood near Ross-on-Wye, nestled alongside the river in the base of a steep-sided valley. We had seen satellite imagery of the venue and were fully aware that there was high ground all around us. It looked from the photos that the Memorial Hall was going to be difficult to spot but as we flew down the valley it soon became readily apparent, because the pilots could see lots of camera flash guns flashing as we approached the venue. We completed a run past before climbing up above the top of the valley to go around again and repeat the process. The second run was completed with a full power climb away and from what I hear, the noise, being contained within the confines of the valley sides, was absolutely deafening. I’m sure that all who were there couldn’t have failed to be less than impressed.
We were well into the sortie profile by now and all we had left to do was fly towards RAF Brize Norton after which a visit to RAF Halton was planned. On the way to Brize it just so happened that we flew very near to Bourton on the Water, where our very own display commentator, Sean Maffett, lives. No-one commentating about the Vulcan on the display circuit can do it quite like Sean. He can make grown men cry with his words during our displays. I feel confident to say that it is his perfect timing in his commentary during our displays wherein he asks people to donate cash to the cause just moments before the display pilot of the day makes the engines howl that must have raised thousands of pounds over the years and to him, we give him our heart-felt thanks. In the words of the song ‘Nobody Does It Better’. Thanks Sean.
Onwards we flew towards Brize Norton for the over flight there to say a big ‘thank you’ for all the help that they all gave us during our first couple of seasons when we were searching for a permanent home for 558. Without the help and enthusiasm from their Station Commander and the rest of his Station personnel, it is debateable whether the VTTS would have been able to continue. A big vote of thanks must go them as well. As Brize receded into the distance behind us we had just one more venue to visit in the south of the country before commencing our journey northwards and home.
RAF Halton has been the home of aircraft engineering since time immemorial and it has seen thousands of Vulcan aircraft technicians pass through its portals before going on to do their valuable work during the tense years of the Cold War. Without that centre of engineering excellence producing engineers of the highest calibre, the country would have been poorly placed over those dark years. It was only right that 558 should pay her respects to RAF Halton and all who have served there either as instructors or students of engineering.
By now time really was starting to be our enemy and we needed to set course for Doncaster to ensure that we could land with sufficient daylight left should we have to divert the aircraft to another airfield. On our way back home it would have been churlish not to have visited both RAF Scampton and Waddington which were for so many years the homes to many Vulcan squadrons before they were disbandoned. As many of you will recall it was from RAF Waddington that the Vulcans, who were to fly the now famous bombing and missile missions of the runway and radars at Port Stanley in the Falklands, departed some 30 years ago. Some names of the aircrew that fly your aircraft were intimately involved in those missions i.e. Martin Withers DFC, Bill Perrins, Andy Marson and me Barry Masefield. They were heady days and even now after some three decades have passed I think that all four of us still get that little tingle of pride knowing that we were all involved with the longest bombing mission of all time which resulted in the denial of the runway at Port Stanley to the Argentine fighters for which the Royal Navy were very grateful.
As our tour came to its conclusion I called up Doncaster air traffic control to let them know that we were nearly home. We thought that it would be a fitting tribute to all of the staff at Robin Hood in all departments and to all those supporters who were lining the airfield perimeter if we were to do a fly by for them too. The air traffic controller cleared us in for a run and break after which full power was applied for a steep turn before heading back towards the runway for our final landing of 2012. Wheels were selected down and finally, 558 settled on the runway after a 3¼ hour trip ready for a well earned rest over the winter months.
It had been a great season for XH558. Once our initial engineering difficulties had been resolved, she flew every display that was asked of her and remained fully serviceable throughout. We have been extremely fortunate with having good weather which helped too. This is an incredible achievement for an aircraft of her vintage and it can really be attributed to Taff Stone and his team of engineers. They have worked tirelessly to keep 558 in tip-top condition and with the help of the volunteers who so proudly clean and polish her, she has always been presented to you, the public who own her, in the best possible fashion. Thank you to each and every one of you who have had a hand in this. Also our thanks must go to Toni Hunter who beavers away in the background running her tours and the merchandising in the hangar at Doncaster. This has raised an enormous amount of revenue and we are grateful to her and her back-up colleagues.
Finally, I save the best till last. Without you our faithful fans, none of this would have been possible. Your donations have kept 558 up where she belongs and you should all be very proud of yourselves and your achievement. On a personal note I would like to say thank you to you all for donating your hard earned cash which allows me and my aircrew colleagues the privilege of flying your aircraft.
As most of you will be aware we will still need to raise money to see XH558, your aircraft, through her winter service if we are to see once again in the air for the 2013 display season. Please continue to dig as deep as you can into your pockets and make a donation no matter how small (but preferably large) to continue to support XH558, an icon in her own right.
That’s it for 2012. As always, thank you all for taking the time to read this. I’ve enjoyed writing these blogs over the period of the 2012 season and I’d like to say thank you to all of you who have approached me at air shows to tell me that you enjoy reading them. Makes it all worthwhile.
See you in 2013.