35 years ago, on 20 September 1986, Vulcan XH558 performed her first display at her former base – RAF Finningley. However, performing as the display aircraft for the RAF was a role that very nearly didn’t happen, with XH558 almost ending up on the fire dump.
Air-to-Air refuelling tanker
During early 1982, Vulcan XH558 was in the Maritime Radar Reconnaissance (MRR) role and had recently transferred to No. 44 Squadron at RAF Waddington. Within days of the move Argentine forces had invaded the Falklands. The RAF put together an ambitious plan to send Vulcan aircraft to the Falklands to attack the airfield in what is now known as the legendary Operation Black Buck.
The long-distance bombing missions required the support of the entire Victor tanker fleet to refuel the Vulcans. This left the rest of the RAF short of refuelling capability. Six Vulcans, including XH558, were selected to be converted to tanker roles. Fuelling systems were fitted into the large rear electronic countermeasures bay of the Vulcan and fed off the fuel tanks installed in the bomb-bay, which were originally installed for the prolonged maritime patrol.
The aircraft were converted at Woodford and arrived back at Waddington in October 1982 with No. 50 Squadron. XH558 was now designated as a Vulcan K2.
Did you know? The running dogs emblem on squadron aircraft arose from the radio call sign “Dingo” that No. 50 squadron was allocated as part of the Home Defence network in 1918.
The following extract, from Vulcan XH558 – Fifty Five Years, Eight Seasons , tells the rest of the story of how XH558 became the display Vulcan
By 1984, what was left of the Vulcan fleet were being gradually scrapped or distributed to various aviation museums. XL426 was active in the newly formed Vulcan Display Flight (VDF) and would be used at public air displays as an example of the type and of course, as the ideal publicity and recruitment tool.
XH560 was allocated as the ideal display replacement as the hours were ticking by on the existing airframe, so XH558 was flown to RAF Marham for the purpose of being stripped down for spares, before being placed on the station’s fire dump! Only on closer inspection of the paperwork, did the RAF realize XH560 had 160 hours remaining until a Major Service, whilst XH558 had nearly 600 hours remaining because of her more recent servicing regime. XH560 would therefore make the trip over to Marham, whilst XH558 was readied and made the return journey to RAF Waddington.
In November 1984, a Serviced Engineered Modification (SEM) conversion commenced to return XH558 back to a B Mk.2 standard, far more suitable for the display circuit, with all the HDU equipment now being removed. Due to structural changes during the tanker fit, it was not possible to re-install the EKM kit, nor would it likely ever be reused, so one of the rear bomb-bay fuel tanks remained to give valuable ballast towards the centre of gravity – becoming the counterweight for the missing equipment. Although acting as the reserve aircraft and kept on standby, it was out of the display season, during the winter of 1985, when XH558 was flown to RAF Kinloss in Scotland to have a bare metal paint strip before being repainted in an all over camouflage pattern. This was deemed more suitable for a display aircraft, as it showed the delta profile much better in the distance over the light-painted underside. Although differing to the service fleet, a polyurethane glossy coating was also applied to give as much protection and longevity to the finish as possible.
XH558 becomes the main aircraft of the VDF
Returning to RAF Waddington in early 1986, the Vulcan Display Flight now had two aircraft at their disposal, but with a limited budget and even less man-power towards their regular maintenance. Only three groundcrew were allocated to the flight, yet they managed to keep both aircraft serviced and flight capable when needed with the help of willing volunteers, allowing the flight crews sufficient hours to keep current on type and to practice their display routine for the upcoming season.
It was obvious quite early on that with a few hours remaining on XL426, the reduction to one aircraft would greatly help the team, so XH558 was brought in to complete her first public display at the TVS Airshow, Bournemouth during May 1986, while XL426 bowed out of her duties with a display overhead RAF Coningsby in June. When XL426 was taken off-charge in December that year it left XH558 as the sole-remaining airworthy Vulcan in the world. If you saw a Vulcan display between 1986 through to 1992, then it would have been XH558 you would have seen.
Watch XH558’s display at RAF Finningley in September 1986
Upon her retirement, Vulcan XL426 was purchased by a private buyer who had her flown to Southend Airport, Essex. After many years of storage at the airport, in 1993 ownership was transferred to the Vulcan Restoration Trust who now operate her in ground running condition.