The Home of the V-bomber – RAF Finningley

Header image | source: globalaviationresource.com

For the first few years after her return to flight in 2007, Vulcan XH558 operated from a number of bases including Bruntingthorpe, RAF Waddington, RAF Brize Norton and RAF Lyneham.

Bruntingthorpe, where her restoration took place, was unsuitable for regular flight operations. The runway was used as a vehicle test track for most of the week and was not fully licensed for flight operations. If XH558 needed to depart, special permissions were needed, additional fire cover would have to be hired in and the runway would need a full Foreign Object Debris (FOD) check, before both take-off and landing.

XH558 Roll Out | Bruntingthorpe | 31 August 2006

A compromise was reached that saw the track closed on certain days, which alleviated the FOD problem somewhat, but lost the site owners valuable income (the runway and surroundings at Bruntingthorpe can be seen regularly in many TV motoring programmes).

Courtesy of the RAF, XH558 was allowed to use various RAF bases as operating locations. This then presented a logistical problem in that the engineering team had to uproot most of the support equipment and themselves to be near their charge for the season.

Chelsea Pensioners underneath the wings of XH558 at RAF Lyneham – March 2011

Due to the challenges of operating from a privately owned airfield, during late 2009 the aircraft left its base at Bruntingthorpe to take up a casual residence at RAF Lyneham. It was during her time there that guided public tours of the aircraft were a popular request. This was not the easiest of experiences to offer on a sensitive RAF base, but a highly supportive Station Commander at RAF Lyneham kindly allowed limited access for tours at weekends in 2010. This demonstrated just what desire there was for people to get close access to the aircraft and the team looking after her, and to see at first-hand the ongoing work.

The following extract from Vulcan XH558 – Celebrating the Display-life of an Aviation Icon explains the decision making process in 2011 to move to Doncaster;

“When it was announced that RAF Lyneham was to close, the Trust re-visited past contacts looking for a suitable location to use as an operating base. Other RAF bases were considered, but it was always hoped to find a commercial airport that would be happy to have a live Vulcan operating from their runway.

With the experience of tours and a better understanding of how the interest in XH558 could be harnessed, a building that could not only act as a hangar, but as a visitor attraction, was high on the agenda. With enquiries made and agreements in place, the Trust announced XH558 would be moving to a hangar at former RAF Finningley.”

Today, the majority of the Finningley site has been transformed into a modern international airport, but from 1915 to 1996 it was an operational station of significant importance to our nation’s defences. At the end of the 1950’s work was carried out to the base for it to operate as a V-bomber station. The airfield became known as the home of the V-bomber after Avro Vulcan, Handley Page Victor and Vickers Valiant aircraft had all been stationed at the base.

XH558 with the white Yorkshire Rose on a light blue shield, applied after her move to Finningley during June 1961 © Martin Fenner

On 29 March 2011, Vulcan XH558 arrived to an enthusiastic welcome party at her new home, Doncaster Sheffield Airport (DSA) – ex RAF Finningley. XH558 was no stranger to the airfield. She was based at RAF Finningley with 230 OCU between 1961 and early 1968. She had come back to her spiritual home, to the home of the V-bomber.

By mid-November 2011, the old Cold War hangar was fully prepared to welcome supporters for tours around XH558 in the comfortable surroundings of her new home and eventually this developed into events under the huge delta wing of the aircraft. The new revenue stream helped in some way towards the expensive operation of flying a heritage four-engine jet aircraft.

An event at hangar 3 DSA © Arnold Bennett

When it became clear that 2015 would be XH558’s final flying season, the question of course occurred of where her final landing should be. Despite successfully operating from her old RAF V-Force base for the final four and a half years of her flying career, as not only as an operational aircraft base but also as a tour, event and educational facility, the Trust reviewed all alternative sites that had a runway.

The Trust has a unique contractual obligation in the heritage jet world: as the result of the grant received from the Heritage Lottery Fund towards the restoration, the Trust is contractually responsible for preserving the aircraft, demonstrating it to the public and telling its story until at least 2085. When benchmarking out plans in 2015, we noted that there were other very successful ground operations of Cold War aircraft, for example Vulcan XL426 at Southend, Vulcan XM655 at Wellesbourne and the collections at Elvington and Bruntingthorpe. If our outlook was only for the next decade or so, then one of these locations may well have been the better choice. However, our obligation for a considerably longer time period meant it vital to find a location where the runway is an intrinsic part of a long-term business. Many private airfields are at risk of development, so we could easily have landed somewhere only to see the runway built on in a few years or removed from use – such as is happening at Dunsfold and Bruntingthorpe.

Vulcan XH558 Engine Ground-Run event

Since the end of her flying days, many people, including the many thousands of visitors who have attended tours around the iconic jet, have been happy with Vulcan XH558’s location. But, others have suggested she should have landed at a variety of different airfields and discussions have even been had over whether a ferry flight to another location is possible. It is not.

After more than six years since her final flight, XH558 now has a number of time-expired critical components. The fundamental reason though, is that XH558 flew in the Complex category and to date remains the only ‘complex’ one to be returned to the Civil Aviation register. A condition of the Complex category, and a legal requirement, is that the aircraft’s Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) are contracted to provide ongoing airworthiness design support. In 2015, the OEMs notified the Trust that this support was to be withdrawn at the end of that year, as they felt that they could not find people with sufficient expertise to help. This meant XH558 was no longer allowed to fly. As our supporters would expect, we have made the appropriate enquiries to the relevant organisations, to determine if less severe restrictions could be applied to a one-off flight. The outcome of these discussions was that they could not be. Today, this still remains a legal reason that any flight, including a ferry flight, will not be possible.

RAF Finningley Station Badge
Usque ad cleum fines
Latin for ‘Extending as far as the sky‘)

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