On 28 October 2015, over 55 years after her first flight, Avro Vulcan XH558 – the world’s last airworthy Vulcan – flew for the final time.
XH558 is an aircraft of many firsts and lasts. On 1 July 1960, XH558 was the first Vulcan B.2 to enter RAF service. She went on to become the RAF’s longest serving Vulcan and was the very last Vulcan to retire from RAF service on 23 March 1993.
Vulcan XH558 is one of the most loved and probably the most well-known aircraft on the air display circuit. Between 1985 and 1992, XH558 performed at airshows up and down the UK with the RAF’s Vulcan Display Flight (VDF), but as a result of budget cuts the Ministry of Defence (MOD) decided to discontinue the VDF. It couldn’t justify the cost of maintaining a single aircraft type simply for display purposes. The MOD was planning to dispose of the last flying Vulcan B.2 aircraft – XH558.
During the latter shows of the 1992 season, crowds gathered with placards and signs of support and congregated next to XH558 whenever the aircraft was on static display, often carrying banners with ‘SAVE THE VULCAN’ painted on white sheets as one of the battle cries.
There were questions in Parliament and names and addresses had been collected on a petition which was presented to parliament. The petitioners described the Vulcan as “a flying work of art”.
On 23 March 1993, Vulcan XH558 landed at Bruntingthorpe Airfield. She was saved from the scrap heap by the British public and the Walton family. Now in civilian ownership, many believed they had seen a Vulcan fly for the last time. However, in 1997, with David Walton’s support, Dr Robert Pleming formed a team of specialists to investigate whether a return to airworthiness for XH558 was feasible.
In 2007 the mission to return Vulcan XH558 the sky was complete, thanks in large part to the generous support of thousands of Vulcan fans. Following the most complex and demanding heritage aviation restoration project, millions of people were able to enjoy the sight and sound of the Avro Vulcan again. XH558 went on to fly for eight years, performing a second display career that many people never expected to see, but sadly, 2015 would be XH558’s final display season.
Vulcan XH558 flew as a Complex category ex-military aircraft through a Permit to Fly (PtF) from the Civil Aviation Authority. A condition of the Complex category is that the aircraft’s original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are contracted to provide ongoing airworthiness design support. By 2015, their input was very limited as the engineering capability of the Trust had developed, however their support remained a legal requirement. The acknowledged reason for this is that in the case of a serious incident, the CAA wanted the OEMs to shoulder the airworthiness responsibility. Unfortunately, at the start of the 2015 display season 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. Despite the best efforts of the Trust to address this, in the end it was reluctantly accepted that the OEM’s minds would not be changed, so concentration was focused on putting on the best farewell season possible.
During 2015, XH558 flew tours across the north and south of the UK, so as many of her adoring supporters as possible could see her one final time. It was an emotionally packed year and on 28 October Avro Vulcan XH558 prepared to make her final flight and the last flight of an all-British four-engined jet.
Vulcan XH558 was a victim of her own success. Millions of people had watched her over the years but only a relatively small amount of people were able to be present for her final flight. Under guidance from South Yorkshire Police, the details of the final flypast had to be kept secret due to the risk to public safety with potentially thousands of spectators turning up at the airport. Earlier in the month South Yorkshire Police urged fans to avoid watching it at the airport in Doncaster, saying the airport could not “accommodate a large influx of people hoping to see the Vulcan”.
Of all the people who should have been there to witness the final flight, Dr Robert Pleming, who died suddenly in February this year, was absent. He had been admitted to hospital that day to have a heart valve replaced. Subsequently he noted “At least I can share the pain of missing XH558’s final flight with all those who wished they could have been there too.”
Low cloud on the day risked a cancellation, with plans being suspended for a weather check in the afternoon. Just after 2pm on Wednesday 28 October 2015, as a break in the clouds came, XH558 was readied and slowly taxied out to the hold of Runway 02 at Doncaster Sheffield Airport – previously RAF Finningley, her spiritual home.
While majority of RAF Finningley has been transformed into a modern international airport, 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, with XH558 operating on this site between 1961 and early 1968.
XH558 took to the air keeping low across the runway. After a change in direction and a few circuits of the airfield, she carried out a low pass, then a touch and go. After 15 minutes in the air the stunning final display ended with the iconic aircraft landing for the final time on the long, ex-military runway, streaming her brake parachute.
As the aircraft taxied back to parking, the airport Fire Crews gave XH558 a traditional water cannon salute.
Although the event had to be kept secret for the safety of the public it was captured on film as a moment in history. In an excerpt from the Vulcan XH558 Farewell to Flight DVD broadcaster Seán Maffett, a former RAF Squadron leader and the voice of Vulcan XH558 as her official airshow commentator, narrates the emotional scenes.
Former RAF Finningley is now Avro Vulcan XH558’s final operational base and the focus of the many exciting developments that will follow.