Why Vulcan to the Sky and XH558 matter to Doncaster – Steve Liddle

XH558 was the Royal Air Force’s last flying Vulcan, retired in 1992 and returned to the air by VTST in 2007. Until her final grounding in 2015, she was seen and enjoyed by millions.


From 2011 onwards, XH558 operated from Doncaster Sheffield Airport – her former home base of RAF Finningley. With her massive profile, she helped to raise awareness of a lightly used but very high potential regional airport. The long runway was built specifically for Vulcan ops by the RAF.

Her beauty was an incidental benefit of her design, for a global one in which Doncaster played a part. In October 1962, it is generally considered that nuclear war was closer than ever before or since. These 4 Vulcans are at Finningley around this time, ready to launch on QRA.

When the V-Force was at its most important and entirely shouldering the UK nuclear deterrent in the 1960s, all Vulcan aircrew trained at Finningley. Doncaster played a vital role in the safety and security of the UK. In this 1965 image of Finningley, XH558 is on the right.

The Vulcan and XH558 have strong historical links to Doncaster, but is that important? Well, Robert Courts MP (Min for Aviation, Maritime and Security) recently told us, “I see historic aviation as crucial in inspiring the next generation of aviation professionals.” …which brings me to the personal bit! I grew up in Doncaster and always had an interest in STEM and aerospace engineering, much inspired by seeing amazing aircraft like XH558 at Finningley. Still, in the mid-90s there was little inspring heritage in what was a bleak town and this was frustrating, because it had once been an engineering capital of the world. I vividly remember seeing the world-speed-record (Doncaster built in 1938) steam locomotive Mallard on the mainline at speed. Other people were shouting about this, but not her hometown.

I’m really pleased to see (although haven’t visited myself yet) that one can actually see Gresley’s engineering in the new Danum Gallery, Library and Museum. As Mayor Ros Jones said, “…a compelling story of the golden age of steam and the major contribution Doncaster has made to the rail industry.”

Since we stopped flying in 2015, Vulcan to the Sky have sought to make XH558 an accessible, inspiring attraction. Initially, we remained in H3 and were able to welcome visitors from all around the country, contributing to both the aircraft and local economy.

From mid-2017, the loss of our hangar and museum made the situation very difficult. We have however continued to keep the aircraft live, welcome a limited number of visitors and extend our inspiration and outreach programme, including a Lakeside outlet pop-up exhibition.

This, however, is not where we need to be. XH558 must accessible and undercover, while we can contribute to Doncaster’s economy. For most of the subsequent period, we’ve been working on a plan for a new, dedicated facility to achieve this, called The Vulcan Experience.

We want to tell the story of the Vulcan from both an engineering and operational perspective, while using the ‘ahead of its time’ factor to discuss how the future of aerospace will look. How will green solutions to air travel be provided? We will show and inspire.

Over the last year, we have been privileged to work with the superb Doncaster UTC, using our aircraft and knowledge not only to inspire but to provide specific projects for the students.

In November 2021, Doncaster UTC was awarded the title New Educational Institution of the Year – UK. While this was extraordinary enough, the citation said, “Our judges were impressed with the initiatives to inspire young people- in particular the Vulcan XH558 project. “We appreciate how important things like this are to help the engineers of tomorrow visualise where their education could take them”. We were delighted and could not agree more. But how do we ensure that we can continue our work?

All at VTST were devastated when our CEO and driving force behind our return to flight, Dr Robert Pleming, passed away suddenly at the start of 2021. Fittingly, he received a lifetime achievement award recently from Doncaster Chamber, honouring his work.

Clearly, Vulcan to the Sky is contributing to the future of Doncaster, but – the difficult bit – we cannot continue indefinitely in the way we are. We have received excellent support from the team at DSA Airport, for which we are grateful. We need more to bring this home.

We have an achievable vision for a vibrant, costed, stress tested attraction, helping to make Doncaster a destination as a city should be. We will help to inspire local young people into careers in engineering, STEM and aviation.

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