26 May 2015 | Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield, South Yorkshire, Doncaster, Finningley, England. She has a planform that resembles a bat when seen from directly below or above. Avro Vulcan XH558 (civil aircraft registration G-VLCN) is known by the moniker The Spirit of Great Britain and is one proud and graceful lady.
A famous line and hand salutation (which was derived from an ancient Jewish blessing termed ‘Birkat Kohanim’) was often spoken by the late Leonard Nimoy, who played the iconic role of Mr. Spock the television 1960s series Star Trek: “Live long and prosper.” XH558 has in fact lived long and prospered.
Now, the iconic Cold War bomber, which is the only surviving airworthy example of ‘her’ species, is commencing the final flying season. With retirement just around the corner aviation and history enthusiasts have only a few months to view a real Vulcan its natural environment — the sky.
John Stemple, a 20th Century Aviation Magazine photojournalist who maintains memberships with the Royal Air Force Historical Society, Royal Canadian Air Force Association/de l’Aviation royale Canadienne and Florida Aviation Historical Society, witnessed several Vulcan operations in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He explained why it is important to schedule an excursion to the United Kingdom to experience an XH5558 flight in person: “Frankly, I personally feel sorry for anyone who has not heard the howl of a Vulcan’s Rolls-Royce Olympus turbojet engines and witnessed the awesome spectacle of one of the delta wing behemoths climbing steeply away under full ‘reheat’ (‘afterburner’) and subsequently performing a seemingly gravity-defying wingover.” After a short pause, he added, “One may watch videos of Vulcans taking off and flying, but actually seeing a Vulcan is simply breathtaking and awe-inspiring.”
Although Vulcans left the RAF inventory 30 years ago, they still look futuristic and deceptively state-of-the-art. One may be excused for incorrectly thinking that Vulcans are recent creations. In the Autumn 2014 edition (Volume 3, No. 10) of the Vulcan to the Sky Club magazine The Vulcan John Reeve wrote (page 14/Life in the V-Force) that in the early 1990s a U.S. Air Force sergeant exclaimed, upon seeing a retired Vulcan fly at Upper Heyford, “My God! When it is coming into service?”
As Mr. Stemple referenced, the design of air intakes on some Vulcans (XH558 included) caused them to generate a rather distinctive ‘howling’ whenever the engine throttles were advanced to approximately ninety percent power. The sound is very distinctive and seems to always be popular with the viewing public. “The ‘howling’ certainly stimulates the formation of goose bumps!” exclaimed Mr. Stemple.
Mr. Stemple, who authored the article Avro Vulcans and Family Ties, continued, “The Vulcan was one of the most important bombers in history.” Vulcans and their crews greatly helped to deter Soviet expansion and aggression for decades.
As an aside Mr. Stemple added, “These aircraft were hardly strangers to Canadians and Americans because the Royal Air Force established Bomber Command detachments at RCAF Goose Bay, Labrador, and Offutt Air Force Base (AFB), Nebraska. Additionally, Transport Command detachments were situated at Gander, Newfoundland, McClellan AFB, California, and Hickam AFB, Hawaii.” Knowing that 20th Century Aviation Magazine is based in Lakeland, Florida, John commented, “Vulcans were also occasionally visitors to McCoy Air Force Base (now Orlando International Airport) many years ago.”
The Spirit of Great Britain is the only airworthy example of the 134 Avro Vulcan V bombers on strength at one time or another with the RAF during the period 1953 through 1985.
XH558 served from 1960 to 1985 in three capacities: bomber, aerial maritime reconnaissance platform and air-to-air refueling tanker. Between 1986 and 1993 the RAF operated XH558 as a aerial displaying aircraft.
The Vulcan to the Sky Trust website states that “XH558 was the first Vulcan B.Mk2 to be delivered to the RAF, and she is now the oldest complete Vulcan in the world.” Her RAF career spanned 33 years.
Currently, HX558 It is operated by the Vulcan to the Sky Trust, which is entirely funded by charitable donations and the UK Heritage Lottery Fund. Although The Spirit of Great Britain is registered with the United Kingdom Civil Aviation Authority, the Vulcan to the Sky trust applied for and received an exemption in order to fly the bomber in Royal Air Force livery.
The first display of 2015 will be at Throckmorton, Worcestershire, on Saturday, 6 June 2015. Readers are encouraged to check the Vulcan to the Sky Trust Display Schedule for additional XH558 appearances.
Obviously, it is extraordinarily expensive to maintain and operate The Spirit of Great Britain. Therefore, the public is encouraged to provide assistance. The Web page How to Help presents ways one can support this proud bird.
20th Century Aviation Magazine thanks contributing writer Susan Gale for supplying this article. Ms. Gale is grateful to John Stemple for providing input, insights and photographs.
Sources, Suggested Readings & Viewings
2015 Display Schedule
How to Help
Live Long And Prosper
The ‘558’ Story
Avro Vulcan XH558
Avro Vulcans and family ties
Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield (formerly RAF Finningley)
The ‘Howl’ of Vulcan XH558 Take Off
The Mighty Vulcan XH558 At Farnborough International Airshow
Vulcan makes test flight
Vulcan to the Sky