The fight to keep the last airworthy Vulcan Cold War bomber in the skies has been an epic battle of will against lack of cash. The Vulcan to the Sky Trust, comprising mainly volunteers, has done an admirable job in raising the many millions of pounds that have been required to restore the plane, number XH558, to its former glory. But the challenge is ongoing: more money is needed to pay for vital maintenance to keep the aircraft safe for operation.
Dr Robert Pleming, the trust’s chief executive, admits that lack of cash is a constant hindrance to the project. And he warns that funding problems could result in the Vulcan being grounded forever.
“A famously spectacular year lies ahead for XH558, but only if we can get through the next two months,” he says.
“We have faced many challenges over the years, and nothing in life at the moment seems to be easy. Let’s hope our example of grit and determination to succeed against the odds can inspire individuals and companies alike to build a better future.”
Pleming says that this year promises to be perhaps the pinnacle of XH558’s career, with plans for the aircraft to help celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, other national commemorative events, an extensive display season, and the Diamond Jubilee of the Vulcan itself on 30 September. But before the trust can capitalise on these opportunities, it needs to get the plane through its winter service. Right now, its funding reserves fall short – £110,000 is still needed to complete the service. Furthermore, because of supplier lead times, these extra funds are needed by the end of February if XH558 is to be flying in time for the first of the year’s commemorative events. The cash shortfall means the winter service has been suspended, so it’s a desperate situation.
“This could be the fifth consecutive year that XH558 thrills audiences the length and breadth of Great Britain,” says Pleming. “That XH558 was restored to flight and has displayed for four years during the worst economic crisis that the world has seen for many years is a huge testament to our supporters. It would be a monumental tragedy if XH558 failed in this, its most important year.”
The winter service began last month. The trust says that the 51-year-old aircraft is in excellent condition, with no major faults discovered as the first phase of inspections near completion. The trust’s engineering director Andrew Edmondson explains: “We are nearing the end of the inspection phase of the first service package, which includes the ejection seats, canopy, flying controls and airbrakes, so have a good feel for the scope of work and the replacement parts that we need to source. So far we have found no major problems, it has been about general wear and tear. The Vulcan is a remarkably serviceable aircraft.”
Like a car, the Vulcan receives different levels of service each year. The simplest is the intermediate service, developed by the trust to allow the aircraft to be maintained to the standards required by the Civil Aviation Authority while accommodating the relatively low usage of the aircraft’s current life. Equivalent to a car’s oil service, the intermediate includes inspection and lubrication of key systems and a condition and safety check.
Every second year, a much larger service is conducted, known as a “minor”. Next is a minor*, conducted every four years, which adds a substantial number of additional inspection and maintenance operations. Beyond this, there are minor** and major service plans. This year’s service is a modified minor* and will be completed in three packages.