The last airworthy Avro Vulcan, one of the most popular and iconic examples of British aerospace engineering, could make its last public flight on September 26th. Following successful restoration by The Vulcan To the Sky Trust, the legendary cold war bomber has packed airshows for the last two summers, helping to make them the second most popular visitor attraction after football. But now due to a substantial drop in donations during the recession and poor weather that stopped her flying at several profitable events this year, the Trust must raise £400,000 by the end of October.
In 2010, over a million people watched the Vulcan fly. “That makes this amazing aircraft one of the most popular attractions in the UK, but we survive on a tiny fraction of the budget of comparable heritage activities and receive no Government support,” points out Vulcan To The Sky chief executive Dr Robert Pleming, who hopes to see the plane fly for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012.
With the Vulcan now well established as an airshow star, the Trust has developed a business plan that will provide substantially greater commercial revenues from 2011. Combined with public donations, it is hoped that this will give her a secure future. “This will allow us to increase the role the Vulcan plays in teaching science, technology, maths and Cold War history and in inspiring the young engineers of the future,” says Pleming. “Today though, 2011 looks a long way away.”
The Avro Vulcan is an iconic example of British aerospace engineering at its world-beating best. The design brief was issued by the MoD in 1947 and the plane flew for the first time in 1952, just eleven years after the first flight of its predecessor, the Avro Lancaster. Its impressive list of technical achievements includes being the first successful large delta wing aircraft (leading directly to Concorde), innovations such as anti-lock brakes, and an agility that was so close to a jet fighter’s that it was given a fighter-style control column in place of the traditional bomber pilot’s yoke.
Success as a Cold War peacekeeper meant that the Vulcan might have flown its entire service life without ever entering combat if it hadn’t been for the Falklands Conflict in 1982. After a marathon 4,000 mile flight supported by eleven Victor tankers, Flight Lieutenant Martin Withers and his crew released the bombs over Port Stanley Airport that forced Argentina’s Mig III fighters off the island and initiated the campaign that recaptured the Falkands. Two years later, the last Vulcans were withdrawn from service.
Today, only one Vulcan is left flying: XH558, owned by the Vulcan To The Sky Trust, a Registered Charity. Returned to the air in 2007, she has become an airshow phenomenon. “People forget that airshows attract seven million people annually. That’s second only to football,” says Dr Pleming. “An appearance by the Vulcan builds even on this remarkable level, typically increasing attendance by 20-40 percent. Airshow organisers talk about ‘the Vulcan Effect’ and have described the aircraft as a national treasure.”
But it isn’t only the passion that people have for the aircraft that Pleming believes makes it an important part of our heritage. He sees it playing an important role in education and training, funded by commercial activities from sponsorship, hospitality and merchandise through to integration with apprenticeship schemes, motivational activities for management and VIP ‘money can’t buy’ events for top-level incentive schemes and wealthy enthusiasts. The first of these activities are now being rolled out.
Flight Lieutenant Martin Withers DFC (he won the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroic Vulcan mission to Port Stanley) is a passionate supporter of the educational role of the plane. “Part of our mission is to ensure that young people learn about the knife-edge fear of the Cold War,” he explains. “If I had been ordered to press the button that releases the nuclear payload, there would almost certainly have been no Britain left to fly home to. The Vulcan is the most powerful symbol of a remarkable period in British history that we must never forget.”
Withers is also passionate about the aircraft’s growing role in technical education. “This is one of the most iconic pieces of aerospace technology ever, and it is thoroughly British. The Vulcan fires young people with a passion to develop and build world-beating technologies. And we can help give them those skills through training modules that call upon the extraordinary knowledge, rigour and precision needed to restore and maintain the world’s only flying ‘complex’ heritage aircraft.”
The Trust hopes to fly the aircraft for at least two more display seasons, including the year of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, which is also the 60th anniversary of the first flight of the Vulcan and the 30th anniversary of its heroic role in the Falklands conflict. “The airframe has limited time before it will no longer be possible to renew its Permit to Fly,” explains Dr Pleming. “After that, we hope to develop a museum and educational centre around the plane, funded by conference, leisure and other commercial activities.”
“But if we don’t make it through October,” concludes Dr Pleming, “The tremendous opportunities offered by this magnificent aircraft will be lost forever.”