Even the name was over the hill: Avro, the company named for dawn-of-flight founder A.V. Roe, went the way of one firm after another: merged into a soulless, nationalized conglomerate in a series of Socialist-policy forced consolidations of the British aircraft industry. In the end, they wound up sending British aero engineering talent to Canada, and Canadian bungling (with the Canadian Avro company front and center) banked them off and down to the United States, where they were critical to the success of Apollo. The Avro Vulcan was the last of the line that began with spindly triplanes of bamboo and muslin and that rained terror and death from the night skies over Germany.
“If a single bomber gets through,” boasted Hermann Göring, today dismissed as a buffoon but a leading World War I ace, “you can call me Meier!” And a single bomber didn’t get through, but hundreds, and then a thousand — Handley-Pages and Vickers and, chief among them, Avros, every night the weather enabled flying, and some nights it really didn’t, and by day the Americans gave the repair crews and fire brigades no rest.
In the late 1940s, Britain was a nuclear power, and it had one of the world’s most powerful navies and a first-class air force. The British nuclear deterrent originally comprised a fleet of bombers, and for this purpose, three new airframes were designed, the “V-bombers,” the name redolent of V-E Day and referring to the plane’s names. Three airframes were chosen because the performance demands were so high that some of the engineering teams were taking great risks. One jet was a very conservative design (the Vickers Valiant), in case of failure of the two using radical wing planforms: the sickle-shaped “crescent wing” Handley Page Victor and the delta-winged Avro Vulcan. All three planes succeeded, but the performance of the Victor and Vulcan ensured a short life for the Valiant.
The Vulcan would serve 30 years; unlike the Victor, it was adaptable to a low-level conventional bombing mission, thanks to the excessive strength of its thick wings (the Victors were converted to the tanker role and had nearly as long a career).
As a nuclear bomber, the Vulcan never saw combat, but in the twilight of its service two Vulcans conducted raids on the Port Stanley airfield that closed the field to modern jets. At the time, they were the longest bombing raids in world history. (they were refueled, in part, by Victors).
Then, the jets retired and the roar of their loud, inefficient turbojets was heard no more. Britain’s nuclear deterrent was under the sea, in submarines. (Land-based ballistic missile designs all went the way of most post-war British defense inventions: budgetary cancellation). Nap-of-the-earth raids could be delivered by Typhoons.
But you can’t keep a good jet down — as long as there are three critical resources: trained pilots to fly it, experienced mechanics to fix it, and parts, or producers willing to make them. And, buoyed by funds from the National Lottery and thousands of small donors, and organized by a special charitable trust established for the purpose, the Vulcan returned, first to taxi (a peculiarly British way of displaying vintage aircraft with reduced risk) and then, triumphantly, to the air. (Indeed, two other Vulcans conduct taxi runs in the summer, XL426 and XM655).
Alas, one of those critical resources is running out and Vulcan XH558 is shown, here, landing for the last time.
Organisers had kept details of the final flight secret until the last minute over fears that dangerously large crowds would throng the airport for one last chance to see the aircraft.
A final nationwide tour held earlier this month was nearly cancelled over police concerns an influx of thousands of enthusiasts turning up at once would effectively shut down the small airport.
Hundreds of thousands are believed to have glimpsed Vulcan XH558 as it spent two days doing flypasts around the country a fortnight ago.
Martin Withers, who led the 1982 Vulcan raids on the Falklands, was the pilot for the final flight.
As he prepared, he said: “Everyone asks me what is so special about this aircraft and why people love it. Really the people who fly it are the wrong people to ask. It’s such a combination of grace and beauty of just seeing this thing fly.”
“Just to see it fly along, it’s so graceful. And then that combines with the sense of power and manoeuvrability you’ve got with this aircraft and the vibrations it makes. It just seems to turn people on emotionally, they really love it.”
Former pilot Angus Laird added: “I think it’s very, very sad but we all come to a time when we stop flying. She’s an old lady now and she’s stopped at the height of her popularity, which I think is brilliant.”
The resource that ran out wasn’t guys like Martin and Angus, who could have readily transmitted their skills and tribal knowledge to a new generation of pilots. (After all, the Shuttleworth Collection flies an Avro Triplane from circa 1909). The problem was the greying of the cadre of maintainers. These unsung “erks,” (aircraftsmen, the bottom rung of mechanic in the RAF), the “fitters” and “riggers” in British terms (powerplant and airframe mechanics respectively, in American), are the last repository of a vast corpus of tribal knowledge, call it Vulcana, perhaps, or Vulcanology. As each one passes away or becomes too infirm to work on this old dowager, vital links in the neural network of Vulcan lore and expertise disappear forever.
Nobody thought it was dangerous to fly XH558 now — well, no more dangerous than flying any other jet warplane approaching a human’s retirement age. But there was a consensus that flying her was going to get more hazardous soon.
The roar isn’t still, though — not yet. Next year’s airshow season, she’ll be doing high-speed taxiing at her home base. And XL426 and XM655 will be taxiing again next year, too.
Pity no one thought of doing this with the B-47, B-58, or the FB-111.