The last Avro Vulcan, one of the coolest warplanes of
the Cold War era, takes to the skies again this weekend.
The plane, born of the days when the world seemed
constantly under threat of nuclear war, was meticulously overhauled
some time ago, but has flown intermittently because keeping it
aloft is so expensive. The nonprofit Vulcan to the Sky Trust, which
owns and operates the plane, is bringing it out again for the Goodwood
Festival of Speed.
The Vulcan was the world’s first delta-wing bomber, a
long-range aircraft developed in the 1950s to give Britain the
ability to drop a nuke or two should we ever reach DefCon 2. It
never came to that, of course, and the plane didn’t see combat
until the early 1980s when the UK went to war with Argentina over
the Falkland Islands.
Although officially designated the Hawker Siddeley
Vulcan (Avro was a subsidiary), the plane is more affectionately
known as the “tin triangle”. The distinctive design is especially
efficient at high speeds, and the Vulcan could do 580 mph at 50,000
feet. It could be refuelled in midair, giving it virtually
The Vulcan entered service in May 1956, and flew in
the RAF’s nuclear deterrent force until 1969. Soviet missile
advances ultimately made the jet — which relied upon speed and high altitude for
defense — obsolete as a nuclear bomber.
It wasn’t until the Falklands War of 1982 that the
Vulcan was called into combat. To make it and other aircraft useful
against Argentina — which was thousands of miles away and
definitely didn’t merit being hit with a nuclear bomb — the RAF
had to make a series of design changes, and quickly.
Engineers converted the bomb bays to hold
conventional, 1,000-pound bombs. They added electronic
countermeasure pods to blind Argentine radars. They tuned the
Vulcan’s engines to deliver full thrust on takeoff because the jet
would be operating above its max weight. And they did it
all in under two months. The Vulcans bombed the islands
throughout May 1982. Martin Withers, one of the pilots on those
missions, will fly the Vulcan at Goodwood this weekend.
The 134 Vulcans in the RAF fleet were retired later
that year. Most were scrapped or burned to provide something for
firefighters to practice on, according to Thunder &
Lightnings, a site dedicated to the history of British
aircraft. The RAF held onto a few for posterity’s sake, including
XH558, the plane flying this weekend at Goodwood.
The government sold XH558 in 1993; it eventually
landed in the hands of the nonprofit Vulcan to the Sky Trust.
It isn’t easy or cheap to fly an obsolete airplane;
as time goes on, engineering know-how and parts become harder to
come by. Vulcan to the Sky had to raise £6.5 million to make XH558 airworthy, and had
it airborne in August, 2007.
Two years ago, the group announced XH558 would make
its final flight in 2013, but the group managed to raise another
£400,000 to modify the wings and keep it flying through 2015.