In the spring of 1993, the Royal Air Force’s last Avro Vulcan soared gracefully above RAF Finningley in South Yorkshire with the message “Farewell” displayed on its bomb bay doors. After 33 years of service, it was making a final salute to the airfield where it had stood on nuclear-armed high alert during the Cold War. In 1996 Finningley itself closed, and the chances were slim that the bomber and base would ever be reunited.
But on a hazy day this past March, XH558’s unmissable delta wing reappeared in the skies over its former base, now Doncaster Sheffield Airport, before it alighted on the runway and taxied into Hangar 3, its home from 1961 to 1968. Former RAF squadron leader Martin Withers, who flew Vulcans from Finningley in the 1970s and who captained the first Vulcan mission to the Falkland Islands in the 1982 conflict, had the honor of piloting the subsonic bomber back to its old duty station.
Owners Vulcan to the Sky Trust hope that locating the only remaining airworthy example of the delta-wing bomber at a commercial airport (its last base was RAF Lyneham) will deliver an increase in publicity, funds and visitors. It plans to develop Hangar 3 into a visitor center, with displays on the Vulcan’s restoration, technology and role in the Cold War.
The trust restored XH558 from 1997 to 2007, replacing all four of its original Rolls-Royce Olympus 202 engines with zero-hour units in storage since 1982. The big bomber is scheduled to appear at airshows across England during the 2011 season, and also perform a flyover at the Queen’s Jubilee in London in 2012. The trust plans to fly it until at least 2013, making the necessary repairs and modifications to the notoriously fragile airframe along the way. (Though the Vulcan was innovative, metal fatigue limited its effectiveness—it could sustain only 30 minutes in a high-speed dash at low level.)
“Touching down at Finningley was one of the most emotional experiences of my professional life,” Withers told the British press. For more information on XH558 and Vulcan to the Sky Trust, visit vulcantothesky.org.