The world’s sole remaining airworthy Avro Vulcan, “The Spirit of Great Britain” XH558 was reported to be in its last season of performing at air shows this year due to extensive work that would be required on the plane’s wings and a lack of spare engines that resulted from the replacement of both port side Rolls-Royce Olympus turbojets after an ingestion incident during the 2012 season. As with most things in this world, the solution to the problem can be resolved with a massive infusion of cash, and a bit of ingenuity.
The repair of the wings’ leading edges which was believed to be impossible, or more accurately impossibly expensive, have been brought within reach by Cranfield Aerospace which came up with a plan to utilize 21st century techniques which include high-resolution three dimensional scanning of the wings and the fabrication of the complex double-curvature 6’X6′ replacement panels using computer-aided design. This wing leading edge renewal process was certified by Avro in the 1960s and 70s while the Vulcans were still in service with the Royal Air Force (RAF), and although none of the jigs and tooling from those days survive, the application of technology has made it feasible to perform the operation at a relatively cost-effective basis. It was imperative that the original modification be reproduced exactly as it was done by Avro in order to maintain the plane’s flight certification as changes to the design would hit regulatory hurdles that would surely ground the aircraft.
XH588 first flew in 1960 and was delivered to the RAF in 1960. Serving in active duty until 1986 and becoming the last Vulcan in service, the plane was transferred to the RAF’s display wing in which flew until 1992. The plane was transferred to the Bruntingthorpe Aircraft Museum in Lutterworth, UK where it was fortunately well-cared for and was kept in good enough condition that it could undertake fast taxi runs for visitors to the museum. The care it received while at Bruntingthorpe and the ongoing maintenance it had received to keep it airworthy as an RAF display plane all those years made XB588 the best candidate for restoration to flight and an organization was founded to do just that.
Vulcan to the Sky Trust spent seven years arranging funding and exploring the feasibility of restoring XH588 to airworthy condition and finally acquired the plane in 2005 to begin working on the plane. Over the course of the project there were many hurdles to surmount, but the group managed to get the plane into the air 14 years after its last flight and with over £7 million (US$11 million) spent, in October 2007 with a Permit to Fly being granted to the craft in July 2008. The plane has since become a favorite performer at British air shows, the spectators agog at the majesty of this massive warbird in flight.
The upkeep of the plane costs a reported £2 million (US$3.1 million) and as such, funding is always a pressing issue. The popularity of the plane certainly helps keep it booked at air shows and drives donations, but wealthy benefactors have had step in more than once to rescue the trust when all seemed lost. With the wing modifications now made possible, Vulcan to the Sky has started a new campaign to keep the Vulcan flying for another two seasons. Dubbed Operation 2015, the drive is to fund the replacement of the wing panels that will extend the flying life of this historic craft. At this time the Vulcan to the Sky Trust is stating that 2015 will mark the end of this Vulcan’s flying days as many of its irreplaceable components will have aged-out of useful service by then and maintaining the craft to airworthy standards will become impossible, though in all fairness, that’s what they said about 2013; with the rapid advances in technology, what was impossible two years ago is now merely expensive.
Here’s an inspiring video on XH588 and the Vulcan to the Sky Trust: