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You see it before you hear it. Heading toward the airfield under watery autumn sun, it appears through a haze, growing in size but, head-on at least, still silent. Then it banks, and the giant, bat-shaped Avro Vulcan bomber sweeps past with a huge roar. When it powers into a turn, the Vulcan’s howl sounds like a massive ream of velvet being ripped from end-to-end.

Several thousand people are assembled at the Heritage Motor Centre in Warwickshire, here to see one of the last flying displays of a Cold War bomber brought back to unlikely life. Even at a fair distance away – aircraft like the Vulcan aren’t allowed to fly directly over crowds at public displays for safety reasons – its size is staggering.

Avro Vulcan XH558, to give this aircraft its proper title, is the very last of the 136 Vulcans built still able to take to the air; most of its compatriots ended up going to the scrapyard. Vulcans entered service as nuclear-armed bombers in the 1950s, an atomic deterrent on duty every hour of every day. They were retired in the 1980s after performing their only ‘wartime’ mission on epic flights into the South Atlantic during the Falklands conflict.

Vulcans entered service in the 1950s as part of Britain’s nuclear deterrent (Credit: Getty Images)

Vulcan XH558, operated by the Vulcan to the Sky Trust, is only flying at all thanks to a decade-long quest by a team of volunteers and RAF-trained engineers. Returning one of these four-engined bombers to the skies was one of the most complex aircraft preservation projects undertaken anywhere in the world. As the team prepares to watch the aircraft’s last flight later this month, BBC Future spoke to those involved and discovered an untold story of remarkable engineering, dogged effort, and exhilarating flight.

The plan to return the aircraft once again into the air began soon after it stopped flying in 1992, says Andrew Edmondson, the trust’s engineering director. He had only just retired from the RAF when XH558 ended its days flying in an official RAF display team in 1993.

It really was a huge achievement – Robert Pleming, director

He first heard about XH558 when it was brought by the Walton family in 1994, who intended it to be the centrepiece of a British historic aircraft collection; a woman in a charity he worked for suggested he go and see it. The aircraft was kept at Bruntingthorpe Airfield in Leicestershire, and kept in good enough condition for taxiing along the runaway under its own power. “They were trying to keep it in as close to flying condition as possible,” Edmondson says. The Waltons’ intent, in fact, was to preserve it well enough that it might be able to fly again.

Edmondson began working on the aircraft in his spare time as a project manager in the nuclear industry. In the RAF he had worked fighter aircraft – first the Vietnam War-era Phantoms, then Tornados – and had never seen a Vulcan in the air. But he was excited at the prospect of getting up close to this huge aircraft. In 1997 he was offered a job by Robert Pleming, with the aim of getting Vulcan XH558 back into British skies. It is Pleming who headed the project to return one of these giant bombers into flying service, and followed that dream through years of fundraising, logistical nightmares and many thousands of man hours of meticulous work.

Vulcans were designed to hit targets in the Soviet Union with nuclear bombs (Credit: Getty Images)

Pleming was not an RAF veteran, but he’d seen Vulcans fly during air displays in the 1980s. The sight had a lasting effect on him. He’d even seen XH558 when it was flying with an RAF team in the early 1990s. “Then one of my daughter’s friends’ dads turned out to be a Vulcan pilot, and he told me what a joy it was to fly.” On one holiday, Pleming, a nuclear physicist turned computing project manager, took with him a book on the history of the plane. “Understanding the technology of the time, the design, it really was a huge achievement.”

“I knew a bit about the Cold War days and I thought it was vital we kept at least one of those aircraft flying, just like we had with the Lancasters from World War Two.”

The Vulcan was at the very edge of aviation technology of the time

Most Vulcans had ended up in scrapyards, and many of the survivors had ended up being housed out in the open, which had hastened their deterioration. So Pleming approached David Walton, who had bought XH588 at the end of its flying days and who hoped it would one day return to the skies.

Ahead of its time

The Vulcan really is huge. Manned by a crew of five, the Vulcan was enormous even among Cold War jet bombers, which tended to tip the scales in the heavyweight category. It’s 97ft (30m) long and has a wingspan around the same length. The wings themselves are a giant delta that gives the Vulcan a distinctive shape – like a giant bird swooping in to land. The Vulcan was at the very edge of aviation technology of the time, and all the more impressive considering it was built when Britain’s post-war economy still was having to deal with the massive cost of rebuilding the nation.

The Vulcan was made by the same company that had built the WWII-era Lancaster bomber of Dambusters fame. Little more than a decade separates them in terms of blueprints, but the Vulcan is worlds away in terms of aviation technology. The Rolls-Royce (formerly Bristol) Olympus turbojet engines used to power it were the forefathers of the giant turbines that powered Concorde. As Pleming says, they were ahead of their time: “They were an innovation that’s been the basis of every modern turbojet engine since.”

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The Vulcans had officially ended their flying days in 1984, long after Britain’s nuclear deterrent switched from an emphasis on bombers to missile-armed submarines. But there’s a world of difference in keeping a retired plane in sparkling condition, mechanically intact – even able to trundle along a runway under its own steam – and then getting it back into the air. Usually, once an aircraft is retired its airworthiness certificate is taken away by aviation authorities. It can only return to air if it meets the strict criteria of a permit to fly, usually one which prohibits it from flying at certain heights, over densely populated areas and only with comprehensive engineering back-up.

Making sure the aircraft could meet that Permit to Fly was Edmondson’s task.

“It was the first time anyone had tried to get a permit to fly for such a complex aircraft,” says Edmondson. “When you are trying to bring a retired aircraft back to airworthiness, there are three categories based on the aircraft’s complexity and weight. The Vulcan is complex – it’s a multi-engine aircraft, with electrically powered flying controls – if something fails, how is it that dealt with? Safety is paramount. And then there’s the weight of the aircraft, too.”

Edmondson and his team of professional engineers had the daunting task of inspecting an aircraft that had not flown for nine years

Edmondson says it soon became clear that the aircraft was too complex to bring back to the air without the very highest level of technical support. That means the very companies that had built the plane, and the thousands of components that went into construction – down to the very bolts and seals in any component needed to keep the plane in the air.

The Vulcans had been retired in 1984, their tactical nuclear role taken over by Tornado fighter-bombers (Credit: John Dibbs)

Early on, much of that technical support came from Marshall, an aviation and engineering firm based in Cambridge. In 1999, BAE Systems – the giant defence conglomerate that had subsumed Avro, amongst others – agreed to provide technical support for the Vulcan project.

Now Edmondson and his team of professional engineers had the daunting task of inspecting an aircraft that had not flown for nine years to see if it could do so again. It was a task that would take them several years before the aircraft would be in any fit state to fly again. Any parts that were deemed to be too worn or deteriorated to be safe would have to be replaced – but finding spare parts for a giant bomber last on the production line more than 50 years ago was not exactly an easy task. Even if they could find them, Edmondson says, “would we have enough spare parts, and would we be able to service those components if needed?”

6,500 jobs

The team were helped by one logistical masterstroke by the Waltons when they had originally bought the Vulcan in the early 1990s – they had also bought the RAF's entire stock of Vulcan spare parts. “They got the plane for £25,000, and then, with considerable foresight, paid substantially more for all the spares,” says Pleming. “They had made a low bid, thinking they wouldn’t get it, and they won it.” The spare parts weighed nearly 600 tonnes.

More parts came from good old fashioned negotiations. “We begged, borrowed or stole every part we could from any Vulcans that hadn’t been scrapped,” says Edmondson, laughing.

I saw a technician take 30 foot of wire, bend it, and then take a magnifier and inspect every part of it to see if the insulation had cracked – Andrew Edmondson, engineering director

Edmondson says the task was immense. The Vulcan had to be deskinned – the magnesium alloy panels removed – so that every vital part inside could be meticulously inspected. She also required a major service, which required 6,500 separate jobs.

They were lucky in that BAE had another Vulcan airframe at a facility in Woodford that the team could inspect – they could poke inside the aircraft and monitor how badly parts of it were degrading. XH558 was kept in much better conditions than the Woodford airframe, but inspecting it gave them a sense of where problems would be most likely to occur.

The engineering crew had to check every part of the aircraft needed to keep it in the air, inside and out (Credit: Vulcan to the Sky Trust)

Edmondson and the team’s task was, at times, akin to surgery. BAE had found that certain wire used in the electrical control system which helps the plane fly was compromised when exposed to UV light. Every inch of that wire had to pass muster.

“I saw a technician take 30ft of wire, bend it, and then take a magnifier and inspect every part of it to see if the insulation had cracked,” he says.

If the aircraft’s main spars – the skeleton of the airframe – had proven to be cracked or badly corroded, all this work would have been in vain. Thankfully, only a very small section of one spar was found to be affected. That tiny part was carefully removed.

The Vulcan might be a large aircraft, but it is surprisingly nimble (Credit: Getty Images)

Avro may have built the Vulcan, but it had dealt with 464 different suppliers, buying those myriad parts needed to construct each bomber. All of those making critical parts had to be contacted; if the company had been bought by someone else, they also had to be contacted to see if they could recreate any parts which might be needed, using precisely the same materials, the same manufacturing processes and the same designs. Bear in mind too that the Vulcans were built in the days of Imperial measurements, which then had to be recalculated – another layer of complexity to an already bewilderingly complex operation.

Amidst this, the team was trying to also keep money flowing in. They had applied for a lottery grant in 2002 but were initially turned down, applying successfully for a £2.7m ($4.1m) grant the following year. Restoring aircraft is not a cheap activity – very high skill levels are required and even the smallest change to the original specification required complex authorisation from the design authorities.

In 21 days we raised £750,000 – Andrew Edmondson

“In 2006,” Edmondson says, “we ran out of money. And at the time you couldn’t see the development of the aircraft – there was a hell of a lot of work going on internally, but you just couldn’t see it. I used to walk past and all I would see was a bunch of legs underneath it.” Many companies had given the Vulcan project generous repayment terms, but even these extensions were beginning to run out.

The trust turned to the public. In August 2006 they asked for donations to keep the project afloat. “In 21 days we raised £750,000 ($1.14m). We had to pull everyone working on the plane in to help open the postbags, which were full of cash, and cheques and postal orders.

“At the end of August, our chairman was about to tell the group that we’d run out of money. On 31 August he told everyone, ‘Today is your last day of work… but tomorrow, you start again.’”

The fundraising mission was helped further by a benefactor, Sir Jack Hayward, who donated nearly £500,000 to keep the restoration going.

Public donations – totalling over £750,000 before it flew – helped the project become reality (Credit: Getty Images)

The major overhaul of the aircraft had been expected to take 14 months, but in the end lasted 22 months.

“This really is the Everest of aircraft restoration projects,” says Pleming. “It’s the pinnacle. I tend to try and do things that other people don’t.”

Ready to fly

On 18 October 2007, the finished aircraft was towed onto the flightline at Bruntingthorpe, surrounded by veteran vehicles that Edmondson says made it “look like a vintage rally”. Some 200 guests – including many former Vulcan crew – and the world’s media were watching.

It just popped up into the sky – Andrew Edmondson

A miniature air traffic control  (ATC) tower was set up on a wagon, and fire tenders were standing by just in case the unthinkable happened. XH558 taxied to the end of the runway. The pilot opened the throttle, and the 50-year-old bomber lifted off.

“It just popped up into the sky,” says Edmondson. “One of the guys on the ATC tower said, ‘It was like a lovesick angel, it wanted to fly’.”

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Months of test flights followed, before the go-ahead was given for the Vulcan to take part in its first air show display at RAF Waddington, where the aircraft had been based in RAF service. Watching from the ground were Pleming and Edmondson.

“By that time I was pretty used to stress,” says Pleming, “but that was quite a day. It was a huge relief that we were able to carry it all off. Angus Laird, who was the father of my daughter’s friend, was there as well, and he offered me a glass of champagne after she took to the air for the first time. I said to him, ‘I’ll drink it when she lands.’”

But the thrill and excitement you feel when thing accelerates so rapidly is amazing – Martin Withers, chief pilot

The last seven years has seen XH588 perform at many airshows, an operation which costs some £2m a year. Fundraising campaigns have continued as the money the airshow displays raise covers only a fraction of the running costs.

The Vulcan, zooming at 800ft (240m) at over 300mph (480km/h) is an exhilarating sight. But what is she like to fly?

Martin Withers might be the best person to ask. The 70-year-old is the chief pilot in the Vulcan to the Sky Team. His last eight years flying the Vulcan in front of British crowds has been something of a second wind; Withers first flew the Vulcan in RAF service back in 1971, and was one of the pilots who flew the bombers some 6,800 miles (10,880 kilometres) from Ascension Island in the Atlantic to attack targets in the Falklands during the 1982 conflict.

Chief pilot Martin Withers (pictured) says the 37-tonne bomber is a joy to fly (Credit: Vulcan to the Sky Trust)

“Everyone sees it flying along, and thinks it’s just a big lumbering aircraft. It doesn’t look very fast and it doesn’t look very nimble,” Withers says. “But the thrill and excitement you feel when thing accelerates so rapidly is amazing.”

Withers says he joined the RAF wanting to fly fighter planes like the Phantom or Lightning, but was streamed instead into a training programme for multi-engined aircraft. “After that, the only thing I wanted to fly was the Vulcan. I wanted to be a pilot wearing a helmet on my head, not someone flying a cargo plane in my shirtsleeves,” he says.

Vulcans originally were designed to fly at high altitude (around 50,000ft), dropping nuclear bombs on targets in the Soviet Union. But in 1960 it emerged that Soviet missile defences were effective enough to shoot down planes at this height; a US U-2 spyplane was shot down over the USSR near the city of Sverdlovsk. After that, Vulcan crews learned to fly their planes at low level, harder to detect on radar, and more difficult to shoot down with surface-to-air missiles.

You feel like you’re only flying the front half of the plane – Martin Withers

“We used to do training runs over Cyprus, says Withers, “flying through the mountains at low-level and dropping practice bombs. In an enclosed cockpit like the Vulcan, you have no idea you’re flying such a big aircraft. You can’t even see the wings out the side window. You feel like you’re only flying the front half of the plane.”

The Vulcan was a joy to fly – Withers says it was a plane that wanted to take off, partly thanks to the huge delta wing which provides enormous lift – but it was not without some quirks. The aircraft was very ‘stealthy’ front-on, the smooth lines and small engine inlets making it difficult to detect on radar at low-level, but its fuel-hungry Olympus engines rather spoiled the effect. “We were out in Oman one time, and we were doing exercises off the southern coast of Iran back when we were friends with them, and we decided to come back to the airfield at Masirah and do a dummy attack,” he says. “We were flying really low, about 300ft. And then suddenly we get this message from the control tower at Masirah, when we were still about 25 miles away: ‘I can see you, I can see you.’ They could see the smoke from our engines from 25 miles away.”

The plane’s dramatic reaction from crowds became known as ‘The Vulcan Effect’ (Credit: Mark Arnold)

Vulcan crews were stationed together, flew together, socialised together. “We knew one another really well, we did lots of things together. It was a really social existence. My memories of the Vulcan when it was in service was not just a fantastic airplane, but a very enjoyable time with it.”

It’s like when somebody dies, it doesn’t hit you straight away. It hasn’t hit me yet – martin Withers

Withers feels lucky that he’s been able to enjoy flying the plane again. It’s not just the Vulcan’s size that has made it a big draw at airshows; one quirk in the design is that the aircraft’s engine inlets tend to vibrate when the engine’s power is increased around 90%. This creates a characteristic banshee howl – another crowd pleaser.

“The biggest reward I get is from the audience,” Withers says. “They’ve come to these airshows primarily to see the Vulcan. We’d had a real job persuading some airshows to allow us to take part. But eventually it became known as the ‘Vulcan effect’. The airshows would be crammed with people, and around the sites there would be even more people in their cars, and they were all there to see the Vulcan.

“I was at RAF Fairford, working on the ground, and that’s when the Vulcan flew with the Red Arrows, and everybody around me just seemed to be watching the skies. Everybody.”

Everyone involved with the Vulcan project realised XH558 had a limited flying life. While the aircraft still has many hours of service life left, the engineering support from third parties required to keep this behemoth in the air is now being withdrawn.

The last Vulcan flight will take place nearly 70 years after a Ministry of Supply request which led to its creation (Credit: John Dibbs)

Withers says it hasn’t quite sunk in yet. “It’s like when somebody dies,” he says. “It doesn’t hit you straight away. It hasn’t hit me yet.

“At the end of every flying season, you’d stop for a few months, and then come back to it. But that’s not going to happen this time.”

XH558 won’t go to a scrapyard. Instead, the plane will be maintained in a special hangar at Robin Hood Airport. Pleming hopes the vintage bomber will provide inspiration for new generations, sparking interest in design and engineering which may help its legacy live on even further.

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