Written on the wing – £30 buys chance to ‘autograph’ last of the Vulcans

The last flying Vulcan bomber XH558
The last flying Vulcan bomber XH558
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It was a watershed week as the old world gave way to the new.

A shocked Israeli parliament heard that the country’s security forces had captured the Nazi 
war criminal, Adolf Eichmann, and brought him back to stand trial.

An airframe technician or 'rigger', working inside the bomb bay of the last flying Vulcan bomber XH558

An airframe technician or 'rigger', working inside the bomb bay of the last flying Vulcan bomber XH558

And in what would be a harbinger of the Cuban crisis yet to come, the United States launched the first satellite designed to detect missile launches.

Against a backdrop of such high-stakes developments, the first appearance of another symbol of the Cold War passed almost unnoticed.

It was on May 25, 1960, at Woodford Aerodrome, not far from Manchester Airport, that a Vulcan bomber with the serial XH558 made its first test flight.

Its significance would not become clear until much later, for this was to be the last of the line – the sole remaining airworthy example of the British-designed, jet powered and delta-winged strategic nuclear bomber that defined the RAF during the uneasy peace.

It has not flown for four years and is unlikely to ever again. But in a hangar in Doncaster, it has become a memorial to its era.

As the charity which cares for it prepares to mark the aircraft’s 60th anniversary, it has thrown out an invitation to those of similar mind to immortalise themselves on its wings.

For £30, their name, or that of a loved one, can be etched in vinyl and added to a commemorative plaque on the underside of the craft. There have been more than 300 takers in just six days.”

“They will be there forever – even if the aircraft is repainted,” said Stacey Bellamy, at the Vulcan to the Sky Trust, which is working to build a permanent new home for XH558.

Several sheets of the names of previous donors already adorn the wings, but the 60th anniversary appeal would be a unique milestone, said the trust, for “an iconic example of British aerospace engineering at its world-beating best”.

Dr Robert Pleming, an aviation enthusiast who leads the charity, said: “The Vulcan sits below the Spitfire and alongside the Hurricane and Concorde at the vanguard of British aviation. Nothing else flies quite like it.

“It was revolutionary for its time, and as we approach the diamond anniversary of the first flight of XH558, we want to give supporters a chance to have their name under the wing and become a part of her history.”

The Vulcan fleet, which numbered just 136 including prototypes, carried Britain’s strategic nuclear deterrent during much of the Cold War, and the example in Doncaster is one of the few converted for maritime reconnaissance. In 1982, it was pressed into service as an air-to-air refuelling tanker.

Its operational service ended two years later, but XH558 flew on as part of the RAF’s short-lived Vulcan Display Flight, before being sold off for ground-based displays in the Midlands.

Its present chapter began when Dr Pleming led a campaign to restore it to airworthiness. Some £6.5m in public donations and lottery funding saw it back in flight in 2007, for as long as the life expectancy of crucial parts would allow. Over the next eight display seasons, it was seen by an estimated 20 million people.

“XH558 was forced to stop flying because the engineering firms whose technical support was required for it to fly legally, accepted that they no longer had the skills available to carry out their roles,” Dr Pleming said.

The charity has since secured planning permission for a new hangar near Doncaster Sheffield Airport, which will be open to the public.