Future of an RAF icon up in the air

As 2012 dawns, preparations to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of an icon of 20th century Britain are set to crank into a frantic overdrive.

Staff have already been working for years to mark the occasion, and every day of the next few months will see them moving forward towards a common goal.

The focus of their efforts cannot be aware of the huge push to make her ready for the summer, but there is a determination that she will join the Queen’s party.

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Although Vulcan bomber XH558 does not herself date from 1952, she is the last surviving example of the type which first took to the skies in the year the monarch took to the throne.

But it is by no means certain that the aircraft will take flight again in 2012, and without significant financial help she may never take off again.

Although winter maintenance is under way, cash is not in place to pay the £400,000 bill, lending more urgency to the efforts of the charitable Vulcan to the Sky Trust.

This is the first major service the aircraft has undergone since it returned to its former base at Doncaster’s Robin Hood Airport, formerly RAF Finningley.

Just four days before Christmas, it was confirmed the Cold War bomber was in “excellent overall condition” but many parts have to be replaced annually to meet Civil Aviation Authority law.

Because XH558 is 51 years old the airframe must also be taken through a programme of “non destructive testing” which involves using an X-ray to examine key pressure points.

The trust’s engineering director, Andrew Edmondson, said 13 faults had been detected during the first phase of inspections, with two more series of tests to follow in 2012.

These include simple problems with corroded electrical connectors through to a “kinked delivery pipe” within the cockpit oxygen system.

Mr Edmondson added: “Rectification of the majority of these problems appears to be straightforward and we have most of the components in our stores.

“Considering the age and technology content of this aircraft, our team of just five ground crew has done a fantastic job of keeping her in excellent condition.”

Despite the lack of major faults found so far, the simple servicing of the Vulcan is a time-consuming job, which explains the huge service bill.

Without a Civil Aviation Authority permit, the Vulcan cannot fly at air shows, which pay appearance fees to provide a massive boost to its coffers.

The trust is determined there will be more flights, particularly in such a significant year.

Fundraising has been designed around the Diamond Jubilee coincidence, which will see the Queen presented with a book signed by Vulcan supporters.

It is hoped the money raised by that initiative and others, which include the chance to sponsor the maintenance of certain components, will make enough money to complete the service.

Parts which can be sponsored include the ejection seats, the brake parachutes and the fire suppression and pneumatic systems.

Supporters can even pledge their support for an engine-swap, which will see two of the current engines swapped with two in storage to increase available engine hours.

A small number of places to spend time with the engineering team and have a special “close-up technical tour” are currently being auctioned on internet site eBay, also to raise money.

The trust’s chief executive, Dr Robert Pleming, said 2012 also marked 30 years since XH558 played an important role in the Falklands conflict, bombing Port Stanley airfield and thwarting the Argentinian air force.

He added: “We couldn’t have reached this milestone without the remarkable generosity of XH558’s supporters, and I would like to thank all those who have given time and money to keep her flying.

“The airframe has limited time before it will no longer be possible to renew its permit to fly. After that we hope to develop a museum and educational centre around the plane at Robin Hood Airport, funded by conference, leisure and other commercial activities.”

Sqn Ldr Martin Withers, who flew the Falklands mission and won the Distinguished Flying Cross, said: “The Vulcan is the most powerful symbol of a remarkable period in British history that we must never forget.

“This is one of the most iconic pieces of aerospace technology ever, and it is thoroughly British.”