IT IS only by sitting in the cockpit of a Vulcan bomber that you get a true sense of how tough it must have been for the RAF aircrews flying these mighty nuclear warbirds. Buildings shook, windows rattled and a shockwave rumbled through groundcrew as four Rolls-Royce Olympus engines, howling like banshees, punched them up into the sky. At the height of the Cold War, some 134 Vulcans were built to carry the nation’s nuclear deterrent, with the unenviable task of launching a counter-strike against the Soviet Union in the event of an attack.
The five-strong crews knew once they dropped their retaliatory nuclear bombs on enemy targets there was no point in heading home because Britain would be a smoking nuclear wilderness.
If the pilots survived the blast from their own weapon, they were advised to find somewhere in the world with “sun and cold beer” to land.
Yet even by the standards of the Avro Vulcan, XH558, The Spirit of Great Britain, in whose cockpit I am sitting, is a particularly storied aircraft.
She was the last airworthy Vulcan, supported by the public and business to the tune of millions of pounds in donations to keep her flying, attracting sell-out crowds to air shows until her final grounding in October 2015. D
Daily and Sunday Express readers among others pledged many thousands of pounds to help keep XH558 flying over the seven years of displays.
Since 2015, she has been parked at Doncaster Sheffield Airport, South Yorkshire, as a visitor attraction and symbol of British engineering prowess.
While technically still airworthy, because of her age – her first flight was on May 25, 1960 – she no longer has the necessary certification to fly.
Cold War: A Vulcan bomber in flight
Her engines are sound and are regularly turned over with ground taxi runs. Of the 15 remaining Vulcan bombers in museums up and down the country, she is in by far the best condition.
Sadly, hangar space at Doncaster is limited and since 2017 she has been parked outside in the British weather.
Now the Vulcan To The Sky Trust, which owns her, is launching a new £4million fundraising drive, Operation Safeguard, to create a major new heritage hangar space and visitorcentre for future generations.
The hangar and visitor centre would be built just a wingspan away from where she is currently parked.
Dr Robert Pleming, chief executive of the trust, explains: “She is airside at the moment which means it’s very difficult to allow the public access, but with this new hangar, visitors will be able to get to her easily and she’ll be protected from the weather.
“We will be telling the Vulcan story and inspiring young people interested in aviation and engineering. It would be great to encourage young minds to think about providing aviation solutions for the future.
We know the Vulcan has thousands of supporters and we would invite them to join us in the campaign to build the new hangar.”
Cold War: Avro Vulcan Bombers at a RAF station on February 12, 1965
Prince Philip, the Prince of Wales and Prince Michael of Kent have all piloted a Vulcan.
One of the Queen’s dogs, a Corgi Dachshund cross, was called Vulcan and “not because of Star Trek”, adds Robert. There is no doubt the iconic aircraft has legions of fans.
The trust is arranging a mortgage of £2.4million but needs an additional £1.6million from the public to get Operation Safeguard off the ground.
In the hangar, there will be a green technology hub to inspire aeronautical engineers of the future, other exhibits and a National V-Force Memorial Wall to honour the men and women who lost their lives keeping the country safe during the Cold War.
There will also be a cafe along the airport perimeter, so visitors can watch civilianaircraft taking off and landing.
Taff Stone, 58, XH558’s chief engineer and a former RAF ground crew chief, said: “She’s in good condition but we do have to get her out of the cold and wet.
“All the systems are still working. She’s a lovely aircraft to work on because you can see the engineering physically working, something you can’t do with computerised systems.
“Vulcans were just going out of service when I joined the RAF but I remember her raw power and how majestically she flew. The air crews used to say she handled like a fighter because she was so responsive.
“In the Falklands campaign, I remember seeing the conventional bombs being loaded. We had a separate engineering panel for nuclear bombs and I can remembertesting those sometimes.”
Cold War: Daily Express journalist James Murray in the cockpit of XH558 parked at Doncaster airport
Inside the aircraft is a bewildering array of switches, buttons and lights. With the cockpit wrapped against the weather, it is even darker than it would be.
But in reality cockpit windows were kept to a minimum to protect the crews from the blinding flash of nuclear weapons.
In the inky gloom, I feel to my left and come across switches that would have started all four jet engines in seconds to ensure a speedy roar off into the heavens.
Sitting beside me would be a co-pilot but it would have been difficult, even with headphones, to talk above the distinctive howl of the engines which were capable of cruising at 600mph at 50,000 feet.
Behind us facing towards the back of the aircraft in complete darkness are three seats which would have been taken by a navigator, who also had the task of opening the bomb doors.
In the middle was the navigator plotter, detailing our exact movements and, next to him, was the smoke and mirrors man – the crew member charged with using secret jamming equipment to try and disguise the aircraft from enemy radar.
When the jamming equipment was tested once during a practice flight at the height of the Cold War, there was a dramatic side effect – the television signal for a large part of the UK was knocked out, which annoyed millions of Coronation Street fans.
While the pilots had ejector seats, there was no such luxury for the trio in the back, whose only chance of escape in a crisis was the small entry and exit hatch on the plane’s underbelly.
No one was in a rush to try that while travelling in excess of 500 mph.
Vulcan was the Roman god of fire and destruction, which is particularly apt for this aerial titan, which has the same joystick as a fighter jet to enhance its manoeuvrability at speed. It’s incredible to think an aircraft of this size was capable of sharp banking and even rolls. But she was.
From the cockpit. it’s impossible to see the delta-shaped wing spanning 111-ft and you have no sense of the aircraft’s 106-ft length, because you are in a claustrophobic bubble.
It must have been a mindbogglingly draining mental task, headache inducing even now though we are at a complete standstill 27-ft above the tarmac.
Yet for hours and hours, crews patrolled our airspace from 1955 until 1969 when the nuclear deterrent was handed to the Royal Navy’s Polaris submarines.
Once, in a mock nuclear attack against the USA, seven out of eight Vulcans flewcompletely undetected over American soil to the embarrassment of American defence officials.
Yet only once was the Vulcan used in anger, during the Falklands campaign in 1982 during Operation Black Buck.
Cold War: An artist’s impression of the new £4 million hangar
In a memorable 8,000 mile mission from Ascension Island, Martin Withers DFC dropped bombs on Port Stanley airfield to hinder Argentine aircraft.
Martin, who also flew XH558 as a civilian pilot for the trust, said: “We’d trained to fly low level in bad weather or at night under the radar to drop nuclear bombs.
“We didn’t have the navigational equipment to fly thousands of miles over the sea and the Vulcan’s bombing accuracy was pretty poor.
“We felt vulnerable as they had good anti-aircraft guns and missiles. We thought it was a one-way ticket.”
The Vulcan crews were given just three weeks to prepare and learn how to drop 21 conventional bombs carried in three rows of seven in the vast bomb bay.
“We came in low, below radar, and then had to pull up to 10,000 feet very quickly,” explains Martin.
“We used radar to navigate and came across the runway at a 30-degree angle. Luckily, the first bomb exploded on the runway. We were absolutely elated when we turned away from the target and we were still one piece.”
With multiple airborne refuelling, they made it back to Ascension Island after nearly 16 hours in the air, the longest-ever bombing mission at the time.
XH558, was not on that mission but did famously pick up air samples from very high altitude when China let off an atom bomb in 1964.
She was later used on top secret maritime reconnaissance missions and looks as good now as she did when she first went into service 60 years ago.
With renewed public support, everyone will get a chance to see a lot more of XH558 and discover she’s not a rusting relic from the Cold War, but an aircraft ahead of her time, an elegant peacemaker who deserves a decent dotage.
For more information about Operation Safeguard and to make a donation to the campaign, visit vulcantothesky.org