Trust Chief Executive, Robert Pleming, answers the most commonly asked questions on the end of flying for XH558.
Q 1 - Which are the three expert companies who are ceasing support?
A - The decision to cease support, and consequently cause XH558 to cease flying, was made collectively by BAE Systems, Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group, and Rolls-Royce.
Q 2 - Why is their support essential?
A - Since XH558 has been designated by the CAA as a complex-category ex-military aircraft, the CAA requires continued airworthiness design support to be in place from the manufacturer, or an equivalent organisation suitably approved for this purpose. To maintain XH558’s Permit to Fly, this must cover each aspect of the design and must be the subject of a formal agreement.
Q 3 - Aren’t there any other companies that could provide the required support?
A – Yes; there are companies that have the required skills who would be happy to support the Vulcan, however they would need access to information only available from the original manufacturer, and would be required by the CAA to have continued airworthiness design support agreements with those manufacturers. The three companies mentioned above have stated that they would not be prepared to establish such agreements.
Q 4 - How long have you known that the three companies are withdrawing their support at the end of 2015?
A – Marshall Aerospace wrote to the Trust in April 2013 proposing cessation of flying at the end of 2015, a date that was communicated to XH558’s supporters. We believed that we might be able to extend this date and worked with the support of Rolls-Royce to understand how what we understood to be the the key limiting factor, engine life, could be extended. In January 2015, Marshall Aerospace again wrote to the Trust, this time asserting that their support, and that of BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, would cease at the end of 2015. Extensive negotiations have not been able to change this position.
Q 5 - Is XH558 safe to fly?
A - Yes, the aircraft is as airworthy today as she was when she first flew in 1960. Indeed, because of the enhancements made by the Trust, it is possible to assert that she is safer now than when original delivered. XH558’s safety for the 2015 season is not in doubt.
Q 6 - Does the Trust believe that XH558 could fly on beyond 2015?
A - The Trust has to accept the professional views of BAE Systems, Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group, and Rolls-Royce.
Q 7- XH558 occupies a unique place in people’s hearts; how can you justify grounding her?
A - The Trust has a legal responsibility as a charity to conserve XH558 as a unique, living, British heritage icon for the public. When the technical authorities tell us it is time to stop flying, we have to accept their opinions. By the time she stops flying, we will have given to the public - the people who have paid for her - the sight of the flying Vulcan for eight years and exceeded our commitment to the Heritage Lottery Fund. When XH558 was retired from RAF service, no-one expected a Vulcan to fly again - without the team’s perseverance and determination, this would never have happened. To paraphrase Dr Seuss: “Don’t cry because it’s stopped, smile because it happened.”
Q 8 - Why can't you fly for fewer hours this year and carry the remaining hours forward to 2016?
A - Sadly no. First, the annual fixed costs of looking after an airworthy XH558 make it unviable to significantly reduce the annual number of flying hours, Second, the issues causing us to cease flying are more to do with calendar life than flying hours.
Q 9 - How effective were the changes to the way XH558 was flown in saving engine life?
A - I’m delighted to report that the changes we made in 2014 to the way we operated XH558 did achieve significant savings in engine life consumed per flying hour. However, although this was critical to releasing further flying hours, it is only one of the factors that was considered in the flying life decision.
Q 10 - Why should I keep supporting XH558?
A – The XH558 story does not end here. On the ground, she will still be an exciting reminder of so much that is inspirational from a remarkable period of intense British innovation. She will still howl for her supporters as she accelerates along the runway. The Trust has the responsibility to keep her in this excellent condition as a live aircraft for her supporters to visit and watch, and needs the resources and funding so to do. She will also become a focus for inspiring and training new generations of engineers and aviators, a critical mission for British industry, and we hope her many supporters will help make that possible too.
Q 11 - What will happen to XH558?
A - It is planned that after XH558 lands for the last time at Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield, she will become a living centrepiece for a set of new inspirational and educational activities. Current plans begin with a Vulcan Aviation Academy and Heritage Centre offering courses in aviation topics to 14-18 year-olds, enabling them to leave the academy ready for jobs in commercial aviation. As part of the Heritage Centre, XH558 will be kept as a live aircraft capable of taxying, where she will contribute to inspiring youngsters to consider aviation, engineering and technology for their future careers.
Q 12 - What will happen to the Trust and its staff?
A - After XH558 has ceased to fly, the Trust will consolidate its activities at Doncaster. Over a period, the Trust’s site at Hinckley will be closed. Our staff there will be offered posts at Doncaster where they exist, or will be offered redundancy. The Trust’s engineering team at Robin Hood, under the leadership of Andrew Edmondson, represents a unique technical capability in the UK, acknowledged by the CAA as the heritage aviation benchmark for aircraft engineering process, quality procedures and safety management systems. As the full capability of this team will not be required by the Trust just to keep XH558 in taxying condition, Andrew is looking to set up his team as an independent business, offering CAA-approved aircraft engineering and maintenance services to the heritage and general aviation communities.
Q 13 - When will the final flight take place and will I be able to see XH558’s final landing?
A - XH558’s final flight has yet to be scheduled but assuming that aircraft serviceability allows, it is expected to be in October this year. We currently plan for the final flight to be in the local area around Robin Hood Airport, to minimise the risk of not being able to fly due to poor weather. Prior to that, there will be a further national tour of some cities associated with the Vulcan; details will be released in due course. Due to the numbers that we think will want to see the final landing, special arrangements will probably have to be put in place around Robin Hood Airport. Whilst it may prove difficult to offer everyone the opportunity to see the final landing, we plan for everyone in the vicinity for the purpose of witnessing the final flight to have a sustained view of XH558 in flight for one last time.
Q 14 - How often will XH558 start up and taxy once she has stopped flying?
A - We currently expect that XH558 will start up and taxy several times per year. Until we understand whether our business case for taxying is sustainable, it would be unwise to make any greater commitment.
Q 15 – Have the requirements of the National Lottery and any other grants all been met?
A - The requirements of the Heritage Lottery Fund grant are many and complex. Amongst them was the requirement to fly for at least 250 hours; this objective has already been exceeded. The requirements also included the need to keep XH558 in good condition, and to deliver education based on the aircraft, the Cold War and engineering. The Trust is committed to delivering on all these requirements for the duration of its contact with the HLF - which is for 80 years from 2005! For any other grants that the Trust has received, the conditions have been met.
Q 16 – How many people have seen her fly since the restoration?
A - Up until the end of the 2014 season, approximately 12 million people had seen XH558 at the events she has attended, plus countless millions more who have seen her whilst she is transiting around the country.
Q 17 – How much will it cost per year to maintain her as a non-flying Vulcan?
A - The main cost of maintain XH558 as a non-flying Vulcan is the hangar rental required to keep her and her spares under cover. There are other costs, such as utilities, insurance and the costs of servicing to keep her in tip-top condition and able to taxi safely. Of course, there are the additional costs of raising the funds to look after her. It would be inappropriate to give detailed figures at this time, particularly as many of them depend on our rate of progress with the new educational, engineering and events activities this summer. However, as a charity we will continue raising funds in the way we have successfully done over the last few years, with raffles, exclusive merchandise and memorabilia, lottery etc. We will be announcing more in detail as the season progresses.
Q 18 - Why can’t other engines be fitted?
A – The requirement to stop flying is based on a number of issues including airframe life, so even if changing the engines was possible (which for sensible reasons around approving what would be essentially a significantly modified aircraft, it is not) it would still not allow further flying.
Q 19 - Why can older aircraft like the Lancaster and Spitfire still fly?
A - The RAF’s BBMF Lancaster PA474’s flying life was extended during the winter of 1995 by a number of years, only possible because a new rear spar from a Shackleton was able to be used. There is sadly no possibility of renewing the primary structure – principally the spars – on XH558. The Spitfire is a relatively simple aircraft; Spitfires flying today have been completely rebuilt. Also, the Lancaster and the Spitfire use Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, for which there are spares and overhaul facilities available. No such spares or facilities are available for XH558’s Olympus turbojet engines.
Q 20 - Why can’t you use components from other Vulcan aircraft?
A - We can and we have! Thanks to the goodwill of their owners, XH558 has benefited from components from other Vulcans. For example, the Vulcan Restoration Trust let us have their spare nosewheel leg for return to airworthiness during XH558’s restoration. Sadly, the very components that limit XH558’s flying life are those for which precise knowledge of their provenance, maintenance and usage is required. Many components have a calendar life that has been far exceeded on other Vulcans. Records proving provenance and usage on other Vulcans have also been lost.
Q 21- Why can’t people be trained with the skills that are needed?
A - The skills that are needed to properly understand the design, materials and technologies of the 1950s and 1960s - XH558’s engineering era - are now only to be found in people who have retired. It would not be justifiable for a company now to train up any current staff with such legacy skills for a one-off project.
Q 22 - Is this a Risk Management exercise?
A - To some extent, yes, it is a risk management exercise. There is no business upside for the companies that must support XH558’s flying, with a perceived but admittedly very low probability (but massive) downside. Shareholder perception, risk avoidance and aversion, and return on resources all dictate that a stance by these companies to cease support at the end of 2015 is justified.
Q 22 - Could she still fly say in the United States or another country?
A - We believe that XH558 could probably fly on under the Experimental Aircraft category in the United States, assuming the funding and maintenance support was available. There are other countries that have less rigorous regulatory requirements than the UK where flight could be possible. However, as a registered charity, the Trust could not relinquish XH558, as a heritage asset purchased for the Nation, to such a venture.