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XH558's Road to Restoration

by Ian Homer. Posted to category: General

Part 2.

As we progress towards the 10th Anniversary of the first post-restoration flight, we explain more on XH558’s past life and the developments that enabled the restoration to be contemplated.

The Waltons brought in former Hawker Siddeley employee Terry Smith to oversee XH558’s servicing and organise the huge spares cache, and enlisted the help of her last RAF Crew Chief, David Thorpe, to help set up maintenance facilities at Bruntingthorpe. Other volunteers (including Andrew Edmondson, later to become Engineering Director on the project) came on board, and thus was born the British Aviation Heritage Museum Volunteer Group. XH558 was maintained as a ‘live’ aircraft by BAH, and for several years performed fast taxi runs along Bruntingthorpe’s two mile runway at the Big Thunder events. Then in February 1996 she was placed on the civilian register as G-VLCN.


XH558 at a Big Thunder event during the 90s, parked next to the Victor and a Valiant cockpit, representing all three V-Force aircraft. © Charles Toop


In 1997, with David Walton’s support, Dr Robert Pleming formed a small “Core Team” of specialists to investigate whether a return to airworthiness for XH558 was indeed feasible. Included in the team were retired RAF Vulcan and Victor fleet engineering officer Earl Pick; the last Avro Chief Designer for the Vulcan Peter Beushaw; XH558 aircrew

David Thomas and Barry Masefield; Keith Mans, an ex-Vulcan pilot and Chief Executive of the Royal Aeronautical Society; David Thorpe and David Walton. The team started to put together an audacious “Return to Flight Plan”, but it was immediately clear that the project, even if feasible, would be uniquely complex, technically challenging and enormously expensive. Undeterred, the team entered into exploratory negotiations with British Aerospace (soon to become BAE Systems) and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). In the same year Colin Mears established the XH558 Supporters Club, later to become the Vulcan to the Sky Club, a major source of funds and volunteers in the years to come.

Over 1998-2000, the start-up team confirmed the formal support of all the major manufacturers needed to support XH558’s restoration and operation, and reached agreement in principle with BAE Systems (who held the Design Authority on the aircraft) and the CAA that XH558 could be restored to airworthy status. A team from Marshall Aerospace arrived at Bruntingthorpe and carried out a technical survey, which proved there were no show-stoppers. The Vulcan Operating Company, a wholly-owned division of C. Walton Ltd was formed to manage the work involved, and ex-Vulcan aircrew David Thomas and Barry Masefield continued on the team as advisers (though as Barry later said “little did we realise at the time just how much work was going to be involved over the subsequent 10 years”).


David Walton with XH558.

XH558 would require what the RAF classed a ‘Major’ service, extended with additional inspections. This has four phases, the first being ‘Inspection’, where a comprehensive examination of the aircraft is undertaken, including extensive Non- Destructive Testing (NDT). ‘Rectification’ follows, where problems identified in the first phase are resolved by component repair, replacement, or manufacture of new components. A fatigue life extension modification of the rear spar would be included in this phase. Once rectification is largely complete, the third phase, ‘Recovery,’ can start. All components removed for overhaul by Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) are replaced on the aircraft, and the radios and other avionics are upgraded to be compatible with modern standards. Finally comes the ‘Testing’ phase, with system-by system checks on the ground, culminating in the release of the aircraft by the certifying engineers for flight testing.

The real challenge would be money – first estimates were that over £3.5million would be required to pay for the restoration. Dr Pleming came on board full-time in April 2000, leaving his high-profile post with Cisco Systems in order to devote all his energies working pro bono on the return to flight project. In November 2000, former TVS presenter Felicity Irwin threw herself into the project as fundraising campaign manager. “Emotionally, she’s a once seen, never forgotten experience,” she said. “I was 12 years old when I first saw her. When I heard that she might not fly again I said `this will not happen’.” After exploring various funding options, it was decided to prepare a bid for funding to the Heritage Lottery Fund, although at the time no other candidates aiming to restore aircraft to flight had been successful. A necessary part of the application process was the establishment of the Vulcan To The Sky Trust, as the HLF would only accept bids from registered charities. ‘Vulcan to the Sky’ became the ‘brand’ to describe the project, and in 2002 the former head of 1 Group Strike Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Knight, agreed to become Chairman.

The story continues in our newsletter next week.

XH558 needs your support for this year and the years ahead.

Can you help her with a small donation? Thank you!

Sign-up to our newsetters to get see the timeline ahead of the 10th Anniversary of first post-restoration flight on 18th October 2007.

Read Part 3 of this story here:

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