The Final Ramblings From The AEOs Panel
With the sad news on the 2nd September that one of the aircraft fuel tanks had developed a leak, everything that XH558 was planned to do for the rest of the 2013 display season was put on hold until further investigations had been made to determine just how serious the leak was. The tank was subsequently removed and sent off to the repairers. All that the ground crew and aircrew could do was to cross their fingers and hope that the investigation would reveal that the tank could be repaired and subsequently replaced so enabling 558 to get back on track and resume her flying commitment. As we all now know, life dealt us a bitter blow when it was revealed that the tank was beyond repair and that a new tank would have to be made. To make a new tank was going to have at least a 4 months lead-in time and then there was the manufacturing time to be added on after that. With this very sad news the decision was made, with safety in mind, to cancel all further 2013 display commitments.
You are all well aware that we on the team, both air and ground crews alike, get very upset when we have to cancel our displays. We are very much aware that it is the public who, with their generous donations, keep the Vulcan flying and if they can’t see their aircraft in the air then there is always the possibility that they will stop donating. Fortunately most of the public take a very pragmatic view and accept that sometimes machines will develop mechanical problems which will cause the occasional ‘no-show’ at flying displays. Sometimes people forget that XH558 is now a very ‘old’ lady and as such, she needs to be looked after with great care and affection and inevitably despite all the attention lavished on her, there will be the rare occasion when she needs to take a break and have her bits and pieces renewed and restored. Most of you will understand this and accept that in the interests of safety it is in everyone’s interests that our very skilled engineers need to declare that XH558 is unfit to fly until they can get her back to tip-top condition. The VTTS has always taken the view that safety when flying the Vulcan is paramount and that although there can sometimes be quick-fix solutions which may temporarily resolve an engineering malfunction, we have never flown the aircraft unless she has been declared fully serviceable by the engineers. It is because we have always had this credo that we have earned the respect of the formal aviation institutions such as the CAA.
Although XH558 is unserviceable at the moment there is still light at the end of the tunnel. Our engineers can still get on with their daily tasks which need to be carried out and although the fuel system is blanked off in a part of the fuel delivery system, the engines can still be run on the ground for their monthly testing. In fact, there is an engine run on the 25th September and I see that there will be a raffle held for 2 winners to be in the rear cockpit during the run to experience the vibrancy and power of the Rolls Royce Olympus engines under full power. This is an experience I can assure you that the winners will never ever forget. I know that I have experienced this each time I have flown and never do I cease to be excited by the sheer power I know is contained within those four engines when they are wound up to full power. If you win you will take away an experience that very few people not directly involved in operating XH558 will ever have had. Might even buy a ticket myself for old time’s sake!
Oops, looking now, they’ve all gone and I’ve missed my chance.
Because XH558 has been grounded for the rest of the display season, that meant that my trip on the 25th August was to be not only my last one of the season, but also my last one - ever. Most of you will know that I have been threatening for some while to retire from flying and that I had made a conscious decision back in February that once the 2013 display season was over, then that would be the time I would hang up my bone-dome for the last time. You will also be aware that we needed to have a replacement AEO to assist Phil Davies, who will take over as the AEO Leader. After much searching, Phil identified Jonathan Lazzari as a possible candidate for the position and approached him to see if he was interested. Needless to say, Jonathan was delighted to be approached and very interested in taking up the position as Phil’s number 2. We have spent the whole of the season training and refreshing Jonathan in all things Vulcan and eventually the time came for him to put everything together and after twelve flights, he flew his final check-ride with me on the 25th August. Needless to say that with an AEO of his vast experience everything went well and he was declared to be a fully paid-up member of the VTTS AEO team. I suppose one could say that flying with my replacement on what turned out to be my last ever trip was quite fitting. Strangely enough, it happened that also that weekend, I had had the opportunity to fly with every one of our pilots over a period of the 3 days. Spooky stuff eh?
And so, I guess that’s about it. I have been long associated with XH558 in the display role ever since, during my RAF day’s way back in 1987, I was invited to become a member of the Vulcan Display Fight. I had the most fantastic 5 years display flying and when the MOD (Air) made the decision to ground the aircraft and then to ultimately sell her off into private hands, I couldn’t believe my ears. XH558 was the only Vulcan in a flying condition and to let her go to a very uncertain destiny was beyond my comprehension. It was a very sad day when I was part of the crew who delivered the aircraft to Bruntingthorpe and when I climbed out of the cockpit, I genuinely thought it was going to be for the very last time. Little did I know what the future had in store for XH558 and even less did I know what the future had for me and my involvement with her.
I’m not going to relate yet again how I became so involved with XH558 once Dr Robert Pleming had made a decision that this particular Vulcan should not be consigned to history, because that story has been covered elsewhere in other publications and you can read all about it there. All I can say is on that day back in 1998, when I received a letter from Robert inviting me to join the team he was setting up to restore XH558 back to flight worthiness, it was the start of what has become a wonderful chapter in my life. Not only have I been given the opportunity to fly the most iconic of aircraft, but I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with and working with some of the most professional people I could wish to know.
To try and list everyone by name would be a very dangerous path to tread. If I left someone’s name out inadvertently they would get very upset even though it would have been done with malice. However, there are some names that cannot go by unmentioned. As I said earlier, none of this would have been possible without the guidance and perseverance of Dr Robert Pleming, our CEO. It was his vision way back in 1998 of just what could be achieved that set us all on the road to eventual success. Of course, he couldn’t have done this alone and so over the years he built a team around him which would keep things going forward. Among the team were people such as Michael Trotter who was given the unenviable task of raising the finances to keep the project going. Despite all the odds and the dire financial times that everyone has found themselves in he never wavered and somehow he always kept us from the financial abyss. His work goes on daily and he treads this very uncertain path desperately searching for the wherewithal to keep us going.
We all know of Taff and his engineers, but very little mention is ever given to our Engineering Director, Andrew Edmondson. Andrew, who is based down at the head office in Hinckley, has the task of coordinating everything that relates to the engineering side of the VTTS. He is the link between us and the wider world of engineering expertise. There isn’t much that Andrew doesn’t know about your Vulcan and it is this expertise that that enables him to talk from a powerful engineering base with the companies who he has to deal with and get us the best financial deal commensurate with the best engineering skills that a company can offer. Needless to say, he’s always busy and even more so at the moment with our fuel tank situation. One can always be confident that if an engineering contract has been set up by Andrew, then one can rest assured that there is no better deal to be had.
Not only does Andrew look after all our engineering concerns down at Hinckley, but he heads up all the staff who are employed in the various departments there.
Everyone of them does a vital job ranging from Roma who is the first point of contact whenever anyone rings the VTTS, Colin Marshall who is head of our logistics/stores department and of course our willing band of volunteers who work for Ian Homer sorting and packing all the merchandise that you all buy. Without them working away like Santa’s elves the VTTS would be in a sorry state. Ian took on the task of master-minding the commercial side of the VTTS and since he, ably assisted by his wife Debbie, has been on board, our commercial income to boost revenues has increased dramatically. Although Ian tends to work away in the background, we can all see how hard both he and Debbie work when we see them both in the Vulcan Village when attending the bigger air shows. Ian has the most wonderful team of volunteers working for and with him and we all extend our most grateful thanks to them for all the hard work they put in.
I come now to the one person who has single-handedly kept XH558 in the public eye over the years. That person of course is Richard Clarke, our PR man. Richard has been associated with 558 for more years than he and I care to remember and we go back nearly two decades together. If ever there is a radio,TV or newspaper interview to be had, Richard is in there organising it all. It doesn’t always go to plan and on many occasions at flying displays when he’s organised interviews for us aircrew, it all falls to work because the interviewers have lined up something else at the same time. Not Richard’s fault of course, but it does sometimes become very frustrating for both him and the aircrew when having organised our day around the interviews, the interviewers change their minds. Richard of course was the instigator of my blogs. From a casual request four years ago for me to write just a few words on what we as aircrew get up to, it has now developed into a regular occurrence - and here we are some 30 or so blogs further on and still at it. How on earth did that happen!
And so I work my way north from Hinckley to Doncaster. In Hangar 3, the home of your aircraft, our team of engineers reside. What a superb bunch of guys they are. Led from the front by Taff Stone, each and every one of them display skills and initiative that any company would be pleased to have. No matter what the engineering problems they may be faced with, they always have a smile on their faces and a cheery word for everyone who comes into contact with them. Working alongside them in Hangar 3 is Toni Hunter. As you are probably aware, Toni started off her journey with 558 as our IT consultant, but as time went by, she took a sideways step and is now our hangar tours organiser and manager. The revenue derived from her hangar tours has now become a vital part of the much needed cash to keep 558 going. Like all our personnel who work in Hangar 3, she too gets on with her job always with a smile and a cheery word. She too has a team of volunteers working for her in the shop and as hosts during the hangar tours. Without them, Toni wouldn’t have the success that her tours have generated.
And so I come almost to the end of the list of people I have had the privilege of meeting and working with. I couldn’t go without mentioning my fellow aircrew led from the front by Martin Withers, our Chief Pilot. All of the aircrew on the team are the most experienced and knowledgeable guys I have ever flown with. Even after 50 years of flying I am still learning from all of them, no matter whether they be pilots, navigators or AEOs such is their depth of knowledge. It has been a privilege flying with these guys.
The list is almost at its end now. I have saved to the end the people who matter most and they are of course - you. Without each and every one of you none of this would have been possible. Your generous donations and support has kept XH558 alive and kicking and has enabled me to have the privilege of flying your aircraft over the past 6 years. From the bottom of my heart I want to thank each and every one of you.
As you will have gathered, this is my final blog. It has been a pleasure writing for you and I would like to thank all of you who have taken the time to come up to me at air shows to express what you think. Thank you for taking the time to read my blogs and I hope that I have given you a little taste of what goes on in the aircrew world of the VTTS.
© Barry Masefield