Richard Clarke, ex Vulcan to the Sky Club Chairman, writes on his observations of that great day back in 2007. (Originally reproduced in the Club magazine - Christmas 2007).
The great day that we had all waited so long for began early with my alarm sounding at 5.00am! I arrived at the airfield soon after 6.00am and went straight to the hangar, where ‘558 stood in splendid isolation with not a soul in sight. I found my emotions coming to the fore and said to her with a lump in my throat – ‘it’s your day, you can do it’. It was a rare and poignant occasion to be alone with the great lady and particularly being at the start of such a momentous day, it was a great privilege. Any fan or aficionado of the aircraft knows that she is not just a machine but also a living manifestation of the great affection that we all feel towards her. She seemed serene and ready for the task that awaited her and I felt very humble in her presence.
I then took my place on the main gate with a very strict remit to ensure that no one would be allowed to enter the site without an official invitation. The guests and media began to arrive as directed between 10.15 and 10.45 and the entrance suddenly became very busy with everyone keen to get through and take their place to view this historic and much awaited occasion. There was an air of anticipation and excitement, even amongst the hard-bitten media, and it was something that I had experienced before when I was part of the media entourage that greeted the final landing of Concorde at Filton in November 2003. However the main difference was that this was a joyous occasion, whereas that had been a wake and a sad farewell to another iconic aircraft.
Then came the time to decamp to the airfield and the sense of anticipation was growing by the minute. As we approached the appointed viewing area 558 came into view, standing proudly on the pan, somehow knowing that she was the centre of attention and that the eyes of the world would be focussed upon her; this was HER big day. The ground crew hurried around, carrying out final checks and making sure that everything was in place, carefully observed by the watchful eye of Andrew Edmondson, the Engineering Manager, who had played an important part in planning and masterminding this momentous occasion.
Then the aircrew arrived; David Thomas, Al McDicken, and Barry Masefield all looking extremely professional, focussed and demonstrating an air of calmness personified; at least on the outside! They conferred with the ground crew and carried out external checks around the aircraft and then climbed the ladder to the cockpit, amongst a hushed atmosphere, the only noise being quiet conversations and the wind blowing gently through the trees and grass.
Once the crew had settled into their positions the final ground checks were carried out and external power was supplied to the aircraft allowing us to see the anti-collision lights start to turn. Then the ground power and air start units wound into life and shortly after air was fed into the first engine and the familiar and most welcome sound of the Olympus 200 series engines was amongst us as each engine was started in turn. The noise was highly resonant and a positive indication that she was alive and about to return to her rightful place in the skies.
Amidst almost unbearable tension and anticipation Al McDicken and David Thomas moved the throttles forward and applied the power necessary to propel the aircraft forward. She taxied past the viewing area and continued down to the threshold of the runway. The noise increased accordingly as she passed by, a familiar sound which always seems to go right through you and the like of which I had not heard for some years since seeing XL426 at Southend.
She was then manoeuvred into position at the end of the 2 mile long runway and the brand new engines were wound up to full power. Brakes off! She accelerated quickly away down the huge runway, seemingly eager to be up and away and then rotation and a surprisingly early lift off – what a sight, light beneath her wheels after all of these years, emotions were running high and there was not a dry eye in the house – including me! Hundreds of cameras sprang into action, to capture THE big moment, which would adorn many a front page and TV screens both later that day and in the coming days. In a steep climb she rose into the azure blue sky leaving us all with the lingering sound of the Olympus engines and the familiar exhaust trails as she banked around away from the airfield with her undercarriage remaining down.
The test flight was scheduled to last for some twenty minutes and she remained within sight of the airfield for most of that time, with the undercarriage being raised for a short period as part of the testing programme and with the added bonus of a low level flypast right down the runway as part of the flight profile. Sure enough, in what seemed a very short time, we heard the distinctive sound of the engines being throttled back and fine-tuned by the pilots to ensure the achievement of a safe landing speed. She then appeared over the trees at the east end of the runway, once again to the clatter of camera shutters, with everyone keen to capture the moment she landed. She touched down safely with a perfect landing by Al and David, with Barry who had played a vital role from the AEO seat, and there was an audible and tangible sense of relief that she had arrived home safely.
As she taxied back into the safe haven of her pan, a spontaneous round of applause rang out and there was an audible sense of relief and satisfaction and as the crew exited the aircraft further applause rang out. There was then the usual clamour from the media for more photos and exclusive interviews with both the aircrew and the engineers. There and then were formed the faces and words destined to appear in TV news programmes later that day and many newspapers on the following day.
First post-restoration flightcrew, Al McDickon, David Thomas and Barry Masefield meet the media.
This momentous day was the culmination of years of hard work and dedication by a highly professional and fully committed team of individuals, both paid and voluntary. First Flight was a great day for all of us who were privileged to be there and must have been greeted with a great sense of relief and satisfaction by all of the team. But now the hard work will continue, as Robert Pleming has been saying for some time, the first part of the challenge has now been completed in respect of the major service but the next part is now upon us and there is the need to change the emphasis to working with a flying aircraft and to prepare ‘558 for her imminent return to the airshow circuit next year.
I make no apology for repeating my eulogies about the joy and pleasure that this will give to so many people in the coming years.
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