The restoration of XH558

In 2004, over 20 years after its final RAF flight, permission was granted to restore the XH558 back to flying condition. This is how it was done…

The Vulcan to the Sky Trust gained official ownership of Vulcan XH558 in 2005, and instrumental in the decision to make her restoration happen was Dr Robert Pleming. Pleming was a lifelong fan of the Vulcan, whose dedication to preserving her legacy came during watching her penultimate flight for the RAF in 1993 where, he famously said, she had ‘winked’ at him. Pleming was acutely aware of the sheer volume of public love for the last of the Vulcans – this, it turned out, would be the key to getting her back in the air. Convinced that she had retired before her time, he set out in the late 1990s (with help from others at the Vulcan to the Sky Trust) to undertake the long process of restoring XH558 back to flight.

First on the list of tasks was to find out whether an ex-military aircraft such as the Vulcan would be granted permission to fly. As she was no longer a military aircraft, the simple fact was that she would first need to be designated a civilian aircraft registration before any further aspirations of flying could continue. The registration given was G-VLCN. However, an exception was made for XH558 and she was granted permission to fly in her original Royal Air Force markings.

In 1999, a detailed technical survey was conducted on XH558 to ascertain the probability of any major technical issues that may occur should the Vulcan return to flight. One of the major focuses would be the scope of the restoration needed on the aircraft itself. Luckily by 2000, the technical survey confirmed that, for a cost, the Vulcan could be returned to full airworthiness.

That cost, as it happened, turned out to be £3.5million. Still confident in the public’s love of the bomber, Pleming and the team pushed forward with the task, setting up fundraisers for people to donate to the cause. However, it soon became clear that major financial backing would be needed to secure the hefty sum. A failed grant application was submitted to the National Heritage Fund in 2002. Determined not to let the failure knock them, the team returned with another grant application in 2003, this time with public backing outlining the educational benefits of such an important British heritage asset. The grant was successful: £2.5million was allocated to the restoration of XH558 on the grounds that the process would provide long-term public benefits. The rest of the money would need to be raised by the project itself.

Next on the team’s list was the exciting part: the restoration itself. With an estimated 14-month timeframe, it was vital that those employed to work on the project did so to the highest of standards. Inspections were undergone which revealed a number of minor fixes such as small cracks to the fuselage. Various tests were conducted to discover whether the aircraft had any underlying issues with its hydraulic, pneumatic and oxygen systems. After 12 months, the team encountered their most challenging issues yet. Firstly, under the Vulcan’s new registration as a civilian aircraft, any equipment pertaining to its previous role as a military nuclear bomber had to be removed. This meant scrapping a number of the aircraft’s original systems, which would take up a lot of time and manpower. Each removal of a system would require its own safety case, which entailed some extensive unplanned analysis (adding time and money). On top of this, further inspections to the airframe revealed a significant amount of corrosion on magnesium alloy skins and structure of the flying control surfaces. These units would need to be rebuilt – again, at an enormous cost.

Despite some unexpected hiccups and a longer-than-planned restoration process, the end was in sight by 2007. Only the refitting of aircraft systems was left. This included refitting the components that were removed for the overhaul of the aircraft fuselage, from ejection seats to engines to cockpit instruments. Encountering their biggest challenge yet, the team was faced with the update of many of the critical systems. The systems required overhauling from 1950s military technology to modern technology, while retaining the authenticity of the aircraft.

XH558’s restoration was completed by August 2007 after 26 months. Awarded her ‘Permit to Fly’ in July 2008, she took back to the skies just two days later to the adoration of hundreds of fans at RAF Waddington Air Show. The location was particularly fitting, having been her home for many years during her service within the RAF. Both fans and those who had worked so tirelessly on her restoration would go on to enjoy her in the sky for another eight years, even assigning her the name ‘Spirit of Great Britain’ in 2010. She flew until lack of support meant that she had to be grounded for the final time.

Now, the Vulcan to the Sky Trust have a new mission and a new way of keeping the Vulcan’s legacy alive for generations to come. Operation Safeguard is a major fundraising campaign which aims to build the Vulcan Experience, a static display where XH558 now lives in Doncaster Sheffield Airport. The charity’s two guiding principles make up the spearhead of the campaign: to honour those who served us in the past, and to inspire future generations to help maintain the United Kingdom’s historic role at the forefront of innovation in aviation.

Along with the Vulcan Experience, the campaign aims to create the Green Technology Hub. Hopes are that young people will use their experience of the hub to become the new generation of engineers, going on to work toward a brighter, greener future. And to honour those who lost their lives for our safety in the Cold War, the trust will erect a ‘V-force Memorial Wall’ inside the hangar. Despite XH558’s inability to fly, the Vulcan to the Sky Trust are determined to keep her legacy alive to better the education of young people for many years to come. And it all started with a wink.

To find out more about the Vulcan to the Sky Trust, visit https://vulcantothesky.org/

Vulcan to the Sky Trust