A Personal Farewell Tour, Part Five: Farewell, My Friend.

I watched the PlanesTV recording of the live-broadcast from Avro Vulcan B2 XH558’s final flight: the final flight of any Vulcan, anywhere.  Of any V-bomber, anywhere.  Of any four-jet-engined aircraft of all-British design, anywhere.

Firstly, thanks to PlanesTV for allowing a 24hr window of free viewing: this is very much appreciated by those of us in seminars yesterday afternoon at 14:30!

Sean Maffett commentated.  I love listening to the emotion in Sean Maffett’s voice: it was even more evident yesterday.  He is the perfect commentator: he knows when to be quiet (throughout that particular flight), and when he talks it’s all relevant, informative and delivered in a clear but not emotionless voice.  And 99 Vulcan commentaries later, he was still clear, if slightly broken in places.  Thankyou Sean: you made Vulcan an emotive subject for much more than anyone else ever did.

Watching the video, I was struck by Taff Stone’s face as he removes the cables for starting her for the last (flying) time.  The guy behind Sean Maffett was wiping his eyes: Sean did too, later on, as did someone else just before a TV crew interviewed him.

Sadly, Robert Pleming (Trust Chief Executive) had to be admitted for surgery: he’s had his fair share of ups and down with both his health and Vulcan, and it was a cruel twist of fate that meant he could not see her fly for one last time.  I’m sure we all remember him appearing in front of TV cameras with his neck brace for what seems now like years!  Such a committed individual.

With the flight itself, connection problems meant the landing could not be broadcast live (classic!), but some speedy re-editing meant people didn’t have to wait long.  Vulcan was cleared by airport control to take off, climb to 5,000ft and descend for landing: a fitting height to be far enough to touch the heavens, but not too far to lose her adoring fans.

Flight crew were Martin Withers (how could it not be?!), Bill Ramsey, Phil Davies and Johnathan Lazzari.  As she powered up for takeoff, the sun came out and shone off the QRA hanger at former RAF Finningley, now Robin Hood Doncaster-Sheffield Airport, a fitting weather change for this autumnal flight.

The take-off was rather sedate, followed by a powerful climb into the classic wingover.  She disappeared into the clouds a few times and made her own, as Sean said, vortices and diffuse water droplets streaming from the wings at various points.  As ever, she was Queen of the Skies, defying the weather by taking control.

The tower cleared her for a run in and break, a fitting farewell to her flying home for the past few years, and a fitting thankyou for the ongoing support.

And then it was over.  She had only a few flying hours left on this year’s certificates and she used them wisely.  The parachute deployed like a lost ‘kerchief in the wind.  She whined her way around the airfield and back home, through a water cannon salute which Sean said was probably symbolic of the many tears shed.

Without the classic commentary ending “Bye-bye” from Sean, I don’t think I would have welled-up.  Though the water salute, and Sean’s words about it, started it.

But I didn’t cry: it’s not really over.  £23m over 346hrs during 228 flights has got her this far, and that’s better than all but two other Vulcans in the world.  Her 18 wheels may leave the ground again (for checks!), her parachute will probably stream forth again, because she will not sleep.  She might be the grand old lady now late of the skies (paraphrasing Sean), but she will likely be lost in the clouds again, when she fast-taxies on a wet day!

And with it not being over, I would to mention the hard work of other Vulcan preservers: my ‘home’ Vulcan, XL426 at Southend, has been under restoration to keep her in fast-taxi condition for as long as possible, but she has not yet returned to fast-taxi condition.  I saw her last fast-taxi, and have visited her once since, and she will forever hold that special place in my heart as the ‘first’ Vulcan I knew and loved, the one who got me into Cold War Jets, the one who inspired me to follow XH558 back to flight.  When I saw her howl down the runway the first time, I knew she was special.

XM655 at Wellesbourne is under threat from housing development: she would be incredibly hard to move anywhere, not just the transport costs themselves but the costs involved in painstakingly taking her to pieces for road transport.  She is unique, powered by more-powerful engines than the other two powered Vulcans.  I hope that, should the airfield close, the public would come together in much the same way they always have for XH558 to help her find a new home.

A number of other Vulcans preserved around the country and in North America are ‘live’ in their own way: I would like to mention here XM594 at Newark, electrically-live and so sleeping, but dreaming.  She is a beautiful Vulcan inside too: never have I seen such a complete cockpit so lovingly maintained.

So, when you are thinking of where your pennies can go (now XH558’s running costs are somewhat reduced), you can support your local Vulcan.  Or any number of other worthy aero-engineering causes, including Coventry’s Shackleton and the People’s Mosquito.  There are many deserving causes we can turn to now Our Lady doesn’t need us quite as much.

I would like to end by saying I was there for XH558’s first public flight at Waddington in 2008, and her last, latterly at Newark, in 2015; even my other half managed the first and the second-last (true love, eh?!). It was a shame we couldn’t all have seen the very last flight, but hopefully we are all aware of the (very important) reasons why, and I for one was glad of the TV coverage (even if I didn’t see it) last night.

I will miss the Smoky Moth, like I miss the RAF Harrier: now the only flyer I’ll see at airshows from my four favourite aircraft will be the Hurricane, at least until that Mosquito gets going…!

Farewell, My Friend: I hope to visit you one day soon.


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