Last weekend, I joined a quite remarkable number of people in going out into the countryside to watch a fifty-five-year-old aeroplane fly past. In my case, this was a day’s outing for possibly twenty seconds of comparatively straight and level flying. You might reasonably ask: why?
Well, this was one of the final flights of the Avro Vulcan bomber XH558 before its Certificate of Airworthiness runs out. XH558 has been on the display circuit for fifteen years as a ‘classic’ aircraft. It has always been a distinctive shape in the sky; and I have memories of being buzzed by a Vulcan doing a low-flying exercise in my native Derbyshire back in the 1970s, in the days when the RAF were allowed to do real low-flying training. XH558 was going to be withdrawn from flying because the expertise no longer exists to service its engines, and the cost of training new engineers to do that servicing would be even more prohibitive than the cost in time, materials and consumables in physically keeping the aircraft flying. Regulatory concerns now mean that you really can’t learn how to service a Bristol Olympus engine in your spare time; there are now a raft of regulations over just who can and can’t service aircraft engines, and in what role they do that work. Learning to service a jet engine really needs a supply of engines to practice on, and good working examples of the Olympus are few and far between; and the number of engineers who are familiar with them and who are qualified to pass that knowledge on is rapidly contracting with the passage of time. Even if this expertise were available, XH558 is well beyond its designed flying hours, and as one of the most complex heritage aircraft currently on the circuit, the safety requirements placed on its operators are many and stringent. And after the tragedy of the accident at Shoreham, regulatory corner cutting can no longer be considered as being smart, or clever.
(The earlier Rolls Royce Merlin engines as used in the Spitfire, Mosquito and Lancaster are a different proposition; piston engines are simpler, and there are such a large number of Merlins in use on heritage aircraft around the world that a large knowledge base exists to access the details of their care and repair.)
So the team that has kept XH558 flying organised a pair of circular flights, one going north from the aircraft’s base at Doncaster, the other south, so that the maximum number of people could turn out to see it. And turn out to see it they did, in their thousands.
The route had been reasonably well publicised in advance, with details of the route and waypoints and likely flying times. I looked at the plan and reasoned that the museum at RAF Cosford, in Shropshire, would offer the best chance of not getting caught up in chaos on the day. Cosford would be reasonably well organised and capable of dealing with crowds; as a major venue, it would be less likely to be dropped from the itinerary in the event of last-minute changes; there would be something to look at whilst waiting for the Vulcan to arrive, and after it had departed and people were trying to get off-site; and there would be facilities there for feeding and watering. This last one was about the only failure of the day; both of Cosford’s catering outlets had pretty much run out of food by about 1:30 in the afternoon, and the Vulcan wasn’t due to fly past until about 3:30!
Contrary to the weather expected elsewhere along the route, on the Saturday the weather was dull but dry. I located myself reasonably close to the runway, and although my view was blocked left and right by buildings, I considered that getting as close as possible to the track was the best option for getting reasonable pictures. And so it proved. The characteristic muffled roar of the Vulcan gave adequate warning of its approach; and although by the time it flew over, it was behind schedule and so was unable to do any of the circuits that had been suggested as a possibility (XH558’s base at Doncaster is a commercial airport, and so it was necessary for the flight to keep pretty much to time in order to make take-off and landing slots). So the aircraft was visible for perhaps twenty seconds or less, though in that time I managed to expose thirteen frames.
Still, this doesn’t address the question of Why? As with all these things, there is a simple answer and a more complex one.
The simple answer is about the history of the Vulcan. Designed as a delivery system for the British independent nuclear deterrent and one of the trio of designs known as “V-bombers” (the Vickers Valiant, Handley Page Victor and Avro Vulcan), the aircraft was an expression of the pinnacle of the British aviation industry in the 1950s. The escalating development and construction costs of new aircraft designs meant that from the 1960s onwards, Britain could not develop new advanced aircraft designs without collaboration from other countries. Although this gave rise to a highly successful range of aircraft, including the iconic Anglo-French Concorde, the Avro Vulcan remained a wholly British enterprise and the end of a line of bomber aircraft in RAF service that went all the way back to World War I’s Handley Page O/400 and Vickers Vimy.
Despite having a key role in national defence throughout the Cold War, the Vulcan was only ever used in anger once, when a series of attacks were mounted during the Falklands campaign to deny invading Argentine forces the use of the airport runway at Port Stanley. These attacks were mounted from Ascension Island, in the mid-Atlantic close to the equator. The Vulcans involved in the five separate raids each performed 6,800 mile round trips lasting 16 hours to attack their targets. At the time, they were the longest-ranged bombing raids in history and that alone is a feat of aviation skill that is worthy of commemoration.
XH558 itself was the first Vulcan B.Mk.2 to be delivered in 1960. It was also the last Vulcan to leave RAF service, being retained from 1986 to 1993 as the air force’s single display Vulcan after the rest of the Vulcan fleet was retired. It then went on display at Bruntingthorpe airfield in Leicestershire before restoration to flying condition began in 1998. XH558 returned to flight in 2007.
But, some of you might say, why are you enthusing over what is, after all, a delivery system for weapons of mass destruction?
Well, it is a sad truth that of all the weapons that the human race has ever invented (and we seem to have an unfortunate ability to invent new ways of killing one another), military aircraft are probably – and paradoxically – the most beautiful of machines. The constraints put on designers to achieve performance without accepting economic compromise, plus the need to comply with the laws of physics, has resulted in some remarkable machines. And, unlike a gun, or a sword, these machines can be used for good as well as evil. It is not necessary to put an offensive load into a warplane to see it fly, but it is necessary to load a gun to fire it. (An argument against the American gun lobby’s mantra of ‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.’) And at the same time, this fits in with my view of the military in general. My father fought in the Second World War; it was the formative experience in his life and made him the person he was. He was mentioned in dispatches for doing something unpleasant to a German machine-gun nest in Italy; but he also told the story of a time when he was told by a senior officer to execute two prisoners. He hesitated, because he knew that this was wrong, yet he had been given a direct order which he was under a duty to obey. Fortunately, that hesitation meant that suddenly, transport arrived unexpectedly to transport these prisoners away from the front line. In short, my father was neither a cruel nor bloodthirsty man.
Listening over the years to his stories of his Army experiences gave me a respect for those who take up the profession of arms; my contempt is reserved for those politicians who cause soldiers to be sent to war.
RAF Cosford has a large museum devoted to the Cold War, which displays the military technology of both sides as well as interpretive displays setting the geopolitics of the second half of the Twentieth century in context. Looking around this whilst I had idle time at Cosford made me reflect that the right place for all this kit was in a museum, not being used in conflict. And as a taxpayer, my money has been spent on these things, when it could have been either spent on other things – some of which I would approve of, some of which I wouldn’t – or left in my pocket, depending on your political viewpoint. So I do feel that I have a certain right, as one of the millions who have helped pay that bill, to see what my money was being spent on in my name.
At the same time, I have very little time for modern drone warfare. Unmanned aerial vehicles do not interest me, and I don’t particularly consider push-button warfare to be any sort of honourable activity. It makes it all too easy for politicians to order attacks against places or people in distant lands with no consequences for them, no difficult questions for them to have to answer. Our democratic ability to hold our politicians to account is based around facing them with the consequences of their actions; and with drone warfare, the consequences are conveniently kept at arms’ length and away from the critical gaze of the public as much as possible. Undertaking an 8,000 mile round trip to drop bombs to put an airport runway out of action, with the skills that requires, the discomfort and the danger is a far different proposition to sitting in an office, far distant from the machine you are controlling, and effectively playing a deadly video game with about as many consequences for the pilot.
With those thoughts in mind, I am able to watch a military aircraft make a fly-past, and celebrate – without going completely over the top about it – the good in what that represents whilst not forgetting the bad, and to do that with a clear conscience. There is a Biblical saying: “Hate the sin, but love the sinner.” And when a sinner is such a striking and beautiful sight as a Vulcan bomber, it’s very easy to appreciate it.
I’d like to think that others in the thousands who turned out to see the Vulcan’s national tours, and those who will follow its final flights in the next few weeks, will equally reflect on the wider story and the bigger issues that XH558 represents.