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Time to Hang Up Your Chocks

As I sat in a field, in the early October sun, I waited with a little flutter of excitement for the reason I was sat in the field to arrive. There were many other people sat in the field, some with cameras, some with binoculars and some with radio scanners. My other field dwellers were also getting excited; much checking of phones and watches heralded the arrival of an aircraft. An old British military aircraft designed in the 1950’s and built in Cheshire in the 1960’s, which went out of service 31 years ago.

The spectacle we (including my wife and my 3 year old daughter) had come to see was XH558, the last remaining airworthy Avro Vulcan, flying its last ever display.

I have always had a small obsession with the Vulcan. Whilst all the other kids had a Lamborghini Countache poster on their wall, I had a huge poster of a camouflaged Vulcan flying low over water. It was the first of many, many airfix models I made. It was also, by far, the best bit of the raft of air shows I was taken to as a child. Forget your Red Arrows, the Vulcan was why you waited till the end and got stuck in the traffic getting out.

My resounding memory of these displays in the late 80’s was all the car alarms in the car park going off as the Vulcan took off at full throttle, pulling up vertically and doing all sorts of things an aircraft this size just shouldn’t be doing.

I saw the Vulcan fly out of RAF Finningley in 1993 for what was thought to be the last time (with “Farewell” written in its bomb bay). I was excited to find that a group of enthusiasts were looking to return it to flight and applauded them when they got the funding and successfully started displaying again. I hadn’t managed to get to an air show since it returned to flight, so when I saw this would be its last year flying, I felt had to make the effort to see it fly one more time, a sort of pilgrimage if you will.

I felt compelled to pay my respects, to a machine that had certainly influenced my life – part of the reason I studied engineering was so I had the opportunity to actually design one of these things. I also felt I had to show my daughter, to experience the sight and sound and to feel such a machine before that opportunity was gone for ever (wife not so bothered about going but actually really appreciated the spectacle).

What struck me, as I sat in the field waiting for the main event, was the diversity of people. There were the nostalgic older generation (one chap I spoke to was ex-Vulcan ground crew – a very emotional day for him) but also families, young kids and teenagers. It was a real mix of people, all brought together for one collective reason – to see an old plane fly around for 5 minutes and then fly away.

So why does this plane resonate with so many? I can’t imagine massive crowds of fans gathering across the US to celebrate the B-52 (a much more successful Vulcan contemporary) when/if it retires. Why do people who don’t even normally like aircraft flock to see this one example? My take on this is the assault on the senses that the Vulcan delivers.

Firstly you have the visuals. The Vulcan has a very low front profile, its head on view belies its huge wing, so the first time it banks hard in front of you; the beautiful delta is unfurled. The shape is so classic, almost paper-aeroplane in form, it presents a bloody great big arrow in the sky saying “Hey look - I’m going this way” - it is impossible to miss. As an engineer I warm to that fact that the curved delta wing shape came from necessity (the original straight delta had aerodynamic problems) and looks distinctly bird-like – aided and abetted by the cockpit bubble and nosecone creating a distinctive head and eyes.

Then you have the physics. Big planes take off, they go straight and don’t do anything too strenuous – commercial aircraft have embedded this philosophy into our everyday lives. But then something like the Vulcan comes along and performs super-tight turns, over banking (greater than 90 degrees) and climbing virtually straight up. It just looks impossible. This is no cheap trick though, the designers at Avro had agility in mind and even included a fighter joystick control system rather than a dull bomber yoke. Then there is the sound. There is actually nothing quite like the sound of a Vulcan at full throttle in the world, ever. It howls like a wolf; a mad, metal flying wolf. Google it and you can get a 2% feeling of what it’s like. This is a cheap trick – or rather a by-product of the huge amount of air being sucked through the intakes by the four Olympus engines, the same effect as taking a sharp intake of breath, albeit on a slightly larger scale.

Finally, there is something I had quite forgotten since my last air show – the smell. Once the show was over, there was a heavy hue of aviation fumes, something my daughter picked up before I did “daddy it’s stinky – it smells of fire”, fairly apt for a plane named after the Roman god of fire (not stink).

Throw this sense-fest together at the same time and you start to understand why this aircraft is so revered and why so many people went to see it in the past and are now taking the opportunity to pay their respects and say goodbye – including me.

So Vulcan obsessors are excused for their strange relationship with a flying chunk of metal. What’s fascinating about this, if you take an even further step back, is that this aircraft was designed as the ultimate killing machine, the carrier of the UK nuclear deterrent in the early days of the cold war. It was not designed to be pretty or graceful. Avro’s predecessor to the Vulcan, the Lancaster, was the epitome of functional design – every surface and feature served a purpose. The same can be said for the Vulcan, which flew only 11 years after the first Lancaster, however, they are lightyears apart in terms of aesthetics. As the age of the jet placed more demands on airframe design, the differences in functions between the two aircraft are made all too apparent.

What grew from the drawing boards of Roy Chadwick and Stuart Davies and their team of engineers in the wind tunnels was beauty in function; all the surfaces (bar the tailfin) streamline seamlessly into the massive planform wing to create a flying Henry Moore sculpture, which, when the light catches it would impress the most hardened art critic. Whilst marvelling at these swooping lines, I suddenly saw an aspect I had not noticed before, at a certain angle, there was a distinct whiff off… Morris Minor. But why not – the Morris Minor was a car of the Vulcans time, which gives the whole situation some perspective.

The Vulcan is old. It comes from a different time, before satellites, before drones, when bombs had to be dropped by people, practically by hand. At the time it must have been the most futuristic thing anyone had every clapped eyes on, but now it is an analogue dinosaur. The irony of getting update messages from the XH558 tracker app and tracking it on the online map did not pass me by.

We British are a nostalgic lot; we tend to look to our history for inspiration. We lament about the fall of our industrial capability and seem to cling on to the past as “it was better in them days”. I despair when I see Isambard Kingdom Brunel in lists of great engineers – yes he was a great engineer, but 150 years ago! If we look more to what we have now, or recently at least, then we may actually realise that our engineering and design capability is world leading. In the Formula 1 hotbed of motorsport valley (7 out of 10 F1 teams are based in the UK), the technological advances occurring in silicone fen and the current focus on the Bloodhound SSC, there is no need to look to the past, we are creating iconic and inspiring designs right here, right now.

So, I say goodbye to XH558, you have inspired me to go down my career path and I thank you for that. I shall miss the spectacle, but may be it is time for you to hang up your chocks and let a new generation of awe inspiring machines influence the next generation of engineers and designers.

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