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God of Fire

Witnessing the Vulcan

There’s very few aircraft that quite literally strike awe into every fibre of your being. This truly massive delta-wing Cold War bomber could terrify the young, inspire generations and hail the past with just a single primeval, gruesome howl of its four engines. Spectators, already captivated at the Vulcan’s signature start of a take-off run, would then gasp at each gravity-defying pull of this ‘God of Fire’ as it revealed the true wonder of its angled delta planform, which would change shape at every degree of turn. In the hands of those skilled display pilots, it flew in a way you would never, ever forget.

The Vulcan was retired from the Cold War nuclear bomber and aerial tanking role within the RAF in the mid-1980s. I was about 5 years old, so whilst I no doubt saw active-duty machines, it was the tale of XH558 that remains indelible – and for mixed reasons. I was fortunate to see this machine used on the display circuit the first time round (from 1985 to 1992) and can vividly recall those take-off runs, howling like a demon and being yanked into an astronomical pitch to reveal a heavy, thick set triangle launching skyward. The wingovers, the power climbs. Epic.

I can also remember how the aircraft was withdrawn and then reborn under a newly launched Vulcan To The Sky (VTTS) trust. I saw the early days of preparing this old warrior to take on the display circuit once again, seeing it in deep, deep maintenance, stripped back to the bare bones yet, like some Hollywood dinosaur film, still breathing and an eye on the prize – an airshow encore.

After something in the region of £7m and years of blood, grease and tears, XH558 met all of the stringent airworthiness conditions to be operated by VTTS as a civilian display act again from the 2008 season onwards… An entire new generation was about to be wowed.

This chapter of XH558’s history has two perspectives. What we saw was a civilian organisation operate a massive, four-engined Cold War nuclear bomber from the 1950s, for our viewing pleasure. And what a privileged pleasure it was. In that first year of new displays in 2008, an estimated 3.8 million people bore witness to a Vulcan owning the heavens.

The ensuing years, right up to the final flight in 2015, was a tale of overcoming, of achievement of pride and patriotism. Those in love with the operation would argue that we had never had it so good, and they would have a point. If ever the word ‘awesome’ could be applied to an aircraft display, this fitted the bill.

But the word ‘bill’ would become something of a four-letter word. The aircraft would cost millions and millions of pounds a year to operate. And, with each new maintenance issue, and each new display season looming came the threat of withdrawal from the circuit unless a funding target was reached. For some, this left a bad taste in the mouth. How was the money being used? For the same amount of money being pumped into the project, couldn’t there be another four or five aircraft types returned to the skies? What were the Trust’s operating costs? Was the God of War just a cash cow..?

Now, it is important to remember that there was a LOT of emotion attached to the project, so those that were close to it would defend it to the hilt, and others would love to throw spears dipped in the poison of transparency and honesty.

Looking back on it now, we were just lucky to have seen it, felt it, heard it and, thank goodness, capture it on video and stills forever more.

No other aircraft has had a social phenomenon attributed to it – ‘The Vulcan Effect’ was a very real thing, with huge surges in ticket sales and gathered crowds wherever the aircraft was due to appear.

I certainly look back on my own images now and file them in the “I can’t believe this really happened and I would love to see it again” category. Regardless of the arguments about the finances, this happened. It really did. And I very much doubt if we will ever see the likes of such a project again.

Shooting the Vulcan on the ground was something of a reverence. It was easy to become a little blasé about it in the beginning, especially in the first display season, as it was everywhere. It wasn’t particularly long in side profile, but when you stood underneath that solid nosewheel and looked up and out, along that cranked delta, it was staggering to think of aerodynamics and engineering (indeed, that was a prime goal of inspiration for the second display period).

In the display itself, it was nothing other than majestic. That take-off howl from the Olympus engines, the pull and the sky-ripping climb… and the way that the display pilots would tame such a beast into a graceful and majestic routine, peppered with power. It would be quite unforgettable to stand outside of an airshow, back when that was a thing, and shoot the top-side of the display and gaze through the viewfinder at that wavey, Airfix-lovers camouflage pattern. Landing was always met with anticipation too, as the gloss finish would light up over the keys, aerodynamic breaking then employed to utilise that wing, then ‘thump!’ a ginormous, billowing white brake parachute restraining the beast to a slow halt.

I was also lucky enough to fly a few times with XH558 air-to-air. The final display flights and the farewell tour offered opportunities to capture it all over the country. Of course, this was never to be forgotten.

The most memorable sortie was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to shoot a generation gap of RAF bombers when two Tornado GR4s would be forming up with the Vulcan for a flypast over a World War II memorial. This was one of the most challenging flights to get approval for that I have ever undertaken. I was told “it’ll never happen” and “no, it can’t” by all parties… and in this case, it only made me more determined.

It went right to the wire. The shoot was undertaken from an RAF Hercules, with the Vulcan flanked by two GR4s for two passes underneath the Herc open ramp and an echelon formation from the side. I’d like to say it all went smoothly, but these things never do – despite the incredible amount of prep, planning and professionalism involved.

The passes underneath went ok, though our comms in the Herc failed so we could not ‘whip’ the formation and the spacing was a little out. Then, the second pass was slightly off the correct heading… And then we lost the formation completely. It took about 20mins (maybe more) to rejoin and by then we’d run out of time… Except for a last second, last gasp chance, that saw the formation arrive for an echelon starboard join to break for RTB… On the wrong side of the light, with zero chance of a heading change due to airspace restrictions and only few seconds to get the shot, with no comms.

It was quite the feeling of accomplishment when this one was over. Having achieved the authorisation and captured these two legendary types together against a million odds was an absolute stand-out moment in my career. A few short weeks later, the Vulcan was grounded for good and it was a wrench to know that there would never be anything like it again. All those images and memories, from 30 years of airshows, became a whole lot more precious with an even greater emotional attachment… Much like the famous sentiments spoken over the final Vulcan displays ‘Do not cry because it is over. Rejoice because it happened’.

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