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Avro Vulcan XH558

Volume 598: debated on Tuesday 21 July 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the end of service of the Avro Vulcan XH558.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Gray. Oh no, you’re about to leave!

[Sir David Amess in the Chair]

I welcome you, Sir David, to the Chair. I also welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister. [Interruption.] It is only a matter of time before he is elevated to the Privy Council. I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister, with whom I shared some experiences at the weekend of which I will speak later, and his most excellent Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile).

I am grateful for the opportunity to place on record in the House the story of one of the most remarkable heritage projects of recent years. In doing so, I am extremely proud to declare my interest as a trustee of the Vulcan to the Sky trust and president of the British Air Display Association, which represents the interests of those who organise and participate in air shows across the country. Essentially, Vulcan bomber “X-ray Hotel five five eight”, as it is pronounced in the phonetic alphabet, which I shall use throughout the debate, last saw service in 1992, and 15 years later she was restored to flight by a band of highly professional volunteers. Since then she has dominated the air show circuit, drawing massive crowds everywhere she appears. Incredibly sadly, this display season looks like being her last, but of that, more later.

The Vulcan was the brainchild of aero-engineer Roy Chadwick, designer of the famous Lancaster bomber, immortalised through its role in “The Dam Busters”. Only 11 years separate the first flights of the Lancaster, in 1941, and the Vulcan, which was then led by Stuart Davies following Chadwick’s death in 1952. What an extraordinary testament to British aeronautical ingenuity. Designed as a high-level bomber to deliver Britain’s nuclear deterrent through the tense years of the cold war, before the deterrent became submarine-based in 1969, the Vulcan, of which 134 were delivered to the RAF, was only deployed once in anger. That was during the Falklands campaign when it, too, became immortalised in that amazing operation—Operation Black Buck—to bomb the runway at Port Stanley. It involved a 6,800 nautical mile round trip, lasting nearly 16 hours, with 18 air-to-air refuelling operations. Although the Army tend to be rather dismissive of the one bomb that landed in the middle of the runway—

Objection not taken. I hope my hon. Friend is not seeking to intervene.

That bomb put the runway out of action. More importantly, it sent a clear message to Argentina that if we could pinpoint the runway in Port Stanley, we could rearrange Buenos Aires in a big way.

It is hardly surprising that with that pedigree, the public lamented the scrapping of the Vulcan fleet when, in 1992, XH558 made her last display flight in RAF service. A petition signed by more than 250,000 people calling on the Government to save her sparked a campaign that led to today’s feast of aeronautical brilliance. Sold for £25,000 in 1993, the aircraft was bought by C. Walton Ltd at Bruntingthorpe in Leicestershire. However, one man decided that the public should not be denied the chance to see XH558 take to the skies again. Step forward a nuclear physicist and IT company director, Dr Robert Pleming. In 1997, he and David Walton agreed to determine the feasibility of returning the aircraft to flight, based on sound management practice and a professional approach. Robert’s credibility won over the aircraft’s design authority, British Aerospace—now BAE Systems—which, in 1998, identified that Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group of Cambridge had the skills, capabilities, quality control and experience in one-off aircraft projects to satisfy the Civil Aviation Authority that the work required on XH558 would be done properly.

Obviously, we can look back on that era. The Vulcan signifies the triumph of British engineering, and that is something to be proud of for us as the nation of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The British people loved it. The hon. Gentleman may be coming to that point.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; it is a triumph of British engineering. I hope that he can see the Vulcan when she displays in Northern Ireland, for that is one of our most important displays.

Marshall Aerospace agreed to act as the engineering authority for the restoration project in 1999, supporting and overseeing the trust’s own professional engineering team, led by Andrew Edmondson, throughout. The race was on. Dr Pleming built a team that included Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Knight, who commanded No. 1 Group during the Falklands war, and our former colleague—himself a Vulcan pilot—Keith Mans, then the Member for Wyre in Lancashire and now deputy leader of Hampshire County Council. Their professionalism resulted in the award of a £2.75 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which proved a major contribution to the eventual £7 million cost of restoration. In March 2007, I took Margaret Thatcher to see the project for herself and to introduce her to our chief pilot, Squadron Leader Martin Withers DFC—the man she had sent on that epic raid to the Falklands. It was a wonderful encounter.

The fundraising was always hard graft. Not infrequently were the team of engineers and support staff issued with redundancy notice threats. Things were particularly tight in about 2006, when I received a number of calls from Sir Mike Knight imploring me to solicit funds to keep the project going, and that moved me into action. I asked the then treasurer of the Conservative party, Jonathan—now Lord—Marland if he would give me the names of three wealthy Thatcherite Tories. In writing to the three, I suddenly realised the significance of the project. The aircraft had been at the forefront of the cold war battle to deter the Soviet threat and had been deployed only once in anger, in the Falklands. What connected the two? Margaret Thatcher. She played a huge part in ending the cold war and, as I mentioned, she ordered the Vulcan into the air to help recover the Falklands.

I had one response. That late and great patriot, Sir Jack Hayward, true to his “Union Jack” soubriquet, rang me late one night from the United States and said, “So sorry to hear that those chaps might be out of a job; count me in for half a million.” I immediately called Sir Mike and said, “Hold the P45s!” Sir Jack had saved the project. It was a magnificent tribute to individual philanthropy that Sir Jack Hayward just responded like that. I had never taken a phone call like that before, nor have I since, and I savour it to this day. The trust made me a trustee on the strength of that one contribution. I have enjoyed being there ever since.

Thus it was that on October 18 2007, Al McDicken, Dave Thomas and Barry Masefield took XH558 to the skies once more, where she has been the star of the air show circuit ever since, performing more than 175 displays before a total audience of 12 million people. Roads are blocked around the display sites, and my parliamentary colleagues text me excitedly that they have just seen the Vulcan pass low over their homes. Other colleagues ask if I can arrange for their children—and of course themselves—to visit the aircraft. Luke Osborne, the Chancellor’s son, is among those keen young supporters. The Minister will be delighted to know that I am not going to be asking Luke’s father for more money for the project.

It costs more than £2 million a year to run the Vulcan. The professional side of the operation employs just 20 people, including our team of six superb full-time engineers—all experienced on Vulcan work when the aircraft was in service with the RAF—and the aircrew of Martin Withers, Bill Ramsey, Bill Perrins, Kev Rumens, Phil Davies and Jonathan Lazzari, and Phil O’Dell, the Rolls-Royce test pilot. The money is raised overwhelmingly from the general public, masterminded by our fundraising man, Michael Trotter. As colleagues know, I constantly sport the Vulcan lapel pin and never cease to be amazed by the number of people I meet who tell me quietly, “I give a few quid to keep that aeroplane flying.” It is genuinely the people’s aeroplane.

The Vulcan to the Sky club has 5,000 members and a crew of some 60 volunteers, who raise money through selling merchandise, including such things as original engine compressor blades mounted on a small block of wood at a bargain price of £125. At the royal international air tattoo last weekend, we had to rush in extra supplies. The weekend’s takings topped £75,000. A long queue of enthusiasts paid £5 a head to get up close to the aeroplane.

There are also corporate supporters and original equipment manufacturers who must be included in this roll of honour: Airbus UK and its indefatigable former chief executive officer, Robin Southwell; Eddie Forrester of Aerobytes; Goodrich; Meggitt; Eaton Aerospace; Dunlop Aircraft Tyres; General Electric; Kidde Graviner; Martin-Baker; Serco; Ultra; and Beagle Aerospace. I could go on and on, but of course at the end of the list must be Marshall Aerospace, which supports us so magnificently on the engineering side. The Minister will be pleased to know that we also acknowledge the enthusiastic support that we receive from the Royal Air Force, which clearly enjoys seeing one of its own commanding such universal public respect.

The Vulcan to the Sky Trust recognises that over the eight years that Vulcan XH558 has been flying, she has generated a huge level of interest and support across the country, bringing a “once seen, never forgotten” experience to thousands of youngsters. When she stops flying, the trust plans for her to become the focal point for a number of skills initiatives at her home base, Robin Hood airport Doncaster Sheffield, formerly known to those of us with RAF connections as RAF Finningley.

The trust has announced plans to create the Etna project, an Eden project for aviation, engineering and technology, the first phase of which is already well under way in collaboration with the Aviation Skills Partnership. Why “Etna”, people may ask. Well, unknown to me before I became involved with this project, Mount Etna is the location of the mythical god Vulcan’s workshop. The Etna project will encompass an aviation academy, a heritage centre and the Etna centre, an innovative new facility aimed at inspiring youngsters in aviation, engineering and technology.

Under the leadership of the Aviation Skills Partnership, the Vulcan aviation academy will cater for all aspects of aviation skills across the ASP’s six areas of aviation: pilot; air traffic; airport operations; operations; crew; and aviation engineering. The Vulcan heritage centre will continue to provide the Vulcan experience for visitors and will introduce exciting new elements to the tours. The heritage centre will also represent a unique environment for business meetings and conferences. Vulcan XH558 will be maintained as a live, taxiing aircraft, and in addition, the trust aims to continue its involvement with heritage aviation by leading efforts to fly other iconic aircraft, to continue to inspire new generations of aviation professionals.

I want to put it on the record that I do not think any man could have done more than Dr Robert Pleming to epitomise an extraordinarily professional and competent approach to the management of complex former military aircraft, which has required the most amazing range of skills. The fact he was a nuclear scientist may have assisted him in developing those skills, but he has made a significant contribution. I do not think anybody could do better than to follow the example of how he brought this complex aircraft—the Vulcan bomber—out of disuse and back into the air, and then managed its operations in such a professional way. There is a lesson there for others who are engaged in the management of the warbirds that entertain the public around the country so much.

The objective of the exciting Etna centre is to help to solve the engineering and technical skills challenge that the country faces. The centre will build on XH558’s inspirational qualities to change the perceptions of the young, and those who influence them, about engineering and technology. Working examples of both heritage and modern technologies, and the stories of the people behind them, will show how interesting and rewarding careers in aviation and technology can be, for women as well as for men, and regardless of what an individual’s level of academic attainment might be.

The first phase of the academy and heritage centre is intended to operate within the current Vulcan hangar at Robin Hood airport. It is planned that from September 2017 all three elements will be co-located on a new single site on the edge of the airport, with access to the taxiways.

I hope you will agree, Sir David, that this has been a most astonishing story, and one with which I and my fellow trustees—John Sharman, our chairman; Sir Donald Spiers, former Controller Aircraft at the Ministry of Defence; Ken Smart, former chief inspector at the air accidents investigation branch in Farnborough; Dr Steve Liddle, senior aerodynamicist at Lotus Formula 1; Air Commodore Edward Jarron, who is himself a former Vulcan pilot; and Richard Clarke, the former supporters club chairman—are proud to have been associated.

As I have said, this season marks the end of an era. On current plans, XH558 will cease to fly in the autumn. It is not because we have no money; it is not because of a lack of spares; and it is not because of the Civil Aviation Authority¸ whose chief test pilot stated after flying the aircraft in 2013 that XH558 was in the best condition she had ever been. The reason is that the original equipment manufacturers—BAE Systems, the successor to the Avro company, and Rolls-Royce, the engine manufacturer—have decided that they no longer feel able to accept the risk, because the retirement of staff means that the companies lack the technical competence to certify the aircraft.

That is disappointing for two reasons. First, we had asked only to complete the 10-year flight programme, which would mean that the last surviving all-British four-engine jet could fly through the 2016 season and, of course, display at Farnborough in my constituency. Secondly, there are many other vintage aircraft flying today that will be able to continue thrilling the crowds for years to come. Indeed, many people ask me how it is that aircraft far older than the 63-year-old Vulcan can continue flying while the Vulcan is due to be grounded. The Meteor, Britain’s first combat jet aircraft, the Vampire, not to mention the many Spitfires and Hurricanes, and that other Chadwick legend, the Lancaster, will all continue to enthral the crowds in their own way. And across the Atlantic, the B-52 looks like remaining in military service for 100 years.

Last weekend at the royal international air tattoo, XH558 taxied slowly to the runway threshold at RAF Fairford. As on so many occasions in the past, the 60,000-strong crowd stood up and moved forward as one to hear the famous Vulcan howl, as the four mighty Rolls-Royce Olympus engines wound up to propel this massive aircraft into the sky. They marvelled at the agility of this monster, with a wingspan of 110 feet; the magnificent wingover performed by Bill Ramsey and Kev Rumens; and her vast open bomb bay, which revealed her capacity to deliver awesome military air power. And they applauded loudly as she landed.

Our late colleague, David Taylor, the former Labour and Co-operative Member for North West Leicestershire, summed up the mighty Vulcan in an early-day motion in 2008 as

“an icon of British heritage and an invaluable asset in assisting today’s students to better understand British science, engineering and history”.

Alternatively, as XH558 proclaims on its nose cone:

“Honouring the Past—Inspiring the Future”.

Even at this late hour, perhaps we can persuade the manufacturers of today’s state-of-the-art technology that their masterpiece of the past, XH558, should serve one more year before we say farewell and the skies over the United Kingdom become a quieter place.

Sir David, I am sure you will join me in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) on securing this debate and on paying such a moving tribute to this magnificent aircraft, which, as we can all tell from the tone of his remarks, he holds in very high regard indeed.

My hon. Friend also told us how he originally became a trustee of the Vulcan to the Sky Trust; I suspect that on the back of that public explanation, he may be invited to become a trustee of several other aviation charities in the future. He has been a doughty advocate for the trust. I share his respect and admiration for the dedicated enthusiasts, many of whom he named, whose tireless efforts returned this iconic aircraft to flying condition so that another generation might witness it in the skies over the UK. I met several of those volunteers at the royal international air tattoo last year, and was impressed by their dedication and commitment to this remarkable aircraft, which I enjoyed seeing again, albeit static, at RIAT this year.

The Avro Vulcan was introduced into service with the RAF in 1957. As we heard, 134 were produced for the Royal Air Force by Avro at its Woodford aerodrome site near Macclesfield between 1956 and 1965. It was designed as a long-range bomber capable of reaching targets far into the then Soviet Union. On its introduction, it represented the cutting edge of aviation and was a step change in technology from its wartime predecessors. It was a clear, iconic demonstration of the quality and vision of British engineering. The last operational Vulcan squadron disbanded in 1984, but the Vulcan continued with the RAF in a display role until it finally left service in 1993.

The Vulcan bomber was a stalwart of the so-called V-force, which comprised Vulcan, Victor and Valiant aircraft. The V-force provided Britain’s strategic nuclear deterrent during the dark days of the early cold war. The RAF’s Vulcan fleet was held in a state of continuous readiness to respond to any nuclear threat from potential aggressors. It required continuous training and dedication to maintain aircraft and aircrew at a constant state of peak readiness.

I want to challenge my very good friend the Member for Aldershot slightly on one point. My hon. Friend stated that there was only one operational attack by a Vulcan on the Falklands; as the Minister just outlined, the Vulcan fleet was operational from about 1957 to ’69, flying in the cold war on operations, defending our freedom and our right to exist. I should like to point that out. I slightly disagree on that small point.

My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the role played by Vulcan crews during the cold war, but of course my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot is also correct in saying that the aircraft was only ever used once in a strike capacity, during the Falklands war. I will mention that in a moment.

The state of high readiness continued for many years, until the nuclear role of Vulcan bombers was replaced in 1969 by the Royal Navy’s fleet of Polaris and later Trident submarines. It is precisely because of the deterrent capability that it provided to our country that the Vulcan was never called on to use its nuclear capability in anger against the Warsaw pact. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot agrees that that is precisely why the Government remain committed to the provision of a continuous at-sea deterrent today.

As we have just discussed, Vulcans did see action during the 1982 Falklands conflict. At that time, the Vulcan was already a 25-year veteran, approaching the end of its service life. There was no expectation that it would shortly be thrust into a critical role in the Falklands war. In the Black Buck raids, RAF Vulcan aircraft flying from Ascension Island carried out what were then the longest-distance bombing raids in history, covering a return distance of some 7,700 nautical miles. A total of five successful raids were made by Vulcan aircraft against the airfield and Argentinean radar installations at Port Stanley. A Vulcan bomber cratered the runway at Port Stanley and denied Argentinean fast jets a base from which to attack the taskforce. It also sent a clear strategic message to Argentina that Britain would take any necessary steps to defend its sovereign territory and protect the islanders’ right to determine who governed them—a policy that this Government still hold dear today. The House will be interested to know that Vulcan XM607, which completed the first of the Black Buck raids, is preserved at RAF Waddington, is much prized and can be seen by members of the public from the Waddington aircraft viewing enclosure.

The Black Buck raids were a testament to the courage of the men who flew all the aircraft involved and to those who supported them. I know that my hon. Friend will share my admiration for the Handley Page Victor tanker crews that assisted with the raids: a remarkable relay of some 12 tanker aircraft that ensured that the Vulcan was refuelled in mid-air five times per mission. That is a remarkable example of improvisation, professionalism, airmanship and military logistics.

Vulcan XH558 made its maiden flight in May 1960 and has flown more hours than any other Vulcan. It first served with 230 Operational Conversion Unit, providing training for pilots new to the Vulcan type, before transferring to front-line service with the Waddington wing. In 1973 it transferred to the maritime radar reconnaissance role and in 1982 was converted for use as a refuelling tanker. It finished its RAF career with the Vulcan display flight before making its final RAF flight in 1993.

Retiring from the RAF after many years of sterling service, the Vulcan was taken into private ownership, as we heard, thanks to the work of the Vulcan to the Sky Trust. It was returned to flying condition in 2007, since when it has been seen at many air shows across the UK. Although the preservation of the aircraft is not a core defence requirement, the RAF has in the past assisted where it could with this project to restore and maintain Vulcan XH558. It seconded a number of skilled RAF engineers to the restoration project and provided hangar space, notably at RAF Lyneham.

As I said, I saw the aircraft on the ground at RAF Fairford on Friday. Although it was static, it was the air platform subject to the greatest intensity of interest at the show. I saw the video of it flying in formation with the Red Arrows on Sunday, which must have been an utterly thrilling sight for the thousands of spectators present. I cannot think of a more fitting way for the RAF to mark its affection for this fine aircraft, with two icons of British aviation flying side by side. Even more appropriately, the Vulcan was once based at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, now home to the Red Arrows—evidence, if any was needed, of the great heritage of the RAF and the comforting ebb and flow of the past giving way to the future.

The MOD takes its commitment to the aviation heritage of this nation very seriously and is proud to do so. It is RAF heritage strategy, where possible, to preserve one of every aircraft type in the national collection at the RAF Museum. In the financial year that ended in April ’14, the MOD donated just over £9 million pounds in grant in aid to the RAF Museum, which preserves many of the nation’s finest military aircraft, including two Avro Vulcans, which can be viewed by all who visit the RAF Museum sites at Hendon or at Cosford, just outside my constituency in Shropshire—a good visit for all. The Imperial War Museum, which received a £21 million grant from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport last year, also has a Vulcan aircraft at its site at Duxford.

Many will share my hon. Friend’s disappointment that the Vulcan will not continue to fly and that we will not be able to spot it in the skies of the nation that it served and protected so diligently. But as we have also heard, it is encouraging to learn that the Vulcan will continue to play a pivotal role in the future, just it has in our past, albeit in a heritage capacity.

I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend mention the plans for the XH558 to be a living centrepiece for a Vulcan Aviation Academy and Heritage Centre at Robin Hood airport, near Doncaster, providing inspirational opportunities for the next generation to learn about aviation and help prepare them for future jobs in the aviation world. I am sure the House will welcome this admirable initiative, and I wish the project the very best.

I congratulate my good friend the Member for Aldershot on his fine championship of the Vulcan through his work on the trust. I also congratulate him on securing this debate and on giving us this opportunity to highlight the role that the Royal Air Force has played in serving this nation so well, using various aircraft types for close to 100 years.

Question put and agreed to.