God Save the Vulcan!

The Royal Air Force Vulcan, immense cold war bomber and aerodynamic marvel, has been sentenced to permanent museum exhibition.

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The prototype’s wing had a constant angle of sweep; tests led to a trademark leading edge kink in wings of production craft. BAE Systems/NASM SI Neg. #1A-04984

THREE YEARS AGO, ROBERT PLEMING WAS A WALKING advertisement for Tony Blair’s prosperous, post-industrial Britain. He had an enviable job as U.K. technical director for the Internet networking company Cisco Systems, an MG convertible for middle-aged weekend adrenaline—an ordered, comfortable life. Today, the Cisco job is history, along with several hundred thousand pounds in savings, and the MG is pushing 90,000 miles. Pleming’s new life centers on a 30,000-square-foot hangar at Bruntingthorpe airfield in the English Midlands, where a stripped-bare, 43-year-old Vulcan nuclear bomber broods in fluorescent purgatory, surrounded by hundreds of boxes containing its engines and innards.

But Pleming doesn’t regret his change of circumstances. Not so long, at least, as hope lingers that the boxes will be unpacked, each precious component quality-tested and reinstalled, and the great airplane, all 111 feet of it from wing tip to delta wing tip, will roar back into the sky for the first time in a decade. Coming to the end of our tour of its fuselage, Pleming draws up short when he notices a crate of original Vulcan technical drawings, on loan from the Royal Air Force Museum in London, detailing cockpit circuitry or left-side engine airflows. They’re big square 1950s things on plaster board with wooden frames, and he flips through them reverently, murmuring, “I could look at these all day.”

The 48-year-old Pleming, whose (unpaid) job title these days is director of Vulcan To The Sky Ltd, isn’t the only outwardly normal Briton to fall under an obsolete weapon system’s spell. Just as 100 or more Vulcans were at times dispersed throughout the United Kingdom, ready to scramble at four minutes’ notice and strike at the heart of the Soviet Union, Vulcan freaks are scattered across the same territory. In the northern English city of Middlesbrough, postman Craig Bulman snaps up every photograph he can find of the cold war machine and swears he can see distinguishing marks on almost every aircraft, much as a shepherd can with his sheep. “Now this is one that was retrofitted to carry American missiles,” he barks excitedly, jabbing his finger into what the untrained eye takes to be a row of absolutely identical Vulcans on a long-ago runway. “The more you study these things, the more you learn that’s new about them!”

At Southend, where the Thames flows into the sea east of London, water company executive Kevin Packard, who is also chairman of the Vulcan Restoration Trust, tries to explain why a dozen men from his group spend weekends getting greasy under their Vulcan, keeping it in shape merely to taxi twice a year. “When you look at the thing, you know you’ve just got to keep it going,” he says. “You can’t let it fall to pieces.”

In Belfast, retired Royal Air Force pilot Andy Leitch maintains the authoritative Web site, www.avrovulcan.org.uk, where forum members with handles like “Wyrdrune” and “Alamo” swap lore comic and tragic—from recalling how they primed the combustion chamber to produce a six-foot flame as a hazing ritual for new ground staff to debating the causes of a fatal 1963 crash. “I went on to bigger things in RAF terms after being a Vulcan copilot from 1974 to ’79,” Leitch says. “But most of my warm feelings about the service go back to Vulcan just the same.”

Part of the Vulcan’s allure, its rare technological marriage of ferocity and grace, comes to life in the old film clips Pleming calls up on his laptop. You see the 130-ton beast ignite its four 17,000-pound-thrust engines. Its structure is virtually all wing save for the 30-foot potbelly bay designed to hold a single Blue Danube nuclear gravity bomb roughly the size of a London bus. The bomber accelerates to 100 mph on the runway with a din Pleming likens to that of an angry bear, though when I heard it at one of last summer’s taxi runs, it sounded more like a buzz saw rending the sky in two.

Then it—or “she” as the aficionados prefer—lifts off as lightly as a seagull, climbing at 60 degrees, rolling playfully, then banking until its great bulk is perpendicular to the earth, turning easily to stay within view of an airshow crowd. If the pilot wanted it to, it could also fly steady as a plate at any altitude between 62,000 feet and 300 feet. “People who are in their 30s now still remember seeing the Vulcan at shows,” Andy Leitch says. “It’s a bomber that flies much more like a fighter. And it made one heck of a noise.”

But Vulcan fanaticism has another root as well, one you can’t see but have to listen for. The airplane is a vanishing symbol of vanishing strategic industrial might, and it still fires up feelings in a swath of Britain that the Yankee tourists don’t ordinarily see, equally distant emotionally from top hats and punk rock. This is a Britain of gear boxes and patriotism, eager to recall if not relive the spirit that commissioned three nuclear strike aircraft designs even as essential foodstuffs were still subject to post-World War II rationing, then built them as well as the Americans built bombers, if not better. A Britain that turns out six million people a year at airshows, numbers that run second only to the national proto-religion of soccer.

“The Vulcan is one of the most iconic British aircraft,” says Richard Clarkson, a sports marketer from the London suburbs who in his spare time heads the Vulcan Restoration Trust with Packard. “It’s an aircraft that talks to its public.”

Its last chance to speak from the sky, however, is now: A decision is due this month on Pleming’s request to the British Heritage Lottery Fund for a £2.9 million ($4.6 million) grant to buy the Bruntingthorpe Vulcan and restore it to flying condition.

The RAF retired the Vulcan from service in 1984—ironically, just after it finally dropped its first bombs in combat, crippling an Argentine airfield in the Falklands War. The icon hung on at airshows for another nine years, and 16 remain intact today as museum pieces. But only the one under Pleming’s care, known to insiders by its serial number, XH558, could theoretically fly again.

That is, if the lottery fund changes its mind after turning down the Vulcan last year. If not, the end has come. Cecil Walton, the Bruntingthorpe owner who bought XH558 for love in 1993—along with all existing Vulcan spare parts—has died. His son David takes a more practical view of contributing 30,000 feet of hangar space. If the cash doesn’t come through this time, the airplane will be scrapped, Pleming says. Or, worse still in the eyes of some enthusiasts, be sold to an American.

“What got me involved in this was hearing a few years ago that the XH558 might end up in the U.S.,” says Felicity Irwin, who runs a London public relations agency and volunteers as Pleming’s spin doctor. “I said, ‘Over my dead body!’ ”

Pleming’s account of his own motivation is no less dramatic. “This is my own personal Everest,” he says, squaring his shoulders for a final assault on the peak. “I’m either Mallory or Hunt, I’m just not sure which yet.”

Pleming should know soon. John Hunt reached the summit of Everest in 1953, survived to write a book about it, was made a baron, and passed away peacefully at age 88. During his summit attempt of 1924, George Mallory died on the mountain.

It was an Englishman, John Milton, who wrote, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” The words might have been dedicated to the Vulcan three centuries later. From 1956 to 1969, it toted Britain’s (and an important part of NATO’s) frontline deterrent to the Communist nuclear threat. The bomber was designed to fly above the reach of radar and missile, but after the Russians brought down Gary Powers’ U-2 spyplane in 1960, the Vulcan switched, with some effort, to flying below detection. The airplane’s ultimate service was that its payload was never used.

It was actually the United States that set the Vulcan project in motion. In 1948, a cold-war-stoked Congress passed the McMahon Act, excluding foreign nationals, Brits included, from U.S. nuclear programs. The U.K. didn’t blink, even under Clement Atlee, Winston Churchill’s far-left successor as prime minister. The government ordered not one nuclear bomber of its own but three, from three British aircraft manufacturers, all of them gone now.

Handley Page of Reading offered the Victor. Vickers of Newcastle built the Valiant. (Vickers still exists as an armored-vehicle maker.) The Vulcan—its name borrowed from the Roman god of fire—was created by A.V. Roe, outside Manchester, under the direction of master designer Ray Chadwick. The company had built the Lancaster, the RAF’s workhorse World War II bomber, and its contribution to the “V-Force,” as the three bombers became known, was again the best of its breed.

It also reflected the aerodynamic fashion of the time. Allied intelligence had captured German World War II research on all-wing aircraft and delta-wing designs, and aeronautical engineers were beguiled by the purity of the flying wing. In the United States, Jack Northrop produced an experimental flying wing in 1946, but two Northrop prototypes crashed. Later critics of that design judged that putting everything in the wing—the cockpit and fuel tanks—had made it so thick that at high speeds airflow around the wing separated, became turbulent, and caused the aircraft to buffet and lose stability.

Vulcan designers found similar problems with the first model they sent to Royal Aircraft Establishment wind tunnels. They had started with a more radical, all-wing design; the test results persuaded them to reduce the wing’s thickness by withdrawing the crew compartment, placing it instead in a short forward fuselage. Later, they added a conventional centrally mounted fin and rudder.

And still they faced difficulties. A prototype test flight ended in a fatal crash in 1949. A.V. Roe called on its chief test pilot, Roly Falk, to continue the test program. One of two or three fliers who could claim to be the British Chuck Yeager, Falk was known as “the pinstriped pilot,” because he preferred to fly in a three-piece suit and “if the cockpit wasn’t absolutely clean, he wouldn’t go up,” his son John recalls.

Falk had flown 350 different types of aircraft by the time he took the Vulcan’s controls, even surviving a 1947 accident in which he crashed through a house and ended up with a metal stanchion lodged in his throat. He nursed Chadwick’s monstrous creation through five more years of test and modification, ending in the summer of 1955 when, starting at a height of 300 feet and watched by a gaping crowd at the Farnborough Air Show, he rolled the big bomber. By the following year, Vulcans were in production and poised on the front line of freedom, each one packed with more destructive power than was dropped in all of World War II.

The Vulcan represented a great leap forward from the Lancaster and the larger, farther-reaching Lancaster descendant, the Lincoln, whose four piston engines pushed it along at a top speed of 290 mph. The new airplane reached 630 mph when it cruised at unheard-of 60,000-foot altitudes. The Vulcan was more complement than competitor to its great U.S. contemporary, the B-52—as a swift, get-on-base shortstop complements his muscle-bound clean-up hitter. “The B-52 was an extension of the Superfortress concept the Americans pioneered during the war,” observes Pleming, who earned a doctorate in nuclear physics in his youth before entering the computer industry. “[The B-52] was loaded with defensive systems and designed to deliver a knockout punch. The Vulcan flew faster than most fighters at the time, and because the engines were inside the wings, it had a stealthy design with a very low radar cross-section.”

The Vulcan in fact flew without fighter escort, and with no guns of its own, on the assumptions that Soviet defenders couldn’t catch it and anti-aircraft fire couldn’t reach it 12 miles up. The second assumption crumbled in 1960, when the Russians downed Powers’ CIA spyplane at 67,000 feet. But that, Vulcan groupies insist, is when Chadwick’s genius became fully apparent. For the great bomber, with enormous wing area and buried engines, could hug the ground as well as cruise the stratosphere.

It could do it all right, but a price was paid, according to retired RAF Air Vice Marshal Ron Dick, a former Vulcan squadron commander and a contributing editor to Air & Space/Smithsonian. “An aircraft designed for high altitude does not lend itself terribly well for low-level operations,” says Dick. “It was designed to withstand 2 Gs. You’ve got to be amazingly careful in the thicker air at lower altitudes to keep the indicated airspeed below about 350 knots because it couldn’t bear much stress.

“It was a wonderful airshow airplane, and I flew it at a number of airshows. But it is questionable whether it could have been effective flying at low level in a war against a nation as powerful as the Soviet Union.”

The Vulcan did inarguably play the strategic nuclear first-strike role until 1969, when Britain’s generals transferred that service to the Polaris submarine. The bomber then began a 15-year twilight. First it was rearmed with tactical nukes. Later it was relegated to reconnaissance, and even, on occasion, refueling, its prodigious bomb bay converted to a gas station.

The Vulcan served aviation as a test bed for the engines that would power the Concorde supersonic airliner. And it got a last turn in the limelight in 1982 with the five “Black Buck” raids on the Falklands. These were 8,000-mile round-trip sorties with each Vulcan supported by 11 refueling craft, the longest bombing runs in history until U.S. attacks on Afghanistan two decades later. The Vulcans, each one packed with 21 1,000-pound bombs, effectively cratered the Argentines’ runway.

Two years later, the RAF retired the Vulcan from active duty. Britain never built another strategic bomber; Polaris plays its nuclear deterrent role to this day. The Vulcan was the last of the breed.

So who cares? Britons can relive their finest hour half a dozen times a summer as RAF-preserved Spitfires, Hurricanes, and a single Lancaster soar through World War II reenactments at airshows across the land. Fifteen Vulcans, aside from Pleming’s XH558, are on view around the U.K. Two of them still taxi: Packard and Clarkson’s baby at Southend and a rival at Wellesbourne airfield, near Stratford-upon-Avon. A crowd of some 3,000 braved a sweltering Father’s Day afternoon to see the Wellesbourne specimen spool up and do three minutes on the runway, murmuring in awestruck tones: “It’s sooooo big” and “Turns on a dime!”

Three weeks later the Southend Vulcanites threw an Open Cockpit Day. There, more red-blooded English families steered their wide-eyed youngsters through the claustrophobic, dials-mad space where five crew members spent 16 hours during the Black Buck raids, the two pilots crammed in the tight cockpit. The audience was rapt by the lore volunteers shared about soup heaters the pilots used and the “P-tubes” they urinated through.

The Vulcan, in short, is still stoking plenty of national pride on the ground. Should Britain really spend £3 million of public funds so it can fly again for five or six years, after which the 600 tons of spare parts stockpiled at Bruntingthorpe will be exhausted? Even that lifespan depends on Pleming’s so-far empty assurances that private sponsors will pick up XH558’s running costs once the lottery pays for the craft’s return to airworthiness. “The underside of those wings would make a perfect advertising space for Richard Branson or somebody,” hopefully postulates Dave Griffiths, a financial software programmer who edits the Vulcan Restoration Trust’s Vulcan News.

“We’re very supportive of Dr. Pleming and have been tremendously inspired by what he and his team have achieved,” says a diplomatic Henry Hall, chief curator at the RAF Museum at Hendon. “But it is a finite project, and aviation already gets a disproportionate slice of Heritage Lottery funds.”

The lottery board, which makes grants to preserve parks and gardens, historic buildings, museum and library collections, and other items of transportation besides airplanes, apparently thought along similar lines when it rejected Vulcan To The Sky’s grant application last year. Yet more people cared about the cold war titan than the committee probably reckoned on. Scorned Vulcan devotees resorted en masse to a beloved British tradition, the irate letter to officialdom. Pleming says he was copied on 400 e-mails directed at the Heritage Lottery, some of them quite vociferous. “Lottery funding is given to lesbians, gays, illegal immigrants, and the arts as if there is no tomorrow,” objected Derek Evans, a retired Vulcan squadron leader. “If it wasn’t for aircraft like the Vulcan, we may not be enjoying the freedom we are enjoying today.”

Colin Marshall, occupation unspecified, made a quieter argument from the world of science, sort of: “Even if you felt that it was against your personnel [sic] beliefs, that maybe you are a pacifist and it would not be PC to support the project, you cannot ignore the engineering skills, innovation and so much more that the aircraft has brought to this country, its people, and the rest of the world.”

And the Daily Mail, one of Britain’s great pot-boiling tabloids, added an editorial comment, phrased more tersely: “What a Shameful Way to Treat Our Heritage!”

The Heritage Lottery commission, which after all dispenses between £300 and £350 million a year, noticed. While making no promises for 2003, the judges “have worked closely with us” plugging holes in Vulcan To The Sky’s second grant application, Pleming says. The group trimmed the proposed schedule to five or six flights a season, extending the airplane’s airborne life to more than 10 years. The advocates also designed an exhibition to tour with the Vulcan, deferring to the lotterycrats’ desire for “more interpretation and explanation.”

All told, Pleming’s revised request runs to 800 pages. If it’s approved, he calculates (perhaps a tad optimistically) that 30 million more people will witness the Vulcan in flight before it is sent to its final, well-deserved resting place at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford. If not, Pleming is caught in a Catch-22. He had to dismember XH558 so that parts manufacturers (more than 100 of them laboriously tracked down) could certify their bits as still functional. Without the lottery money, most of which would fund still more laborious Civil Aviation Authority approvals, he can’t afford to put it back together.

To hear the faithful recall their own Vulcan experiences—most of the memories generously doused with the presumed lost grace of old-fashioned British childhood—you might think Pleming’s toil and treasure, not to mention a paltry £2.9 million in public funding, was all worth it. To Craig Bulman, the north-country postman and manic cataloguer, the Vulcan was his companion on walks home from school across the sodden Middlesbrough fields, roaring through an overcast sky out of the bomber’s nearby home base, RAF Waddington. Ian Glasse, who heads Vulcan To The Sky’s member fundraising (they’ve got £1 million in the kitty to match the lottery funds), remembers the mighty airplane droning over the beaches of Dorset, in England’s bucolic southwest, where he spent his summers as a youngster.

Felicity Irwin encountered her first Vulcan at 12 years old in her native New Zealand, when it blazed in to mark the opening of an airport, then blazed away as the pilot discovered the runway was too short. “When we saw this fantastic giant wave its wings goodbye, then turn and disappear again over the horizon, everyone was ready to cry,” she remembers.

Conceived in the year of the Berlin airlift, constructed during Joe McCarthy’s heyday, and primed to counterattack the U.S.S.R. during the Cuban missile crisis, the Vulcan bomber was an integral part of the most terrible calculations human warriors have ever made. It was a frontline offensive weapon whose mission was to rain destruction and death on a virtually unimaginable scale. That it ended its active life half a century later as a sentimental favorite is the ironic fate of many weapons. It is a happy irony to contemplate, however, whatever happens on Dr. Pleming’s private Everest.

The prototype’s wing had a constant angle of sweep; tests led to a trademark leading edge kink in wings of production craft. (BAE Systems/NASM (SI Neg. #1A-04984))

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