Can Vulcan return for 2010?

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The Vulcan Operating Company (TVOC) pulled off what many thought was impossible when it returned XH558 to the air from Bruntingthorpe on 18 October 2007 after 14 years on the ground. To the delight of many, the delta-winged bomber - which had been the last Vulcan to fly in 1993 - made a triumphant return to the air display circuit in 2008. But as the year progressed, there were doubts amid the banking crisis that sufficient funds could be secured to get the aircraft back for a repeat in 2009.

Somehow the veteran bomber's registered charity, Vulcan To The Sky Trust (VTST), managed to secure the funds to make a return this year which kicked off at RAF Cosford in June and took in 34 displays across the UK and in the Netherlands.

The project is overseen by Hinckley, UK-based TVOC, which is headed by Dr Robert Pleming - although he is soon to move on to pastures new. This former Cisco executive has been key to the fund-raising effort to revive the aircraft - officially registered G-VLCN, but better known by its old military serial "XH558".

XH558 is wintering at RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire, but with the trust needing to find over £1.6 million ($2.6 million) every year to keep the jet flying it is again in need of a cash boost. The immediate priority is funding the winter maintenance programme, which is due to start in January.

"We get hit by substantial maintenance costs during the winter," says Pleming. "This year the bills are bigger than normal, as we want to ensure the Vulcan can be kept flying well into the future.

"We used up more fatigue in 2009 than we expected, mainly due to low-level transits in turbulent air, so we've brought forward the fatigue life extension planned for 2010-11 - otherwise we will run short of fatigue next year."

Pleming says the Vulcan's return for 2010 is a key target as it marks XH558's 50th birthday - it first flew on 25 May 1960 - and a staging post for 2012 when the aircraft could be involved in a series of UK national events. These include the Queen's Diamond Jubilee - a double celebration as Her Majesty was crowned in the same year that the Vulcan prototype made its debut - and the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War.

But a 2010 return is contingent on the VTST urgently finding the balance of the £200,000 it needs to start January winter servicing, and a further £600,000 by 31 March 2010. Much of the funding is from cash donations or sponsorship, and Pleming is keen to emphasise that the latter can start at as little as £500.

"The project has such loyal supporters, but they need to know that we need the money now," says Martin Withers, who was XH558's lead display pilot during the 2009 season.

Withers, a former RAF Vulcan captain, first flew the tin triangle in 1971. He played a key role in the famous "Black Buck" Falklands missions, commanding Vulcan B2 XM607 on the attack on Port Stanley's airfield on 1 May 1982, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Withers flew more than 2,000 Vulcan hours in the RAF, and having embarked on an airline career after leaving the service, he was delighted to be reunited with his old mount in 2008 after a hiatus of a quarter of a century.

"The Vulcan handles so well, it has such a rate of roll and such huge control surfaces," he says.

With its four Rolls-Royce Olympus 202 turbojets providing a combined thrust of 80,000lb (356kN), the 60t bomber is an impressive air show performer. Its manoeuvrability was shown off to good effect at this year's RIAT, when the weather threatened to interfere with proceedings.

Withers, who was in the right-hand seat for that display, which was flown by fellow ex-RAF Vulcan pilot Kev Rumens, describes what happened: "We did an impressive steep climb after take-off and then rolled to stay below the base of the cloud. Because you don't bunt a Vulcan - and try to avoid pushing at all - to level off you roll to kill the lift and then roll back the other way."

During the wing-over the Vulcan rolled spectacularly through 90° - much to the delight of the crowd. "The spectators tend to get excited - 'wow! should a big jet be doing that?' - but it was an entirely appropriate manoeuvre and there was absolutely no over-stressing involved."