Vulcan at 60

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It’s a year of diamond anniversary celebrations for two Cold War warriors.

In April the US Air Force marked the 60th anniversary of the first flight of the B-52 while this week week its British counterpart, the Avro Vulcan, also passed that milestone.

The B-52 continues in front line strategic service today, flown by young crews two generations removed from their original forebears. For the Vulcan, however, it is a different story. Designed as a nuclear bomber to a specification issued in 1947, the large delta-winged Vulcan was relegated to a tactical role with the arrival of the Polaris ICBM and the transfer of the nuclear deterrent role to the Royal Navy.

Initial design sketch of Vulcan layout by Roy Chadwick, Avro's chief designer  

Following a brief, but important combat role in the 1982 Falkland Islands war, the Vulcan was retired from service with the last squadron disbanded in March 1984. However the crowd-pulling PR power of the majestic Vulcan and the V-bomber’s awesome low speed flying display qualities was not lost on the RAF which retained a flyable aircraft for touring the country.

However, the cost of maintaining the operation in the face of increasingly tight defense budgets was too much for the RAF. The first of the Vulcan flight survivors, XL426, was retired in the 1980s and the last, XH558 was displayed for the final time in 1992. It looked like the Vulcan would never be seen in the air again.

XH558 at the Farnborough Air Show (Guy Norris)

Or at least, that was the plan. Others had different ideas. Bought by David Walton, XH558 was sold to a company formed specifically with the idea of returning her to the air. It took many years, but by 2007 the 1960-built B2 version of the V-bomber was restored to airworthy condition by Vulcan To The Sky and returned to the air.

Against the odds, and backed by individual donations and sponsors, the sole remaining aircraft has continued to be displayed at airshows from 2008 onwards – becoming a major attraction wherever it appears. The struggle to keep her flying remains difficult, however, as fund raising has become more challenging in the current economy. Just to add to the problems, two of the aircraft’s four Bristol-Siddeley/Rolls-Royce Olympus engines were destroyed by a FOD incident in May, drastically hitting the company’s limited store of spares.

Vulcan and RAF Red Arrows display team flypast at Farnborough 2012 (Guy Norris)

The sight of the Vulcan as well as its familiar 'howl' is a crowd puller (YouTube/D66DuCane)

All being well, however, crowds at shows along England’s southern coast this weekend may get a glimpse of the ‘tin triangle’ – a unique sight and a reminder of a proud British aerospace achievement that began with the first flight of the Avro 698 prototype on Aug 30 1952.

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