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.
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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.