God Save the Vulcan!

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

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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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.

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