Vulcan XH558 – The Last Howl

Arguably the most famous of the V bombers – Vulcan XH558. This individual aircraft was the last airworthy Vulcan anywhere in the world and on Sunday, November 20th, 2022 will be the very final time to hear her howl. Although this wonderful aircraft’s farewell flight was all the way back in October 2015, her engines will be run up for testing, filling her resting place in Doncaster with unmistakable noise.

The unmistakable shape of XH558.
The Vulcan’s iconic delta shape was instantly recognisable to so many. Photo credit – Airwolfhound CC BY-SA 2.0.

First taking to the skies above Britain in May 1960, XH558 was the first B2 variant to enter service with the RAF.

She was first delivered to the Royal Air Force on the 1st July 1960 to No. 230 Operational Conversion Unit at RAF Waddington. Operational Conversion Units prepare and train pilots to fly new aircraft and with the Cold War heating up, it was important for Britain to have top class people ready to fly all hours of the day.

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After her initial stint with the OCU, she was used in normal operational service with No. 44, 50, and 101 Squadrons for about five years up until 1973.

The white paint would reflect some of the heat from a nuclear blast.
Being a nuclear bomber, early Vulcans were painted in anti-flash white. Photo credit – RAF OGL v1.0.

It had been decided that XH558 along with eight other Vulcans, were to be upgraded to SR2 configuration. This meant installing new maritime radars for reconnaissance to patrol the waters off the coast.

Post-war, there had been incredible development in aircraft. There are 11 years between the first flight of the Lancaster and the Vulcan, yet this delta wing bomber still looks like something from the future even in the 21st century. But, by the late 70s, the Vulcan was no longer the only highly advanced aircraft in the skies. The rest of the world was producing some amazing, powerful aircraft with incredible armament.

And by 1979, it was decided that the Vulcan was redundant. It couldn’t fly higher or faster than any enemy fighters and with the advancement in Surface to Air missile technology, they would be blown out of the sky in any combat situation.

The drag chute was an impressive spectacle on landing when watching XH558.
The Vulcan also had a drag chute for shorter runway landings. Photo credit – Anthony Noble GFDL 1.2

The first Vulcans were sent to the scrapheap starting in 1980 and the last operational bomber squadron disbanded in 1982.

But this was not the end for XH558. She was extremely lucky and was one of six to be converted into a tanker variant – the K2. The Falklands war had shown the extreme importance of having a sizeable tanker fleet and this was a temporary measure until newer replacements were available.

Finally in 1985 XH558 was selected to be used for display duties. All squadrons using Vulcans had been disbanded and the tanker variants were no longer needed. This particular aircraft was selected to be shown off to the public due to extremely low flying hours.

XH558 had names of supporters written inside of the bomb bay doors.
XH558 has displayed all over the UK and brought joy to so many. Photo credit – Graham Haley CC BY-SA 2.0.

Unlike cars which use mileage to give an indiciation of use, aircraft use flying hours. This gives a much better representation as engines are often changed and parts replaced throughout the life of an aircraft.

The reason for the lower than average flying hours was due to an accident in 1975 where XH558 ingested a bird into an engine which resulted in significant damage to the right wing. The repairs grounded this Vulcan for years.

Despite being 25 years old she made her public debut appearance in 1985 at the Bournemouth airshow in May.

XH558 was affectionately known as the 'Spirit of Great Britain'.
On the nose reads ‘Spirit of Great Britain’. Photo credit – MilborneOne CC BY-SA 3.0.

She flew on the airshow circuit for seven years, wowing crowds with a fighter like agility from a bomber the size of a Boeing 737. Her ‘final’ flight was in 1992 with her resting place at Cranfield.

Dornier Aviation and Aerospace Muse...
Dornier Aviation and Aerospace Museum, Friedrichshafen, Germany | TransportMuseums.com

In 1997 a group of investors considered the possibility of putting XH558 back into the sky. A risky project which would be extremely costly if it failed. A huge amount of money would be required. And initally it was dismissed.

This resilient old bird was not done yet, however. The Vulcan to the Sky Trust was established to raise enough money to get her back into flying condition and work began in 2005.

XH558's final goodbye with the Red Arrows.
The Vulcan flying with the Red Arrows for the final time in September 2015. Photo credit – RAF OGL v1.0.

Unbelievably only two years later 2007 XH558 took to the sky in her RAF markings and was certified to display at airshows and quickly built up a huge following from the public and was christened the ‘Spirit of Great Britain’.

But, all good things do have to come to an end and her final display season was in 2015. I had been fortunate enough to watch this aircraft every single year on the display circuit along with millions of others in Britain. I have many fond memories of watching XH558 hurtle down the runway with a deep rumble in my chest and ears filled with the infamous ‘Vulcan howl’.

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If you have never heard the Vulcan, I implore you to go online and listen to the unbelievable roar made by XH558.

XH558 was famous for the noise it made.
At 90% engine power and above you will hear the imfamous Vulcan howl. Photo credit – Alex-Beltyukov CC BY-SA 3.0.

There is one final chance for you to listen to this amazing aircraft in person. Sunday 20th November will be the final time that the engines on XH558 will be run up to power at her resting place at Doncaster airport before she is put to sleep forever.

Farewell XH558. You will be sorely missed.

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