On legends

For most of my first 17 years I lived on, or very close to, one of a number of airbases in England and Germany. Just about every day was airshow day, at least for a somewhat limited and specialist class of aeroplanes.

I’ve watched Lightnings take off and disappear beyond the tropopause in 3 minutes flat. I’ve coughed in the smoke at the end of the airfield from low-level Red Arrows Gnats. I’ve felt the ground shake as the Concorde passed over my head on its way to land.

It didn’t stop when Dad left the RAF. From the bottom of my parents’ garden I used to watch the Avro Vulcan hang impossibly in the sky. I’ve seen the evening sky torn apart as Tornadoes have taken off to bomb Kosovo from their base in Germany. And of course there are the ‘proper’ airshows: I’ve cycled to Duxford to watch Spitfires and Hurricanes and B17s; I’ve gawped with everyone else at amazing feats of close-formation flying; I’ve watch Su-27 Flankers do impossible things; I’ve laughed at the Turkish Stars commentator; and I’ve sparked a security alert at one of the world’s best airshows.

Sadly, many of these aircraft I’ll never see fly again. At the weekend I had to add Vulcan XH558 to that number.

The Avro Vulcan is the unforgettably shaped strategic bomber that formed part of the UK’s nuclear deterrent in the 1960s. It converted to a conventional role, and famously was temporarily saved from the scrapheap when the longest bombing raids in history (at the time) were carried out, during the Falklands War of 1982.

Nobody who has ever seen a Vulcan fly will forget the way she hangs in the sky, in exactly the way that houses don’t. Nor will they forget the distinctive howl of the engines, or the whistle you hear when those four massive engines throttle back and the wind is sliced by the delta wing.

In 1993 the Vulcans were retired, supposedly for ever.

But amazingly, in 2007, Vulcan XH558 flew again. She remained flying all the way up to this summer, after which she must retire a second time. And then will never fly again.

On Saturday I dragged the entire family down to Eastbourne for Airbourne, the airshow on the beach. Thousands of people stood and sat and swam and watched XH558 strut her stuff.

We’re going to miss her.


Update: I’ve just managed to find where I’d previously described that security alert.

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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3 Responses to On legends

  1. My brother had an Airfix model of the Vulcan. One of my favourite “improbable” airplanes. Thanks for the heartfelt send-off.

    Fun fact: my father-in-law once worked for A.V. Roe (a.k.a. Avro Canada). To the day he died, he never forgave Prime Minister Diefenbaker for killing the Arrow.

  2. rpg says:

    Similar feelings about the TSR-2…

  3. Flew low over our house on her final tour of the North, 3 pm on June 27th… quite a sight, and sound. Took me back to being 12 years old and reading ‘Jane’s all the world’s aircraft’.

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