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Avro Vulcan Flying Life Extension

Saturday 8th June 2013 at 07:03

Avro Vulcan XH558
Departing from Bruntingthorpe on the first flight in 2007

The world’s last flying Avro Vulcan, one of the UK’s most popular heritage aircraft, is to receive a vital airframe modification that will help to keep her airworthy until the end of 2015. It had been feared that Vulcan XH558 might have to stop flying at the end of this year but, following extensive research by the charity that operates the aircraft, the Vulcan to the Sky Trust engineering team now believes they can solve the series of complex technical challenges that could have grounded her.

“If everything goes to plan, we should be able to release sufficient additional flying hours for XH558 to complete full display seasons in both 2014 and 2015, in addition to this year’s spectacular season which is just about to start,” says Trust chief executive, Dr Robert Pleming. “There are still many gateways to pass through, but we are sufficiently confident to begin the vital fundraising that will make this exciting extension to XH558’s flying life possible.”

There are three elements to the engineering programme, which the charity has called Operation 2015. “The most technically challenging is a vital modification to the leading edges of the wings required to increase the fatigue life of the airframe,” explains engineering director Andrew Edmondson.  “The second element, which is less technically complex but in some ways even more difficult to solve, is to ensure that we have sufficient stocks of all the system components needed for the additional two flying years.” The final item is to complete the 2013-14 Winter Service, including the rectification of any technical issues resulting from the 2013 flying season.

Wing Modification to proceed

The wing strengthening will be carried out to Modification 2221, which was developed by Avro while the Vulcans were in service. It’s a high-precision operation made more difficult by none of the original manufacturing tools and key drawings surviving. Phase 1 of the Modification therefore called on heritage aircraft specialists at Cranfield Aerospace (who also support the UK’s last flying Avro Lancaster) to “reverse engineer” the critical components.

Using data from a precision three dimensional scanning system, combined with research into the original wing design, the Cranfield team created a detailed computer model of the relevant wing sections. Following rigorous stress analysis, this was used to study the feasibility of the complex operation, which requires panels approximately two metres square to be precisely shaped in three dimensions so they fit each wing leading edge perfectly. “The success of Phase 1 has shown that Modification 2221, one of the most important elements of Operation 2015, is feasible,” says Edmondson.

Avro Vulcan XH558
The Vulcan displaying over Lake Windermere

In parallel with this research, Edmondson and his team discussed component availability with key suppliers. “This is the real limiting factor,” he says. “We concluded that by the end of the 2015 flying season, we will have almost exhausted the available engine life and will be critically short of other components, several of which are either prohibitively expensive to remanufacture or simply can never be made again because the drawings no longer exist.”

The next step in Operation 2015 is to design and construct the manufacturing former for the wing modification. This should be completed during the summer. As soon as the aircraft lands following her final display of the year, the engineering team will begin the Winter Service while the high-precision panels are manufactured. The final phase of the Wing Modification will be to fit the new panels early in 2014. Following further testing, XH558 will be ready to take off for another spectacular season of displays across the country.

All flying life targets beaten

Dr Pleming says that by the end of 2015, the aircraft will have flown for around 80 hours more than was anticipated during the award winning restoration in 2007. “We will have beaten all our targets by a significant margin,” he says proudly. “XH558 is now enjoyed by around three million people every year – 50% more than two years ago – including children and young people who are inspired to learn more about engineering and aviation, hopefully to help fill the UK’s desperate technology skills gaps. We have packed tours of adults and young people at the hangar at Robin Hood Doncaster Sheffield Airport and also support engineering training for local businesses.”

“When XH558 does finally touch-down for the last time,” he concludes, “it is hoped that she will form the heart of a new type of engineering, education and experience centre so that she can continue to inspire new generations.”

Why is the Vulcan Important

The Avro Vulcan is an iconic example of British aerospace engineering at its world-beating best. The design brief was issued by the MoD in 1946 and the aircraft flew for the first time on August 30th 1952, just eleven years after the first flight of its predecessor, the Avro Lancaster. Its impressive list of technical achievements includes being the first successful large delta wing aircraft (leading directly to Concorde), innovations such as electrically-powered flying controls, one of the first applications of anti-lock brakes, and a speed and agility that was so close to a jet fighter’s that it was given a fighter-style control column in place of the traditional bomber pilot’s yoke.

Success as a Cold War peacekeeper meant that the Vulcan might have flown its entire service life without ever entering combat if it hadn’t been for the Falklands Conflict in 1982. During a marathon 8,000 mile flight supported by eleven Victor tankers, Squadron Leader Martin Withers and his crew released the bombs over Port Stanley Airport that prevented Argentina operating its Mirage III fighters from the island and initiated the campaign that recaptured the Falklands. Two years later, the last Vulcans were withdrawn from service. Squadron Leader Withers earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for his part in this action.

Avro Vulcan XH 558

Today, only one Vulcan is left flying: XH558, owned by the Vulcan To The Sky Trust, a Registered Charity. Returned to the air in 2007 following one of the world’s most challenging restoration programmes, she has become an airshow phenomenon. “People forget that airshows attract seven million people annually. As a spectator activity, that’s second only to football,” says Dr Pleming. “An appearance by the Vulcan builds even on this remarkable level, typically increasing attendance by 20-40 percent. Airshow organisers talk about ‘the Vulcan Effect’ and have described the aircraft as a national treasure.”

Squadron Leader Martin Withers DFC is a passionate supporter of the educational role of the aircraft. “Part of our mission is to ensure that young people learn about the knife-edge fear of the Cold War,” he explains. “If I had been ordered to press the button that releases the nuclear payload over our enemy, there would almost certainly have been no Britain left to fly home to.The Vulcan is the most powerful symbol of a remarkable period in global history that we must never forget”

Withers is also passionate about the aircraft’s growing role in technical education. “This is one of the most significant steps forward in aerospace technology ever, and it is thoroughly British. The Vulcan fires young people with a passion to develop and build world-beating technologies. And we can help give them those skills through training that call upon the extraordinary knowledge, rigour and precision needed to restore and maintain the UK’s only flying ‘complex’ heritage aircraft to world-class safety standards.”

Photos of Avro Vulcan XH558

Report by Derek Pedley

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