Gary Parsons reports on the aviation highlight of the year from Waddington's International Airshow 2008. Pictures by the author, Jack Parsons, Mike Kerr and Bob Franklin
Fifteen years of waiting were finally over. Late in the afternoon of Thursday 3 July, Vulcan B2 XH558 finally returned to its spiritual home ready to perform in public for the first time since it was withdrawn from RAF service on 23 March 1993. Years of toil, frustration, tears and doubt were finally laid to rest as its wheels touched down on runway 20, and the champagne flowed amongst the elated Vulcan to the Sky team.
XH558's journey back to Waddington has been well documented, not just in this website but across the national media, and is a triumph of British dogged determination against the odds. For a group of enthusiasts to succeed after so many setbacks is nothing short of remarkable - for all the criticism the Vulcan Operating Company and VTST have endured, they have delivered on their promise, nothing can detract from that. "I'm over the moon" said Andrew Edmondson, Engineering Manager. "I feel a bit teary - it's been a long, long road. Robert Pleming should be here - he kept us together, believing in it" (Pleming was recovering from a major spinal operation). "When I sat at my desk twelve years ago, I can only think of the analogy of throwing a pebble in a pond and counting the ripples and then trying to work out what I needed to do to fly a Vulcan. Two years of research, thousands of hours of cataloguing spares - now the dream has come true!"
It was always going to be interesting to see the 'Vulcan Effect' on airshow crowd numbers - advance ticket sales had been good for Waddington, but there was never any guarantee XH558 would make it to the show, so it was difficult to estimate how much was down to its pulling power. However, come lunchtime on Saturday, the queues to the airshow were three hours long, the car parks were full and people were being turned away! With 70,000 attending Saturday, it was the biggest one-day attendance in the airshow's fourteen years. A similar situation on Sunday, despite the appalling weather, proved that the public's appetite for the Vulcan is as strong as ever. At the time of its take-off on Saturday, the crowdline was fifty deep, with hardly a soul wandering the trade stalls - and when it landed, the cheering and applause was second to none, with hardened enthusiasts wiping a tear from their eyes. No-one can quite put their finger on why the big tin triangle has this effect on people, but stir the soul it definitely does. When it joined the BBMF's Lancaster for an 'Avro flypast', it was perhaps the formation of the decade, if not the century, to date.
"Saturday was one of the greatest days of my life", said TVOC Chief Executive Robert Pleming. "The sense of pride and achievement was overwhelming and compounded greatly by the unbelievably emotional response of the capacity crowd. I learned later that stewards started turning people without tickets away very early in the day, and judging by the time it took me to get off the airfield I can well believe it. I knew from the millions of pounds we have received in donations over the years that we have a very large and loyal supporter base, but the passion shown on that day left me speechless."
Appearances at Waddington, RIAT and Farnborough were only confirmed when short-term sponsorship was found. Aerobytes Ltd, which supplies flight safety and fuel saving software to the aviation industry, provided enough money to ensure XH558 would get the chance to attract the longer-term investment it needs, by being thrust back into the public spotlight at these three international events. This is make or break time for XH558, as Pleming confirmed: "We have proved we can attract massive crowds, hold them spellbound as we fly, and then remain highly visible to a captive audience. If there is another sponsorship opportunity as clearly attractive as this I have no idea what it could be. I know we have a fantastic proposition and that £1.6 million a year is not beyond the realms of reality - even in these turbulent times. The Vulcan's presence and the crowd's reaction provide all the evidence we need that a business association with XH558 can offer a return on investment far, far beyond your average sponsorship package." With a twenty percent upsurge in crowd numbers, Vulcan has proved its popularity, something that commercial sponsors cannot ignore - if Waddington's weekend doesn't attract further funding for the project, this country simply doesn't deserve to keep it.
Tim Senior and Gary Parsons review the other happenings at Waddington 2008
With the torrential downpours in the weeks running up to the 2007 airshow, and the almost constant rain on the only day that the show took place last year still fresh in the memory, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that one looked out the window early on the Saturday morning of this year's airshow. Immediate thoughts of déjà vu crept in as the skies looked just as gloomy and the rain started falling, but despite the possibility of another drenching it was a case of 'press on regardless'. After all, there was the Vulcan…
Despite the reasonably good weather the week before the show, the Met Officer at Waddington said it would improve on the Saturday but Sunday would be a different story altogether! But then Saturday dawned grey and wet, the biggest casualty in the early display items being the Red Arrows, who were reduced to a flat display with lots of disappearances into very low cloud. They had to abandon the display for a few minutes until the cloudbase lifted sufficiently for even the flat routine to continue!
At least they fared a little better than the Typhoon, which took off early and departed to display at the Yeovilton Air Day, where it promptly went unserviceable. Also shared with Yeovilton were the Army Air Corps 'Blue Eagles' with the single Apache AH1 and Lynx AH7 and the Royal Navy Lynx team, the 'Black Cats', who gave Charlie Matthews, the Typhoon display pilot, a slightly more sedate lift back so he could display in the spare aircraft! A welcome addition to the flying was a Royal Navy Merlin, which certainly made up for the lack of an RAF flying example, although there was one parked in the somewhat thin static park.
With one of the main themes being the ninetieth anniversary of the Royal Air Force, it was to be expected that there would be lots of airworthy historic airframes for the static park; Delta Jets from Kemble sent a trio of jets painted in old RAF aerobatic display teams, namely the 'Yellowjacks' Gnat and both the 'Black Arrows' and 'Blue Diamonds' painted Hunters. Air Atlantique sent its Meteor NF11 and the Vampire T55; there were also numerous colourful Chipmunks, a Piston Provost and a few Jet Provosts, most of these being parked in Alpha dispersal with some replicas from the First World War, which included a DH2 and an SE5a. Amongst the modern hardware on display was an 11 Squadron Typhoon FGR4, a 111 Squadron Tornado F3, Puma and the 84 Squadron Griffin HAR2. A Dominie and King Air represented the training aircraft from some of the current types based at Cranwell, but that was largely it - for a static park representing the Royal Air Force, it was sadly lacking. Once again, the RAF struggled to support its biggest airshow, a factor that has bedevilled it for some years now. While RAF efforts were concentrated on the following weekend's Royal flypast at Fairford, total cancellations at Waddington were inordinately high with no less than forty-two aircraft missing from the provisional list - think of a RAF 'heavy' type, and it was most likely 'missing in action'. With not a single Harrier on display, yet two 20(R) Squadron examples on static at Yeovilton, one must question the air force's commitment to its own airshows - ironically the RAF's newest C-17A, ZZ176, had flown into Waddington earlier in the week while escorting the Red Arrows back from the USA, yet despite not being cleared for operational service could not be spared for the weekend, sitting idly at Brize Norton.
The recently resurfaced western taxiway contained the majority of the fast jets, including a pair of RAF Tornado GR4s, ZA400 wearing its Shark's mouth and 'Scud Hunter' nose art together with the Operation Telic Tornado Wing badge on the tail; a German Tornado IDS from AKG51; a pair of Spanish EF-18A+s from Ala 12, one of which was painted to celebrate the unit's fiftieth anniversary of operating jet powered aircraft; a pair of Dutch F-16AMs, one each from 322 and 323 Squadrons; and although slightly slower, the Italians did send an Aermacchi MB33CD.
The remaining aircraft parked here were other historic jets (mainly Jet Provosts) together with some historic piston engined types and the regulars from local flying clubs including the 'Waddington Flyers'. Further down the taxiway the now well-established Air Warfare Centre static consisted of examples of the Sentinel R1 and Sentry AEW1, as well as a lone 41(R) Squadron Tornado GR4, a 17(R) Squadron Typhoon FGR4 carrying an impressive load of six 1,000lb Laser-Guided Bombs and a mix of ASRAAM and AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, all the more welcome after the declaration that Typhoon is now fully combat ready in both air-to-air and air-to-ground roles. Completing the aircraft parked on Foxtrot dispersal was the Chilean Air Force C-130H, support to the 'Los Halcones' display team, who were quite frankly poor relations compared to our own 'Blades'. With the Vulcan and B-52H parked down on the far end of one of the cross runways, the opportunity to fill an area of hardstanding nearby with aircraft did not go unmissed, with a relatively new Italian Air Force C-27J Spartan, Spanish Air Force CASA C-295, KLu Fokker 50, USAF C-21A and Czech Air Force An-26 complete with a special tail scheme to represent ninety years of operations at Prague-Kbely completing the static line up.
Up early was the first of the international display teams, the Indian Air Force helicopter display team the 'Sarang' with their HAL Dhruvs (Pole Star) (see sidebar) - no doubt this was by far the worst visibility they had ever encountered! But by early afternoon the clouds abated, and a reasonably pleasant day was had by all.
One item making a welcome return to the display scene was the pairing of the RAF's newest fighter aircraft with a Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Spitfire, this act not seen since the mid-1980s when Rick Peacock-Edwards flew a similar routine in a then slightly newer Tornado F3 - this time BBMF 'boss' Al Pinner joining forces with a front-line instructor from 29(R) Squadron. One item scheduled to fly but unfortunately cancelled was the USAF B-52H, a victim of the parking plan when it was realised that the aircraft could not be refuelled and started safely near the crowd due to its limited movement ability around the airfield - it was a bit like manoeuvring an elephant around your sitting room…
The weather on Sunday was sadly nowhere near as good as Saturday afternoon, more autumnal than summer. Although the display went more or less to plan, alas anyone hoping to see the Lancaster and Vulcan flypast was disappointed, as the weather contributed to non-appearance of the Vulcan; however, the fast taxi-run after one of the downpours more than made up for that with a fine rooster-tail of spray kicked up by the four Olympus engines. At one point the bad weather left visibility in the airborne holding areas around Waddington a little bad to say the least, the entire RAF Role demo almost cancelled, although after a delay of around twenty minutes it finally went ahead minus the E-3D and Hawks.
Closing the airshow on Sunday were the Red Arrows, who once again found the worst weather slot of the day, and were down to an eight-ship due to 'Red 8', Flt Lt Greg Perilleux suffering a bird strike on take off from Scampton - thankfully the airframe only suffered minor damage to one access panel.
With record crowds in spite of inclement weather, Waddington's 2008 edition was an unparalleled success, with crowds estimated at 140,000 over the weekend. The 'Vulcan Effect' no doubt played a part in this, but with a well-balanced flying display programme a good crowd will always be drawn to Lincolnshire. It's about time the RAF 'top brass' recognised this, and ensured 'maximum effort' is given in supporting it.