Gary Parsons visited the TVOC at Bruntingthorpe to see how the work on Vulcan XH558 is progressing
It's been a while since the announcement of the successful Heritage Lottery Fund bid to enable Vulcan B2 XH558 to grace the skies once more, so we recently dropped in at Bruntingthorpe to get the latest on the project first-hand.
A major milestone was reached on 28 April with the signing of the Major Service and Engineering Contract with Marshall Aerospace (MA), enabling work to begin in earnest on stripping and assessing the airframe. CAA approval to the project has been critical to its success, and it's only been through the diligence and dedication of the TVOC team in its early days that this approval was ultimately successful.
The signing of the contract enabled MA to commence the activities that would lead to real work on the aircraft. BAE SYSTEMS is the aircraft's Design Authority (DA), with MA undertaking the maintenance - MA has since achieved its 'E4' design approval for the Vulcan B2 under the Civil Aviation Authority's (CAA) BCAR A8-20, with the 'M5' maintenance approval given now the first phase of training has been completed.
Following the start of the contract in April, a CAA audit and collation of data was the first priority. It's not just the aircraft that is included - the preparation of the hangar, lighting, signage, tools, access equipment, quarantine and storage areas all need to be of sufficient quantity and quality to meet requirements. Health and Safety plans, fire detection, access control and risk assessments needed to be prepared and reviewed. The audit was undertaken in the middle of July, with the CAA's surveyor deeming it more than satisfactory. The CAA will continue with a two-weekly schedule of audits throughout the project, ensuring that standards are maintained.
MA has responsibility for the build standard of the aircraft, the final specification of electrical and structural inspection procedures and the planning and scheduling of 'need-by' dates for overhauled components. MA's TANDEM documentation system is being used to catalogue minor snags and prepare worksheets for repair and rectification of components - so far 3,500 pieces of paper have been produced, covering the smallest of items to the largest of panels. Six computer terminals with direct access to the TANDEM host at Cambridge have been installed in the hangar. Blue tape and a coding system is used to identify parts and areas on the aircraft that need attention, although it may be just that the paintwork needs touching up - the attention to detail is certainly rigorous.
The Engineering team currently comprises a mix of MA and TVOC employees, all of whom have undertaken an initial three-week technical training class at the MA training facilities at Cambridge. Twenty-one employees are now on-site at Bruntingthorpe, comprising most trades, but especially those of airframe, electrical/avionics and propulsion. Six employees are from MA, with the rest directly employed by TVOC. Most are ex-Vulcan or V-Force groundcrew, ensuring an excellent skills base, although it's been a few years since they wielded a spanner on Avro's finest, hence the need for the re-certification procedure at MA. Level 3 training (diagnostics) will be the next phase of the re-certification, commencing early next year. Although one would expect volunteers to be vital to the project's success, they cannot work on the airframe due to the training requirements, so are limited to support services such as hangar cleaning or fundraising.
As soon as the Engineering Contract was signed, the team began the aircraft inspection in earnest to prepare the rectification plan, which in turn will dictate the timescale for the rest of the restoration project. This survey is expected to last at least three months, but so far nothing untoward has been found and the team is confident actual levels of snagging will be lower than predicted, due mainly to the care given to the airframe since its retirement from service in 1993 and that it has been hangared for most of that time. As it was designed in the late Forties with slide rules rather than computers, the airframe is over-engineered, meaning it could (in theory) lose ten percent of the thickness of metal on the structure before its integrity would be compromised. In reality it means any slight corrosion found can be removed simply and effectively without any structural modifications or additional weight being added to the aircraft - as it is, it will be operating significantly lighter than in her RAF service days. Due to the age of the airframe previous RAF servicing levels are being enhanced, with difficult areas being inspected by Boroscope, something the RAF never had the need for.
A draft Organisation Control Manual (OCM) has been created by MA on the basis of input from the aircrew, led by ex-Vulcan display pilot David Thomas, and the expected operating profile for the aircraft. This determines which systems will be required to be operational, but is different to its previous military service OCM in that engineering constraints will dictate what the pilot can do, as opposed to its service life when the pilot could put the airframe under stress if necessary.
The next major milestone will be the start of the Rectification and Recovery (R&R) phase, leading to the start of the rebuild process around March or April 2006. Again, three to four months will be required until systems will be able to be checked and run for the first time - June or July next year should see XH558 start to come alive once more. Crucial to this success will be the two hundred or so Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), many of whom are offering support at cost or, in some cases, with little or no charge. To aid the rebuild, the cockpit of Vulcan B2 XM602 has been brought to the hangar to aid as a technical trainer and will also allow the aircrew to re-acquaint themselves while the R&R phase is ongoing.
A further example of the TVOC's foresight and planning is with its engines - the CAA is pushing forward with a new Safety Regulation concerning the introduction of calendar life limits for turbine engines, which will result in most jet engines requiring an overhaul every ten years. TVOC's engines were last rebuilt in 1982, before being hermetically sealed. In 2003 TVOC undertook a Risk Assessment enabling documented proof that sealing of the engines deferred overhaul, effectively zero-timing them until the seal is broken. It is expected that each engine will have an effective life of seven years in use, but will be rotated every forty hours and re-sealed to extend its usable life. This operating plan will enable all eight engines to be used for the expected operational life of the Vulcan until its expected retirement after ten years or so on the airshow circuit.
In the meantime, fundraising continues, as there is still a need to raise in the order of £350,000 to bridge the gap between operating expenditure and the HLF grant. When asked if, prior to the HLF award, he had ever had any doubts about whether XH558 would fly, Engineering Manager Andrew Edmondson replied "No! Definitely not. I've always known she will fly again." Such faith underpins the project and has been the major factor in getting the project to the stage it is now - many believed it would never happen, and have been proved wrong so far. But money is still required, as the final release of HLF money is dependent upon fundraising matching expectations. If that first test flight is to happen late next year, please see how you can help it happen by visiting the TVOC website for further details.
With thanks to Andrew Edmondson, TVOC