Tim McLelland looks at the plight of the Vulcan to the Sky project
VTST press release 13 April 2006
The battle is won but the war is not over!
The restoration project approaches halfway to completion and 'roll out' is planned in August this year for Avro Vulcan XH558, with test flight following shortly thereafter - and yet - the warrior may be vanquished!!
After eight years of investigation, preparation and fundraising it seems that the quest to return the last Avro Vulcan, to flight may have to accept defeat, just as the goal is in sight!
Unthinkable but a reality. Why? Sadly, a surprising 100% uplift on one major aspect of the contract and a further £500,000 'overrun estimate' in another are unaffordable in the timescale and could well be the last straw. That, together with the lack of a major sponsor at this stage looks like spelling disaster! G-VLCN, as she will be when flying under civil registration, has been asked to participate in the 25th Falklands Anniversary tribute in 2007 and other such commemorative events for the future and VTTS were excited to accept. This will not now be possible if funds are not found to complete the work to 'roll out' and beyond.
Concorde will never fly again but Vulcan can - mother of Concorde, and a great, truly British, icon this aircraft should be supported to fly. Vulcan is quintessentially British; her design was years ahead of its time and is still relevant in Aerospace R&D today; she is as significant to her era as is the Spitfire to the Second World War and she can be returned to flight!
I have to inform you, on behalf of the Club Committee, that the project to restore our beloved aircraft, Avro Vulcan XH558, to flying condition, is perilously close to having to be abandoned. This is purely because of lack of finance; nothing else.
You will know that it has always been the case that one or more major corporate or private sponsors have been required, for the fund raising capabilities of the Club members and of Felicity's 'Friends' have never been enough to completely fund the project, even with the HLF funding and the free work of the OEMs in refurbishing their components. Even so, we have all done incredibly well, the 'Buy Time' initiative producing over £40,000, which was absolutely magnificent. Buy time, though, was all it could do, and did. That sum, though, is small compared with the £1,200,000 still needed to complete the aircraft's restoration, its ground tests, and its air tests, so that it could be handed back to the Trust sometime in the spring of 2007. Time delays early on, a limitation in what the HLF could provide, and considerable cost over-runs have all contributed to what seems to be a never reducing sum being needed.
I can assure you that behind the scenes discussions that would secure the finance and therefore allow the restoration to continue, are taking place at a very high level, but I have to say that there is no certainty of success. If a major sponsor is not found, then very, very sadly, and with great reluctance, the Trustees have decided that the project will have to cease on 31 August, 2006, as they cannot legally continue beyond that date.
As almost everybody knows, the RAF's last operational Vulcan, XH558, has been 'resting' at a certain Leicestershire airfield now for more than a decade, patiently waiting for an opportunity to take to the skies again, this time in civilian hands. After years of both external and internal storage, the aircraft has more recently been undergoing a thorough restoration programme (effectively a 'rebuild') in order to meet the Civilian Aviation Authority's (CAA) standards. Unfortunately, meeting the CAA's criteria is a hugely difficult and expensive business, but with a steady stream of donations from the public, and a hefty amount of cash from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), the project has been progressing well, the engineering programme is now almost eighty percent complete. Although some components (such as the elevons) are still "outsourced" the airframe is still on schedule for roll-out from its hangar at Bruntingthorpe towards the end of this month. Tragically, it looks as if this event might also mark the end of the Vulcan's restoration programme.
Despite more than two million pounds having been spent on the project, the Vulcan needs more. Preparing a four-jet strategic bomber for civilian life is far from easy and, contrary to popular belief, it isn't a case of simply jet-washing the components and spraying-on some WD-40! In reality, the aircraft has been partially dismantled and rebuilt, with many systems updated, replaced or restored, so that redundant military equipment can be removed, and the remaining systems brought up to civilian standards. Despite the difficulties, the aircraft is still on target for engine runs towards the end of this year, and a 'first' flight around March next year. But while the Vulcan's progress has been good, the efforts to finance the project have been less than successful.
Even with HLF money, more cash is still needed. The Vulcan To The Sky Trust (VTST) anticipated that by this stage they would have probably received around half a million pounds in sponsorship money, but they haven't. It seems that the Vulcan - a classic example of Great British technological achievement - isn't of much interest to today's Great British companies. Whilst stunt planes, wing-walkers and even a Sea Vixen can attract sponsorship, the mighty Vulcan has captured nobody in industry's imagination - not even Richard Branson, despite several approaches. There are all kinds of theories as to why the aircraft may be so unattractive to potential sponsors, but the main reason seems to be that a pile of unassembled junk in a hangar doesn't look like an attractive project to finance. But jump forward to next year when the mighty delta roars into the sky and maybe - just maybe - things may look a little more interesting. But who knows? Unless XH558 gets a chance to remind us what the Vulcan is all about, we'll never know just how enthusiastic (or indifferent) British industry actually is.
Finding hard facts on the Vulcan's progress can be difficult. Wading through the confusing (and often contradictory) web pages from The Vulcan Operating Company (TVOC), VTST, Save The Vulcan, Support XH558 and so on, can be a tedious and surprisingly uninspiring business. Worse still, the key figures in this programme (the project's Director Dr. Robert Pleming and Publicity Manager Felicity Irwin) have never been particularly easy to contact, never mind question. All manner of dark tales have circulated concerning the project's status, but after asking some direct questions to Dr. Pleming, the situation becomes a little clearer, if not any less discouraging. In short, Pleming says that the Trust (the team who effectively 'own' the aircraft) has been forced to accept that unless a further £250,000 is found by the end of August, the project will have to be terminated. For legal reasons, people employed on the project have been given one month's notice, although efforts are still being made to find the cash. Pleming accepts that yet more money will be required to get the Vulcan into the air, but he seems confident that the project will be "affordable" if a cash injection can be made this month. Without the additional cash, the Trust accepts that it simply cannot continue. Pleming accepts that marketing and promotion has not been as good as it could have been, but like everyone else, he thinks it would be awful if we're left with "a useless hulk" at the end of this month after so much cash has been spent to date. To add to the current problems, Dr Pleming is ill and is currently in hospital.
So what happens now? Unless a miracle delivers the money from somewhere, it appears to be all over, and years of hard work, plus £2.7 million, will have been wasted. The Trust members accept that raising significant amounts of cash is already becoming increasingly difficult when so many people and organisations have already given so much, so it seems logical that attention should turn to the folks at the HLF. Having already given the project so much cash, wouldn't it seem logical that a further (smaller) amount should be given in order that their original investment isn't wasted? Not so, it seems. So far the HLF are saying that it is unwilling to hand-out more cash. Despite its colourful history of funding bizarre and often questionable projects, it seems set on adding XH558 to its unenviable track record of over-funded failures. Whilst it might seem sensible to avoid spending yet more lottery money on the project, the HLF is fully aware of the project's progress and it now has a very clear picture of how much cash is needed to get the aircraft into the air. It doesn't need much more, but it seems that even so much as another penny is too much for the HLF to contemplate.
Already, the accusations are starting to fly. Even a brief thumb through aviation discussion forums will reveal many questions that are being directed at the Vulcan team. Pleming accepts that the financial difficulties were largely caused by the time delay (twenty months) between the HLF's funding decision and the actual start of the engineering programme. Disturbingly, the Trust's "contingency budget" of £695,000 was swallowed-up by Marshall Engineering, the prime contractor for the project, despite the Trust making it clear from the very start that the project was to be a "fixed price" programme. It seems that despite giving the Trust a good line of credit, Marshall's has been taking a "strongly commercial" attitude to the whole project.
Meanwhile, BAE Systems is evidently set against giving any money to the project but at least they are shouldering product liability for free. Rolls-Royce, on the other hand, appears to have offered nothing, other than a bill for £60,000. Even more depressing is the news that keeping the aircraft hangared has come at a hefty price - some £275,000 has been spent on hangar, storage and office accommodation, and this figure will continue at a rate of £15,000 per month. It seems that the aircraft is effectively trapped at Bruntingthorpe until it is capable of flying out. Although one cannot deny the commercial value of the hangar, it is sad that the Vulcan may be just another profit-making exercise.
But raking over the coals of this sorry affair is something that can be reserved for the future. At present, there is still a slim chance of success if the HLF can be persuaded to step-in and save the project. We (as lottery players) have every right to keep asking the HLF to reconsider - surely, regardless of the rights and wrongs, the triumphs or mistakes associated with this programme, the important fact is that it is just weeks away from success and yet the HLF seems happy to throw-away a successful programme on which it's already spent millions, just for the sake of not spending a little bit more. Our hopes lay at the feet of the HLF - tell them that we don't want our money thrown away - we want to Vulcan to be completed, flown, removed from Bruntingthorpe and hopefully sponsored for many appearances across the country. Obviously, there are no guarantees that sponsors will ever be found for the Vulcan, even when it is airworthy. But at least we'll know one way or the other. Leaving the job unfinished leaves a permanent question mark over the very concept of such ambitious projects. But even if the Vulcan's long-term future will probably remain unclear, the task of getting the aircraft back into the air is now (finally) just a few weeks away.
Try and spread the word - find those RAF people with history, experience and a respect for the V-Force and see if they can tap the right shoulders to give this project some really high-profile publicity while it's still viable. If the aircraft can be restored to flying condition (something which will happen early next year if cash is found) then it could be moved from Bruntingthorpe and relocated to a site where money doesn't have to be spent simply to stand still - surely the MoD could help-out here, Waddington being its spiritual home.
We have three weeks to keep this project on the rails. You can do something. Fill out the form below and press 'send' - it'll go to the HLF. This form has now closed - Ed
It's an achievable aim if we just make an effort to try.
Final update 18:00 30 August: 1,588 messages sent to HLF!
Reply by the HLF:
The Vulcan to the Sky Trust is doing a terrific job restoring the Vulcan Bomber and we have been impressed with their ability to stick to the proposed timetable for getting the aircraft up and running. However, the Trust has let us know that costs have escalated and it is having problems securing additional funding.
We are currently in discussion with the Trust as to how it can best take the project forward.
Lucy Regan, Information Officer, Heritage Lottery Fund