Vulcan XH558 "Turn and Burn" Event Feature Report
Tuesday 17th February
In October 2007, Avro Vulcan XH558 flew for the first time in 14 years. The restoration was hailed as a major triumph, the like of which has not been seen before or since in the world of historic aviation. Now, barely a year on; after a display season in which the aircraft had been seen by an estimated 1.5million spectators, the project lies on the brink of financial collapse, with a total of £1million needed to safeguard the aircraft's flying future - monies which need to be raised by the deadline of March 6.
, a witness to that historic first flight, was back at Bruntingthorpe on Tuesday, February 17, to watch the aircraft carry out an engine run, and to speak to TVOC CEO Dr Robert Pleming. Words and pictures by the author.
I'm sitting in the boardroom of The Vulcan Operating Company, the smell of Full Englishes wafting down the corridor from the canteen a couple of doors along. Sat opposite me is a man with an unenviable task - Dr Robert Pleming must plug a £700,000 funding shortfall in a little over a fortnight or risk being known as the man who oversaw both the birth and death of the most ambitious aircraft restoration undertaken anywhere in the world.
Barely half an hour earlier, we'd both been out on an unseasonably mild Bruntingthorpe airfield watching Avro Vulcan B.2 XH558 running up her four Olympus engines to full power, before an audience of some 100 paying spectators and assorted members of the press. This event had been billed as possibly the last time XH558 would "turn and burn" before the project ran out of money, barely 18 months after her historic return to the skies following a mammoth multi-million pound rebuild. Pleming himself has come in for much criticism as costs have leapt ever-higher, and a major corporate sponsor has failed to materialise. I ask him if mistakes have been made along the way. The major one, he tells me, was assuming that big-money sponsorship would come once the machine was airworthy.
"We've been endlessly optimistic, but we needed to be, to make this happen. I've personally been accused of being far too optimistic. We didn't think there'd be such a deep recession as we're now in. Our business plan had us signing up corporate sponsorship.
"We already have around £400,000 [corporate sponsorship] per year, getting on for around a quarter of what we need, but it's nothing like the 80 or 90% that we assumed that we could get, which in a different climate, with a fair wind, given what we've been told by potential sponsors, would have been possible. There has been a learning curve, but I wouldn't put that down to mistakes."
As Chief Executive Officer of the company, Dr Pleming is the man with whom the buck effectively stops. Without doubt he has been vilified on all of the major aviation forums, with everything from his salary to his competence in the job drawn into question. The temptation to walk away, I suggest to him, must at times be great.
"I've said for a long time that once we had the aircraft in a stable operating environment, then I would probably go and do something else, but right now I can't leave it in this state, there's no way!
"I do know that the criticism is based on an awful lot of ignorance and an awful lot of misinformation so I don't really take much notice of it. I know what we've done, I know the team, I know their strengths. We've achieved a unique success in flying the Vulcan. Nobody else worldwide has done this and it is truly a proud thing for me and the team.
"One of the things we have to work on is the business plan, because I desperately don't want to be in the same position this time next year as we are now. I think we have to now recognise that the world is a different place from the one that we assumed we'd be in, so I think that we do need to significantly change our business assumptions."
This isn't the first time the project has run into funding difficulties, nor is it the first time a "last chance to save her" cry has been made. With this in mind, I wondered how serious a threat ‘558 is facing now?
"Formally we run out of cash at the beginning of March. We have very low reserves. We have been working very hard since the beginning of December on a pledge campaign. We've actually gotten to 306-odd thousand, on top of that we can add some commitments that we've had from other sources, but we still have to feel confident we're going to make the whole of the million pounds that we need."
Another accusation levelled is that the team at Bruntingthorpe is simply too big and unwieldy and that too much of each donated pound is spent on administration, staffing and hangarage before any gets to the aircraft itself.
"We're actually below minimum in terms of the engineering team. We'd like two more people. We just manage to get by with the resources we've got. I'd like to cut costs a bit more; there are a couple of changes we can make going forward.
"Running this project is not like only having to fuel a car up when you drive it - there are tremendous ongoing costs every month. We have an engineering team we need to keep the aircraft airworthy and to fly her. Insurance costs upwards of nearly £20,000 a month. Hangarage again, is a significant cost. So the idea that we'll fly the aircraft and pay off everything at the end of the year doesn't work. And as a charity, we're not allowed to borrow, and we're not allowed to have an overdraft."
Out on the airfield earlier, as the Vulcan's Olympus engines howled and shook the ground, there were no outward signs of doom and gloom. There were broad smiles on the faces of staff and volunteers alike, even though staff members are serving their period of notice before redundancy. Even against that backdrop, plans are still being made for the 2009 airshow season - the aircraft's pre-season servicing is scheduled for March-April, and the display permit is due for renewal in July.
"Next season's shows are already identified, and a provisional programme is already on the website - around 24 or so displays that we would like to get to. One of the big ones we would really like to achieve is going to Paris for the Le Bourget airshow."
The project was kick-started by a £2.7m donation from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Having saved the Vulcan once, will the Lottery come up trumps again?
"We keep an ongoing dialogue with the Lottery fund - I spoke to them on the phone a couple of weeks ago; we last had a formal meeting in November. With the completion of the restoration, that was the end of their formal involvement in the project. Our contract with the Lottery actually lasts for 80 years! We have asked them on several occasions as to whether or not there is more funding available - the answer is a polite, but firm "no".
"We are viewed as one of their more successful projects, but what the Lottery won't do is provide money for revenue expenditure, or running costs. They've been very candid with us, they've given us every assistance, but they won't give us any more money."
The Avro Vulcan is an iconic machine, but this example, XH558, is an almost mythical creature with a loyal and devoted following. If the project at Bruntingthorpe were to fold, the aircraft's fate is by no means certain.
"If we are forced into administration, the administrator, almost certainly, would be forced to sell the aircraft. Under those circumstances which we are fighting very, very hard to avoid, my only hope would be that it would go to someone who wanted to keep it flying in the UK. My suspicion, and it's a suspicion borne out by information we have received is that it would go probably to an American buyer, because they have got the pockets and they love this sort of thing."
Pleming said that mechanically the aircraft is in good shape for future flying, and certainly the team at Bruntingthorpe aren't throwing in the towel just yet. A million pounds is the target to reach by March, for a project which has overcome many hazards and hurdles to get this far. Whether this latest problem proves to be insurmountable will all become clear in a matter of weeks.
The project website, for further information and to make donations, can be found at www.vulcantothesky.org.