Dr Robert Pleming Obituary

Thursday 4th February 2021

Between 2008 and 2015 was, with hindsight, a golden age for the British airshow. The scene had a true star. Booking Avro Vulcan XH558 could, would and did put thousands on the gates at venues she displayed at, and people far beyond the relative niche market of “aviation enthusiast” would travel from far and wide for a piece of the triangular action.

And the fact that we got those eight summers out of the last airworthy V-bomber is largely, if not entirely, down to Dr Robert Pleming.

Dan O'Hagan pays tribute to the late CEO of Vulcan To The Sky Trust who died suddenly this week.

Cards on the table here, Dr Pleming and I did not always see eye-to-eye. In my time as a Staff member on this very publication I was deeply critical of Vulcan To The Sky Trust, and indeed remain firmly in the camp of those who see little sense in the aircraft’s current, final resting place at Doncaster. To Dr Pleming’s eternal credit, he realised that he had to engage with the project’s - and by extension, his - critics to get the message across to the aviation enthusiast community.

I met Dr Pleming several times, initially on that most momentous of days: October 18, 2007. That was the perfect, clear, chilly autumn day that XH558 flew for the first time in civilian hands. He was, despite being relatively small in stature, a giant presence around Bruntingthorpe that day. Proudly walking around the aircraft, like a new father keen to show off his most bonny of babies.

Dr Robert Pleming

After that flight, I caught up with him to offer my congratulations. “I’m the owner of a one-aeroplane airline now” he chuckled, before being taken aside by one of the many, many national news crews there that day.

He found solutions. He was a problem-fixer. Whenever times seemed especially bleak, or the pot was empty, Dr Pleming found a way to eke out a few extra pounds from the project’s sponsors, or more often than not, ordinary workaday members of the public. In the wake of the 2007 financial crash, operating a millions-a-year aeroplane for little more than joyrides to airshows should have been impossible. Dr Pleming, for eight years proved that it wasn’t.

There’s little doubt that the “end” had to come in 2015. Shoreham had happened, classic jets were poison to both the public and more critically, the press. The engine and design authorities were understandably twitchy. The Vulcan’s time had probably run out. An emotional national tour, and one rather shabby “final flight” around Doncaster later, and that was it. No more flying Vulcan.

This isn’t the place to discuss, debate or critique the situation both the aircraft and VTTS now find themselves, but in my final meeting over a coffee with Dr Pleming at a Heathrow hotel in early 2017 he enthusiastically, passionately, frankly and openly discussed what lay ahead for a podcast for this website.

Avro Vulcan XH558

Honest and erudite to the last, Dr Pleming even admitted what the enthusiast community had suspected all along - that on one of the final flights, XH558 had, contrary to her Permit To Fly, been rolled by the pilots. He didn’t have to do that. As far as has ever been revealed, no moving pictures of that event exist, just a flick-book of still frames, and yet he was willing to tell the truth in a difficult situation for him and his crew. No fudge, just facts.

His impact on the classic aviation scene has been immense. To have even convinced the Heritage Lottery Fund to have stumped up to finance a return-to-flight was, in itself, an act of near-sorcery, while to have overseen eight airshow seasons of successful, safe, engaging and inspiring display flying is truly remarkable.

There’s no more fitting epitaph to Dr Robert Pleming’s achievement with Vulcan To The Sky Trust than a friend’s texted response to a video of XH558 I sent this week: “Crazy to think THAT was flying in civilian hands.”

Nothing then, is impossible.