The Chief Test Pilot of Marshall Aerospace fulfils a long-held ambition to fly the world’s only airworth Vulcan

By Iain Young (Pictures: Keith Wilson) 

Everyone remembers the Vulcan’s key role in the Falklands War in 1982 and now that Concorde is no more, Britain’s V-bomber has replaced Concorde as the nation’s flying icon. Personally, I’ve always wanted to fly one since reading Stuart Wishart’s flight test in the March 1981 issue of Pilot.

Stuart had hundreds of hours in Vulcans to draw on and wrote lyrically about an aircraft he obviously loved. For instance: ‘This monster aeroplane would climb 500 feet or so without the need for extra power. That big solid wing just sucked the aeroplane upwards and the impression was very much as one would imagine a magic carpet ride to be: no vibration, noise shut out behind and a steady flowing motion with climbs and descents easily accomplished’.I just missed the Vulcan in my RAF years. Like most pilots, the closest I’ve been able to get to one is in the 1965 movie Thunderball, when SPECTRE hijacks a Vulcan from NATO to steal its payload of atom bombs. Then I became involved in the flight test programme for Vulcan B Mk2 XH558 (G-VLCN) and finally had the chance to sample one myself. My first impressions as I walk towards XH558 in its hangar are of the beautiful finish on all surfaces and that she’s not as big as I’d expected. Sure, she’s not exactly small but not big like a 747, more the size of the C130 Hercules that I fly at Cambridge. There’s plenty of wing area, of course, and a cavernous open bomb bay but overall XH558 looks compact and purposeful in her lair and I can’t wait to take a look inside.Because there are ejection seats, ‘Taff’ Stone, the Vulcan Operating Company (VOC) crew chief and cockpit safety manager, gives me a safety brief and loose article check before I’m allowed to climb the ladder that is the only access route into the Vulcan’s belly. Inside it is more spacious than expected and there’s quite a bit of room to stow equipment. Electrical power is on so there is some lighting but it’s not exactly bright and airy. The interior designers’ choice of matt black paint doesn’t help. Ahead of me is a vertical ladder up to the cockpit; behind me, seats and tables for two navigators and the Air Electronics Officer. The AEO operates electrical, hydraulic and airborne auxiliary power pack (AAPP) systems and two of the three radios fitted to the aircraft. I climb the narrow ladder to the cockpit. The ejection seats are only eight inches apart and wriggling between them while ducking to avoid the low ceiling isn’t elegant. The seats are not especially comfortable and you sit on a parachute. The cockpit is compact and first impressions are of a haphazard scatter of knobs, switches and gauges. You sit with your eye-line a whole 17ft above the ground.EIGHT ELEVONS

To quote Stuart Wishart: ‘The Vulcan’s greatest attributes are its power and its large solid wing. At full throttle each engine develops about 20,000 pounds of thrust and the total is just under half the normal takeoff weight. This is sufficient to accelerate the beast from rest to 180mph in 23 seconds.‘There are eight movable surfaces on the rear edge of the wing, four each side of the fuselage. These can act as elevators or ailerons, depending on the manoeuvre, and so are called elevons. In a straight climb, all will act as elevators and in a level turn all will act as ailerons; but in a climbing turn the inboard two on each side act as elevators and the outside two as ailerons. The control surfaces are not directly controlled by the stick, but are power operated: this removes all sense of feel from the controls, and to overcome the problem artificial feel is supplied, which increases in proportion to airspeed.’My first flight in the Vulcan is part way into the test flight programme and I sit in the back to direct and record the tests. Dave Thomas is P1 with Martin Withers, ‘Black Buck One’ of Falklands Air Raid fame as P2 and Barry Masefield as AEO. Barry gives me a detailed rundown on seat operation and emergency egress. My job will be to open the crew door and deploy the steps. External electrical power is connected, engines are started, systems exercised, controls checked for full, free and correct movement with the aid of the crew-chief on external intercom, the AAPP fired-up, and after-start and pre-takeoff checks completed. I record various parameters and note that the process has taken just under an hour from crew-in. Not quite up to in-service operational scramble requirementsbut we are taking a measured approach. The takeoff run is short and acceleration impressive but there’s no sensation of speed from the back as there’s no view of the external world from the small, high windows. I’m also surprised how quiet it is, given the close proximity of those Olympus engines. Flying helmets help, of course, but I’ve been in plenty of noisier aircraft. After the takeoff checks are completed, I ask Dave for engine parameters at full throttle with the cruise limiters engaged. “Waste of time”, is his reply as he’s got all four at idle to stay below 250kt as we reduce climb rate to stay below Controlled airspace. We’ll get those readings later.We plan to cover the basic aircraft schedule, which should take about 2hr 30min, and to land at RAF Cottesmore for compass alignment. Three-quarters of the way, a timed undercarriage cycling test at limiting gear speed results in indication of failure to retract. As Barry checks the gear through his periscope, a second emergency: the AAPP fire annunciator is activated. The AAPP runs during flight to provide back-up electrical power but it’s buried in the underside of the starboard wing and a fire is a serious issue. So we complete drills, fire the extinguisher and make tracks to Cottesmore, happily the nearest suitable airfield. In the meantime the starboard gear door, which had proved to be the reason for the gear problem, has belatedly decided to close itself and we concentrate on monitoring the AAPP and effecting a safe recovery. The gear functions normally, the AAPP shows no signs of an actual fire (it later turns out to be a spurious indication), and we land without further drama.The next flight sees a repeat of the gear door fault and we go straight back to Bruntingthorpe so the aircraft can be put on jacks for full diagnosis. The problem turns out to be a loose connection to a microswitch. There are a few other minor faults during the two flights, including a sticking canopy magnetic indicator and fluctuating No.4 Alternator output. Not bad, considering the extent of the restoration.MY TURN

Now the calendar has spun forwards, it’s 6 May 2008 and it’s my turn at the controls. Andy Marson is the rear safety man for the flight and Dave and Barry are flying with us. Dave, an experienced Vulcan pilot, is in the left seat next to mine.The mission is to fly to RAF Coningsby to use their compass base to complete alignment checks. We plan to be airborne for 2hr 30min. The aircraft zero fuel weight is 100,000lb, some 10,000lb pounds lighter than in its service days and we’re taking 47,000lb of fuel, against the maximum of about 74,000lb. Fuel burn averages 10,000lb per hour so we’ve got enough to cover the planned flight and a diversion, if it becomes necessary, and still comfortably meet the minimum landing fuel requirement of 7,000lb. Take-off weight will be 145,000lb and I’m really looking forward to experiencing the performance and handling of this relatively light Vulcan. Removal of two radar systems, bomb racks, electronic countermeasures, the old Attitude and Heading Reference equipment, autopilot, other bits and pieces and an enormous amount of redundant wiring has contributed to the weight loss. They even removed a large bundle of wires from inside the right wing labelled ‘Mine Laying Equipment’. As the latter was never fitted to the Vulcan it is quite probable that this was a hangover from Avro’s Lancaster production line as the latter had a major mine-laying role.I slide gracefully (-ish) into the seat and Taff helps me strap in. We make the seats and canopy live and stow the pins in their holders. The fuel control panel hinges out from below the throttles and I scrutinise the switches on the side panel on my right as they’ll be my responsibility in flight. They’re all labelled and I’ve had a full rundown on their use but it wouldn’t be too impressive if I made any incorrect selections, so I take the opportunity to review them before we start engines.Start-up and systems checks proceed smoothly and we’re ready to go. My first job is taxiing to the runway. I increase power slightly to get her moving and acquaint myself with the nosewheel steering. Steering is effected by means of a small button at the bottom of the handgrip on the centrally-mounted control column. The technique is to move the rudder pedals in the appropriate sense and pulse the button to steer. As we wander drunkenly towards our takeoff point I’m glad that I’ve got a nice wide runway to practice on before taking to the narrow and twisting taxiways.INTO THE AIR

I set 80 per cent rpm, check engine parameters, release the brakes and open the throttle fully. The 130kt rotate speed is soon reached and I pull back the column to unstick. Pitch forces are heavy but the handgrip-mounted elevator trim is powerful and I have no problem holding and trimming the 15-degree climb attitude and accelerating to a nominal 200kt. Stuart was a low-hour RAF pilot whose previous mount was the Varsity when he was posted to fly Vulcans. His account of his first takeoff reads as follows: ‘As instructed, I pushed hard on the foot brakes, checked hydraulic pressure and brought all four thundering engines up to eighty per cent rpm.The noise was muted to us inside the cockpit, but the thrust forced the front suspension down and down until there was a positive forward slope to the aeroplane. I released the brakes and saw the nose rise in the second before I moved the four throttles fully forward. I managed to keep the nose pointing somewhere near the other end of the runway. The plotter called, “Rotate”. I merely had to release the forward pressure on the stick and it came back in my hand. As the nosewheel came off I was rocked backwards. “Don’t worry, you’ll catch up with it,” said my instructor as we climbed through 7,000 ft.’ This must have been literally one minute after leaving the ground, for a full throttle takeoff in those days gave a 6,000fpm climb rate. We take things more calmly today.Stuart Wishart again: ‘At all normal operating speeds the control forces are never uncomfortably heavy, yet the controls are always positive. At slow speeds they naturally become lighter, but do not become senseless or sloppy. However if one of the systems such as the artificial feel fails the controls can become desperately heavy so that two pilots together can only just hold them or so light that there is a possibility of overstressing the aircraft.’ Stuart also comments: ‘A lot of rudder is required to keep the aeroplane in balance and rudder leads aileron in a well-coordinated turn.’Our rate of climb is 2,500fpm and, as Dave raises the gear, I reduce power to contain speed; and reduce power; and reduce power. I level at 5,000ft to clear airspace and route out towards Cambridge. The cockpit windows are relatively small but the field of view is adequate for VFR operations and we are able to keep a lookout for other aircraft and gliders. On this mission we need to check Horizontal Situation Indicator (HSI) and Course Deviation Indicator (CDI) alignment against an ILS localiser and my familiarity with Cambridge and surrounding features makes this an obvious choice to fly an approach. It will also give the many Marshall Aerospace personnel who have worked on the project a look at the results of their labours and ATC are happy to assist. I fly the approach down to 600ft and gently apply power to go-around; well sort of gently. My left turn to avoid the city gives, I’m told, a good view of the aircraft and I level at 2,000ft and clear the area to the North. All this manoeuvring is giving me the feel of the Vulcan. The elevators are heavy at all speeds and I make much use of the trimmer. The ailerons are light and she’s surprisingly sprightly in roll as we climb to 14,000ft for more handling and systems checks.The mission doesn’t call for stalling but I take her down to 123kt (Vref minus 10kt) to check low speed handling. This brings on moderate airframe buffet, as it does with all low aspect ratio, swept wing aircraft. You certainly wouldn’t get close to an inadvertent stall with this amount of warning. Handling remains positive and I apply full power to simulate a late go-around without any problems. So far I’m impressed with the Vulcan’s vice-free handling. Stuart writes: ‘Vulcans do not stall in the way most aeroplanes do, ie buffet and nose drop, but they do settle into a dramatically high rate of sink with low IAS.’ He also notes that a Vulcan can maintain height with two failed engines. With some systems tuning on the way, we arrive at Coningsby and I discover yet more about this wonderful machine’s character; it doesn’t want to slow down! The airbrakes extend from the upper wing surface and have intermediate and full extended positions selected by a paddle-switch behind the throttles. They don’t seem to do a lot. Throttles closed, airbrakes out and I still struggle to lose height and speed. But I eventually manage to get us below 250kt and at 10,000ft and we make controlled progress towards Coningsby. Dave takes the approach and landing. Airbrakes are extended for the approach and the landing looks straightforward, with only a small flare, though the mainwheels touch a little sooner than I’d anticipated. Landing speed is 135kt.

The calendar winds forward a month and I’m at the controls again, this time atBruntingthorpe. The takeoff seems a more measured affair as I’ve got a bit more experience of the aircraft and I savour the experience as I take a slightly shallower climb out and reduce power earlier.We have more systems tuning, plus the air-to- air photography session with a Beech Baron at 6,000ft over Rutland Water that illustrates this article and the free poster with this issue of Pilot. This is a good test of low speed handling qualities and I add to our test data with some notes. Dave flies this approach and landing and holds the nose up for aerodynamic braking, until we’ve slowed down to 90kt. This means we don’t have to deploy the brake parachute, saving packing time and cost. At the time of writing, I still haven’t landed the Vulcan, so I’m going to quote Stuart again: ‘Because the Vulcan has a solid triangular wing it exhibits ground effect (a cushion of air underneath the wing which softens the landing). The aeroplane can land at any weight at which it can take off and in crosswinds there is no need to kick off drift; merely land with drift applied and the undercarriage is strong enough to pull it straight on the runway. ‘To ease the load on the brakes, aerodynamic braking is used. When firmly on the ground the stick is eased back and the big bird rears up on its hind legs. The effect is like pushing a barn door through the air, creating lots of drag, which causes the speed to fall off quickly. With much of the speed gone, the nosewheel is lowered and the brakes applied “until the probe digs into the runway,” as my instructor put it.’Stuart also warns about the potential dangers of the elevon controls during landings:‘Anticipation is required in any levelling manoeuvre. If the speed is too high, as the aeroplane is rounded out to the landing attitude the angle of attack is such that sufficient lift is generated to cause the aircraft to rise. The obvious reaction to this is to push the stick forward, thus pushing the eight elevons to go down, acting like a huge flap, causing the aeroplane to rise… accurate speed-keeping on the approach is therefore essential.’Clearly, this magnificent aeroplane has some quirks to explore in the months ahead. I can hardly wait!