After the Apocalypse: Farewell to the last of Britain’s nuclear bombers.

This October saw the final flight of XH558, the final airworthy Avro Vulcan nuclear bomber, but what does it mean that another Cold War colossus has been resigned to mothballs? An abandonment of our heritage or an acceptance of it?

Forming the backbone of Britain’s nuclear arsenal during the hottest part of the Cold War, Vulcans flew as part of the RAF from 1956 until 1984, and the only action any aircraft saw was part of the legendary Black Buck missions during the Falklands conflict, where Vulcans flew what was at that time the longest continuous bombing missions in history in support of British forces. XH558, the final Vulcan to fly never saw action in the Falklands or anywhere else. It was bought privately in 1993 for public display while the rest were scrapped, and was resurrected by the Vulcan to the Sky Trust, flying from 2007 until October this year. It is believed that keeping "The Spirit of Great Britain” in the sky has cost the trust more than £40 million, and that she has been seen by millions of people at air shows across the country.

The Vulcan holds a special place in the popular imagination of the UK, with dozens of hours of misty-eyed programming about the history of the aircraft running up to its eventual demise; but it is a curious thing. The delta-wing design and state-of-the-art (for 1956) technology makes the plane a marvel in concept and to see in the sky and the storied history of their participation in the Falklands as well as successfully completing their duty not to incite nuclear war during their service life makes the Vulcan an aircraft that served the nation with real distinction, even more than the Valiant or Victor bombers it helped replace. XH558 truly is ‘the spirit of Great Britain’, an aging, expensive, decaying, outdated wreak, the last of its breed, generating more noise and pomp than it has any right to do; or a courageous and historic legend, lovingly maintained with the adulation of millions, a brutal engine of death de-clawed and turned into a vehicle of pure aesthetic pleasure. Really a symbol of mankind’s insane latterday obsession with nuclear destruction but in a bizarre turn of events transformed into a roaring, soaring symbol of our peaceful, blissful existence; a battleship become a pleasure boat.

The aircraft was well renowned in its time, acquitting itself exceptionally in NATO tests at the Nellis range and in a brilliant and possibly apocryphal tale, highly favoured by Russian diplomats at the Farnborourgh Airshow, who bypassed world-class cutting-edge aircraft for “the plane that can reach my homeland.” Built to carry the British nuclear deterrent in the event of an exchange with the Soviet Union. Vulcans stood on launch-ready alert throughout the sixties and would have flown over northern Europe, delivering their weapons and then flying out into the arctic before ditching, and praying they were picked up by a NATO submarine and not a Soviet one. Today nuclear duties for the UK are dealt with exclusively by our fleet of missile-equipped submarines; but the image of a nuclear exchange at the hands of a steadfast bomber crew, taking off never to return is a deeply powerful one.

Like the revolutionary Concord, the Vulcan appears to inhabit an alternate dimension, on the one hand hopelessly outdated and yet never truly matched or exceeded. In many ways we still look up to the Vulcan. Thanks in part to the Vulcan’s complex design, massively extended service life and the technical knowledge fading and dying with the years (as well as squeamishness following the horrifying crash of a Hawker Hunter at Shoreham, a show at which XH558 had declined to appear), the companies responsible for the continued airworthiness of XH558 have decided to pull the plug, effectively grounding the aircraft as of the end of October. The existence of the Vulcan to the Skies project shows how the best of us, the war and brutality and suicidal Russian roulette of nuclear warfare, can become the rest of us; a project of heritage and love and which brings joy to millions. For me though, part of the Vulcan’s power is imagining the beast appearing out of the clouds over Port Stanley or Vladivostok, it may be grounded but it will forever be the God of Fire.

Written under duress by Steven. 
Photographs by Steven.

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