I found myself in Iceland with a few more days than I had planned and scanned over the many tours and other things to enjoy in and around Reykjavik. Then it dawned on me … I’m spitting distance from the UK … Its summer and that means airshow season! What trouble could I get into for a weekend in England? I’d been scanning the various Facebook aviation pages and recalled that the Avro Vulcan XH558 was doing a two day flypast tour of the significant sites of the UK’s V-Force fleet. That was it! … Chase or rather hunt the Vulcan around England for a weekend!
Although many might associate the name with a certain science fiction franchise the name Vulcan actually comes from the old Roman god of fire and volcanoes. The V-bombers were the United Kingdoms airborne strategic nuclear bombers during the 50’s and 60’s and consisted of the Avro Vulcan as well as the Vickers Valiant and the Handley Page Victor. The Vulcans were in service with the RAF from 1956 to 1984. At one point during the 60’s there were 70 Vulcans in service. just prior to their retirement the Vulcans were used during the Falklands conflict for conventional long range bombing raids. Interestingly for Australian readers, the Vulcan was briefly considered as a replacement for the Canberra bombers that were eventually replaced by the F-111C.
Back to the hunt
At this stage I had no idea how far I would have to go, how much of her I would see, if any and of course this was Britain we are talking about … What was the weather going to be like for photography? Before I had answered any of these questions I was receiving some intel back from some fellow spotters in the UK and formulated a rough plan. I had confirmed the dates were right and booked flights from Keflavik to Luton, the northern most of the airports I could fly into and therefore get me the closest to my target. Still with substantial parts of the plan missing I found myself landing in the UK … For the first time. Getting in a hire car and heading off to my first nights’ accommodation, my first staging post to plan the rest of the Hunt.
To keep the costs inside my budget I had organised my first night’s accommodation through @AirBnB. A home stay with a teacher and his family not too far from the airport. I settled into their pink walled spare bedroom and connected to their Wi-Fi. I sat on the bed of this nice house in Luton trying to decide the best way to maximise my very limited time and come home with the trophy I was chasing … Photos of the last remaining airworthy Avro Vulcan in what is likely to be her last year of flying. Miss it this time and I may never get the opportunity again.
The enormity of the task to get this beautiful Cold War warrior from a ground runner back into the sky and keep her there, I learnt later, was costing the trust responsible (The Vulcan To The Sky Trust) some £37,000 per week. To be able to keep that pace of fund raising up for eight years was an impressive and monumental feat that speaks loudly about the passion that the Brits have for this awesome aircraft. It also shows the rarity of the opportunity that I was chasing. As an Aussie aviation photographer this far from home with just two days to shoot her … This was certainly going to be a hunt.
Back to the plan
The ‘Salute to the V-Force tour’ was a two day affair over the weekend of the 27th and 28th of June. Each day the Vulcan would take off from her home base at Doncaster’s Robin Hood Airport and perform a flypast of sites significant to the V-bomber program. Some sites were past operational bases others where the current home of some of her sisters that have become static museum pieces. Some 12 sites throughout the central and north of Britain on the Saturday and another 11 on the Sunday covering a more easterly circuit.
I had made contact with a couple of UK based fellow Aviation Photographers in the rush to get to the UK to gain some intel to help formulate a plan. Anton Cook, one of the young up and comings in the UK aviation photography scene let me know the Vulcan was expected to deliver a reasonable flypast at RAF Museum at Cosford. This site is significant as the only museum displaying examples of all three V-bombers, the Vulcan, the Victor and the Valiant. An added bonus would be the chance to explore Museum.
Jamie Ewan, another UK based Aviation Journalist and Photographer let me in on a great spot at her home strip at Doncaster that had a decent sized mound of dirt outside the fence adjacent to the runway which was a good regular vantage point for spotters, providing an almost unobstructed view of her take-off and landing. Awesome local knowledge about a secret spotting location I thought! At this stage I hoped to catch her in three locations, Cosford, Doncaster for a launch and one of her last flypasts on her Sunday route. The plan was to maximise my chances of getting some decent images.
Not that I like challenging myself but as this was a spur of the moment decision it was taken while I was on route back from Greenland and therefore I hadn’t really come prepared to shoot this bird. I had no concerns about the body, the Nikon D800E. I had used this to shoot the Australian International Airshow earlier this year and am still confident I’ll be using it for spotting, in fact all of my photography for a while yet. The lens however was a different story. The only lens I was carrying was the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR a versatile and capable travel lens, but was it going to be up to the job? Having shot aircraft with Nikon’s 400mm, 500mm and even their 800mm primes on a couple of occasions earlier this year maybe I’d just been spoiled? Time would tell. As I sat in my pink walled room I decided … Saturday I would spend the morning getting to and exploring the museum at Cosford and Sunday I would shoot the launch at Doncaster and then try my luck at Cleethorpes, her last location on the Sunday before she returns to Doncaster.
The Hunt Begins
Still with no accommodation booked for Saturday night I headed off early in the morning, a little bit like an excited school boy off on an adventure. I reached the RAF museum just as it opened at 10am. Headed off into the museum not really knowing what to expect. (See other story on our website detailing my visit to the museum soon) as I walked into the hall of Cold War aircraft I looked up and I could see the static Vulcan partially obscured by the Victor and the Valiant … Oh my god!
My first face to face with the Vulcan! This aircraft XM-598 was one of the aircraft used during the Falkland conflict. She is a big bird and the display hall has been crammed with lots of aircraft maximising the use of the space inside the substantial custom hall. The front wheels of the Vulcan are suspended mid air over a lower floor and there is a Hawker Hunter suspended above her. This place is awesome! I shoot and cover off the other three halls and outside displays with enough time to grab lunch and wait for the allotted arrival time of the Vulcan at 1325. This was a fast pass by me through this amazing museum, but I needed to make sure I covered off on the essentials, shoot the Vulcan and then work out where I was to sleep that night. As I finished my lunch I overhear a conversation that sounds like someone knowledgeable about the imminent flypast … I turn to see a chap wearing a shirt with the words “Ask me about the Vulcan” I bide my time … People are asking “which way will she come from?” “How many passes will she do?” “Will she just fly past and go?” I loiter around listening to the answers … It seems that the answers are a lot of “We hope she will …” “I’d like to think she will …” Ok it’s my turn, I introduce myself and get asked where I’ve come from. I tell the guy I am an Aussie but I have just flown in from Iceland for the weekend just to chase this bird around. We strike up a conversation and I get introduced to others as “hey this Aussie has flown from overseas to shoot the Vulcan!” The gentleman I’m speaking to is Lee Broadbent who is a committee member for the Vulcan to the Sky Club. The club is the organisation responsible for the interaction and engagement with the public and one of the key fund raising bodies that keeps the Vulcan flying. We get into deeper conversation about how long she is likely to remain airworthy and what are the key factors that are threatening to ground her?
It appears that there are a number of factors conspiring and that they are all combining to making continued flight of this aircraft ever more risky. Increased rarity in both parts and the skills required to manufacture and maintain them as well as engine and airframe age. We both keep a close eye on our watches. The time has come to pick a spot and hope it’s right. There are several grassed mounds in front of the museum for just such an occasion as this and a short display by the BBMF Hurricane earlier in the day has given me a chance to get a feel for the site. I stake my claim on the grass and wait…
My first site of the Vulcan
The scuttlebutt from those with scanners is that she is running just slightly ahead of schedule … And then I see people pointing at a distant black dot against a grey sky. She passes the site some kilometers away and starts circling closer … and closer.
After around ten minutes of circling ever closer the Vulcan almost flies straight over head and then seems to head off. Some eager spectators have made it back to their cars and are trying to get out of the car park first (clearly not dedicated spotters). The small car park has reached grid lock just as the Vulcan screams back into view parallel with the runway, closer and lower than any of the previous passes.
The howl of those four big jets is awesome! At the end of the run she tips her nose upward 45 degrees and rolls to the left peeling off out of the climb to give us a fabulous look at her batwing profile. My shutter is clicking away and if that was all I get to see and hear of this rare beast, I will go home happy. She cuts a tight circle and turns back along the runway and again you can hear the engines howl as they push the 60 year old ‘Spirit of Great Britain’ into another climb that she again banks out of, giving us another shot at her profile. One more pass overhead and my prey heads off to her next engagement.
Still hopeful of a closer engagement with the Vulcan I start looking at maps and planning the next step. I head north east across the English countryside towards Doncaster. 3 hours later I’m getting my 3rd explanation as to why there is no accommodation available in Doncaster tonight. Something to do with races and a concert. Due to the spur of the moment nature of this weekend I arrived in the UK with no phone sim and no internet so both finding my way to and organising accommodation had to be done old school. I had to find a place to go and then talk to a person at the reception. I kept telling myself it’s only 3 days … It’s not worth getting a SIM card for and besides I can use the free wifi at McDonald’s … Right? Well no. In the UK you need a local phone number for McDonald’s to send you a code blah blah blah.
I eventually find a room 45 mins away from Doncaster that was more than I had planned to spend but my patience was wearing thin … Damn £70 for a room in this town? Do you have free wifi? And that includes breakfast you say? As I settled into my rather nice room I bring the two bottles of Stella out of the bag and look for the fridge to get them cold. My search is fruitless. Seriously?
Old School Spotting
Following my included breakfast on the Sunday morning I make my way towards Robin Hood airport with nothing but a screen shot of a google map with a hand drawn scrawl showing the best spotting location. As I cruise on into the airport car park for a look I spot the Vulcan on the tarmac over to my left. I park the car and jump up on a power box to try and shoot over the fence … And fail as the box I’m standing on isn’t tall enough. Well if that’s as close as I can get to her on the ground then so be it. I head around towards her following the service roads around the airport. It’s time for some old school spotting, each time I stop and run to the fence I’m getting closer to her. I finally find myself as close as I can get to her and shoot a few frames through the fence. Ok I’m happy with that! Some reasonable nose end static shots.
I make my way around to the “secret” spotting location and have to park the car and walk a kilometre to get to the mound past all of the other people at the “secret” spot. I climb the mound and smile … Ok this is a cool spot! The intel was very solid! Views above the fence line and most other obstructions. As I wait I chat to one of the other 1000 spotters there. This chap was on this spot for the launch and recovery on the Saturday and tells me that she did a few extra passes before landing. This convinces me that I’ll stay for the landing as well.
The Vulcan launches
Right on time at 1300 she rolls out and lines up. A bellow of heat behind her is the only clue that she is launching until she gets closer and the wolf howl increases. The Vulcan lifts off at about 45 degrees from our position and climbs gracefully into the sky. The whole time I’m trying not to fill my camera’s cache too soon. Yup I’m not going to be anywhere else but here to watch her land.
Her circuit is a three hour trip so I take off for a look around and think I’ve come up with a clever plan. Go into the airport and grab a coffee and use their wifi and maybe they have an observation deck I could use to grab some shots of the international flights in and out of Robin Hood? Sounds like a plan!
Got my name on a watch list … I wander into the airport. It’s a smallish affair so I find the only set of seats near a coffee shop and go to sit down. I’m confronted by a police officer, my first ever conversation with a Bobby. I realise he is talking to me and it takes me a moment to get my head around his accent. I realise he is telling me that no photographers are allowed in the building while the flight from <lost in his accent> comes in. I didn’t really catch the reason but I understood he did not want me and my camera in there. I quickly agree and head out to my car to drop off my camera. As I close the door and lock the car I turn to see the Bobby and his mate heading towards me. They take my passport number and details. My car registration and want explanation of why I’m here … I’m her to spot the Vulcan like I said. Well with this flight from Tunisia coming in after the terror attack there <ahhh got it that time> . We finish the formalities and he is happy to let me back in the building. I am happy I wasn’t strip searched. I grab a coffee and decide I should get out of their hair … They have enough to worry about. Later I muse to myself about the fact that I’d been in Greenland and hadn’t had a shave for 6 weeks … Sure it’s red but I have a big bushy beard. No … Surely he didn’t suspect I was … I shrug it off.
The Vulcan Returns
Ok back to the secret spot. This time I’m arriving in the small lane an hour before she is due and already there is more vehicles parked than for the launch. I scamper back up to the mound and find myself somewhat more challenged for space. That’s an encouraging sign. As with all good spotting areas there is someone close by with a scanner. The call of she is just over Grimsby goes through the crowd. Cool I think “where the hell is Grimsby?” I must have done more than think it as the British gentleman next to me points and says “That way”. We chat about how many times he has seen her take off and land and how on the Saturday she had spent 15 mins doing a mini display before landing. Yup … Good decision to stay here.
She cruises into view over the trees and I can’t help but smile. Three times in two days … This is looking like a successful hunt. I am rewarded for my dedication to this location. She spends the next 25 mins doing fly passes and even direct overhead opening and closing Bombay doors … You little beauty!
She eventually comes into land to the enthusiastic applause of the spotting crowd. Her rear wheels touch and she holds the nose up for at least half the length of the runway.
Nice finish gents!
I made my way back down the highway towards Luton, to catch my Iceland Air flight back to Keflavik … Satisfied that I had given it a damn good crack and if this was the first and last chance I get to see the Vulcan I was walking away satisfied. A beautiful old jet that had served her country well in active service and was now in the last moments of her direct service to the public of the UK. I was walking away with the trophy I’d hoped for … Memory cards full of images that I was yet to really have a chance to look at and evaluate.
Having now had the time to process my shots I am happy. Happy that my lens was well and truely up to the task and that I’d done my bit to help record this awesome piece of aviation history.
what a brilliant article …well done.. i have been fortunate to see her fly over the years, your passion in photographing her was well rewarded ….i think you are one of the very few lucky Aussies
to see her fly……end of an era in british history ….she will retire later this year and will go on permanent display in her hangar at Robin hood Airport (formerly RAF FINNINGLEY)
Thanks for your feedback Frazer. It was a wonderful experience. One thing that became very clear in the short time I was in the UK was the genuine passion the Brits have for this aircraft. She is a wonderful piece of aviation history and I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to shoot her while she is still flying.
And that engine howl is something else!
Thanks for your kind words on the article … I’m glad you enjoyed it.