On a recovery mission

Rob Pleming and a team of experts have been working since 1997 to get one of the last Vulcan bombers back in the air. Now, as he tells David Fowler, a take-off date is in sight

Two weeks ago, one of only 16 surviving Avro Vulcan bombers emerged from its hangar at Bruntingthorpe airfield in Leicestershire, its home since being retired by the RAF six years ago, and roared down the runway.

For now, that is all it is allowed to do. But if a team assembled by engineer Rob Pleming can raise the funds by this time next year, it will be flying at events around the UK.

Since 1997 Pleming, a systems engineer with Cisco Systems, has been working with the Vulcan’s owner David Walton – whose company operates Bruntingthorpe – to get the plane airborne again.

The Vulcan, conceived in 1948 by the Avro Lancaster’s designer Ray Chadwick, was advanced for its time. It served the RAF from 1956 to 1984, then remained in operation as part of the Vulcan Display Flight, which fell victim to defence cuts in 1993.

At displays over the years, Pleming, an aviation enthusiast who learned to fly as a 17-year-old under an RAF flying scholarship, had been impressed by the bomber’s abilities. He says that despite being the size of a Boeing 737 `it’s very manoeuvrable, like a fighter, and very powerful’.

Its Olympus engines, the first twin-shaft turbojets, were later developed to power Concorde.

Apart from its novel delta wing layout, it was the first all-electric aircraft: it carries 460kVA of generating capability, and its electro-hydraulic actuators operate its control surfaces. It was equipped with advanced radar rather than defensive armaments such as machine guns.

After meeting Walton at a Bruntingthorpe air show, Pleming was drafted into the Vulcan Operating Company as project director.

`Walton’s aim was to keep the plane in as good a condition as possible to see if it would be possible to return it to flight,’ Pleming says. `It became clear that a lot of effort would be needed. For it to be granted an airworthiness certificate, the Civil Aviation Authority would treat it almost as a modern airliner.’

Also, British Aerospace still had liability for the aircraft’s design under product liability legislation, and any design modifications to meet CAA requirements would need its approval. Fortunately, BAe was supportive, and a partnership was set up with the company, and Marshall of Cambridge Aerospace, to get any necessary design validation.

`It became obvious that without proper engineering project management, there was no way the aircraft would get flying,’ says Pleming. This was where his skills came in. `We’re doing this properly, with the right processes and procedures.’

He recruited `the best team we could get’ – part-time volunteers with the right expertise. These include Earl Pick, retired RAF engineering manager and expert on corrosion and structural integrity; Peter Beushaw, BAe chief designer for in-service aircraft at the time when the Vulcan was in operation; and former Vulcan Display Flight chief pilot David Thomas. Also on the team are Barry Masefield, former Vulcan air electronics officer and David Thorpe, former engineering operations manager with the Vulcan Display Flight.

Former Vulcan pilot and ex-Conservative MP Keith Mans, now director general of the Royal Aeronautical Society, was drafted in for his knowledge of the political side of the aerospace industry.

`We’re now at the stage where the project can happen in engineering terms,’ Pleming says. BAe’s formal approval of the proposal to return the Vulcan to airworthiness two months ago was the cue for fund-raising to start in earnest.

Meanwhile, over the next two months or so, a structural integrity check is under way `to find out if the aircraft really is in the state we believe it’s in’, says Pleming.

Some £3m is needed to get the plane ready to fly again, after which it will cost £750,000 a year to run. The search is on for `corporate or philanthropic sponsors’, not only from within aerospace but also big commercial companies that want to `use the image of the plane to attract a large audience’. It will be available for use at any outside event where noise is not a problem, such as motor racing meetings.

Pleming believes that once the plane is airborne again, finding sponsors will be relatively easy: it is the initial £3m that could be seen as risky. `There is always the possibility of finding something that’s too costly to rectify,’ he adds, `but all the experts say that’s unlikely. We’re confident enough about the engineering plan to say the risks are really quite low.’

Robert Pleming at a glance

Age: 48

First job: IT systems engineer, IBM.

Education: Applied physics degree, St John’s College, Oxford. Doctorate at Oxford in nuclear physics.

Current job: System engineering director for Europe, Cisco Systems; project director, Vulcan Operating Company.

Interests: photography, flying, driving, good food and wine.

Copyright: Centaur Communications Limited