British Vulcan Bomber's Farewell Tour Draws Crowds of 250,000

The Avro Vulcan XH558 makes a fly past on the last ever day of public display flights over the former RAF Gaydon base at the Heritage Motor Centre on October 4, 2015 in Gaydon, England.

The Avro Vulcan XH558 makes a fly past on the last ever day of public display flights over the former RAF Gaydon base at the Heritage Motor Centre on October 4, 2015 in Gaydon, England.

Steve Thorne/Getty Images
  • Delta-winged icon carried U.K.'s first nuclear warheads
  • Jet was brought out of mothballs during 1982 Falklands War

More than a quarter of a million people craned their necks skyward at the weekend to view the final tour of the U.K. by the last flying Vulcan bomber, which carried Britain’s nuclear arsenal at the height of the Cold War and helped pave the way for the supersonic Concorde airliner.

Saturday’s flight spanned northern Britain and Sunday’s took in Wales and southern England, with thousands gathered at each of 60 designated way-points including airports, aircraft factories and Royal Air Force bases as the delta-winged jet swooped low overhead.

The Avro Vulcan Bomber
The Avro Vulcan Bomber
Photographer: Steve Thorne/Getty Images

A star turn at air shows with a roar that sets off car alarms for miles around, the Vulcan is to cease flying after manufacturers including BAE Systems Plc and Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc ended their support following the loss of historic engineering skills. About 7 million pounds ($11 million) was raised to get the jet airborne in 2008, half a century after its maiden flight.

“The reception and turnout this weekend was magnificent,” said Robert Pleming, chief executive officer of the Vulcan to the Sky Trust, which owns the bomber. “It’s the end of an era in British aviation and people just wanted to see this beautiful aircraft flying one more time.”

Blue Steel

Built by Avro, which merged into Hawker Siddeley and BAE, the Vulcan first took to the skies in 1952 as the second of Britain’s so-called V-Bombers alongside the Vickers Valiant and Handley Page Victor, with 136 produced.

Designed to fly at almost 600 miles per hour at altitudes of up to 60,000 feet, the aircraft carried a variety of atomic bombs and later the rocket-propelled Blue Steel nuclear missile, and were painted in anti-flash white to help reflect some of the thermal radiation from a nuclear explosion.

When the government switched to ground-based missiles the model assumed a less prominent role, only to be reactivated for long-range bombing sorties that prevented Argentinian fighters from using the main runway in the Falkland Islands during the 1982 war.

Retired from front-line service with the RAF in 1984, a lone aircraft, registration XH558, was returned to flying order in 2008 with money raised via public donations and Britain’s national lottery fund.

With a joystick instead of the usual bomber yoke, harnessed to 50,000 pounds of thrust, the 70-ton plane has wowed crowds at air shows around Europe with an agility that allows it to perform displays usually the preserve of jet fighters half its size -- topped off by howl of four Rolls-Royce Olympus engines that later powered Concorde.

As popular as ever with the public, keeping the Vulcan flying indefinitely has proved impossible even as older but easier to maintain models such as the Lancaster, also built by Avro, remain air-show stalwarts. While the U.K. tour was the last chance for most to see the plane, two short flights are planned this month before the aircraft finally becomes a museum-piece.

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