Sunday 18 June 2017, up bright and early and on my way to join Toni and some of my colleagues for the long drive down to London Southend Airport to visit XH558’s VDF (Vulcan Display Flight) sister, the Avro Vulcan B2, XL426 now safely under cover at last in her new hangar.
After an uneventful journey down in a very comfortable air conditioned mini bus driven by Toni and guided by her Taff Nav accomplice, we duly arrived at Southend all very excited and expectorant like. We were not to be disappointed. There to greet us was Jamie Keene who quickly introduced himself and extended a warm welcome to us all.
After a short briefing to outline our day and visit, we set off on a Grand Tour of 426’s new home; and what a home! The hangar is vast with acres of space to house 426, workshops, an impressive range of working platforms, including the ‘ubiquitous’ giraffe, and a truly rare object that had been literally been ‘kicked into the long grass’ down at Bruntingthorpe, a Vulcan tow bar! Kindly donated by David Walton, yes, he who purchased 558 and saved her from a fate worse than the scrap man, a Chinese Restaurant, (Bomb Bay Duck indeed!). There was also an impressive document storage area enabling the volunteers there to have easy, (and weather-proof) access to tools, test equipment and manuals essential for the efficient maintenance of XL426.
The hangar was in quite excellent condition, all the result of some 6 week’s solid graft by the volunteers, ably assisted by a couple of road sweepers and the airport fire service to remove all that pigeons can accumulate over many years. I can’t say I could eat my lunch off the floor, but at least I could actually see it.
XL 426 is in remarkably good condition seeing that’s she’s been outside exposed to the elements for some 30 years. The team have accomplished ‘miracles’ keeping her in the condition she is. Of great interest to me and my colleagues was see a fully ‘furnished’ ECM bay. It was quite astonishing to see just how packed that bay was, and how huge those once very secretive and advanced electronic counter measure containers were. Used to only to seeing a large void in 558, it was fascinating to see the difference.
Cockpit tours were readily available at a reasonable cost; there was a steady trade in visitors of all ages, all eager to visit the ‘coal hole’ and business class up top. A special event was for four people to visit the cockpit and take-in the sounds and smell as 426’s systems were run-up using an external power source. We as a group decided to enter a raffle to be one of the ‘lucky few’ to enjoy this unique experience. A tenner secured me my place, with much gnashing of teeth, and a cheery wave off from my colleagues, (least I think it was a wave), I ascended the ladder up into 426 and the AEO’s position. The experience was quite wonderful, the smile on my face when I climbed down was ‘fixed’.
A further excellent and informative talk by Joe Marsden (AEO) whilst we were, ‘cosily’ crammed into the cockpit, despite the extreme heat, talked us through the layout of the Nav’s and AEO’s positions. Novel for us of course was to see the two Nav’s instrumentation all in place.
Having Taff with us was an added bonus for the volunteers there, who were able to glean a wealth of information from ‘one who knows’, particularly in dealing with a fuel line leak. Sharing knowledge and experience is just so important if these truly iconic and remarkable aircraft are to survive long into the future.
The hangar has the enviable position of opening its huge doors to reveal the runway running horizontally across. Ok, watching an Easy Jet taking off was so so, but imagine on the 20th August, viewing the BBMF taking off and giving us a fly past as they depart. 426 will be parked immediately outside the hangar with plans to idle the engines for us all to hear her ‘come alive’.
The day and time simply whizzed by and sadly, it was time to depart. I cannot express just how much we all enjoyed our visit. All the volunteers went out of their way to ensure we had a fabulous day. So accommodating and friendly, and genuinely pleased and thrilled we were able to visit and see their great passion, XL426.
A huge thanks to Toni for arranging our visit, and for undertaking all the driving on what was such a hot day. The Jelly Babies did their bit!