Robert Pleming has a long commute to work. The Chief Executive of the Vulcan to the Sky Trust lives in Hampshire, which means travelling 220 miles to his office in a hangar at Robin Hood Airport, near Doncaster. It’s worth it though, because while he’s there, he gets to spend time with the object of his many years of hard work: a Vulcan bomber he restored to flight.
Sadly, as of 2015, the Vulcan is no longer permitted to fly. Instead it has become a tourist attraction, and an inspiration to youngsters who might one day build aircraft themselves. But while Robert’s work as Chief Executive of the trust, and guardian of the grounded Vulcan continues, he is about to embark on a love affair with another plane: an even older jet.
If you’re wondering how a man might end up dedicating decades to restoring heritage aircraft, as Robert has, there is no obvious route. Robert was an RAF cadet in school, and an RAF scholarship paid for his flying lessons as a teenager (‘Pottering around the skies,’ is how he puts it), but he spent his first decades of work as a big player in the IT world, primarily at Cisco, where flying became something he did as a passenger rather than a student, jetting around the globe, helping run a corporation.
‘I ended up thinking, “Do I want to go on travelling to the west coast of the United States every month and getting absolutely shattered?”, Robert tells us. ‘I got to the stage where I thought, “There must be more to life than this, what can I give back?”’
The Vulcan was what he decided to give back. He had taken a book about the Vulcan on holiday and, as an engineer, was extremely impressed by the achievement, given that it was designed in 1947. When the Government decided to ground it in 1992 he signed a petition against the decision, but it had no impact, and one particular aircraft, the Vulcan XH558, was sold to a family firm called C Walton Ltd.
‘I decided, almost on a whim, to look, with the owner’s permission, at what would be required to take the Vulcan back to flight,’ Robert explains.
That was in 1997. He put together a small team and over the next couple of years worked out what it would take to get the Vulcan back in the sky. Its size and complexity prompted the Civil Aviation Authority to request that the project have the support of BAE Systems (the organisation into which the original manufacturer, Avro, was amalgamated). Robert convinced BAE, quit his Cisco job, and turned his attention to a new problem: money.
It took six years to overcome the cash hurdle before restoration work could start, and the Vulcan has been a thirsty beast ever since. Money was needed not just for the initial restoration, but also for maintenance and to pay for the flights themselves. To cover the costs, the trust received a £2.7 million Heritage Lottery Fund grant, a £500,000 donation from the late Sir Jack Hayward, several ‘six-figure bequests’, and the biggest contribution of all has come in the form of many, many small donations from the public.
‘Every year we receive something like £1.2 million in small amounts, both donations and contributions in terms of merchandise purchases, and they come from literally tens of thousands of people,’ Robert explains. ‘It’s why we called it the people‘s aircraft, because it really was the people who funded it. It’s been quite a phenomenon.’
Robert formed a registered charity for the project, The Vulcan to the Sky Trust, which now employees 15 people and has three directors, who work for Robert, who has a full-time role managing an annual budget of £2.5–3 million. Thanks to the public’s generosity, and to the skills of Robert’s team, the Vulcan was restored and took to the sky in October 2007.
‘I think an awful lot of people found it a very emotional day,’ Robert confides. ‘Relief was my main emotion. It had taken so much effort by so many people.’
For eight years the Vulcan soared again, cementing its place in the nation’s wider consciousness, doing fly-pasts for the Queen and amazing the public at airshows, until 2015, when BAE announced that they could no longer support the Vulcan (and Robert was unable to persuade them otherwise). It was grounded for the final time.
Now the Vulcan sits in a hangar at Robin Hood Airport, near Doncaster, open to visits from the public (booking is necessary via the phone or website). ‘She’s still an awesome sight for school children and the like who come and see her,’ says Robert, who can spot her from his office. ‘The aim of it is to inspire youngsters into engineering, technology and aviation.’
It’s proved to be popular (it’s ranked as South Yorkshire’s top attraction on TripAdvisor), and no doubt it is inspiring many, but it’s not enough for Robert and his team. Having spent nearly two decades of their lives on the Vulcan, they are now embarking on a new project: to restore a Canberra jet.
‘We’ve got a superb reputation,’ says Robert, ‘and I was very keen that we kept the team together and not lose this capability from the UK, which would have happened if we had not gone down the path of finding this Canberra and purchasing her.’
The process of buying the new plane began six months ago, when Mike Collett, who ran a fleet of classic aircraft in Coventry, announced his planes were up for sale. One of his fleet was a Canberra, which wasn’t flying, but when Robert and his team did some research they realised that it was a former record holder, so they made an offer. Now the Canberra is being dismantled and taken to the hangar at Robin Hood Airport.
If you haven’t heard of a Canberra, it was the RAF’s first jet bomber, unveiled in 1947, and it relied on high-speed and high-altitude as its defence. Its innovative engine enabled it, in 1951, to become the first jet to cross the Atlantic without refuelling. In 1957, Robert’s Canberra flew (rocket-assisted) to an altitude world record of 70,310ft, but was retired in 2007, leaving only five Canberras flying globally, including three modified Nasa versions.
‘It’s possibly more important than the Vulcan,’ Robert says.
The plan is to restore it to flight and have it in the air in time for the RAF’s centenary celebrations in 2018 – remember, this is a 61-year-old plane (it was built at a factory in Woodford, Greater Manchester, in 1955, where Robert’s Vulcan was also built, five years later), which would make its return to flight an extraordinary testament to the aviation capabilities of Britain, and no doubt fulfill Robert’s hope to inspire future engineers.
To make a donation, find out more information or to book a tour, go to www.vulcantothesky.org