Sunday, August 30, 2015

God of Fire, Queen of the Skies

Those that know me well may have noticed that recently I’ve become more than a little obsessed. Something has eked into my consciousness in a way that I’ve not known in many years. It has got to a point where I am now urgently checking maps, Twitter and phone apps to see if I can get another glimpse of her doing what she does best. I’ve been booking tickets to shows and glancing out of windows at random times, just in case she hoves into view.

I did catch a fleeting view of her from my garden a few weeks back and ended up calling out her name and pointing like an 8-year-old child. It's even got to the point that friends started to notice my feverish obsession and tried to sate my desire with pictures from magazines and books with lavish photo spreads.

My first attempt to see her put on a display was thwarted by a tragic and horrific accident only four miles from my house. Despite the terrible nature of it all and my deep sadness for those affected, a small part of my heart was aching that I wouldn’t get to see her in all her glory. 2015 is her swansong, her last season; perhaps every opportunity would somehow slip (or be unseemly ripped) from my fingers?

Finally, yesterday in drizzly Dunsfold I got to see her distinctive silhouette appear and my heart gave a little leap. Have you guessed what my object of my affection is yet? (No cheating now) Well here are some clues: she was born in 1960 (although her sisters appeared from 1952 onwards) weighs in at a mind-boggling 205,000 lbs, is 99 ft and 11in long and 111 ft wide and can shift this bulk at nearly the speed of sound. She is the last flying member of the Britain’s V-Bomber force, a guardian angel once ready at a few minutes notice to deliver the A-bomb in our name – she is Avro Vulcan XH558.

Few other planes have such a distinctive visage that the mere sight of them in the distance is enough to raise your heartbeat a notch or two. Avro’s other awesome creation (a mere 11 years before the Vulcan) the Lancaster has is, Concorde had it and (a step or two down) the marvellous pairing of Eurofighter Typhoon and Supermarine Spitfire at this year’s air shows has it. But for me the queen of the skies will always be the Vulcan.

It's sobering to think that only a few decades ago and armed with exotic, toxic and lethal loads with enigmatic names like Yellow Sun and Blue Steel these great dinosaurs of the air were a familiar sight in the skies over the airfields of Britain. Now she seems like a ghostly reminder of a time when engineering in Britain was state-of-the-art and nuclear oblivion was a very real fear for everyone. But what a ghost; arcing and banking and roaring her way past overhead. With a grace and power that belie her bulk. The display was simple yet magnificent. We saw her fly past undercarriage down, bomb bay open – she doesn’t have many tricks, but the few she has are so chest-thumpingly loud and so gob-smackingly graceful that it literally took my breath away.

When she finally turned that unique delta-wing profile heavenwards and gunned her four Roll-Royce Olympus engines one last time to power climb away I definitely felt a tear in my eye and a pang in my heart. You’ll forgive me, perhaps, if I eulogise just a little. She is one of the most beautiful things I have ever had the privilege to see, right up there with all the memories that will burn the longest in my retinas. It’s an incredible tribute to all those who designed, flew and restored her that she still steals the show wherever she goes.

Don’t miss this last chance to catch a glimpse. At the end of this year she’ll stop flying forever, so do not hesitate. I for one am glad to have made her acquaintance, but if I can figure out one last chance to gaze wide eyed and open mouthed, then believe me, I’ll be there.