Rare Glimpse of Vulcan XH539 on the Waddington Fire Dump (1984)

The hulk of Avro Vulcan XH539 lying on the Waddington fire dump in 1984 (Image: Robin Povey; the hulk of Vulcan XH539 behind XL426)

Photographs of Avro Vulcan B2 XH539 are quite rare online. But pictures of the mighty V-bomber in her final role – as a crash-rescue training airframe on the fire dump at RAF Waddington – are especially hard to come by. The aircraft hadn’t flown since 1972, and some sources claim she was scrapped the same year. As it turned out, however, XH539 lingered on until 1989, and was one of the last Vulcans to depart RAF Waddington. (The above screenshot was taken from Robin Povey’s 1984 video (below), showing crews planning XM655’s delivery to Wellesbourne Mountford and additional footage of Vulcan XL426, which is now preserved at Southend.)

A Brief History of Vulcan XH539

Delivered to the Air Ministry on May 25, 1961, Vulcan XH539 was retained for trails and never saw front-line service with the RAF. During her trials work, the mighty delta-winged bomber was used to test the air-launched Blue Steel standoff missile, the UK’s Cold War nuclear deterrent from 1963 to 1970.

From 1962 to 1964, she was deployed, along with Handley Page Victor XL161 (photo here), to RAAF Edinburgh Field in South Australia. On charge with No. 4 Joint Services Trial Unit RAF, the aircraft was used to test the Avro cruise missile on the vast military range at Woomera. When Blue Steel trials came to an end, 539 was allocated to the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) at MOD Boscombe Down, where she was photographed by Flickr user Dave58282 (below) in March 18, 1971. But by December that year, she was considered surplus to requirements and was withdrawn from service soon after.

For reasons unknown, the powers that be decided not to transfer the early-production B2 aircraft to the Royal Air Force; at least, not in a flying capacity. And so it was that in 1972, XH539 made her final flight to RAF Waddington, one of several front-line Vulcan stations throughout the Cold War.

Trials Vulcan XH539 at Boscombe Down in March 1971 (Image: Dave58282; XH539 at Boscombe Down in March 1971)

On arrival, 539 was subjected to the usual spares-recovery process before her empty hulk was towed across the airfield to the Waddington fire dump, located on an unkempt patch of land alongside the station golf course (see here). There, Vulcan XH539 was used for crash-rescue training. Her canopy was removed and, though the aircraft no longer stood on her undercarriage, there was enough of a gap between the forward fuselage and the ground to allow access to the cockpit via the crew door.

Unusually, XH539 may have been the only Vulcan ever to receive a fresh coat of paint after being condemned to the dump. On retirement, the former trials airframe still wore anti-flash white camouflage, designed to reflect thermal nuclear radiation. As a result, she was considered an eyesore, and it wasn’t long before someone had toned her giant form down with a coat of olive drab – surely a unique paint scheme for the type.

And so, during the early 1980s, as Waddington’s last remaining V-bombers were allocated to museums or broken up for scrap, Vulcan XH539 sat quietly on the dump. The aircraft wasn’t scrapped until 1989, by which time she was one of only four Vulcans remaining at Waddington, Lincolnshire’s last V-bomber base. The others included the display aircraft, XH558, which moved to Bruntingthorpe in 1993, and the old battle damage repair airframe XJ825, which was broken up without ceremony in 1992. Only the Falklands bomber, XM607, survives at Waddington today.

(Image: Robin Povey; XL426 taxies past the hulk of XH539 at Waddington)

In the early 1980s, while embarking on an ill-fated effort to dismantle the late-production B2 XM652 for preservation in Sheffield, my father was directed towards the hulk of XH539, which, he was told, might offer some insight into the aircraft’s structure. Unfortunately he failed to take any photographs, making Robin Povey’s excellent video one of the only places to catch a glimpse of the old trials Vulcan in her final years. (Part 2 of the footage (above) shows the hulk from another angle.)

Do you have a photo of XH539 on the Waddington dump that you’d like to share? If so, please contact us here. Or perhaps you applied the olive green paint! If so, please drop us a note below.


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