Dr Robert Pleming (1964-1970)

Died on 2nd February 2021 aged 69.

We are sad to report that Robert Pleming (1964-1970) died suddenly on 2nd February 2021. He died at home in Alresford, Hampshire and leaves behind his wife Suzanne, his children Rachel, Elaine and David and grandchildren Henry, Freddy and Sylvie. He will be greatly missed by all who knew him.

Many OMTs will recall that Robert was the driving force and visionary behind the Vulcan of the Skies Trust, which took the last airworthy Avro Vulcan, XH558, and kept it flying from 2007-2015. There have been many tributes in the aviation and air show enthusiast community. By way of a tribute, here is an edited version of an article sent in by Bill Sheppard in 2015 about XH558’s last flight at Doncaster Airport. If any OMTs have further memories of Robert, please send them to us here.

The culmination of a remarkable programme masterminded and inspired by an OMT took place at the end of October. The Vulcan to the Sky project was masterminded and spearheaded by Robert Pleming, OMT, who has written previously in Concordia about the programme. The last airworthy Vulcan, XH558, took its final flight on Wednesday 28th October from its base at Robin Hood Airport, Doncaster (formerly RAF Finningley) in South Yorkshire. The final flight had been planned long in advance, but it nearly didn’t happen due to heavy rain. Moreover, as was widely reported afterwards, the police had insisted on the flight details being kept secret from the public for fear of large crowds overwhelming the airport, in the hope of a last sight of a Vulcan in flight. However, the weather gods relented (appropriately, of course, given the plane being named after the Roman god of fire and volcanoes) and the airport was able to provide a later take-off slot.

XH558 took off just before 3pm, and landed again 10 minutes later. There were many supporters and enthusiasts who did manage to see the last flight. As the Vulcan to the Sky newsletter puts it: “We must also thank one remarkable man without whose vision and leadership we would not have enjoyed eight more years of fabulous Vulcan displays.”

Chief Executive of the Vulcan to the Sky Trust, Robert was the driving force to return Vulcan XH558 to the skies. He approached then owner, David Walton, in 1997, and together agreed that he could carry out a feasibility study of a return to flight project based on sound management practice and a professional approach. In the evenings and weekends released to him in 1997 following the loss of the ability to practice his favourite sport, Robert built a team to guide the project’s direction, and established sufficient credibility with the Vulcan’s Design Authority, BAE Systems (British Aerospace at the time), for the formal decision to be taken to proceed with the activities necessary to achieve the return to flight. The rest is history after she returned to flight on 18th October 2007. Eight years and 10 days later, XH558 took her last flight before becoming the jewel in the crown of a permanent exhibition, called The Vulcan Experience, at Doncaster Airport.

John Sharman, Chairman of the Vulcan to the Sky Trust, said on Robert’s death: “Robert was a true visionary whose determination to restore Vulcan XH558 to flight captured the hearts and minds of millions of people. His determination was an inspiration and an exemplar of how to bring a difficult project to fruition.

“We will continue our work on his vision for the future of XH558 as an inspiration for green technology as well as an aeronautical milestone. His mission was to engage young people in the possibilities that a career in engineering can create to tackle the challenges facing the world today.”

Vulcan XH558, Robert Pleming’s lasting legacy, for anyone unaware of the Vulcan’s majesty, we recommend a visit to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sh-9uZjg1Tg

The following obituary about Robert Pleming was written by the Vulcan to the Sky Trust, and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

Robert Pleming was born in north-west London. He was awarded an RAF Flying Scholarship at the age of seventeen that cemented his lifelong love of aviation.

After gaining a BA in Physics and Doctorate at the Department of Nuclear Physics at Oxford University, Robert started a career in IT. He held technical, sales and management roles in IBM, latterly with responsibility for Open Systems in Europe.

With a first class honours in Physics and a PhD in Electronic Techniques in High Energy Particle Identification from Oxford University, a young Dr Pleming joined IBM as a Systems Engineer. He went on the spend the next 17 years at the company working in a variety of roles, working ultimately as AIX Software, Service & Support Brand Manager for IBM Europe.

In 1994 he moved to Cisco Systems as Technical Director – UK where among other duties he set up the technical support aspects of new Cisco subsidiaries in Denmark, Finland, Norway and South Africa, including the recruitment of the Country SE Managers, and the establishment of standards, processes and facilities.

In 1999 when he was working as Technical Director, EMEA Service Provider Line-of- Business, for Cisco, he took a three month leave of absence to explore the feasibility of returning Vulcan XH558 to flight. He returned to work as Director of Special Projects EMEA for Cisco Systems Corporation until March 2000 when he left his high-flying post to work on his mission of returning the Avro Vulcan to flight.

Robert worked tirelessly on the project setting up the Vulcan to the Sky Trust to return the last potentially airworthy RAF V-force aircraft, Avro Vulcan XH558 to flight. In 1997, when the idea first came to him, he built a Project Steering Team from key members of the aerospace establishment and former members of the RAF’s Vulcan Display Flight.

Against all the odds, Robert and the team succeeded in their mission, raising millions of pounds in donations and returning XH558 to flight. The Vulcan to the Sky project succeeded spectacularly on October 18 2007, with the first test flight of the restored Vulcan, some 14 years after its last flight, and after nearly two years of intense engineering activity.

She went on to appear in front of air show and event audiences totalling over 10 million people, around the UK, and in Holland and Belgium; Robert took great pleasure in the joy that watching her fly brought to the supporters. XH558 made her final flight on October 28 2015.

In May 2016, Robert was elected chairman of the British Aviation Preservation Council and he soon increased the number of committee meetings so that more could be done to raise the profile of the organisation.

The BAPC became Aviation Heritage UK in October 2017 at its 50th anniversary meeting where Robert laid out his new vision for the future of the organisation becoming the ‘go to’ place for anything to do with aviation history.

Robert was appointed a Trustee of the Transport Trust (now the National Transport Trust) in 2017, having been the recipient of its prestigious Preservationist of the Year award in 2007 for his work on the Vulcan.

On 21st March 2018 his proposal to create an All Party Parliamentary Group for Aviation Heritage was accepted and on March 23 that year Robert became a Freeman of the City of London as a member of the Guild of Coachmakers and Coach Harness Makers.

At a meeting of the APPG for General Aviation, chaired by The Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP, a Heritage Working Group was established. Robert Courts MP was elected as Parliamentary Chair of the Group and Robert was elected unanimously as Sector Chair, with the two co-chairing the Group. This put aviation heritage on the Parliamentary agenda.

Since 2015, when XH558 was grounded, Robert, determined that her story would live on to inspire future generations of engineers, created the vision for The Vulcan Experience and within that The Green Technology Hub. He wanted this to be a place where people could honour the past and inspire the future. His team are working to fundraise for this project to ensure that Robert’s legacy is created, and his vision becomes a reality.

Robert was a true visionary and the hours he dedicated to this project and his plans for the Green Technology Hub as a space for the younger generation to explore, investigate and create solutions to the climate change challenge will not be forgotten.

Robert was married to Suzanne and lived in Alresford, near Winchester in Hampshire. His outside interests included photography and following developments in the physical sciences target shooting (he was chairman of Itchen Valley Shooting Club) and he enjoyed cricket, good food and the company of friends and family.


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