The only remaining flying Vulcan bomber has flown for the last time.

The huge Cold War aircraft - which once carried Britain's nuclear deterrent - took off from Doncaster Robin Hood Airport for a short final trip after the gloomy South Yorkshire skies cleared.

The pilot at the controls of XH558, Martin Withers, led the first of the now legendary raids on the Falklands by the Vulcans in 1982 - the only time the aircraft ever dropped bombs in anger in its long RAF service.

As he prepared for the flight, Mr Withers said: "Everyone asks me what is so special about this aircraft and why people love it. Really the people who fly it are the wrong people to ask. It's such a combination of grace and beauty of just seeing this thing fly.

"Just to see it fly along, it's so graceful. And then that combines with the sense of power and manoeuvrability you've got with this aircraft and the vibrations it makes. It just seems to turn people on emotionally, they really love it."

Former pilot Angus Laird said: "I think it's very, very sad but we all come to a time when we stop flying. She's an old lady now and she's stopped at the height of her popularity, which I think is brilliant."

The XH558, which first came into RAF service in 1960, has been kept in the air by a volunteer trust since 2007.

This summer, millions of people have watched it as it has made a farewell tour of the UK before its permit-to-fly expires at the end of October.

The Vulcan To The Sky Trust, which brought the 55-year-old aircraft back to flight eight years ago, has accepted advice from supporting companies that they no longer have the expertise to keep it airworthy as engineers retire from the industry.

XH558 will stay in its Cold War hanger at Robin Hood Airport - once RAF Finningley - where the trust is planning a visitor centre and also to continue "fast taxiing" the massive bomber around the runways.

The trust had to keep details of Wednesday's final flight under wraps until the last minute as the aircraft has become such a popular attraction.

Airport officials feared news of the event could attract thousands of spectators, endangering its normal operations.

John Sharman, chairman of the trust, said: "It's a sad day but its also a day of optimism in many ways.

"Today marks the end of the beginning of this life of Vulcans because we have huge plans for the future.

"We will preserve this aeroplane for the nation in working order, if not in flying order, for the future as the centrepiece of a heritage centre."

Mr Sharman said: "She is very beautiful, she is very powerful, she is is totally unique, totally distinct. And that delta shape seems to inspire both young and old."

XH558 roared into the skies later than expected as low cloud earlier and rain threatened to scupper the final flight completely.

But, as the grey and green bomber taxied slowly to end of the runway, the sun came out to the delight of scores of well-wishers who lined the airport perimeter, somehow circumventing the trust's attempts to keep the take-off quiet.

As soon as XH558's wheels left the runway, Mr Withers pulled into a steep climb.

The Vulcan did two wide circuits of the airport, coming in low over the runway the first time around, performing a touch-and-go manoeuvre on the second, and landing on the third.

The aircraft came to a halt with the help of a braking parachute.

It taxied back to its base where it was greeted with a traditional salute from the airport's fire vehicle and cheers from waiting supporters.

Stepping off the aircraft for the last time, Mr Withers posed for one last curtain call with his co-pilot Bill Ramsey and the two air electronics officers on the flight, Jonathan Lazzari and Phil Davies.

He said: "I really enjoyed the flight. It's so sad it has to finish now. It's like a funeral."

A spokesman for the trust said: "We can confirm that we are co-operating with the CAA to investigate allegations that one of our crews performed an aerobatic manoeuvre that is not allowed by our Permit to Fly.

"It would be inappropriate to comment further until key facts are established."