Review: Vickers VC10

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In the breakneck age of early jet travel, it was a race between the transatlantic superpowers to become king of the skies. To combat America’s rising star, the Boeing 707, Britain hoped that its latest development, the Vickers VC10, would be the answer to our prayers. Instead, however, it came to encompass all that was right and all that was wrong with the British aviation industry.

As part of a consolidation of the UK aviation industry to reduce costs, the British Government cut down on the number of companies available to build aircraft. By 1959, only two engine makers, Rolls-Royce and Bristol Siddeley, were allowed to take part in aviation powerplant construction. By 1960, the government had merged the aircraft manufacturers into a selection of larger companies, including British Aircraft Corporation (BAC); which encompassed Vickers, Bristol and English Electric’s aviation interests, Hawker Siddeley; that was built on de Havilland’s heavy aircraft experience, and Westland consolidated helicopter manufacture. The British government also controlled route-licensing for private airlines and directly oversaw the publicly-owned British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) long-range and British European Airways (BEA) short and medium-range airlines.

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The failure of the Comet was the main driving force behind the UK aviation industry’s desire to regain its market dominance.

In 1951, the Ministry of Supply commissioned Vickers to create a military troop/freighter aircraft based on the Vickers Valiant nuclear bomber. The concept interested BOAC, who entered into discussion with Vickers and the RAF for a passenger variant to become the flagship of transatlantic flights. In October 1952, Vickers were contracted to build a prototype which they designated the Type 1000 (Vickers V-1000), followed in June 1954 by a production order for six aircraft for the RAF together with the planned civil variant for BOAC known then as the VC7 (the seventh Vickers civil design).

Work commenced in 1955, but was put on hold after the RAF order was cancelled the same year due to major cutbacks in the face of a recession. Vickers hoped that BOAC would remain interested, but waning confidence in the British aviation industry following the Comet crashes and delayed production of the Bristol Britannia turboprop made them reluctant to follow the project through. Although BOAC would later order a set of the Comet 4 aircraft, these were only seen as temporary stop-gaps until the airline received 15 Boeing 707’s in 1959. However, while the 707 was an able aircraft it was very poor at operating the Empire services to the colonies in Africa and Asia. In these regions, many airports are located in hot climates at high altitudes such as Singapore and Nairobi; therefore reducing aircraft performance. The 707 was oversized and underpowered for such a task, thus BOAC once again searched for options.

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America’s Upstart; the Boeing 707. This was what any future British jet airliner had to beat.

De Havilland offered the DH.118; a development of the Comet 5 project, while Handley Page proposed the HP.97; based on their Victor V-bomber. After carefully considering the routes, Vickers offered the VC10. Crucially, Vickers was the only firm willing to launch its design as a private venture instead of relying on government financing.

The design of the VC10 included a T-Tail with four Rolls Royce Conway engines mounted at the rear of the fuselage. It had a generous wing equipped with wide chord Fowler flaps and full span leading edge slats for good take-off and climb performance. Its rear mounted engines gave the additional benefit of a highly efficient clean wing and reduced cabin. The engines were also further from the runway surface than an underwing design, an important factor in operations from rough runways such as those common in Africa. This was coupled to wide, low-pressure tyres that could easily handle uneven or barely paved surfaces and underdeveloped airports. The VC10 was capable of landing and taking off at slower speeds than the rival 707 and its engines could produce considerably more thrust, providing good ‘hot and high’ performance. The general consensus was also that the VC10 was a safer aircraft.

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Prototype VC10 G-ARTA, destined for BOAC, undergoes assembly in the company of a BEA Vickers Viscount at the Weybridge factory.

The Rolls Royce Conway engines provided the VC10 with 22,500lbf each, propelling the aircraft to a top speed of 580mph over a range of 5,800 miles at an operational ceiling of 43,000ft. However, the combined engine pack at the rear of the aircraft made the VC10 incredibly noisy externally, so much so that it has gone on record as the loudest commercial airliner in history; something that even the mighty Concorde couldn’t top!

Another party-piece of the VC10 was its revolutionary and highly advanced onboard avionics, including a quadruplicated automatic flight control system intended to enable fully automatic zero-visibility landings. The VC10 came in two variants; the Standard and the Super. The Standard VC10 could carry up to 135 passengers in a two-class configuration, while the Super was fitted with more powerful Conway engines and given a 28ft longer fuselage offering up to 212 seats; 23 more than the Boeing 707–320 series.

Each aircraft cost £1.75m (£39m in today’s money) and confidence in the aircraft was high; with most of the development team expecting it to thrash the comparatively simple 707. However, the costs of development meant that in order to earn a profit, Vickers would have to sell at least 80 of the aircraft at the asking price.

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G-ARTA is seen during its maiden flight over the Weybridge factory.

The prototype, G-ARTA, rolled out of the Weybridge factory on 15th April, 1962. On June 29th, after two months of ground, engine and taxi tests, it was first flown by Vickers’ chief test pilot G R ‘Jock’ Bryce, co-pilot Brian Trubshaw and flight engineer Bill Cairns from Weybridge to Wisley for further testing. Flight tests revealed a serious drag problem; which was addressed via the adoption of Küchemann wingtips and “beaver tail” engine nacelle fairings as well as a redesigned basal rudder segment for greater control effectiveness. These aerodynamic refinements would, however, considerably elongate the testing process.

In order to gain certification by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the aircraft was put under rigorous testing throughout 1963; which also included visits to Nairobi, Khartoum, Rome, Kano, Aden, and Beirut in order to examine the aircraft in a variety of environmental conditions. The VC10 first flew across the Atlantic to Montreal on February 8th, 1964.

However, an early issue regarding the construction of the VC10 was its choice of factory location. The Weybridge airfield, where the Vickers factory was located, had formerly been a Spitfire base during World War II and thus the runways weren’t long enough to allow a fully furnished VC10 to takeoff after assembly. The result was the construction and delivery process being split into two phases; with the initial assembly being undertaken at Weybridge before the unfurnished aircraft carrying less than half a tank of fuel was flown 3 miles to the nearby BAC testing facility at Wisley. Upon arrival at Wisley, the interior furnishings would be fitted and the aircraft was then ready for delivery.

Such a situation was extremely cumbersome and expensive; if anything it would’ve probably been easier and cheaper, considering the time lost and fuel expended ferrying the aircraft between two factories, to just build a dedicated VC10 factory at Wisley!

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The classic image of a BOAC VC10 on the ground during its heyday on the Empire services.

The first deliveries to BOAC took place in 1964 and the aircraft immediately received acclaim from passengers and crews for their low interior noise level, comfort, ease of flying and stylistic beauty; especially in the BOAC livery. However, behind the glamour of the aircraft’s launch there was a dark secret as BOAC’s ownership of the VC10 wasn’t exactly through its own volition.

Though equally as capable and much more advanced than the Boeing 707 or Douglas DC-8, testing of the VC10 quickly revealed a variety of drawbacks that would make the aircraft unattractive to the majority of potential buyers. The first major issue with the VC10 was that its hot n’ high capabilities were restricted to only a handful of airports which suffered these conditions; making it largely surplus to requirement and an extra expense that most airlines weren’t willing to pay for. Secondly, the VC10’s technology was, at the time, considered cutting edge; a risk many airlines weren’t willing to take following the failure of the Comets in the 1950’s. The final and arguably most important reason was because the VC10 was much more expensive to operate. While the 707 and DC-8 followed the barn-door approach to building aircraft, being comparatively simple to maintain and operate, the VC10 was a highly advanced and extremely complex plane; therefore making it unsuitable to most airlines.

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BOAC were reluctant to take on the VC10 due to operating costs, instead opting for supplementary Boeing 707’s.

BOAC took one look at the VC10 and immediately got cold feet about the whole project. The aircraft that had been tailor made for the UK national carrier was considered too complex and expensive for use and thus BOAC opted instead to buy an additional fleet of the latest variant of the Boeing 707. However, because the VC10 project was of national importance, the UK government, owners of BOAC, strong-armed the airline into reconsidering.

Eventually, BOAC would take on 11 Standard VC10’s and 17 Super VC10’s, 55 short of the required amount for the project to break-even. In response, Vickers offered a regional alternative known as the VC11; intending BEA to consider its usage. This plan would, however, come to no avail when BEA instead took on the Hawker Siddeley Trident.

Eventually, only 54 VC10’s would ever leave the Weybridge factory before production ended in 1970. However, those who did use the aircraft found nothing but satisfaction when they looked beyond its complicated design and hugely expensive operating costs.

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East African Airways found the VC10 perfect for the warmer climates of mid-African airports.

BOAC did indeed make the VC10 their flagship, using the sleek lines of their dark blue livery and yellow Speedbird emblem as part of a widespread promotional campaign to get the airline back into the forefront of the aviation industry. Aside from the various Empire routes to Nigeria, Kenya, Rhodesia, Aden, South Africa and Singapore, BOAC put the aircraft to work on Transatlantic flights to New York, Washington and Boston. On the Atlantic routes, the VC10 came into its own thanks to its speed and comfort; eventually bringing home the record for fastest subsonic aircraft crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. Even today, this record remains unbeaten and, with the environmental considerations of today, most likely never will.

Aside from BOAC, airlines from countries with warmer climates were eager to take on the VC10 to exploit the hot n’ high technology; including Ghana Airways, Gulf Air and East African Airways (EAA). EAA were especially fond of the VC10, using them on both internal African flights as well as services to Europe. Outside of civil aviation, the RAF also acquired nine VC10’s as VIP and troop transports; the aircraft taking the role of the Royal Flight multiple times when transporting HM Queen Elizabeth II to her various foreign engagements.

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An RAF VC10 Tanker in camouflage livery used during the 1970’s.

However, the VC10’s time in the sunlight was fleeting at best as the 1960’s drew gradually to a close. As the UK became more economically unstable and the demands for colonial independence grew more prominent, the British Empire was gradually broken up throughout the decade and ties to these nations were largely severed. Overseas territories, including Kenya, the Sudan, Singapore, Nigeria, Rhodesia and other nations, gained their freedom from British rule and the Empire routes were disbanded. This left the VC10 largely surplus to requirement for BOAC’s operations and thus many were either sold on to other airlines or scrapped after less than 10 years service. Upon the formation of British Airways in 1974, the Standard VC10’s were all withdrawn as they were considered too small and too expensive for regular usage on conventional international flights.

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British Airways inherited most of the VC10 fleet upon formation in 1974, but only maintained the Super VC10 fleet for long term use throughout the decade.

Political unrest outside the UK caused further detriment to the VC10 and saw many withdrawn early on. Deteriorating political ties between the nations of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, the three primary nations behind East African Airways, resulted in the collapse of the airline in 1977 and the end of VC10 operations in Africa. The 1973 Oil Crisis and the resulting economic stagnation would help to kill off the remainder of the VC10 passenger operations throughout the late 1970’s and early 80’s.

The end of passenger operations came in May 1981 when British Airways operated their very last flights with Super VC10’s, the aircraft being replaced by the upcoming Boeing 757. Give British Airways their due, towards the end they did attempt to sell their VC10’s to other airlines but their now outdated technology and incredible operating expense made them practically worthless.

However, the VC10 did get a new lease of life as those which weren’t scrapped would go on to work for the RAF.

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An RAF VC10 tanker refuels a pair of USAF F-18 Hornets high above the clouds.

The RAF, by the mid-1980’s, owned 28 VC10’s, including both their original orders from 1964 and converted commercial examples. All of these aircraft, including the transports, were retrofitted into air-to-air tankers to replace the Handley-Page Victors, which were converted nuclear V Bombers. Under RAF service, the VC10’s saw action in both Gulf Wars, the War in Afghanistan, the Kosovo Crisis and assisted in the Arab Spring of 2011. Each aircraft was capable of carrying 80 tons of fuel over their range of 5,800 miles, making them important parts of any airborne tactical situation.

The VC10’s remained in service with the RAF until the final examples were retired on the 25th September, 2013, being replaced by the Airbus A330 MRTT Voyager aircraft. After 49 years of service, of which only 18 had been spent in passenger service, the last mass-produced long-range British jet airliner fell silent and was consigned to the history books.

However, the VC10 does have the distinction of being among the safest aircraft in aviation history. Although 7 aircraft were written-off during its career, only two were fatal and none were as a result of a fault with the aircraft itself. In total, only 130 people were killed in accidents involving the VC10; an incredible figure when one considers the thousands lost aboard comparative airliners like the 707 and DC-8.

The first VC10 lost was on December 28th, 1968, when a Middle East Airways example was destroyed on the ground in Beirut during an Israeli air raid known as Operation Gift. The operation was in response to the attack on the Israeli Airliner El Al Flight 253 two days earlier by the Lebanon-based Palestinian militant organisation Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

The first fatal accident involving a VC10 occurred on November 20th, 1969, when Nigeria Airways Flight 825, using an aircraft leased from BOAC, crashed 8 miles north of Lagos/Ikeja International Airport in Nigeria while attempting to land. Though no official cause has been determined, the general consensus is that it was due to pilot disorientation.

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BOAC Flight 775 burns after being destroyed by hijackers at Dawson’s Field.

On September 9th, 1970, BOAC Flight 775 out of Bahrain was hijacked as part of the infamous Dawson’s Field hijackings; being one of four aircraft seized during the course of a week. The aircraft was flown initially to its scheduled stop at Beirut where, after refuelling, it was then flown to Dawson’s Field in the Jordanian desert; where it joined a Swissair DC-8 and a TWA Boeing 707. On September 12th, the hostages were eventually released but the aircraft were blown up with dynamite for fear of a counterstrike. The tail of the destroyed VC10, however, was salvaged by BOAC engineers after the hijacking and was deemed to be largely intact. It would eventually be fitted to another VC10 and saw continued service for several years before it was finally scrapped in the 1980’s.

In 1972, G-ARTA, the prototype VC10, was written off after a hard landing buckled the fuselage at Gatwick.

The second and final fatal crash of a VC10 occurred on April 18th, 1972, when East African Airways Flight 720 crashed on take-off from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, killing 43 of the 107 passengers and crew. The cause was found to be improper takeoff configuration of the aircraft.

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The gutted remains of G-ASGO after it was burnt following a hijacking at Amsterdam.

On March 3rd, 1974, another BOAC VC10 was hijacked and landed at Amsterdam Schipol airport. During an attempt to take back the plane, the aircraft caught fire and was gutted by the blaze but with no fatalities.

The final VC10 to be written off was on December 18th, 1997, at RAF Brize Norton, when due to a de-fuelling accident the aircraft slumped down onto its tail leaving the nose aimed precariously skyward at the ramp. Though the damage sustained was comparatively minor, the age of the aircraft meant it was considered nonviable to repair and the aircraft was promptly scrapped.

Today, 10 VC10’s have been preserved; including one commercial example, two former VIP aircraft, seven ex-RAF tankers and one partial fuselage.

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One of seven RAF VC10 tankers preserved for the enjoyment of future generations; this example being at Cosford in Shropshire.

It is truly a shame that the VC10 never caught on in the way Vickers had hoped, but, as mentioned, it is one of several aircraft that summarise the best and worst regarding the motivations of the British aviation industry; creating highly advanced aircraft that are far more reliable and endearing than the competition but being too expensive or complex to have a mass-market appeal. The VC10 was an unfortunate case in point, with all passenger examples retired within 15 to 20 years. A sad waste perhaps, but at least there are still Vickers VC10’s in the world to show us all the lengths of British innovation and aircraft manufacturing.

This aircraft is one of my all time fave’s and for a very, very good reason!


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