Vickers Vanguard

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Another Turboprop that became something of an early relic very quickly, thanks largely to the effects of the Jet Age. However, if such an aircraft was to have been built under similar circumstances to today, it may have found itself becoming a much more popular aircraft.

The Vickers Vanguard was conceived following an order by British European Airways (BEA) for a 100-seater turboprop airliner that would replace the company’s earliest Viscounts, the pioneering turboprop design. Designed under code Type 870, the promise of an improved and larger Viscount design attracted the interest of Trans-Canada Airlines (TCA), which needed a medium-range turboprop airliner to work its trunk routes between its major cities. This resulted in the design being modified for such routes and redesignated the Vanguard Type 950.

The original Type 870 design followed similar principles to that of the previous Viscount, but following TCA’s order, the design changes lead to the aircraft instead having a larger dimensional ‘double-bubble’ fuselage, with a wider cross-section for the upper body that would accommodate the passengers, while the lower body was similar in width to that of the Viscount. Such a design wasn’t a new concept, as the Boeing Stratocruiser of the late 1940’s also followed this principle.

However, the effects of the larger fuselage meant that the aircraft was heavier, and thus needed to be propelled by more powerful engines. While Rolls Royce’s highly successful Dart engines had worked wonders with the Viscount, Rolls Royce took this as an opportunity to create an all new and highly advanced set of powerplants known as the Rolls Royce Tyne, weighing in at 4,000hp each. The result was that the Vanguard was, and arguably still is, the fastest turboprop ever built, faster than the SAAB 2000 and the Bombardier de Havilland Dash 8 of present day. The performance of the Vanguard and its Tyne engines was apparently put through its paces by a pilot who was able to maintain 10,000ft with three engines feathered and the port outer at maximum cruise power, while also carrying a weight of 112,000lbs. This story therefore makes the Vanguard’s ability to maintain flight on one engine vastly superior to the military spec Lockheed C-130 Prototype, though it is often speculated that such a tale is the result of hyperbole. Nevertheless, the Vanguard was vastly overpowered for its role in life.

Vanguard Type 950 prototype G-AOYW took to the skies for the first time on January 20th, 1959, as part of a transfer flight from the Vickers factory at Brooklands to the BAC factory at Wisley, a distance of 3 miles. Full flight testing was to commence immediately after, but the engines had to be returned to Rolls Royce for slight alterations. Testing eventually recommenced throughout 1959 and early 1960.

Air Canada Vanguard Cargoliner CF-TKK (64)(Grd) YUL (CVC)(46)-S
An Air Canada example following its conversion from passenger to freight operations.

The aircraft was given CAA airworthiness certification in mid-1960, and was delivered to launch customers BEA and TCA later the same year. The first flight of a Vanguard in passenger service was from Heathrow to Paris on December 17th, 1960. This was followed on February 1st, 1961, with the launch of operations in Canada for TCA, with 2 flights from Toronto and Montreal via intermediate stopes to Vancouver. The Vanguard lived up to its name of capacity and sturdy reliability, and was also very cheap to run, with very low cost per seat/mile ratio. On routes up to 300 miles, the aircraft could easily match in terms of speed the earliest regional jets such as the Boeing 727 and the DC-9.

However, such credentials were not enough to save the Vanguard from incredibly low popularity. The aircraft, while fast, cheap and highly advanced, simply came out at the wrong time, the dawn of the Jet Age. With the likes of the Trident, Boeing 727, the Douglas DC-9, and with the prospect of the Boeing 737 on the horizon, major airlines simply weren’t interested in a 100-seater, medium-range turboprop. Therefore, only 44 aircraft were built by the time production ended in 1962.

While much loved by flight crews, the Vanguard was quickly deemed non-standard, especially when surrounded by a sea of jets. As such, BEA removed the aircraft from passenger operations on June 16th, 1974, shortly before the company was merged

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A BEA Vanguard climbs away shortly after departure.

with BOAC to form British Airways. TCA however had begun to retire their fleet from passenger service as early as 1966, starting with the conversion of one aircraft from passenger to cargo operations. The spacious double-bubble design meant the aircraft was well suited for carrying freight, up to 42,000lbs of it. As such, the aircraft was renamed the Cargoliner, and would go on to be the last of the Vanguard’s retired from Canadian service in 1972, by which time TCA had been rebranded as Air Canada.

In the UK, the success of the Canadian trials meant that in 1969, BEA had begun conversion of Vanguards into cargo aircraft too, these being renamed the Merchantman. The conversion included the fitting of a large cargo door in the forward fuselage, and roller floors for easy movement of freight pallets inside the plane. British Airways continued to use these aircraft on widespread cargo operations until 1979, when the last five were sold off.

This wasn’t the end for the Vanguard, as many filtered down through a variety of European cargo carriers throughout the 1980’s. Mostly, the aircraft were dedicated to nocturnal mail and freight operations across the European Continent and to Great Britain, working for a number of airlines including DHL subsidiary, Air Bridge Carriers. This company was eventually renamed Hunting Cargo Airlines, and operated Merchantman aircraft until mid-1996, when the last known airworthy unit, G-APEP, was retired.

The aircraft was flown to its original home at Brooklands, now a museum, on October 17th of the same year, though the landing was somewhat spectacular as the runway at Brooklands had been shortened somewhat over the years. As such, after performing a low pass to scout the approach, the aircraft touched down 20ft short of the runway, leaving substantial trenches in the ground. It should be noted also that the area of open ground it touched down on had until recently been covered in trees, which had been cut down so the Merchantman could land, though the stumps from the trees were still in the ground, which could’ve made the landing a touch more… bumpy.

The Vanguard however was not immune to accidents, and in total suffered 5 throughout its working life. The first was on October 27th, 1965, when a BEA Vanguard overshot the runway at Heathrow in poor visibility after arriving from Edinburgh, killing all 36 aboard. Such conditions and incidents resulted in further research into the ‘Blind Landing’ automatic approach and landing systems pioneered on the Trident jets.

Vanguard G-APEP d1
The only surviving intact airframe, Merchantman G-APEP now resides at its home of Brooklands, southwest of London.

The next was on October 2nd, 1971, when BEA Flight 706 disintegrated mid-flight over Belgium, killing all 63 aboard. The cause of the crash was the failure of the rear pressure bulkhead which severed the tail from the fuselage. This was followed 2 years later on April 10th, 1973, by the crash of Invicta International Flight 435, which crashed near Basel with the deaths of all 108 aboard.

The next crash came on January 29th, 1988, when Inter Cargo Service Flight 1004 crashed on takeoff from Toulouse-Blagnac while attempting to depart with only 3 engines, thankfully with no casualties among the three crew members. The final crash came just over a year later, again with Inter Cargo Service, on February 6th, 1989, when Flight 3132 crashed on takeoff from Marseille-Marignane Airport, killing all three crew members.

Today, only two of these formidable aircraft remain in preservation, but only one complete airframe. The nose section of G-APES is on display at the East Midlands Aeropark, while the complete airframe of G-APEP is at Brooklands.

It truly is a shame that the Vanguard never truly caught on because it was a very good aircraft, strong, dependable, cheap to run, easy to maintain, incredibly fast (perhaps even too fast) for what it was, and was all around a good egg. Perhaps if timing hadn’t been so poor for this prop plane to make its debut in a world full of jets, then the Vanguard might have made a name for itself. Instead, it’s often forgotten and seldom recognised.