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, but instead has come 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 also oversaw the newly established publicly-owned British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) long-range and British European Airways (BEA) short and medium-range airlines.
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, examples being Singapore and Nairobi, therefore reducing aircraft performance. The 707 was oversized and underpowered for such a task, and thus BOAC once again searched for options.
De Havilland offered the DH.118, a development of the Comet 5 project while Handley Page proposed the HP.97, based on their V bomber, the Victor. 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 engines gave an efficient clean wing and reduced cabin noise. 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; wide, low-pressure tyres were also adopted with this same concern in mind. 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, and was considered to be a safer aircraft.
The Rolls Royce Conway engines provided the VC10 with 22,500lbf each, propelling the aircraft to a top speed of 580mph, a range of 5,800 miles and 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. Capacity was up to 135 passengers in a two-class configuration. The VC10 came in two variants, the Standard and the Super. Super VC10’s differed in that they were equipped with more powerful Conway engines and 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. Eventually BOAC took on 25 of the aircraft, 55 short of their required amount. In response, Vickers offered a regional alternative known as the VC11, intending BEA to consider its usage, but this plan came to no avail, the company instead ordering the Hawker Siddeley Trident.
The prototype, G-ARTA, rolled out of the Weybridge factory on 15th April, 1962. On 29th June, 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 Brooklands 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 considerably elongated the testing process. The certification programme included visits to Nairobi, Khartoum, Rome, Kano, Aden, and Beirut. A VC10 flew across the Atlantic to Montreal on 8th February, 1964.
Problems regarding the construction of the VC10 however were due largely to the location of the factory at Weybridge. Weybridge, a former RAF Spitfire base, had a runway that was too short for the VC10, and thus the aircraft, following construction, had to be flown without furnishings and with less than half a tank of fuel to the nearby BAC factory at Wisley, located 3 miles to the south, where the aircraft would be fitted out for final delivery to an airline.
The first deliveries to BOAC took place in 1964, and immediately received acclaim from passengers and crews for their low noise level, comfort, ease of flying and stylistic beauty, especially in the BOAC livery. BOAC would eventually take on 11 Standard VC10’s and 17 Super VC10’s, these being put to work on the Empire flights as well as transatlantic services to New York. Most other carriers that took on the VC10 used it to exploit the hot and high flight capability, and thus it was very popular among Middle Eastern and African airlines such as Gulf Air, East African Airways and Ghana Airways. In addition to commercial aviation, the VC10 also found itself in its original intended role working for the RAF, which took on 9 aircraft originally as strategic transport and VIP aircraft.
However, despite it being lauded for its advanced design and superb looks, the VC10 would very quickly come to symbolise all that made the British aviation industry lag behind the foreign competition, and it would cost Vickers dearly.
Vickers wanted the VC10 to be a mass-produced competitor to the 707 and Douglas DC-8, and though equally as capable and much more advanced, its failure to sell in the same numbers came down to three things. The first was that most airlines didn’t have the hot and high problem that the VC10 was specifically designed to overcome, and thus its technology was somewhat surplus to requirement. At the same time the VC10 was considered cutting edge, a risk many airlines weren’t willing to take, especially during the economically and politically unstable times of the 1960’s and also following the failure of the Comet. The final, and arguably most important, reason was because the VC10 was much more expensive to operate. Whilst the 707 and DC-8 followed the barn-door approach to building aircraft, the VC10 was a highly advanced and extremely complex plane by comparison, and thus didn’t suit the needs of its opponents.
As a result, only 54 VC10’s were built when production ended in 1970, and very soon the ones that had been built found themselves redundant. Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, the economically unstable UK, like many other colonial powers, were forced to give independence to many of its overseas territories, including Kenya, the Sudan, Singapore, Nigeria, Rhodesia and countries of the Arabian Peninsula such as Yemen. As such, the requirements for the VC10’s hot and high abilities were reduced as BOAC, later British
Airways, removed or reduced services on routes to these former colonies. The political unrest that ensued also broke apart many of the other operators that used VC10’s, namely East African Airways, which was an airline jointly owned by the governments of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Following independence, relations between these countries began to deteriorate, and the airline folded in 1977.
Here in the UK, almost all VC10’s were now under the ownership of British Airways, taking on former British United and later British Caledonian units. The VC10, though a useful aircraft, was now both needlessly expensive due to its inefficient nature, especially after the Oil Crisis of 1973, and had been superseded by a variety of later builds, including Boeing 747’s. The first VC10’s were retired as early as 1974, though would later find use with Gulf Air. Eventually, almost at the same time, every VC10 in passenger operation was retired, with all commercial examples being withdrawn by 1982. British Airways made its last flight of a VC10 in May 1981 after attempting to sell them on to other airlines with no avail. Eventually, those that had not been scrapped were instead sold to the RAF.
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. Three VC10’s were hijacked, two of which were destroyed, one being at the infamous Dawson’s Field in Jordan alongside other hijacked aircraft, though in all three situations only one hostage was murdered. One VC10 was destroyed by small arms fire on the ground at Beirut during an Israeli raid, one was written-off after a hard landing, and another was written-off on the ground after an error in fuel distribution. In the case of the two fatal landings, these were due to pilot error more than anything else, and the combined loss of life for both incidents was 130.
Today, 10 VC10’s have been preserved, including one commercial example, two former VIP aircraft, and 7 ex-RAF tankers and one partial fuselage.
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 summarize 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!