One of the most revolutionary designs of the 1950’s, the Vickers Viscount certainly put the UK in with a chance of remaining competitive in those early years of mass-commercial aviation, and would hold its own against the likes of big boys such as Boeing and Douglas.
The Viscount’s conception was built as a response to the demands for a small medium-range pressurised aircraft to fly less-travelled routes, carrying 24 passengers up to 1,750 miles at 200mph. Designed by Rex Pierson, Vickers chief designer, there was much debate as to whether the aircraft would be powered by the more traditional Piston-powered engine or the newly developed Turboprop engines. Eventually, the project was split into two types, Type IIA being piston powered, later being developed into the Airspeed Ambassador, and the turboprop-powered Type IIB which Vickers was selected to develop in April 1945.
Vickers, in cooperation with British European Airways (BEA), created an initial 32 passenger aircraft, with first designs being drawn up before World War II had even ended, with early concepts being created in June 1945. Based largely on the earlier Viking, the aircraft would seat 24 and be powered by four turboprop engines, its original designation being Vickers VC-2. Later a double-bubble fuselage was proposed to give
extra underfloor cargo space. Neither was pressurised but it was soon realised that for economical operation an altitude above 20,000ft was needed
The aircraft was tinkered with well into 1946, with the double-bubble and elliptical fuselage designs being abandoned in favour of a pressurised design. A circular cross-section variant was offered at the beginning of 1946. The resulting 28-seat VC-2 was financed by the Ministry of Supply with an order for two prototypes. But, before the contract was signed, the government asked for the capacity to be increased to 32. This stretched the fuselage increase from 65ft 5in to 74ft 6in and meant an increased wingspan of 89ft.
A contract was officially signed on the 9th March, 1946, and Vickers allocated the designation Type 609 and the name Viceroy. Initially, a variety of engine types were considered, including Rolls Royce Dart’s and Armstrong Siddeley Mamba’s. Mamba
engines increased the weight, which Vickers responded to by making sure the engine nacelle would fit either the Mamba or Dart. While the Dart progressed better in development, the government asked in August 1947 for the second prototype to be Dart-powered. The second prototype was designated the 630 and was named as the Viscount. The first prototype already under construction was converted to the Dart as a 630 as well.
The resulting Vickers Type 630 design was completed at Brooklands by chief designer Rex Pierson and his staff in 1945, a 32-seat airliner powered by four Dart engines for a cruising speed of 275mph. An order for two prototypes was placed in March 1946, and construction started in the company’s Foxwarren Experimental Department. Originally Viceroy after the viceroy of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the aircraft was renamed
Viscount following India’s independence in 1947. There was work on replacing the Darts with the Mamba, but this was dropped by the time the prototypes were reaching completion. After Pierson’s death in 1948, George Edwards (later Sir George Edwards) took over as chief designer and assumed all technical control over the Viscount project.
The first prototype took to the skies on the 16th July, 1948, from the Vickers factory at Wisley. Though a successful flight, the design was considered too small and slow at 275mph, making the per passenger operating costs too high for regular service, and BEA had placed an order for 20 piston-engined Airspeed Ambassadors in 1947.
Though the trials of the turboprops proved to be much more successful and performed much better than the previous Piston Powered designs, a selection of alternatives were considered, including a jet powered version that was operated by two Rolls Royce Tay
Eventually, the first prototype Type 630 was awarded a restricted Certificate of Airworthiness on 15th September, 1949, followed by a full certificate on 27th July, 1950, which allowed the aircraft to be placed into trial service with BEA on 29th July to familiarise the pilots and ground crew with the new aircraft. It flew scheduled flights between London and Paris, and London and Edinburgh until 23rd August, 1950.
A later edition was the larger Type 700 with up to 48 passengers (53 in some configurations), and a cruising speed of 308mph. The new prototype G-AMAV first flew from Brooklands on 28th August, 1950, and served as a development aircraft for the type for several years. In late August 1950, BEA placed an order for 20 aircraft; further orders would come in the following year from operators such as Air France, Aer Lingus and Misrair.
With services now in full-swing, the age of the turboprop had truly brought commercial aviation into the future. Highly reliable and incredibly well-performing, the Viscount rewrote the book on how aviation manufacturers designed aircraft. Manufacturers that took on their design soared, such as the Fokker F.27 Friendship, a major success globally and a capable rival to the Viscount, whilst those who remained in the piston-powered past suffered, such as the Handley Page Herald.
The Viscount made it big in both Europe and the United States, being taken on by National Airlines, Continental Airlines and Northwest Airlines. Trans-Canada Airlines, later Air Canada, operated a sizeable fleet as well, which became the mainstay of internal operations in Canada. In the UK, BEA, and later British Airways, operated the
Viscount extensively across Europe, it being a major part of the domestic fleet until their withdrawal in 1982.
The Viscount remained in active operation with many carriers well into the 1980’s and 1990’s, with the last known operations of the type being in 2008, making it one of the last 1950’s turboprop designs to remain in revenue earning service.
During its lifetime however, the Viscount has suffered a sizeable number of accidents, including 144 hull losses and the deaths of 1,694 people both aboard and on the ground.
Nevertheless, the Vickers Viscount remains today something of a humble legend, a truly endearing little aircraft that brought the world of 1950’s aviation into the future. It was a popular little plane back then, and it’s a popular plane now!