By Rob Russell
In 1951, the Ministry of Supply asked Vickers-Armstrong to consider a military troop/freight development of the Valiant V bomber with tarns-Atlantic range as a successor to the de Havilland Comet. In October 1952, a formal Air Specification was released. Vickers came up with a stretched version of the Valiant bomber with windows, designated the VC5. It attracted little interest.
The concept interested BOAC, who entered into a discussion with Vickers and the RAF. In October 1952, Vickers was 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. The planned civil airliner was known as the VC7 (the seventh Vickers civil design). Development was prolonged by the need to meet the RAF's requirements for short take-off and a self-loading capability. Work started on the prototype but by 1955 the aircraft's increased weight required a more powerful engine, causing BOAC to question the engine development cycle. In 1955, the government cancelled the RAF order in a round of defence cuts. Vickers and the Ministry of Supply hoped that BOAC would still be interested in the VC7 but they were reluctant to support the production of another British aircraft following delays in the Britannia programme and the crashes involving the de Havilland Comet.
During the 1950s, the then British government required the aviation industry to consolidate: in consequence, only two engine makers were left by 1959: Rolls-Royce and Bristol Siddeley. In 1960, the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) encompassed Vickers, Bristol and English Electric's aviation interests, whilst Hawker Siddeley built on de Havilland's heavy aircraft experience and Westland consolidated helicopter manufacture. The British government, at that stage, 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.
These consolidations further compounded the various problems with the aircraft’s design and the Defence budget cuts did not assist the manufacturing of it either.
Despite all these difficulties, Vickers pressed ahead with the development of both a military version and a modified one for civilian use. The prototype VC-1000, G-ARTA, was rolled out of the Weybridge factory on 15 April 1962. On 29 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.
During its relatively short commercial service life its graceful lines and comfortable cabin were appreciated by passengers and crews alike. But its disappointing sales record reflected the attitude of the then national flag carrier, British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), which had a predilection for American-built aircraft. It was the fastest commercial 4-engined jet in service, at that time.
The VC10 was a new design but used some production ideas and techniques, as well as the Conway engines, developed for the V.1000 and VC7. 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 under-wing 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 lower 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 onboard avionics and flight-deck technology were extremely advanced and a quadruplicated automatic flight control system (a "super autopilot") was intended to enable fully automatic zero-visibility landings (though the autoland system did not work smoothly and finally was removed from the Super VC10s.).
Capacity was up to 135 passengers in a two-class configuration. Vickers designer Sir George Edwards is said to have stated that this plane was the sole viable option unless he were to reinvent the 707 and, despite misgivings on operating cost, BOAC ordered 25 aircraft. Vickers calculated that it would need to sell 80 VC10s at about £1.75 million each to break even so, apart from BOAC's 25, another 55 remained to be sold. Vickers offered a smaller version, the VC11, to BEA for routes like those to Athens and Beirut but this was rejected in favour of the Hawker Siddeley Trident.
By January 1960, Vickers was experiencing financial difficulties and was concerned that it would not be able to deliver the 35 VC10s without making a loss. It offered to sell ten Super 200s to BOAC at £2.7 million each only to find that BOAC was unconvinced it had a role for the already ordered 35 VC10s and doubted the airline's ability to fill all 200 seats The whole project looked to be facing cancellation prior to government intervention, supporting Vickers with an order for Super 200s being placed on 23 June 1960. The Super 200 extension was cut down to 13ft (3.9 m) for the finalised Super VC10 (Type 1150), the original design retrospectively becoming the Standard VC10 (Type 1100).
British Airways (BA) was formed in 1974 through the merger of BOAC and British European Airways (BEA), and soon after it began retiring the Super VC10s from transatlantic routes. After just ten years they were replaced by wide-bodied jets such as the 747-100 – already flying with BOAC since 1971. Five of these earlier variants were leased to Gulf Air and two became VIP transports in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Fortunately, the Royal Air Force stepped in and prolonged the type’s lifespan by acquiring examples for transport duties.
In 1960, the RAF issued Specification 239 for strategic transport, which resulted in an order being placed by the Air Ministry with Vickers in September 1961 for five VC10s. The order was increased by an additional six in August 1962, with a further three aircraft cancelled by BOAC added in July 1964. The military version (Type 1106) was a combination of the Standard combi airframe with the more powerful engines and fin fuel tank of the Super VC10. It also had a detachable in-flight refuelling nose probe and an auxiliary power unit in the tail cone. Another difference from the civil specification was that all the passenger seats faced backwards for safety reasons.
The first RAF aircraft, designated VC10 C Mk.1, often abbreviated to VC10 C.1, was delivered for testing on 26 November 1965; deliveries to No. 10 Squadron began in December 1966 and ended in August 1968. The VC10s were named after Victoria Cross medal holders, the names were displayed above the forward passenger door. During the 1960s, the VC10s of No. 10 Squadron operated two regular routes, one to the Far East to Singapore and Hong Kong, and the other to New York. By 1970, roughly 10,000 passengers and 730,000 lb of freight were being carried monthly by the VC10 fleet.
In addition to the strategic transport role, the VC10 routinely served in the aeromedical evacuation and VIP roles. In its VIP role, the aircraft was commonly used by members of the British Royal Family, such as during Elizabeth II's bicentennial tour of America, and by several British Prime Ministers; Margaret Thatcher reportedly insisted on flying by VC10. The aircraft proved capable of being flown non-stop by two flight crews, enabling several round-the-world flights, one such VC10 circumnavigated the globe in less than 48 hours.
International operators of the VC10 were confined to Africa and the Middle East. Ghana Airways ordered three Standards in January 1961, although one was subsequently cancelled. The other two were built with the addition of cargo doors and were designated as Type 1102. One of the aircraft, 9G-ABP (c/n 824), was leased by Middle East Airlines from April 1, 1967, until it was destroyed by Israeli commandos in Beirut on December 28, 1968. The other was retired in 1980. East African Airways purchased five passenger/freight Super VC10s (Type 1154) between 1966 and 1970 – in fact the final five examples off the production line.
One of these, 5X-UVA (c/n 881), was involved in the type’s second fatal accident when it aborted take-off from Addis Ababa airport on April 18, 1972. It overran the end of the runway, broke up and caught fire, killing 43 of the 107 on board. The four remaining aircraft continued in operation until they were retired in 1977 when they were returned to BAC and later acquired by the RAF. Air Malawi acquired a single example, 7Q-YKH (c/n 819), from British Caledonian in November 1974 which flew with the African carrier until October 1979 when it was withdrawn from service and stored at Hurn, Bournemouth. It was later flown to Blantyre where, after a further period of storage, it was broken up
The longevity of the VC10 design can be credited to its secondary role as an RAF transport/tanker aircraft and some aircraft saw over 40 years of service in the RAF. In 1961, the Air Ministry signed a deal for five VC10 transport variants to meet their specification C 239 – an order later increased to eleven when BOAC reneged on its original commitment. These were followed three years later by a deal for three Super VC10s. All were designated as Type 1106 and built with a cargo door, reinforced flooring and an extra fuel tank in the fin, and were powered by Conway RCo.42 turbofans. In addition, they received an air-to-air refuelling nose probe and an auxiliary power unit in an extended tail cone. All 14 were designated C Mk.1s by the RAF and were operated from RAF Brize Norton.
These jets went on to serve with distinction in the RAF and were even involved in assisting with getting many fighter jets and bombers, down to the Falklands, during the battle, against the Argentineans, over the Falkland Islands, in 1982.
The jets were still involved in active service in the 1990s and were very much an integral part of the First Gulf War, as refuelling aircraft for NATO countries. They were also deployed to service in the 2000s, being deployed to Oman, in support of the American war effort against Iraq. They provided both refuelling and logistical support, mainly in the medical evacuation role. But from 2005, the RAF started to withdraw their VC10s from active service, the last few serving either at Brize Norton or down at the Falkland Islands, on detached duties.
There was no doubt that the VC10 was one of the finest British jets, built. But its future was very much determined by the unfortunate accidents of the Comet, as well as the introduction of American-built jets, namely the B707 and DC8, of which Vickers VC7 and 10s were unable to compete against.
The VC10 really was the Queen of the Skies and was thoroughly enjoyed by all the crews that flew them and passengers that flew on them. Despite its relatively short commercial career, it enjoyed a very successful service in the RAF.
Crew: 4 + up to 5 flight attendants
Capacity: 151 passengers
Length: 158 ft 8 in (48.36m)
Wingspan: 146 ft 2 in (44.55m)
Height: 39 ft 6 in (12.04m)
Wing area: 2,851 sq ft (264.9m²)
Empty weight: 139,505 lb (63,27 kg)
Max takeoff weight: 334,878 lb (151,898 kg)
Fuel capacity: 17,925 imp gal (21,527 US gal; 81,490 L)
Powerplant: 4 × Rolls-Royce Conway Mk 301 turbofans, 22,500 lbf (100 kN) thrust each
Maximum speed: 580 mph (500 kn)
Cruise speed: 550 mph (480 kn) at 38,000 ft (econ cruise)
Range: 5,850 mi (9,410 km, 5,080 nmi)
Service ceiling: 43,000 ft