The Vickers VC10 is a British airliner designed and built by Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft) Ltd and first flown in 1962. The airliner was designed to operate on long distance routes with a high subsonic speed and also be capable of hot and high operations from African airports. Today, a handful of these aircraft remain in service as aerial refuelling and transport aircraft with the RAF.
By the late 1950s, the government decreed that the industry should 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, Hawker Siddeley built on de Havilland's heavy aircraft experience, and Westland consolidated helicopter manufacture. In 1977 BAC and Hawker Siddeley (by then also including Avro) were nationalised and merged to form British Aerospace.
As had been the case for its interwar predecessor, Imperial Airways, BOAC invariably had to operate British-designed and built, or at least British-powered aircraft, with procurement bills paid by the Ministry of Supply. Several of these aircraft were either unsafe, delayed, uncompetitive, or had all of these defects combined. The Canadair DC-4M was uneconomical, as was the Hermes. The Comet I suffered crashes (due to metal fatigue) and was removed from service, and the Britannia was years late entering service. Though not operated by BOAC, the Tudor also suffered crashes which forced the closure of quasi-private British South American Airways. This strained relations between BOAC and indigenous aircraft makers.
In 1951 the Ministry of Supply asked Vickers-Armstrongs to consider a design for a military troop/freight development of the Valiant V-bomber with trans-Atlantic range as a successor to the de Havilland Comet. The concept interested BOAC who entered into discussion with both Vickers and the RAF. In October 1952 Vickers were contracted to build a prototype which they designated the Type 1000 (V.1000) which was followed in June 1954 by a production order for six aircraft for the RAF.
The planned civil airliner version was known as the V.C.7 (the seventh civil design by Vickers). The development period was extended as the company had to meet the RAF requirement for short-field performance and a self-loading capability. Work had started on the prototype but by 1955 the weight of the aircraft had increased which would have required a more powerful engine but the project was delivered a blow from which it did not recover when the government cancelled the RAF order in the 1955 round of defence cuts. Vickers and the Ministry of Supply hoped that BOAC would still be interested in the VC.7 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.
Several companies pitched for the MRE fleet. 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.
The VC10 was a new design but some of the production ideas and techniques developed for the V.1000 and VC7 as well as the Conway engines were used. It had a generous wing equipped with full span Fowler flaps for good take-off and climb performance, and its engines were at the rear, giving an efficient clean wing and reduced cabin noise. Technological breakthroughs from the V.1000 and later Vanguard programmes included structural parts milled from solid blocks, rather than being assembled from pieces of profiled sheet metal. The entire airframe was to be carefully coated against corrosion. Planned flight deck technology was extremely advanced, with a quadruplicated automatic flight control system (a "super autopilot") envisaged to enable fully automatic zero-visibility landings. Capacity was up to 135 passengers in a two-class configuration. Vickers designer Sir George Edwards is said to have stated that this was the sole route he could have taken unless he were to reinvent the 707. Despite very serious misgivings on operating cost, BOAC was pressured by the government to order 25 aircraft.
Vickers calculated that it would need to sell 80 VC10s at about £1.75 million each to break even. With BOAC taking only 25, another 55 remained to be sold. Vickers offered a smaller version (the VC11) to BEA for longer routes like those to Athens and Beirut, but this was rejected in favour of the Hawker Siddeley Trident.
Vickers revamped its production plans to try to break even with only 35 sales at £1.5 million each, re-using jigs from the Vickers Vanguard. On 14 January 1958 BOAC increased its order to 35, with options for a further 20 aircraft, all with smaller 109-seat interiors and more first-class seating. With orders from a single customer giving an expected break even, the use of the Vanguard jigs was abandoned and new production jigs made.
Internally, BOAC had calculated that the 707 cost £4.10 per passenger mile, while the VC10 would cost £4.24. This information was leaked and was credited with the loss of several foreign orders. The large difference caused growing concern and calls to cancel the VC10 orders in favour of the 707. The VC10 was rescued by the British government. In order to offer a more economical product, Vickers began work on the Super 200 development of the VC10. Its main differences were more powerful Conway engines and a 28 feet (8.1 m) longer fuselage offering up to 212 seats: 23 more than the Boeing 707-320 series.
By January 1960, Vickers was experiencing financial difficulties and was concerned that it would not be able to deliver the original 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. The government intervened again on Vickers' behalf, with an order for Super 200s placed on 23 June 1960. BOAC doubts continued, this time centred on the airline's ability to fill all 200 seats. The Super 200 was accordingly cut down to a 13 ft (3.9 m) stretch to the final Super VC10 (Type 1150), the original design retrospectively becoming the Standard VC10 (Type 1100).
As allowed in its contracts with Vickers, in May 1961 BOAC amended its order to 15 Standard and 35 Super VC10s, eight of the Supers having a new combi configuration with a large cargo door and stronger floor. The order was changed again in December to 12 Standards. By the time deliveries were ready to begin in 1964, airline growth had slowed and BOAC wanted to cut its order to seven Supers. In May the government intervened, placing an order for VC10s to operate as military transports, absorbing the overproduction.
The lengthy political manoeuvring surrounding the VC10 was well publicised and did much to erode market confidence in the type. Its history to that date had been something of a see-saw, with the government promoting it and an increasingly unwilling national airline hoping it would go away. This culminated in a furious public political scandal when BOAC chairman Gerald d'Erlanger and managing director Sir Basil Smallpeice resigned over the issue of whether the national airline was a profit-making company or an automatic sponsor of indigenous aircraft designs; the two (with Smallpeice later an ardent supporter of the Margaret Thatcher premiership) defended the former opinion. They were widely supported within BOAC, whose staff felt the VC10 was foisted on them purely to boost employment figures, and who no longer had confidence in British aircraft makers. BOAC's incoming chairman Sir Giles Guthrie was also anti-VC10: he proposed that the Vickers programme should be shelved in favour of more 707 orders.
The prototype Standard, G-ARTA, rolled out of the Weybridge factory on 15 April 1962. After two months of ground, engine and taxi tests, on 29 June it flew to Wisley for further testing. By the end of the year, two more had been flown to Wisley. A serious problem with drag had appeared by then. To cure it, Kuchemann wingtips and "beaver tail" engine nacelle fairings were added and tested. Along with the rework of the base rudder segment (its scythe shape was replaced by an angular design with an endplate for greater control effectiveness), this lengthened testing. The certification programme included visits to Nairobi, Khartoum, Rome, Kano, Aden, Salisbury and Beirut. A VC10 flew across the Atlantic to Montreal on 8 February 1964.
By this point seven of the original 12 Standards were complete, and the production line was preparing for the Supers. A Certificate of Airworthiness was awarded on 23 April 1964, being introduced to regular passenger service between London and Lagos on 29 April. By the end of 1964 all the production Standards had been delivered, with Vickers (by this point part of the BAC) retaining the prototype.
Super VC10s followed a month later, with the first flight on 7 May 1964. Although the Super was ostensibly a minor development of the Standard with an extra fuel tank in the fin, testing was prolonged by the need to move each engine pair 11 inches (27cm) outboard. This major redesign was needed to resolve tailplane buffeting and fatigue issues due to thrust reverser operation. The two inboard engines could have thrust reversers installed at last, matching the 707. (Military VC10s also had this engine arrangement.) The Certificate of Airworthiness was awarded in March 1965.
Later VC10 design developments included testing the large main deck freight door and new wing leading edges featuring a part-drooped four per cent chord extension over the inboard two thirds, and a drooped extended-chord wingtip which allowed more economical higher cruising heights. (This mimicked the 1961 aerodynamics of the similar-looking but significantly different Il-62.) Further developments were proposed, including freighter versions including one with similar front-loading configuration like the C-124 Globemaster II. Effort was focused on getting a BOAC order for a 250-seat "VC10 Superb." This was a move away from the VC10's initial MRE role and into the area targeted by Douglas with the DC-8 Super Sixties. Unlike the Douglas machine, the VC10 would have needed an entirely new double-deck fuselage, and this raised emergency escape concerns. The design failed to attract orders.
The VC10 became an immensely popular aircraft in the BOAC fleet, both with passengers and crew, being particularly praised for its low cabin noise level and comfort. BOAC (and later British Airways) obtained higher load factors resulting in VC10 flights having higher passenger load factors with the VC10 than the 707 or indeed any other aircraft of its fleets. This translated into higher profits for the airline, invalidating the original claims of higher cost where passenger appeal wasn't taken into account.
BOAC's successor British Airways began retiring its Super VC10s from Atlantic flights as early as 1974, mainly due to the 1973 oil crisis, and using them to displace standard VC10s. Ten of the eleven surviving standards were retired in 1974-75. Of these, 5 were leased to Tayaran AlKhalij (Gulf Air) until 1977-78, before being purchased by the RAF. One was leased to the Government of Qatar for VIP transport until 1981, when it was purchased by the RAF as an instructional airframe. Another went to the Government of the United Arab Emirates for similar purposes, until retirement in 1981 and preservation at Hermeskeil, Germany. The other three were traded in to Boeing as part payment on new aircraft, and Boeing scrapped them at Heathrow. The last standard VC10 in British Airways service was G-ARVM, which was retained as a standby for the Super VC10 fleet until retired in 1979. It was then preserved at RAF Cosford as part of the British Airways Museum collection. Unfortunately its condition deteriorated (BA having withdrawn funding of the collection) and it was reduced to a fuselage in 2006, before being moved to the Brooklands Museum in order to create space for the new National Cold War Exhibition.
Two of BOAC's Super VC10s were lost in terrorist hijackings during the 1970s, and retirement of the BA Super VC10 fleet began in April 1980, with use continuing on less travelled routes until 1981. After failing to sell them to other operators, British Airways sold 14 of the 15 survivors to the RAF in May that year (the exception, G-ASGC, went for preservation at Duxford). This ended the type's airline service history.
Ghana Airways ordered three VC10s in January 1961. Two were to be fitted with a cargo door and were known as Type 1102s. The first (registered 9G-ABO) was delivered in November 1964 and the second (9G-ABP) in May 1965; the third was cancelled. Ghana Airways leased 9G-ABP to Tayaran Assharq Alawsat (Middle East Airlines; MEA); this was destroyed at Beirut during an Israeli raid in December 1968. The other, 9G-ABO was retired from service in 1980. MEA also leased the prototype aircraft that Vickers had kept until 1965, leased from Freddie (later Sir) Laker's eponymous charter airline.
British United Airways (BUA), ordered two combi versions (Type 1103) in 1964, receiving them in October that year. When BOAC ceased VC10 operations to South America, BUA took them over, purchasing Ghana Airways' cancelled third aircraft in July 1965 (G-ATDJ, a Type 1103). The prototype aircraft (G-ARTA) was purchased from Vickers/BAC and converted from Type 1101 to Type 1109 in 1968. It was initially leased to Middle East Airlines, but returned to British Caledonian (as BUA had become) in 1969. G-ARTA was damaged beyond economic repair in a landing accident at Gatwick in 1972, and the others were sold in 1973-74. G-ASIW saw further service with Air Malawi, being retired in 1979. G-ASIX was sold to the Sultan of Oman as VIP transport, and was preserved at Brooklands upon retirement in 1987. G-ATDJ went to the Royal Aircraft Establishment for equipment tests and was retired in 1980.
Nigeria Airways had planned to buy two VC10s but had to cancel the order for financial reasons; it leased BOAC G-ARVA from 1969, but it was destroyed in a landing accident at Lagos in November of that year.
The final VC10 was the one of five Type 1154 Super VC10 built for East African Airways between 1966 and 1970 (registered 5X-UVA, 5H-MMT, 5Y-ADA, 5X-UVJ and 5H-MOG). Of these, 5X-UVA was destroyed in a take-off accident at Addis Ababa in 1972, and the other 4 were retired in 1977 and returned to BAC, subsequently being purchased by the RAF.
After 5H-MOG was delivered in February 1970, the production line closed, with 54 airframes built. Airline demand for the 707 and Douglas DC-8, with their superior operating economics, encouraged many of the world's smaller airports to extend their runways, thus eliminating the VC10's main advantage.
Marketing overtures for the VC10 were also made elsewhere, particularly in Mexico, Argentina, the Lebanon, Thailand, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. In line with the VC10's state-led background, these tended to be fronted by British cabinet figures from the Harold Wilson era such as John Stonehouse and Tony Benn. (In reminiscences, some of these figures have claimed that BOAC staff actively sabotaged VC10 marketing by leaking confidential documents relating to the type's fuel consumption.) The final serious enquiry for VC10s came from Chinese state airline Zhōngguó Mínyòng (CAAC) in 1971 and was confirmed in 1972. By then, however, the production equipment had been broken up.
The VC10 served its intended market for a mere decade and a half. Because it was fully written down and amortised by the 1970s, it could have continued in airline service much longer despite high fuel consumption. However, its high noise levels on departure and approach sealed its fate. Hush kitting the Conways was considered in the late 1970s and rejected on grounds of cost.
Aircraft XR809 was leased to Rolls-Royce for flight testing of the RB211 turbofan between 1969 and 1975. On return to the RAF it was found that the airframe had become distorted. It considered uneconomical to repair and was instead used for SAS training, before being scrapped.
In 1978 the RAF contracted British Aerospace to convert five ex-BOAC (via Gulf Air) Standard VC10s and four ex-East African Airways Super VC10s as air-to-air refuelling tankers. These were known in service as the VC-10 K2 (serials ZA140 to ZA144) and VC-10 K3 (ZA147 to ZA150) respectively. During conversion, extra fuel tanks were installed in what was previously the passenger cabin. These increased the theoretical maximum fuel load to 77 tonnes (K2) and 82 tonnes (K3); the fin fuel tank of the Super VC10 making the difference. In practice the fuel load would be capped by the maximum take-off weight before the tanks are completely full. Both variants had refuelling pods mounted under the wings and a centreline refuelling point, known as a HDU, was installed in the rear freight bay. An in-flight refuelling probe was fitted on the nose, allowing fuel to be taken from the VC10, Victor or TriStar tankers. The K2s have since been retired and scrapped, the last aircraft leaving service in 2000.
In 1981, 14 ex-British Airways Super VC10s were purchased, and given serials ZD230 to ZD243. These were placed in storage and some were used for spare parts. In the early 1990s, five of the aircraft were revived and converted to VC-10 K4 tankers. The K4 has identical refuelling equipment to the K2 and K3, but does not have any extra fuel tanks in the fuselage. Its fuel capacity remains at 70 tonnes, the same as a Super VC10. Around the same time, the 13 surviving C1s were also equipped with wing refuelling pods and re-designated as VC-10 C1K dual-rôle tanker/transports. The centreline HDU is not fitted to this variant and thus it is only a 2-point tanker. Again, no extra tanks were provided and the fuel load remains at 70 tonnes. The in-flight refuelling probe was a feature of the original RAF aircraft, but it was removed for a period during the 1970s and 1980s due to lack of use. The probe was refitted sometime before the tanker conversions took place.
Another on-time BOAC Standard VC10 was acquired as an instructional airframe/spare parts in 1981 (serial ZD493), having previously been leased to the Government of Qatar. A former BUA/British Caledonian aircraft G-ATDJ was acquired by the MoD in 1974 and served with the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Bedford as XX914. After retirement the fuselage was retained at RAF Brize Norton as an instructional aid for the Air Movements School.
The VC-10 is affectionately known in RAF service as the "Vickers FunBus" (a pun on the Vickers F.B.5 Gunbus).
Aircraft XR806 was damaged beyond economic repair in a ground de-fuelling accident at RAF Brize Norton in 1997, and several other C1K and K4 aircraft have also been scrapped. The surviving airworthy VC-10 C1Ks, K3s and K4s serve as tanker/transports with No. 101 Squadron at Brize Norton, Oxfordshire and No. 1312 Flight at RAF Mount Pleasant, Falkland Islands, making the RAF the VC10's final operator. The VC10 and Lockheed Tristar tanker/transports are due to be replaced in RAF service by the Airbus A330 MRTT under the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft Project.
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