Aviation Classic: 1962 Vickers VC-10 – A Great Step Backwards In Aviation

(first posted 8/3/2017)        After the disappointment of the pioneering Comet, how was the British aircraft industry to compete with the Boeing 707 and McDonnell Douglas DC-8? The answer was not to try, but to do something different. And the result was something very different – the Vickers VC-10.

The Comet first appeared in 1949, and by 1958 it was crossing the Atlantic to New York. But its protracted development, disastrous safety record, and small size allowed Boeing to not just catch up but to overtake. The Comet 4 could carry a maximum of 81 passengers – the 707 that entered trans-Atlantic service less than a month later accommodated 189. By 1961, over 250 707s were in service across the world. Its only competition was the very similar DC-8, which it outsold by more than two to one.

Britain had nothing to offer in competition to the Americans. Building a direct competitor was not realistic in either industrial – Britain’s still fragmented industry lacked the capacity to produce in Boeing’s volume – or commercial terms – the Americans were quickly entrenched with the major airlines in Europe, never mind in their backyard.

So what could the British do? The answer was to look for what the American jets couldn’t do, and try to fill that gap. The gap that was found was short runways at high altitude – typical of the airports of the (soon to be former) British colonies in East Africa. Nairobi in Kenya, for example, is at almost 6,000ft, with a runway that struggled to cope with Bristol Britannia turboprops, while the early Comets couldn’t land in the Kenyan capital until the new Embaski airport was opened in 1958 at lower altitude and with a longer runway.

British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), the state-owned operator of services between London and the Empire, needed something better, and gave the challenge to the aircraft division of Vickers Armstrong. Formed by a merger in 1927 of Vickers and Armstrong Whitworth, this company had a proud history – Vickers originated in Sheffield, the home of quality steel, as a manufacturer of marine powershafts, propellers and guns, before diversifying into armoured vehicles and planes at the start of World War 1, and by 1931, it included the Supermarine company of Spitfire fame. Armstrong Whitworth grew out of the pre-eminent naval shipbuilder and ordnance manufacturer, founded by the great inventor, engineer and industrialist William Armstrong, in the great industrialopolis that was early twentieth-century Tyneside. (And, incidentally, William Armstrong’s home in Northumberland is well worth a visit).

Vickers had hoped to offer BOAC the VC7, a civilian version of a troop transport it was developing for the RAF, called the Vickers V1000; it featured the wing root mounted jets of the Vickers Valiant nuclear bomber, but with a conventional fuselage and wing arrangement – in drawings, it looks a very graceful plane indeed, much like an enlarged Comet with swept-back wings. But V1000 was not to be; it was canceled in 1955 when the prototype was 80% complete, taking the VC7 with it and leading George Edwards of Vickers Armstrong to fume “We have handed to the Americans, without a struggle, the entire world market for big jet airliners.” He was right – in 1956, BOAC ordered its first 707s.

Vickers had to think again. BOAC soon had 15 707s for transatlantic services, but they weren’t suitable for African routes, with ‘hot and high’ airports being beyond the 707’s capability, and their passenger capacity being too large for the market. BOAC needed to move on from Comets and Britannias on the important and prestigious routes from London to Nigeria, East Africa, South Africa and on to Karachi, Delhi, Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia, and thus Vickers took the risk to commit to developing a jet to meet that spec, with neither government nor BOAC support.

The VC-10 drew on elements of the V1000 – notably the Rolls-Royce Conway jets, but with major differences – the location of the jets being a key one. Putting them high on the tail wasn’t just about styling or seeking a quiet cabin. The extra height kept them away from runway dust, and broad low-pressure tires also helped with poorer surfaces.

The striking swept wing design was equipped with wide flaps and slats to maximize the climbing potential and to cope with thinner air at altitude. The dramatic tail design, with the high sweeping T shape, did the same job, and with the rear engines made a VC-10 unmistakable.

Take-off and landing was at slower speeds than a 707, but with significantly more thrust – just what BOAC needed in Africa.

The plane also boasted some cutting edge avionics, with a fully automatic autopilot intended to allow zero visibility landings. Still seats for four upfront, and with their own dedicated toilet compartment too.

Despite the close fit with the spec, BOAC was not immediately sold on the VC-10. Chairman Miles Thomas (formerly Managing Director of Morris Motors) thought the plane was too heavy and fuel hungry, but reluctantly he ordered 25. Vickers needed to sell 80 to cover their investment – but attempts to interest British European Airways (BOAC’s short-haul equivalent) in a short-range VC11 version came to nothing – BEA preferred the Hawker Siddeley Trident.

By 1960, Vickers were struggling under the cost of developing the VC-10 at risk, and was pushed by government into merger with English Electric’s aviation business and the Bristol and Hunting companies as the British Aircraft Corporation (which has since evolved in to BAE Systems). Despite the merger into BAC, the name Vickers was retained. At the same time, Hawker Siddeley absorbed de Havilland, Blackburn and Avro, and Britain moved from 27 airframe builders in 1945 to two, until 1977 when the two groups were nationalised as British Aerospace.

The prototype VC-10 emerged in 1962, from the famous Brooklands factory near Weybridge, south of London. The first deliveries to BOAC were not until 1964 – the first flight was from London to Lagos, Nigeria. Initially, BOAC were a problem customer; the airline publicly complained about the high operating costs of their new jet – which were, of course, the consequence of their own demand for the plane’s capability. They changed their tune once they realised how much their customers liked it, for the smoothness (those large wings) and quietness (rear-mounted engines) compared to other planes – hence the advertising slogan ‘A Great Step Backwards in Aviation’.

BOAC relentlessly promoted the VC-10 right up to its end of service, majoring on its quiet and smooth ride. Images of the high tail and engines were a frequent choice. The airline also liked you to think its service was a cut above the Americans and others; how often do airline adverts specify the type of plane nowadays?

Depending on configuration, early BOAC VC-10s carried 101 to 150 passengers, in two classes and was popular with crew and passengers for its comfort, smoothness and speed. It was less popular with BOAC’s accountants, as the VC-10 was more expensive to operate than the 707. They could cruise at close to 600mph over a range of 5,500 miles.

The Conway jet was a  great success for RR. They powered the Handley Page Victor,  were offered on the 707 (and chosen by BOAC, who then advertised their ‘Rolls-Royce 707’) and the DC-8. The Conway was the world’s first turbofan engine. More complex than the earlier turbojet, a turbofan (or bypass jet) sends some of the air around the core of the engine, rather than through the combustion chambers and turbines, and exhausts it directly. As the air is flowing at a speed closer to the plane’s own speed, it improves the theoretical efficiency of the engine (under the Froude principle), thus delivering better fuel consumption with usable thrust, and as it isn’t heated to the same extent as the air passing through the turbines, it reduces noise. As fitted to the VC-10, each of the four Conways produced over 20,000 pounds of thrust.

As early as 1965, Vickers had produced the Super VC-10, with a 13 feet longer fuselage, more powerful Conways and larger fuel tanks for a longer range. Seating capacity was up to 150, still behind Boeing. Eventually, BOAC had 12 standard and 17 Super VC-10s, and the last remained in service until 1980.

BOAC had a very smart livery of grey, dark blue and white, which suited the sleek design of the VC-10. The gold ‘Speedbird’ emblem was a BOAC fixture from the days of Imperial Airways in 1932, and wasn’t abandoned by British Airways until 1984. Even now, ‘Speedbird’ is the BA call sign. This style suited the VC-10 much better than the later BA colours of blue lower and white upper body – the subtlety of the BOAC scheme was lost.

As well as BOAC, British United (later part of British Caledonian) and several African flag carriers – Nigeria, Ghana, East African (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda collectively) and even Air Malawi – purchased VC-10s. East African referred to theirs as ‘Jambo Jets’, using a Swahili greeting. But, even so, only 54 VC-10s were ever built.

There was a serious proposal for a double-deck version. Seating would have been for 295 passengers, or 205 with 74,000lb of freight in the lower fuselage. The design required Rolls-Royce’s new RB178 bypass jets to be a success. The engine never materialised, however, and the idea faded away.

But what a plane that would have been!

Right from the start, the RAF were interested in the VC-10, with 14 ordered by 1964. The fuselage was the standard VC-10, but the tail assembly and engines were from the Super VC-10, making these the fastest VC-10s. And, in standard RAF practice, the seats faced rearwards – the air force believes this improves survivability in a crash. They also featured a large cargo door on the lefthand front fuselage and strengthened flooring for their transport role.

The RAF must have loved their VC-10. As BOAC began to rundown its fleet, the RAF snapped them up. Several were cannibalised for spares, but others were refurbished to RAF specification and joined the fleet. The fleet was also used for VIP transport; reputedly both the Queen and Margaret Thatcher requested them for long flights.

The first conversions to in-flight refueling tankers were carried out on former BOAC and East African planes in 1978, to replace the Handley-Page Victors which had been converted from obsolete nuclear bombers a decade before. The fuel load went up to 90 tons, and the plane could also be refueled in flight. The work was completed by British Aerospace at Filton, Bristol, one of the homes of Concorde.

And, in 1981, the RAF purchased 14  surplus VC-10s from British Airways; five were converted into more tankers, and the rest were used to provide parts for the RAF’s fleet.

Refueling a Eurofighther Typhoon

RAF VC-10 tankers saw service right up to 2013. In 1982, they supported British operations in the Falklands War, flying from Ascension Island, and two were painted with Red Crosses for casualty evacuation through Venezuela.  They supported allied forces in the first Gulf War in 1991, and remained in the region for another decade, and served again in the mission in Afghanistan from 2001 and in the 2003 Iraq War.

Uniquely, the RAF named its VC-10s, after RAF crew who had been awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military award. The planes carried a scroll on the forward fuselage; as the fleet slowly reduced, the name began to appear in twos and even threes.

They were finally replaced by the Airbus A330 based MRTT (multi-role tanker transport) in 2013. Here the last RAF mission takes off, after almost fifty years, and by far the last of the just 54 VC-10s built. The VC-10 was the last large purely British jetliner; ever since, we have only managed regional jets and a junior role in the European Airbus consortium.

It is perhaps hard to see a plane that numbered only 54 examples, against 865 Boeing 707s, as a success. Commercially, it wasn’t of course, but then you learn that the fastest ever subsonic transatlantic crossing was by a VC-10 from JFK to Prestwick, near Glasgow on the west coast of Scotland in 5 hours 1 minute. Breakfast was champagne, instead of the normal full English. Obviously, tailwinds were the root of this, but the wonderful aerodynamics of the VC-10 clinched it.

So another intriguing and distinctive chapter of British engineering came to an end. But surely there are still times when we could all use a little of BOAC’s famous VC-Tenderness?