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 had 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 cancelled 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 tyres also helped with poorer surfaces.
The striking swept wing design was equipped with wide flaps and slats to maximise 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 refuelling 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 refuelled 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 in to more tankers, and the rest used to provide parts for the RAF’s fleet.
Refuelling 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?
When I was a small child growing up these were the very epitome of modernity until Concorde arrived. The shape of the tailfin in particular has a natural grace of line to it.
BOAC found that to some extent their higher fuel costs were offset by average percentage loadings being higher than on their 707s on the Atlantic routes.
Good write up and very interesting! I learned a lot about the British aviation industry (which I knew almost nothing about). Kind of a sad story, in the same sense as all stories of British decline. On the same day, too, as the story of Prince Phillip ‘ s retirement from public life at 96. Thanks for the history of this unique airplane.
It’s hard to believe such a small country had 27 aircraft manufacturers.
I guess I’m a bit of an ignoramus when it comes to aircraft, even though I spent 20 years in Naval Aviation. When I was overseas I only remember seeing 2 or 3 foreign aircraft. 1 or 2 British airplanes and 1 Russian. The British planes had those very distinctive twin air intakes under each wing, while I had to have the Russian plane pointed out to me.
BTW, I am a fan of these non-automotive write-ups, though a bit more interested in planes than I am trains. (Maybe if my last train trip was more recent than 45 years ago?)
I really like these aviation histories; there’s so much going on that most of the general public does not see.
High, Hot, and Humid.
As a neophyte trainee in ground school I was made aware of these three H’s and warned that ignoring them could be problematic.
I was a passenger (right seat) when control tower personnel in the old Denver Stapleton (Colorado) airport added an elevation warning to our clearance for takeoff, perhaps knowing we were from Long Island New York (or did they say that to everyone?) and wanted to emphasize the 5,276 foot elevation. It was also hot and humid. The takeoff roll of the V35A Bonanza (non-turbo) seemed to take forever and in slow motion. At sea level the Bonanza was a rocket. A mile high, hot, and humid, it was a slug.
Thank you for an interesting read on an fascinating subject.
Quite right. I did a little flying years ago and what a difference between the feel of things on a hot, hazy day in August vs. a clear cold day in January. On a cold day the plain would amost leap into the air where summer takeoffs used a lot more runway.
I’m quite familiar with the impact of hot and high on takeoffs, and the admonitions regarding the, but humid? I never heard of that being an issue. How would that affect takeoff? And Denver is certainly always high and often hot in the summer, but generally the air there is quite dry. Drastically drier than New York and the rest of the Eastern Seaboard. We always vacationed in Colorado because of the mountains and dry air.
Hmm, I was wondering about that too, apparently humid air weighs less than dry air because the H2O gas weighs less than the N2 or O2. Also jet engines don’t like humid air because there’s less oxygen per volume.
I would have thought that humid air would be denser, sure feels that way on a humid day.
I don’t really understand the science of it but humid air is less dense than dry air. It has something to do with water vapor molecules being lighter than “normal” air molecules. All air breathing engines are affected by this, in effect they are less powerful under humid conditions because they are not taking in as much hydrogen and nitrogen as they would under dryer conditions. Back in the days when cars had carburetors it was normal to switch to smaller jets under conditions of high humidity to compensate for this; presumably electronic fuel injection systems are capable of making these adjustments on the fly.
I see. Interesting.
To understand the effect of water vapor on air density more clearly, consider that dry air has a mean molecular weight of 28.9944 g/mol (NOAA, 1976), while water vapor has a molecular weight of only 18.05128 g/mol. Because of the lower molecular weight, adding water vapor to dry air lowers the average molecular weight of the air in a given volume. Thus an increase in the amount of water vapor in the air leads to a decrease in air density, which in turn leads to an increase in the density altitude. That is, with increased humidity, an aircraft will perform as if it’s higher in the standard atmosphere than it would at the same temperature but with a dry atmosphere(at the same pressure).
Guinn and Barry: Effects of Humidity on Density Altitude Calculations
Published by Scholarly Commons, 2016
The easiest way to understand this might be to look at the first law of thermodynamics (at least I think thats it):
where P is pressure, V is the volume (lets call it 1 cubic meter), n is the number of molecules of the gas, R is a constant, T is the absolute temperature (usually Kevin). So what this equation says is that if the pressure is constant (at Denver the pressure is about 850 millibars), and we have 1 cubic meter for volume, and the temperature is like 90 F. Then we have a fixed number, n, of molecules. If all the molecules are dry air, they weigh 29 units each (about 80% nitrogen, 20% oxygen). If we replace all of the air molecules with water, then we still have the same number of molecules, but they now weigh 18 units each.
There is something called virtual temperature, which can be googled and wiki has a detailed explanation and the equations so I won’t bother to post it here (which would be a waste anyway). The effect of a high dew point is greater at high altitudes than at sea level. A high dew point may effectively raise the temperature about 5 degrees Fahrenheit. So if the actual temperature is 90F, but humid, then the effective temperature is 95. I have not done any actual calculations for say Denver but I could.
I looked this one up to confirm, but the answer seems to be that with an increase in humidity, the air pressure for a given volume of air goes down. Lower air pressure makes for lower lift.
Not really, atmospheric pressure does vary, but “just plain joe” above is right, the water vapor molecules are lighter than air. Air a combination of molecules, mostly nitrogen (N2-weight 28) and oxygen (O2-weight 32). Water is H2O, weight 18, so more water the less the density. This link has a calculation at the end:
I’m remembering that one day in June, 1990, Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix closed because the temperature reached 122 degrees. Yes, Phoenix is only about 1,000 feet in altitude, and late June is usually fairly dry, but that was one hot day.
Denver is high and it can get got, but it is rarely humid there. Eastern Colorado is semi arid. I lived there for four years.
What a great morning read! I have very little knowledge of British aircraft but am now an admirer of the VC10’s unique capabilities. It is a shame that demand never materialized, at least for the volume necessary to make the thing work financially.
And it certainly is graceful. I agree that the older color treatment was lovely.
+1, great read about a plane I’d never heard about.
I was highly amused that BOAC complained about the consequences of their own requirements. We get that occasionally at work with clients and have to find a nice way to say “well, what did you THINK was going to happen?”
DougD, I agree. There’s an old saying IT developers [still] use when customers are writing their system specs:
… and the famous tree swing cartoon.
That one’s on the wall down in purchasing dept 🙂
Yep, I have a very similar cartoon from 1975 while working at Emerson Electric Corporation.
It’s a classic!
ROTFL!! Great one, RLPlaut!
I’m not a detailed expert on the specific capabilities BOAC was looking for that the initial 707 didn’t offer, but as soon as bypass engines became available on the 707, which very substantially improved its hot and high takeoff performance, the need for the VC10 was largely irrelevant. And Boeing would have been able to offer them a shorter-fuselage version, like the did for Quantas.
Frankly, Vickers made a decision to develop the VC-10 without taking into consideration of the rapid improvements in powerplants and the 707’s flexibility in being adapted to meet various conditions.
I remember seeing a VC-10 at Kennedy airport in NY, in 1969. I was quite aware of them, but had not seen one until then.
And if I remember correctly most of the airports for which BOAC needed the VC-10’s performance eventually extended their runways to be able to accept a 707, making the VC-10 no longer relevant.
And sorry to be pedantic again, but it’s Qantas — no ‘u’. It originally stood for Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services.
Great. After reading about BOAC in this piece, I’ve got the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR” stuck in my head. 🙂
I’m surprised that Vickers didn’t object when McDonnell Douglas released its similar-sounding DC-10, although that may be because it entered production around the same time that the last VC10 came off the line.
I thought about that too… If the USAF had bought both of these in refueler configuration, they would’ve found themselves in a bit of a conundrum…
“Let’s see, which one of these planes do we call the KC-10?”
Between the Marines and the Air Force, I can think of three foreign designed aircraft that showed up in double or triple digit numbers in the USA inventory, the Harrier, the Canberra and the Airco DH9. The VC-10 would have made a nice refueling aircraft, but we already had the KC-135.
Hot and high? Reminds me of the heat last month in Arizona where single engine planes couldn’t take off because it was 120 degrees.
Indeed. Regional jets as well.
Although from what I understand for some of those planes it wasn’t that they necessarily were physically unable to take off, but that there simply wasn’t any data for their performance at temperatures that high. So they really they didn’t know whether or not they could take off, so by default they couldn’t.
Great article Big Paws. British aviation produced some of the most beautiful commercial aircraft in the post war era. Including the Viscount, Comet, VC-10, One-Eleven, Trident and Concorde. The Viscount, One-Eleven and Trident being the most widely accepted.
Interesting how experience with military aircraft (B-47 and B-52) contributed to the design and funding of the 707. While the Comet and VC-10 found greater success later, in military roles.
Up to now, I had never heard of the VC-10. What that plane’s tail reminds me of, though, is a not-so-good movie starring James Stewart in “No Highway in the Sky”, whereas the fictional airliner “Reindeer” had twin horizontal stabilizers, giving an appearance of antlers, hence the name.
The plot of the movie was metal fatigue related to temperature, as the rear end of the plane broke off in certain scenarios.
The risque’ line of the movie was when Jimmy told a female passenger to go in the men’s rest room in case of an in-flight catastrophe, as it was the strongest structure in the plane’s cabin!
The lack of success of the British airline industry in comparison to the U.S reminds me of a famous quote which says something along the lines of: “If it doesn’t look like a Spitfire, it ain’t gonna fly”!
I’ve always liked “No Highway in the Sky”. I would not have particularly wanted to fly on a “Reindeer” . Enjoyed James Stewart pulling the landing gear while on the ground. Always thought the story line could be a metaphor for the Comet disasters without a direct comparison.
“No Highway in the Sky” is based on the novel “No Highway” by Nevil Shute — I had always believed it was inspired by the Comet’s metal-fatigue problems, but on checking the dates it must have been an interesting coincidence.
Shute was a best-selling author (“A Town like Alice”, “On the Beach”, and many more) from about 1930-60, but in addition he was an aeronautical engineer who before the war part-owned the airplane manufacturers Airspeed Ltd. I remember reading in his autobiography his comment that it was quite possible to run small aircraft companies successfully until metal structure and skin became common — then the investments were just too great. Comparable to the consolidation of car manufacturers, I suppose.
Fun arcane CC fact: Nevil Shute bought the Melbourne motor show XK 140 SE roadster. White, red leather and the D type cylinder head.
Next owner was an architect who enjoyed the car before trading it on the first E Type in Melbourne.
At some point in the 90s the son of the second owner traced the car, bought it back and restored it. He still owns the car and I have been lucky enough to ride in it.
All those stories about the Moss gearbox that have subsequently become legend are just stories. I couldn’t see any difficulty in the operation.
Thanks for the article, very enjoyable and informative.
What a great story on a plane I knew very little about. Made my morning. Thank you!
“No Highway in the Sky” and the book it was based on by Nevil Shute were an eerie foreshadowing of the Comet disaster.
I wonder whether the advertisers spotted the troublesome double entendre in the words “a great step backwards in aviation!” I always admired the VC-10, I am probably too young to have ever flown in one, though I am sure my parents might have done when they returned to Barbados from the UK during the sixties and in the early 70s. I also did not know that BOAC and Cunard cruise lines were connected, as shown in the plane in the first video. Once again, this site has taught me something new.
I think the double entendre was the whole point! Advertisers (in the U.K. At least) have always loved a good (or bad) pun and attention grabbing seemingly negative statement that then turns out to be a positive (in the case of the VC10, the noise is at the back and behind you)
I can’t think of a lovelier jetliner, except perhaps the Comet. And in that swish BOAC livery, it just looks like an exciting journey to somewhere exotic. Evokes a visceral reaction of anticipation. Maybe I really do remember seeing one as a very little kid at Melbourne airport in about 1972, though I don’t trust memories that old now. Would BOAC have still been flying here in that timeframe?
Great write up. The 60s were a fascinating time in aviation. Introduction of the jet engine had lead to a wide variety of new thinking in aircraft design.
Rolling past Detroit Metro on I-94 I remember seeing VC-10s on approach passing over the highway. United flew Sud Est Caravelles and Vickers Viscounts. American had BAC-111s and Convair 990s. Delta had Convair 880s. Now we are back to an airliner duopoly and everything looks about the same. Only quick way I can tell the difference between most Boeing and Airbus products is the wing tips.
Surprised that Vickers figured an 80 airframe payback on their development costs. Boeing amortizes their costs over about ten times than number. Last I read, Boeing is expecting program break even on the 787 at 1,100 airframes. Lockheed lost their shirt on the L-1011, with 250 built, and they exited the commercial airframe business.
The Russkies must have liked the VC-10 as the Il-62 looks like a clone.
Love the photobombing by the British Airways 747 & L-1011 in that shot, Steve. I had no idea that BA had any Lockheed L-1011(s) in their fleet.
I had no idea that BA had any Lockheed L-1011(s) in their fleet.
Thank chauvinism and make work programs. The stock engine on the L-1011 was the Rolls Royce RB-211, vs the DC-10’s stock engines, GE CF6s. I can just about guarantee you that the 74 in the pic also has RB-211s, rather than the usual fitment of P&W JT9s as it looks like a -200 and BA was the launch customer for 200s with RB-211s Theoretically, an airliner can be ordered with any engine the operator wants, from either Rolls, GE or P&W, but there is always a bias on the part of the airframe builder in favor of one particular engine. iirc, it was development problems with the RB-211 that pushed Rolls Royce into insolvency and put Lockheed behind the eight-ball until it got a government bailout.
When the RN and RAF ordered F4 Phantoms, they, again specified Rolls Royce engines. The RR Speys offered more power and better fuel efficiency than the GE J79s, but the necessary redesign of the after fuselage so messed up the lines of the plane that, in spite of the greater power, the Brit Phantoms had a lower top speed than ours.
The VC-10 also played a role in the RB-211 program. Rolls wanted to fling an RB-211 around the sky, so acquired a VC-10 and replaced two of the Conways with an RB.
Well, if we’re honest here, it was Lockheed who pioneered the quad rear engine concept (at least in production civilian aircraft) with the Jetstar, which first flew in 1957.
Big Paws… Being a Planes, Trains, and Automobiles enthusiast (the vehicles, not the movie – never seen it)… I really appreciate your write ups for this site. I’ve learned so much. Being a yank, I know a good bit about trains and planes on this side of the pond, but you’ve opened my eyes up to the British industries very nicely.
Very well researched and written indeed.
I wonder how the VC-10 handled compared to the Boeing 727, a favorite plane from my youth that had a similar look to it. I got to fly on a 727 for the very last time when it was substituted for the 757 we were supposed to depart on due to at first security, then a mechanical issue with the 757. The date was 9/24/2001. Security was just a tad heightened obviously. We took off WAY late, but the pilot of that old 727 pushed the balls to the wall, and we almost made our connecting flight in Miami to Aruba (from Baltimore). We made it down there in just over a hour, but sadly, the flight to Aruba was taking off, just as we were landing. We had to wait around for 6 to 8 hours for the next flight. But I still commend that pilot for trying. We almost made it.
I wonder how the VC-10 handled compared to the Boeing 727, a favorite plane from my youth that had a similar look to it.
Boeing aircraft have a reputation for being particularly responsive, the 72 particularly so. I saw an interview of a DC-8 driver who described flying the 8 with words to the effect of “it’s not like a 72 you can fly with a flick of your wrist. It’s like driving your house, from the front porch” I asked a DC-9 driver for US West if his 9 had heavy controls. He said a 9 was very heavy…and within a couple years he was having surgery for carpet tunnel syndrome.
The way 72s were handled gave me the impression the guy up front was having fun. From the acceleration on the runway, the steep climbout and sharp banks, I would think the driver was smiling from ear to ear. Never got that impression in a 9 or a 73 or 75 or 76 or L-1011, and it was too long ago to remember the impressions in a 707, 720 or 990.
Returning from NYC on a 72, when they were new, my dad overheard another passenger say “these are nice planes, but why do they always fly them like an F-104”
This was all a very long way of saying, I doubt a VC-10 was as lively and responsive as a 72.
Actually the 757 had a reputation as the sports car in many of the Airline’s fleets. Known for it responsiveness and power it was used by many airlines at high altitude, arid and short runway airports….It’s still an aircraft that has been failed to be matched and Boeing regrets not having it for its size, performance and flexibility.
I might be wrong but I think that the engines on the 757 are the same as the much heavier 767 – accounting for the phenomenal performance?
That’s what I was thinking too. The 757 and 767 are essentially narrow and widebody versions of the same thing, so the same engines on a much lighter plane would certainly be understressed from a power standpoint.
As far as control responsiveness, though, I wonder how much might have had to do with the T-tail or the 727’s trijet configuration?
Thanks for the fascinating article, and for mentioning the BOAC call sign was “Speedbird” I’d heard that name on the air disaster TV show Mayday and was’t sure what it was about.
Maybe I’m being a bit pedantic, but I think it would be more proper to call the DC-8 simply the “Douglas DC-8”, as the Douglas Aircraft Company didn’t merge with McDonnell Aircraft until 1967, well after the DC-8 entered service.
As long as BOAC flew the LHR-JFK-LHR route with both the VC-10 and the 707, if the passenger was given a choice, the vast majority of the chose the VC-10 for its smoothness and quietness.
Very nice article, as per usual, Dr Paws.
BOAC seem to have been a right bunch of idiots back then (totally not like BA now) to demand specific characteristics for a jet and then balk at the fact that this made it expensive to run. You want something cheap, get one off the peg. You want something that fits, get one made up. What’s true in Saville Row is also true elsewhere.
There are some parallels to be made between the British aviation and automotive sectors, especially vis-à-vis fragmentation, followed by State-backed over-consolidation. The pivotal decisions were taken from the post-Suez ’50s to the ’73-’74 Oil Shock. Hard to blame any specific player involved: politicians from both ruling parties, economic advisors of all persuasions and most CEOs in those days were in agreement that consolidation should take place. But it was about as badly managed as anyone could have dreamed it. Britain eventually recovered thanks to its banking and service sector, but became something of an automotive and aerospace dwarf compared to the position it had in the early ’50s. The VC10 story is a great example of this.
My favorite reference to the aircraft under discussion is in The Who’s rock opera Quadrophenia. The liner notes are written from the point of view of the young protagonist, who attends a Who concert and notes that John Entwhistle’s bass guitar “sounded like a bloody VC-10.”
Interesting account of an interesting aircraft. Takes me back to building floor panels and composite ducting for the aircraft during the first Gulf War. Trying to build to a 1950s drawing in 1990 was quite a challenge, as was working in inches!
Arguably, the term “backward step” undersells this aircraft, as it was not backward per se but perhaps stepped too far sideways as well as forwards for many operators.
The position of the engines was not just to keep them away from runway dust but also removed the drag inducing engine nacelle from the wing, making that more efficient for generating lift, as part of the hot and high option.
BA still use the Speedbird callsign, and the BA livery has a device at the front of the aircraft that is claimed to be a modern interpretation of the Speedbird emblem, albeit it in red and blue on white.
Britain does still have a great aerospace industry – the second largest in the world – and plays a major part in the Airbus, designing and building all the wings for all Airbus aircraft, as well as a military aerospace portfolio and a strong component and systems sector as well.
And, motor sport fans note, the VC-10 was built at Brooklands.
Great piece combining beautiful aircraft, potent nostalgia, and regret for what might have been.
Canada also has a major aerospace ‘what if?’ story. The Avro Arrow, a Mach 2 fighter interceptor, first flew in 1958 but was cancelled a year later. 60 years on the story of the Arrow still generates discussion and controversy on a regular basis in Canada, about lost opportunities and the importance of advanced technology industries to modern economies.
The Avro Arrow sure makes that CF-100 Canuck in the background appear dated.
The Arrow dominates ‘what if’ discussions in Canada. But the nearly forgotten Avro Jetliner was almost the world’s first commercial jet liner in 1949, taking flight 13 days after the de Havilland Comet.
Interesting. I’d never heard of it before. Wikipedia suggests it might have had commercial success if Avro hadn’t been so busy with military aircraft.
I see they avoided the notorious square windows of the Comet.
Looks not unlike a US A-5 Vigilante.
Almost as elegant as the VC-10: the Sud Aviation Caravelle, as featured in Ed Stembridge’s January 2013 article.
Here another view of the somewhat larger, somewhat more commercially successful IL-62
Beautiful aircraft, marvellous engineering. Innovation seems passe now; witness Boeing’s blended wing body studies.
Another BOAC advertisement for the VC10:
Fantastic writeup of a fascinating jet. They definitely do have a graceful air to them. I wonder if any have survived into preservation? A commercial airliner is a rather big thing to keep around, but one generally doesn’t operate an aircraft museum without having quite a lot of space!
I recall that the Vickers VC 10 and the Ilyushin IL-62, of similar design, were in a race to see which prototype would fly first. I forget which one won.
I flew in both as a passenger — the VC 10 from Rome to Johannesburg in 1968, and the IL 62 from Johannesburg to Moscow (and back) in 1995. They were both marvellous planes to fly in as a passenger, and I’m sad that they are no longer around, but modern aircraft are cheaper to fly, even if less comfortable.
What I would like to know (for a novel I’m writing) is where the fuel tanks on the VC 10 were located.
In the wings. This cutaway diagram (from “The Eagle”) might be of help too:
The most beautiful quad-engined narrow body airliner ever built.
Enjoyed the article, having flown on two of the VC-10’s trans-Atlantic. In my opinion the best flight by far, and I have been a passenger on most planes from DC-3 through turboprop and jets. And I always looked forward to flying on BOAC, as they always treated you like a VIP, even in coach. Best of luck in your future endeavors. Cheers.