Vickers VC-10

It might be thought that an airliner which was specifically designed to meet a requirement which soon ceased to exist, and whose operating economics where publicly criticised by it's principle operator, would have a very short service life. Yet, more than 40 years after its first flight, the VC10 is still considered a vital asset, albeit in a rather different role from that originally intended.

In 1954 the far-sighted Vickers design office began exploring jet-powered derivatives of the highly successful Viscount turboprop airliner and forthcoming Vanguard. Early studies resembled a Vanguard with a gently swept wing and rear-mounted engines attached to a Caravelle-style tail unit. Known as the Vanjet VC10, the design evolved into a three-engined airliner which was planned to be available in two versions: a short to medium range aircraft and a long-range aircraft. The former was aimed at routes flown by British European Airways (BEA) and the latter at British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) routes. During the 1950s and 1960s these two state-owned companies were notorious for indecision, political meddling and lack of strategic planning. Although aircraft closely resembling the short-haul Vanjet were later to appear in the form of the Trident, Boeing 727 and Douglas DC-9, BEA (a soon-to-be Vanguard operator) failed to show any enthusiasm. BOAC was under political pressure at the time to buy a British jet to offset it's planned purchase of Boeing 707s. It therefore showed interest in a long range aircraft for its Commonwealth routes to South Africa and Australia, but demanded a four-engined layout. Accordingly, the design was modified to accommodate four rear-mounted engines and other requirements.

In March 1957 BOAC issued a formal requirement for an airliner able to carry 34,000 lb (15,422 kg) over 4000 miles (6437 km), while being able to operate from 'hot and high' airfields which had runways too short to take Boeing 707s. In May 1957 BOAC announced that it would buy 35 VC10s to meet this requirement. Detailed design work started in March 1958.

The Vickers Type 1100, the VC10 prototype G-ARTA, made its maiden flight on 29 June 1962. This aircraft originally had a small wing of 140 ft 2 in (42.72 m) span and thrust reversers on all four engines. Development flying showed that cruise drag was slightly higher than estimated and a number of aerodynamic tweaks were progressively introduced into the design. Most notably, these included a beaver-tail extension fairing between the jet pipes of each engine pair, and a rearward extension of the engine pylon fairing. Certification was achieved on 23 April 1964, and BOAC introduced the Type 1101 VC10 into service on its London to Lagos route just six days later. This model introduced graceful curved wing tips which increased the wing area and reduced cruise drag.
Subsequently, Vickers delivered two Type/Model 1102s to Ghana Airways. These aircraft introduced a 4 per cent chord extension to the wing leading edge, between the root and mid-span. The wing also featured a large new fence near the root and a modified tip with slightly drooped leading edge. Another new feature was the addition of a large hydraulically powered side cargo door, 11 ft 8in (3.55 m) wide on the left side ahead of the wing on the second aircraft. Three similar aircraft were supplied to British United Airways (BUA) as the Type 1103.

In the meantime airports around the world had been busy extending their runways for Boeing 707/DC-8 operations, and the VC10s special capabilities were much less in demand. BOAC now wanted its initial order reduced and a stretched longer-range version introduced. The Super VC10s was a development which traded take-off performance against the ability to carry a much heavier payload. The fuselage was lengthened by 13 ft 0 in (3.96 m) and an internal fuel tank was fitted in the fin. Uprated Conway RCo 43 engines installed in nacelles angled 3 degrees nose-up and a strengthened structure were also a feature. The Super VC10 was originally planned as a 212-seater, but this was reduced to 163 seats at the insistence of BOAC. Two versions were built, the Type 1151 for BOAC which first flew on 7 May 1964 and the similar Type 1154 for East African Airways which incorporated a large cargo door and was configured for 'combi' mixed passenger/cargo operations. BOAC introduced the Super VC10 on its London-New York route on 1 April 1965.

Almost from the start, the VC10 and Super VC10 were popular with passengers, pilots and airline maintenance teams. The rear location of the engine gave a very quiet and vibration free cabin. The aircraft's high performance, low landing speeds and excellent engine-out handling qualities endeared it to pilots, while dispatch reliability was never a problem. At the same time BOAC management publicly criticised the aircraft for poor operating economics and implied that they had been forced to 'Buy British' for purely political reasons. This had a damaging effect on potential export orders and production ceased in 1970 after only 54 had been completed. When BOAC's financial calculations were finally published, they were shown to have been based on false assumptions. In fact the annual utilisation of the VC10 and Super VC10 was the highest in the BOAC fleet, its load factors were always significantly higher than the 707 and the actual operating profit was also the highest in BOAC, beating even the 707. BOAC later became British Airways, which operated it's last VC10 service on 29 March 1981, having carried 13 million passengers without accident.

In parallel with deliveries of the Model 1151 to BOAC, the production line also delivered 14 Model 1106s. Built for the RAF as the VC10 C.Mk.1 these aircraft superficially appeared to be standard VC10s but were better described as short-fuselage Super VC10s. They had the Super VC10s wings, RCo 43 engines, fin fuel tank and most other features. Special features for the military aircraft included the Conway Mk 31 engines with thrust reversers on the outboard only, an auxiliary power unit (APU) in the tailcone to supply ground electrical power and compressed air for main engine starting, a specially reinforced full area cargo floor, 150 aft facing seats, a large side cargo door and provision for in-flight refuelling.

The RAF placed an order for five aircraft in September 1961, and subsequent orders brought the total to 14 aircraft. The first C.Mk.1 flew on 26 November 1965 and deliveries to 10 Sqn were completed by August 1968. The VC10 was the heaviest and most powerful aircraft the RAF had received up to that time and introduced a global transport capability which was entirely new to the RAF. All 14 aircraft were given the names of RFC/RAF holders of the Victoria Cross.

By the mid-1970s the VC10 and Super VC10s had mostly been withdrawn from airline service and were available at very low prices. In April 1978 British Aerospace was tasked with conducting a feasibility study into converting these aircraft into in-flight refuelling tanker aircraft for the RAF. The outcome was favourable and in July 1978 BAe was awarded a contract to convert nine aircraft. Five Type 1101s were to be converted to K.Mk.2 and four Type 1154 converted to K.Mk.3. The conversion was carried out by BAe Filton and involved first bringing the aircraft up to roughly C.Mk.1 standard in terms of airframe, engines and avionics. Five extra fuel tanks were fitted in the fuselage, together with a nose in-flight refuelling probe and three Flight Refuelling Ltd Hose Drum Units - one in the lower rear fuselage and one outboard under each wing. Other changes included additional avionics, a closed circuit TV system to monitor receiving aircraft and external lighting.
The first aircraft converted, a K.Mk.2 first flew on 22 June 1982, during the Falklands War. The last of the nine tankers was delivered to 101 Sqn on 24 September 1985. Another 5 Super VC10s were converted from 1990 to K.Mk.4 standard. The first flying on 30 July 1993.

The VC10 has proved to be an excellent tanker aircraft. It's clean wing and rear mounted engines help to minimise trailing vortices, which on other tanker aircraft cause the refuelling hoses to bob around in the air flow. A steady hose basket is much easier to connect with. During operations over Afghanistan in 2001 US Navy and Marine fighter crews often preferred to tank from RAF VC10s rather than use nearer USAF tankers.

In early 2003 the RAF postponed for another year a decision on awarding a contract for a civilian-supplied replacement for the VC10 and Tristar tankers, ensuring that VC10s will remain in active service until as least 2009.

Four 21,000 lb (94.1 kN) thrust Rolls-Royce Conway 540 turbofans (Standard), 22,500 lb (100.1 kN) thrust Rco.43 Mk.550 turbofans (Super)

Max cruise 502kts (930 km/h) at 25,000ft,
Operational ceiling 43,000ft (13,106 m),
Take off field length 8,280ft (2,524 m),
Landing field length 6,380ft (1,945 m),
Max payload range (no reserves) 4,380nm (8,112 km)(Super: 4,100nm (7,600 km)), max fuel range (no reserves) 5,275nm (9,765 km) (Super: 6,195nm (11,473 km))

Basic operating empty 146,980lb (66,670 kg) (Super: 156,828lb (71,137 kg)),
Max takeoff 312,000lb (141,523 kg) (Super: 335,000lb (151,956 kg)),
Max zero fuel 187,400lb (85,004 kg) (Super: 215,000lb (97,524 kg)),
Max landing 216,000lb (97,978 kg) (Super: 237,000lb (107,503 kg)),
Max payload 40,420lb (18,335 kg) (Super: 58,172lb (26,369 kg))

Wing span 146ft 2in (44.55 m),
Length 158ft 8in (48.36 m) (Super: 171ft 8in (52.32 m)),
Height 39ft 6in (12.04 m),
Wing area Type 1101: 2,851sq ft (264.8m2), type 1102/3 and Super 2,932sq ft (272.4 m2),
Tailplane span 43ft 10in (13.36 m),
Tailplane area 638sq ft (59.3 m2),
Wheelbase 65ft 11in (20.09 m) (Super: 72ft 1.5in (21.98 m)),
Wheel track 21ft 5in (6.53 m).

Standard: Typically 109 passengers in two classes, maximum 151 passengers six abreast.
Super: Typically 139 passengers in two classes, maximum 174 passengers six abreast.

Standard: Type 1100 - 1, Type 1101 - 12, Type 1102 - 2, Type 1103 - 3, Type 1106 - 14, Type 1109 -1, a conversion from 1100. Total 32. Super: Type 1151 - 17, Type 1154 - 5. Total 22.