Gary Parsons looks at another birthday celebration in June this year
Majestic - a word often used to describe Vickers' graceful VC10, and one that is apt in this Jubilee year. Such are the unique lines of this British airliner that it doesn't look out of place in today's modern air force, its design being quite futuristic for the early sixties, looking like a refugee from a Gerry Anderson 'Thunderbirds' set. It is hard to believe that forty years have passed since its first flight, but time has worn it well, and it is set to serve for a few more years before retirement beckons.
Long since retired from the civilian scene, the VC10's last refuge is the RAF, who placed its faith in the design with orders in 1961 prior to the first flight and hasn't regretted it since, bolstering the numbers as airframes became available from civilian operators. Not one has been lost in thirty-five years of military operations, but several have reached the end of their useful lives and suffered at the hands of the scrapman. Of the very first order for five C1s, three remain (XR807, '808 and '810), having been converted to C1K tankers in the early nineties. The age of the fleet requires careful monitoring of airframe hours, and as time passes the cost of maintenance becomes ever more prohibitive, hence the need to find an up-to-date replacement in a few years time.
Brize Norton is today's home for the VC10, the current fleet comprising a mix of marques; the C1K operated exclusively by 10 Squadron, in the personnel transport/air-to-air refuelling (AAR) role, and the K3 and K4 operated by 101 Squadron, tasked with full-time AAR. The K3 and K4 are conversions to former civilian operated aircraft, mainly ex-British Airways and African airline examples. The age of the VC10 perhaps belies the number made; the production run was quite small, with just fifty-four built in total, the MoD orders accounting for fifteen. Its commercial failure can be attributed to several factors, and is probably a book in itself, but basically it was a design just too late to effectively compete with Boeing's 707 and Douglas's DC-8 on economic terms. The standard VC10 airframe was just too small to make the passenger-per-mile equation pay, although passengers complimented its quietness and smoothness compared to the American offerings.
For military use, its rear-engined, high-winged layout is ideal for the air-to-air tanking role, as turbulence is much reduced compared to more traditional layouts, enabling the receiver an easier time of remaining "in the pod". This role only came about in the early eighties as the RAF needed a new tanker to bolster the dwindling number of Victors available, as each reached the end of its fatigue life. Initially five ex-Gulf Air standard VC10 Type 1101s were converted to K2 status, entering service in 1982 with the newly reformed 101 Squadron. At the same time four ex-EAA Super VC10 Type 1154s were converted to K3 status, entering service shortly after. Both types incorporated 3,500 gallon fuselage tanks, the K3s being slightly longer which eased their installation. All nine aircraft were delivered by 1987.
Since then, all the K2s have been retired due to lack of fatigue life left in the airframes, the last, ZA142, making its last flight on 22 March 2001. The K2s were actually the oldest in the fleet and had flown considerably more hours than their RAF cousins while in civilian service - the oldest, ZA144, was the fourth off the production line while XR806, the first RAF airframe, was the eighteenth. The K3s, on the other hand, are the youngest in terms of age, being the last four VC10s to be produced.
With the impending retirement of the Victor came another need for more VC10s - fortunately, in a rare example of forward-thinking, in 1981 the MoD had purchased fourteen ex-British Airways Super VC10 Type 1151s, and placed them in storage at Abingdon and Brize Norton. Economics and practicability ensured that only the fittest survived for subsequent conversion, and a contract to convert five was placed with BAe in 1990. Conversion to the K4 went much further than was the case with the K2/3 - almost a complete rebuild, the K4 emerged as almost a brand new aeroplane without the fatigue restrictions of the earlier types. It didn't include the 3,500 gallon fuselage tank, but had an extra 1,750 gallon tank in the fin. At the same time a contract was placed for the conversion of the C1s to C1K standard, although no extra fuel capacity was added, the conversion being the simplest so far with just two wing pods and associated fuel lines added. The last to be converted, XR808, was delivered back to 10 Squadron in October 1996. In April 2002 the first K4 was retired, this being ZD235, which was transferred to St Athan for 'spares recovery'. Ironically '235 was the last K4 to be delivered in 1996.
Current RAF fleet
Recently the VC10 has seen action over Afghanistan, where it won acclaim from American Navy fighter pilots for its versatility and ability to extend the towlines towards enemy territory when required, something the USAF tankers were unable to do. Long loiter times were a godsend for many a short-on-fuel fighter, some missions extending to fifteen hours when required. Earlier in its career it also hit the headlines for terrorist reasons as BOAC Super VC10 G-ASGN was destroyed at Dawson Field in Jordan on 12 August 1970, the pictures filling the front pages of every newspaper in the country.
What of the
future? FSTA (Future
strategic tanker aircraft) lurks around the corner, the proposed contractorisation
of the RAF's tanking requirement. This will see contracted Airbuses or
Boeing 767s replace both the VC10 and TriStar at Brize. Implementation
is dependant upon passing many benchmark tests, and the most likely date
is not before 2007 at the earliest. So, Vickers's majestic design is set
for a few more years on the throne!