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Vickers VC-10

The VC-10 was a airliner designed and built by Vickers in the 1960s. Only 57 were produced and the VC-10 is considered to be another failure of the British aerospace industry to deliver aircraft that were interesting to any companies other than their national airline and allied operators. Today a few VC-10s are still in service as aerial refueling and trooping aircraft with the RAF, after conversion in the 1980s. Despite its lack of commercial success, many consider it to be a particularly elegant, even beautiful design.

Vickers VC-10 prototype, in BOAC colour scheme, date and place unknown. First flight 1962, scrapped in 1972 after a very hard landing.

Table of contents
1 History


Vickers Armstrong had been working in-house in the early 1950s on a project known as Type 1000, essentially a civilian version of their Valiant V-Bomber with enough range to cross the Atlantic. Until then the only jet airliner to see service, the De Havilland Comet, had too short a range to cross the Atlantic; these longer ranged routes were being served primarily by piston-powered planes, such as the Lockheed Constellation and Douglas DC-7C, and the Bristol Britannia turboprop. A switch to jet power would cut several hours off the flight time, but jet engines of that era had fuel consumption high enough to make the Atlantic crossing impractical.

BOAC offered a tender for a new airliner that would replace their Comets then in service, but be able to operate from more constrained airports on their many empire routes. Vickers offered a version of the Type 1000 as the VC-7 (VC for Vickers Commercial), carrying up to 120 passengers in two rows on either side of a central aisle. Almost at the same time the RAF expessed interest in the Type 1000 as a long-range strategic transport, and ordered six converted to freighter configuration with a large cargo door. Work began on a prototype freighter, but the order was later cancelled in 1955 and the project stalled.

BOAC meanwhile was still in need of a long-range aircraft, and put in an order for 15 Boeing 707's in 1956, which had range/passenger numbers very similar to the original VC-7 design. Had the RAF order not been cancelled, it is likely that the VC-7 would have been used in this role instead of the 707's, as they would have been deliverable sooner.

The Boeing 707 was fine for the major transatlantic routes between major airports like Heathrow and New York, but was at this stage an imperfect aircraft. It was essentially underpowered and thus required very long runways in order to take off. In addition the lack of power made it very difficult to get airborne in lower air densities, the so-called "hot and high" conditions. For this reason the 707 would not be able to serve on many of BOAC's "empire" routes, notably between Karachi and Singapore, and also fly a full load from high-altitude fields like Kano or Nairobi. In addition the 707 required considerable ground-support equipment in order to supply power when loading, as well as to start its engines, equipment that was lacking at the vast majority of smaller airports.

Several companies saw the need for a better performing aircraft for these roles, with De Havilland offering their DH.118 design, and Handley Page their HP.97. However Vickers' work on their VC-7 put them in the lead, and after carefully considering the routes, they offered a redesign as the VC-10. The major differences were an oversized wing equipped with huge fowler flaps for much improved take-off distance, moving the engines to the rear to clean up the wings and reduce cabin noise, and the addition of more powerful Rolls-Royce Avon engines to provide enough power for "hot and high" operations. The plane was also slightly longer than the original, offering seating for 135 passengers in a two-class layout. Although there was some concern about the design inside BOAC over operational costs, the airline eventually placed an order for 25.

Vickers calculated that it would need to sell 80 VC-10's to make production viable, at about 1.75 million per aircraft. With BOAC taking only 25, another 55 needed to be sold to other operators. Vickers then offered a slightly smaller version to BEA for their longer European routes like London-Athens, however BEA turned them down in favour of a custom-designed British aircraft, later delivered as the De Havilland Trident. Vickers then re-worked the production plans to be able to break-even at only 35 aircraft at 1.5 million per aircraft, re-using jigs from the Vanguard. At this point BOAC raised their order to 35 aircraft, placing it on January 14th, 1958, with options for a further 20 examples, all with a smaller 109-seat interior with more first-class seating. With a single customer now providing a break-even schedule, production jibs were set up, adbandoning the original plan to re-use the Vanguard lines.

BOAC had calculated that the 707 cost 4.10 per passenger mile, while the VC-10 would cost 4.24. Although the difference was fairly small, it had caused them serious concern, to the point of considering cancelling their orders in favour of the 707. This point was not lost on Vickers, who started the design of what would become the Super 200, before the first of the original version had even started production. The major differences were much higher-rated Conway engines than the original, which had since switched to Conway's as well, and a fuselage stretch of 28 feet to raise the passenger seating to 212, larger even than the 707, and thereby reducing operational costs.

By January 1960, Vickers was having financial troubles and was becoming concerned it would not be able to deliver the original 35 without a loss. They offered to sell 10 of the Super 200's to BOAC for 2.7 million each, but BOAC wasn't convinced they needed 35 VC-10's, let alone another 10. Finally the government stepped in and the order was placed on June 23, 1960. BOAC continued to express doubts however, this time feeling that they would be unable to fill all 200 seats, and so the design was shortened to a 13 foot stretch and became the Super VC-10 (Type 1150), the original design retroactively becoming the Standard VC-10 (Type 1100).

Not content with the situation, BOAC changed its order in May 1961, reversing the mix to purchase 15 Standards and 35 Supers, with 8 of the Supers being a new combi configuration with a large cargo door and stronger floor. The order was changed again in December to 12 Standards, and by the time deliveries were ready to start in 1964, airline growth had slowed and BOAC wanted to reduce the order to only 7 Supers. In May the government stepped in again, placing an order for VC-10's to operate as military transports, thereby taking up the slack in the production run.

The prototype Standard, G-ARTA, rolled out of the production hall at Weybridge on April 15th, 1962. After two months of ground, engine and taxi tests, it flew for the first time on June 29th, and was soon flown to Wisley for further testing. By the end of the year two more had been delivered to Wisley, and a serious problem with drag became known. The design was then modified with the addition of Kuchemann wingtips and "beaver tail" engine nacelle fairings, which lengthened the testing process. The test program was then changed to allow the VC-10's to visit foreign airports, including Nairobi, Khartoum, Rome, Kano, Aden, Salisbury and Beirut. One was also used for transatlatic testing, and flew to Montreal on February 8th, 1964. By this point 7 of the original 12 Standards were complete, and the line was already gearing up for the introduction of the Super. A Certificate of Airworthiness was finally awarded on April 22nd, 1964, but by this time BOAC had already trained it's crews and took delivery of the aircraft that day. The first commercial flight, to Lagos, took place on the 29th. By the end of 1964 all the Standards had been delivered, although Vickers (by this point part of BAC), retained one for their own testing. Supers followed only a month later, with the first flight on May 7th, 1964. As the Super was really just a modified Standard, testing was shorter and the CoA was awarded in March 1965, with commercial service starting on April 1.

Several other operators had ordered VC-10's by this point. Ghana Airways placed an order for 3 aircraft in January 1961, two fitted with a cargo door as combi aircraft, known as Type 1102. The first was delivered in November 1964, the second in May 1965, but they cancelled their order for the third. British United Airways, Freddie Laker's airline, ordered two combi versions (Type 1103) in 1961, which they received in October 1964. BOAC then ceased their VC-10 operations to South America, which BUA then applied to take over. BUA purchased Ghana's expected third plane in July 1965, and a fourth example in 1969. Ghana also leased one of their aircraft to Middle East Airlines, although this was blown up at Beirut in an Israeli commando raid in December 1968. MEA also operated the prototype Vickers had kept until 1965. Nigeria Airways has also planned to purchase two, but had to cancel their order for financial reasons, and later leased one of BOAC's aircraft instead.

The RAF also ordered the VC-10 after placing Specification 239 in 1960 for a strategic transport, which the Air Ministry placed with Vickers in 1961 for 5 aircraft. This version was a combination of the basic Standard-combi airframe with the larger wings from the Super, improving it's short-field performance even further. They also included a probe on the nose for in-flight refuelling, which could be detached when not used. The order was later added to with an additional 6 in 1963, and then taking over the three that BOAC had cancelled in 1964. The first RAF plane, known to them as VC-10 C.1, was delivered for testing on November 26th, 1965, with deliveries to the RAF beginning in December 1966 and ending in August 1968.

The last VC-10 to be built was an East African Airways Super, delivered in February 1970. The production line then shut down after a total of 54 aircrames had been built. The primary reason for this early shutdown of what was clearly an excellent design was, paradoxicaly, the demand for jet airliners. With the 707 and Douglas DC-8 unable to operate from many of the world's smaller airports, it would seem the VC-10 would be in high demand. Instead this same demand was addressed in an obvious fashion Vickers hadn't considered, many of these airports simply constructed greatly lengthened runways.

BOAC started to replace their Supers on transatlantic flights in the early 1970s, using them to displace Standards. By 1974 most Standards were no longer in use, although BOAC leased them to a number of operators. Retirement of their Supers began in April 1980 with the widespread introduction of the Boeing 747, but they continued to be used on less travelled transatlantic routes until late in the year, and on some European routes until 1981. They had been looking for a buyer for the fleet for some time at this point, and handed them to the RAF in May.

In 1978 the RAF started to investigate converting their VC-10s to the air-refuelling role. British Aerospace was contracted to convert 9 to start with. A further 39 surplus airline aircraft were acquired, some being converted, others being stored for later conversion, and still others being used for parts for the flying examples. Today all surviving airworthy VC-10's serve as tanker/transports with 10 and 101 Squadrons at RAF Brize Norton, in Oxfordshire making the RAF the sole and final operator of the VC-10. Preserved aircraft can be seen at Weybridge and at Duxford in Cambridgeshire, England.


1100 one prototype, later converted to Type 1109
1101 BOAC Standard's, 35 ordered but 12 built
1102 Ghana Airways Standard-combi's, 3 built (one redesignated 1103)
1103 BUA Standard-combi, 2 built, one 1102 renamed
1104 Nigeria Airways Standard's, 2 ordered, none built
1106 RAF C.1, 14 built
1151 BOAC Super's, 22 ordered, 17 built
1152 BOAC Super-combi, 13 ordered, none built
1154 East African Airways Super's, 5 built


For Standard VC-10:

Length: 158ft 8in (48.36 m) Span: 146ft 2in (44.55 m) Height: 39ft 6in (12.04 m) Wing area: 2,851 sq ft (264.9 sqm) Engines : 4x Rolls-Royce Conway Mk 540, 21,000 lb thrust (9,525 kg) Empty weight: 139,505lb (63,278 kg) Maximum take-off weight: 312,000lb (141,520 kg) Crusing speed: 580 mph (933 km/h) Service ceiling: 38,000 ft (11,580 m) Range: 5,850 miles (9,412 km) Passengers: 3 crew, 3 stewards, 135 to 151 passengers

For Super VC-10:

Length: 171ft 8in (52.32 m) Span: 146ft 2in (44.55 m) Height: 39ft 6in (12.04 m) Wing area: 2,932 sq ft (272.4 sqm) Engines : 4x Rolls-Royce Conway Mk 550, 22,500 lb thrust (10,206 kg) Empty weight: 146,962lb (66,660 kg) Maximum take-off weight: 335,000lb (151,953 kg) Crusing speed: 580 mph (933 km/h) Service ceiling: 38,000 ft (11,580 m) Range: 5,960 miles (9,547 km) Passengers: 3 crew, 3 stewards, 163 to 174 passengers