The VC10 has its origins in Vickers' ambition to design the world's first truly intercontinental jet airliner. At first this took shape as the Vickers 1000, a project intended for the RAF as a strategic transport but with definite ulterior motives to be marketed as the civil VC7. This aircraft took shape along lines resembling the Vickers Valiant in many ways, with power provided by four Rolls-Royce Conway turbofan engines buried in the wing roots of the low-wing design. With the first flight of the prototype just a few months away, in 1955 the RAF order was rescinded and BOAC showed no interest to keep the project going as it was looking towards the Bristol Brittania and the de Havilland Comet 4. The result of this was that a relatively complete aircraft that showed a lot of promise for all the Vickers employees was scrapped before their eyes. Vickers managing director George Edwards commented: "We have handed to the Americans, without a struggle, the entire world market for big jet airliners."
Having ensured that Britain would forever lose whatever advantage it had held in the field of medium-long range jet airliners, and after a year's delay, BOAC then decided that it really should have a higher capacity and longer ranging replacement for the forthcoming de Havilland Comet 4 if it was going to be able to compete successfully on the North Atlantic and other routes. Rejecting de Havilland's proposal and fearing that a new British design would take too long (and ignoring the original reason for this state of affairs) BOAC ordered 707s. According to the official comment from BOAC this was "because no new British aircraft can be made available in time." After this, in 1957, they issued a requirement for a Comet and Brittania replacement with specifications tailored to their Middle-East and African routes, a specification that was far above what could be reached by the 707 or the DC-8. Vickers responded to this by submitting several design studies that they had been working on since the Vickers 1000 cancellation. These designs progressed past a jet powered Vanguard (VanJet) with three rear mounted engines, and several other variations on this, to settle on the now familiar rear engined layout in early 1957.
The final VC10/type 1100 configuration as settled was: accommodation for about 135 passengers in a BOAC two class layout (or up to 151 all economy class); a six abreast cabin with its cross section based on that of the Vickers 1000 and (coincidentally) the same internal width as the DC-8; 20,000lb (89.6kN) plus thrust Conways mounted in pairs on either side of the rear fuselage; a T-tail (both of these a first for a large jet transport) and in order to meet the stringent runway requirements; a very efficient wing with leading edge slats, outboard ailerons, upper wing spoilers and massive Fowler flaps. A feature was the use of split control surfaces, each driven by separate power units managed by two autopilots, each monitoring the other. The result was a very high level of systems reliability which later allowed the VC10 to become one of the first airliners certified for completely 'hands off' automatic landings in nil visibility.
The initial model (which later became known as the 'Standard') was ordered in several versions not only by BOAC but also by Ghana Airways, Nigeria Airways, British United Airways and the RAF. Studies into a higher capacity version of the VC10 were instigated early in the development programme. The philosophy behind what emerged as the Type 1150 Super VC10 was to provide extra seating capacity at the expense of some of the Standard VC10's exceptional 'hot and high' airfield performance. Where the Standard VC10 was optimised for BOAC's routes into the demanding airfields of the Middle East, Far East and Africa, the Super was intended to provide more economical operation (especially in the case of seat/mile costs) on other major routes including the important North Atlantic. More powerful 22,500lb (100.1kN) thrust Conway 550 engines, additional fuel capacity via a 1,350imp gal (6,137 l) tank in the fin, an increase in maximum takeoff weight to 335,000lb (151,956 kg) and a fuselage stretch of 13ft 0in (3.96 m) for a maximum passenger capacity of 174 were the basic differences between the Standard and Super VC10.
BOAC's orders for the two VC10 versions were changed many times, settling on 12 Standards and 17 Supers, considerably less than the original 35 orders plus 20 options. Amongst the cancellations were 8 Supers which would have been built as a mixed passenger/freighter version with the large cargo door that had been developed for the Standard. This version eventually did fly as East African Airways bought five Type 1154s but the full potential of this 'combi' version was never fully exploited.
The total production run eventually totalled out at 32 aircraft for the Standard and 22 for the Super, not an impressive number compared to the monthly numbers at Seattle or Toulouse. In its time the VC10 was the largest aircraft that had ever been produced in the United Kingdom and although a very sophisticated design it completely lost out to the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8. The VC10 became the victim of several issues, the two main ones being the timing of its debut and the Standard's compromise between performance and operating costs. By the time the Super's improved economics appeared it was already too late for the VC10 to claim any significant part of the airline market.
As with many of life's endeavours the three most important aspects are 'timing', 'timing' and 'timing'. When the VC10 appeared on the market it's competitors had already been in service for six and four years respectively and ironically the restricted 'hot and high' runways for which the Standard VC10 had specifically been developed would eventually all be lengthened to accommodate the 707 and DC-8, in the process eliminating the VC10's main advantage. Had the original Vickers 1000 been built it would have been in time to compete but the VC10 was just too late.
The specification BOAC called for was very restricted, and its a tribute to the Vickers design team that they came up with an aircraft that could live up to it. The price for this performance was an increase in operating costs, which was inevitable given the specification, but to make things worse BOAC decided to rub some salt in the wound by publicly criticizing the economics of the aircraft. So now we have the main customer for the type criticizing it just because it lived up to the specification written by the same customer! Of course it couldn't end there, and the next insult was BOAC demanding a government subsidy because it was 'forced' to use such an uneconomical aircraft. As mentioned earlier the Super VC10 improved on these economics somewhat but they just could not match Boeing and Douglas' costs. As history records BOAC also bought Conway powered 707s and only reluctantly accepted their VC10s. This attitude towards the VC10 became well known in the airline industry and didn't persuade many companies to buy the Vickers product.
BOAC's attitude was not reflected in their advertising as they quickly realized that the passengers loved the VC10. The rear engined layout made for a relatively quiet cabin and the efficient wings gave it a very smooth ride over turbulence. These qualities actually made passengers request the VC10 when given the choice, and BOAC used them to advantage when advertising with the phrases 'Swift and silent' and 'A little VC10derness'. Pilots were also very appreciative of their new aircraft stating that it was a true 'Pilot's airplane'. One small plus of the VC10 that was not often mentioned was the fact that there was a separate toilet for use by the flight crew. On previous types Captain A. Jackson recalled that they sometimes used the 'fasten seatbelts' signs to make sure that a toilet was available for crew use, this was no longer needed on the VC10.
By 1967 the public opinion concerning the VC10 got an interesting push by the then Minister of State for Technology when he stated: "The British Aircraft Corporation has made an outstanding contribution to world aviation through its development of the BAC One-Eleven and the VC10. Both these aircraft are a credit to Britain on each of the many routes they are flying. The two airlines in Britain operating the VC10 have every reason to be grateful not only for the prestige they enjoy through flying this aircraft in their colours but also for the undoubted attraction it has for passengers." After only six months of operating the Super VC10 on the North Atlantic routes BOAC had seen their average passenger load increase by 40% compared to the same service with 707s prior to the VC10s introduction. Even the 707 enjoyed a small spill-off of the VC10s publicity, its figures increasing by 15%.
In 1968 the until then not very active Pilot's union BALPA (British Airline Pilot's Association) drove negotiations over salaries to a boiling point. Until then the British pilots were almost the world's worst paid ones and to remedy the situation strikes were organised. The second one in seven months led to aircraft standing idle between 16 June and 1 July when talks finally reached a point where work could be resumed. As the duration of the strike was 'indefinite' at the start many pilots briefly took on other jobs with some working in factories and construction.
In the end the passenger appeal of the VC10 didn't save it. The Standards were quickly withdrawn from use in 1974 when BOAC decided that they were no longer economically viable, especially with the 747 rendering the type superfluous to requirements. The Supers soldiered on for another six years with the final Super flight in BOAC (by then actually British Airways) service in March 1981. The last commercial flight of a British Airways VC10 was flown by G-ASGL on 29th March 1981, one of two special charters for enthusiasts from Gatwick. The next day, on 30th March 1981, British Airways organised a last flight for invited guests and personnel that departed from the Heathrow maintenance base, overflying Manchester, Prestwick, Filton and Farnborough before returning to Heathrow. This ended the BOAC side of the story, but it certainly didn't end the story of the VC10 as it's RAF career was only just beginning.
BOAC Standard VC10 in 'Golden Speedbird' colors.
Photo copyright BAE SYSTEMS
Looking through the list of registrations above, one may wonder why the registration G-ARVD was never allocated to a VC10. A logical answer would be that this one was already in use, but BOAC obviously used 'blocks' of registrations so surely this one would have been included. The true answer was revealed in the August 2003 issue of 'Aeroplane' by Mike Stroud in a review of a book about the Bristol Britannia. The seventh Series 102 Britannia was re-registered G-APLL in favour of its original registration of G-ANBG, and this was due to an overly puritanical lady in charge of allocating registrations at the ARB who felt that this would encourage disrespect and swearing ("No Bloody Good"). For some reason she let through G-AOVD for a Series 312 Britannia, but later on the intended G-ARVD was never allocated as she felt that the last two letters were equally unacceptable in nice company.