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The VC10 - 25th Anniversary

Sir George Edwards seen at Brooklands on the day of the arrival of the Sultan of Oman's VC10, 6th July 1987.
Photo A. Pruden

These recollections of the VC10 were written by Sir George Edwards, OM, CBE, FRS, on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the first flight of the VC10. To commemorate the event a VC10 C Mk1 of 10 Squadron flew a group of ex-Vickers employees and special philatelic covers (more on those at the bottom of this page) on a flight that culminated in a fly-past salute to Weybridge.

British Pride

Whatever the traumas that beset us with the VC10 during its early years - and there were plenty - seen today, 25 years on from the first flight of the prototype from Brooklands at Weybridge, it continues as a proud and productive symbol of British aviation capability - now serving exclusively with what I have always believed to be the most important of all of our customers - the Royal Air Force.

Scarcely a week goes by without us seeing the VC10 C Mkls of 10 Squadron on our television screens literally 'flying the flag' with HM The Queen and other members of the Royal Family, the Prime Minister and senior members of HM Government throughout the World. At the same time, there are the hundred and one other unseen and unsung tasks that these 'multi-mission' transports perform for the benefit of the nation - plus the 'force multiplier' activity of the VC10 K Mk2 and 3 strategic tankers of 101 Squadron. And both versions will, they say, be flying well into the 21st century.

Difficult Conception

Why were so few built?

The reason starts one aeroplane before the VC10. The V1000 was a military transport based on Valiant design philosophy. We conceived it in very close cooperation with BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation). It was the first airliner with what was to become the universal standard in the first generation of big jets - six-abreast seating with a centre aisle - and thus had a large diameter fuselage for those days.

It had a very difficult airfield performance to meet - and nearly all the aeroplanes that we have designed in this country have been bedevilled by having to meet a short airfield performance requirement - which is something the Americans never seem to be unduly bothered about.

We were within about six months of the prototype V1000 being finished when it was cancelled, ostensibly because the RAF needed more large transport aircraft capacity much quicker than we could produce it, and there were Britannias available that were going to be made in politically-attractive Northern Ireland.

This cancellation was, in my view, the most serious that the British aircraft industry has suffered since the end of World War Two. Whereas the military concept of having a strategic airlift force able to shift large numbers of troops and their equipment over long distances at high speed subsequently came into being through the VC10 which the Royal Air Force eventually acquired, this would have been available a lot sooner with the V1000.

As far as the civil market was concerned, the V1000 stood in just the same position for us that the Viscount had a few years earlier - with a performance that was as good as, and indeed better I know, than the initial Boeing 707 which could not do the trans-Atlantic crossing non-stop, whereas the V1000 with its 15 per cent bigger wing could. Thus we would have been well set with the Viscount operating on short ranges and the V1000 on long ranges, with modern technology Rolls-Royce engines in both.

The statements that were made in the House of Commons at the time of the cancellation were pretty pathetic, because one said that BOAC was quite content that it was going to manage the North Atlantic route with propeller turbines through the 1960s and there was no question of needing a jet aeroplane. Reality was predictably and quickly quite the opposite.

I think BOAC had really wanted to buy aeroplanes that other major World airlines were operating because it is much safer to be in competition with common equipment than where you have got some exclusive gleaming monster which might be all right, but nobody else has it. This means that they were leaning towards American aeroplanes pretty well all the time.

Tough Customer Specification

Coming to the VC10 itself, it was designed to an exceptionally severe requirement written by, and exclusive to, BOAC. This notably necessitated operating from the existing airfield at Singapore to Karachi non-stop against a headwind, and getting in and out of Nairobi, hot and high. These were the kind, of conditions that the Boeing 707 certainly could not meet, because everywhere that it had been put into operation a substantial extension of the runway had been needed and, of course, as the years went by, all the major airport runways were duly lengthened. So we had to do better than the 707 - non different, but better - and the main job was to improve the lifting capabilities in order to meet these exacting conditions.

Why Rear Engines?

This really was the basic reason why we put the engines at the back. In order to get in and out of these small airfields we needed all the lift that we could generate. However, when you have the engines dangling under the wings like a Christmas tree - like the American types always did - you split up the landing flaps into small sections with a loss of lift at the end of each break, whereas if you have a ‘clean wing’ you can have completely continuous lift-generating devices on both the leading and trailing edges.

The net result was that the VC10 landed about 20 knots slower than the 707 and got itself both into and out of these places with a full load.

VC10 prototype G -ARTA maiden flight completed at Wisley June 29 1962. 'Jock' Bryce (centre) flanked by Brian Trubshaw (right) and Bill Cairns (left).
Photo copyright BAE SYSTEMS

The fact that the rear-mounting of the engines also gave the VC10 a quiet interior was a sheer accident - but another big plus. In turn, it provided the fundamental advantage of superior passenger attraction, which no amount of comparative cost formulae could take any account of - but which sustained it throughout its operation.

The Changing Outlook

This, then, was the basis of our response to the BOAC need - which was that all the routes that they wanted to serve with jet aeroplanes, but could not at that time accommodate the 707, would be served by the VC10; hence a large fleet of VC10s was going to be the backbone of the airline's global operation.

So we signed a contract for 35 with an option to purchase another 20.

There was certainly a number of people in high places in the airline who at that time saw an elimination of the 707 and their fleet becoming totally VC10, because we had already devised a larger version – the Super VC10 - in which the good airfield performance had enabled us to put on a longer body and to carry a much larger payload into the bigger airfields that were then beginning to appear.

Whereas theVC10 was obviously in a poor position compared with where the V1000 would have been, because it was now several years later, it still looked a good bet. But as time went by, the pressures inside BOAC to unify its fleet went through a complete reversal and the eventual compromise was that they had a mixed fleet of VC10 and 707.

It is well-known history that the passengers much preferred the VC10; the passenger load factors, and hence the revenue earning capacity, were very much higher, and the pilots liked the aeroplane, especially the low landing speed. It therefore proved to be very successful - except for those of us who made it, because we lost a lot of money on it, the total quantity that we built being only 54, including 14 for the Royal Air Force. But it was an aeroplane built to a tough requirement which in the fullness of time evaporated.

The Achilles heel of the British aircraft industry over the years had always been the home market; not only that it was not very big, but that it tended to get specialised because the operators - military as well as civil - had their own peculiar needs. From their point of view, this was probably quite justified, but tended to get the manufacturer into devising specialised equipment that was not universally acceptable.

'Mr VC10' Sir George Edwards (right) with Ken Lawson, chief aerodynamicist (centre) and Ernie Marshall, chief designer VC10 (left).
Photo copyright BAE SYSTEMS

A handful of other operators who had basically the same difficult job to do, especially in Africa, bought the VC10 -Freddie Laker and his original British United which was later taken over by British Caledonian, Ghana, Nigeria, Middle East and East African - and the Royal Air Force when the same kind of short, high-altitude and tropically-located airfields, which had so characterised the whole VC10 conception, were again specified when its own strategic jet transport requirement reappraisal was made at the end of the 1950s.

Good Health - Long Life

Like all of our output at Weybridge, we built the VC10 to last. In this, more than half the weight of the structure was machined from the solid and we devised the best corrosion protection scheme that anybody has ever had anywhere, even until now.

The net result is that the VC10 has proved to be ideal for the RAF-and long lasting - and they celebrated 21 years of VC10 operation on July 7, 1987, just eight days after the historic 25th anniversary of the first flight. And that makes me as proud as they obviously are.

Silver Jubilee Memories

My one lasting memory of the original first flight of the prototype VC10 from Brooklands 25 years ego was seeing such a tiny Brooklands under such a big aeroplane and being quietly satisfied that we made it out of 'our own backyard' (using less than half of the 4,500ft runway and watched by the 8,000 people who had built it) just the way we had intended.

Happy and rewarding, too, was the moment 19 minutes later - after a gentle sweep over Odiham and back over Farnborough in Hampshire - it landed in the sure and expert hands of BAC chief test pilot G R ('Jock') Bryce and Vickers chief test pilot Brian Trubshaw and their crew, third pilot Bill Cairns and Observers Roy Holland, Chris Mullen and Ian Muir, at our flight test airfield at Wisley just four miles away from Brooklands.

And then only a few days later being able to get 'hands on' myself.

All of this came flooding back just a week after the Silver Anniversary of that historic flight with the exemplary arrival at Brooklands of the Sultan of Oman's VC10 which he has so graciously donated to the Brooklands Museum Trust as a lasting monument to the largest aircraft ever built solely in the UK.

Some of the 15 tons of flight test instrumentation and 50 miles of cabling on board VC10 G-ARTA for the certification trials.
Photo copyright BAE SYSTEMS

The Ultimate Analysis

Perhaps more sobering, the VC10 saga provided for me one of the clearest possible vindications of an axiom that I have so often expressed about the British aviation industry: the truth always comes out but so often when it's too late to rectify the situation.

But at least with the VC10 the Royal Air Force has benefited in large measure and is still delighted with it - and now the Brooklands Museum.

I wish them both well far into the future.

Sir George Edwards, OM, CBE, FRS

June 29, 1987

Several variants of this cover exist, this one has been signed by Sir George Edwards, Ernie Marshall and Ken Lawson.

The back shows that this is one from a limited set of 20. This cover is also marked '09S4', 09 being the number within the series of VAFA covers, apparently there were at least four variants.

Five years later this cover was reused for the 30th anniversary, this time the signatures include Sir George Edwards, Ken Lawson, Harry Zeffert, unknown and Jock Bryce.

Aviation history was made on June 29 1962 when the Vickers VC10 Type 1100 G-ARTA lifted from the historic Brooklands airfield at 5.25 pm on its 19-minute maiden flight to nearby Wisley aerodrome. To commemorate the 25th Anniversary of that first flight No. 10 Squadron of the Royal Air Force arranged a special flight from its base at Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. This flight, under the command of Sqdn. Ldr. J.D. Snell with copilot Flt. Lt. C.J. Massey, Navigator Flt. Lt. M.H. Kennedy and Engineer M. Eng. D. Latham, carried the VAFA 09 philatelic covers in the company of some 132 Vickers-Armstrongs Weybridge veterans who had been closely associated with the design, development end manufacture of the VC10 to overhead Wisley airfield (where the aircraft was flight tested) and culminated in a fly-past salute to Weybridge (where it was built) at some 500ft over the Brooklands runway.

This participation by VC10 C Mkl Type 1106 XR806 ‘George Thompson VC’ of 10 Squadron (fortuitously the first to be delivered) was especially significant as eight days later - July 7, 1987 - marked the 21st anniversary of the Squadron's re-formation and the handover and start of operation of the VC10 which is now confidently expected to serve the RAF well into the 21st century.

In passing, it is also noteworthy that the Squadron briefly operated from Brooklands in its formative years before transferring to France in July 1915.

Heinz Vogel (on the right) handing over the special covers to Wg Cdr Brian Symes, OC 10 Squadron, before the flight.
Photo via M. Eyre

Aerodynamicist Heinz Vogel was the driving force behind the VAFA covers that were flown on various VC10s over the years, as well as on other types to commemorate various significant dates from British aviation history. The main VC10 related cover is VAFA number 9, as shown above, as that was produced to commemorate the first flight of G-ARTA on 29th June 1962. The commemorative flypast by XR806 25 years later was the main event where these covers were carried and Heinz Vogel organised signatures from the crew as well as various people who had been involved with the type. Shortly afterwards, A4O-AB was retired to Brooklands and a number of these same covers were carried on this flight, this time with relevant signatures from the crew and the Omani ambassador. As shown above, there is also a '30th anniversary' version, so this may be the most re-used cover out of the 25 different versions that VAFA produced over the years.

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