The VC10 is often described as the fastest airliner after Concorde. This is a difficult claim to prove as the speed of an aircraft varies greatly depending on whether we look at the indicated air speed, true air speed or the ground speed. And then we've also got speeds in knots and Mach numbers. It makes for a confusing comparison but the official body that catalogues the best performances achieved in air sports, the Federation Aeronautique Internationale or FAI, only uses the speed over the ground when comparing performances. Based on FAI records, an article in Gateway Magazine from February 1988 and several other sources I've pieced together this story about the December 1987 records set by 10 Squadron. It now also includes some recollections by the official record assessor on XR806, so read on!
For the VC10's long career there are surprisingly few records listed in the FAI database. Partly this is because not every quick flight could be submitted for consideration by the FAI. For that an official from the FAI had to be present to make sure that the time was recorded in the proper way and no short cuts were used. Because of this flights like Gwyn Mullet's Atlantic Dash could unfortunately not be submitted to the FAI, even though it may very well have been the fastest subsonic transit from New York to Prestwick that was ever carried out. The first VC10 to get into the record books was of course ZA147 when it flew non-stop to Perth, but that story has already been told by its Captain on this website.
In 1987 the RAF's 10 Squadron VC10s had just been fitted with refuelling probes and some of the crews had been trained to receive fuel. With this new capability a few flights were planned to get the VC10 squarely into the record books. The exercise was called 'OP MEDAL TRAIL' and also served to demonstrate a 8,500 mile supply line from the UK to the Falkland Islands. Heavy or bulky items still needed to travel by sea but the VC10 could provide a non-stop link and get troops or supplies to the Falklands within a day.
Some preparation was needed. With a week to go before the planned start date the two VC10 C1s were fitted with refuelling probes and the crews involved started an intensive work up under the watchful eye of No.241 Operational Conversion Unit Tanker Training Flight (TTF) instructors. Some new concepts were introduced to the 10 Squadron crews including Snake Climbs and such, and it was explained that filing an airmiss report on your tanker was considered unsporting.
Just a few days before Christmas 1987 two 10 Squadron VC10s left the UK heading South. A few days later six records had been set between London and Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. The first VC10 off the ground at 10am on 19th December was VC10K3 ZA150 captained by OC 101 Sqn, W/C Uprichard, followed closely by the Station Commander, G/C Chris Lumb in VC10 C1 XR806.
XR806 and ZA150 climbed in formation and three hours out of Brize completed an 18 minute refuelling, leaving XR806 with enough fuel to get well beyond Ascension Island. ZA150 then returned home. Several hours later XR806 met up with ZA147, which had been positioned to Ascension two days previously, some 200 miles South of the island and took on 105,000lb of fuel during a 38 minute refuelling. Having left the UK on 19 December, the VC10 reached the Falkland Islands the next day, landing at 22:45 local time, after spending 15 hours, 45 minutes and 40 seconds in the air. The FAI ratified the record with a speed of 805.78 Km/hr from London to Port Stanley. (Link to FAI record file) XR806 also delivered some fresh milk and the day's newspapers to the Falklands, items which were normally never seen at the Falklands at that time.
On 21st December XR806 left at 8:00am and flew non-stop back to the UK. Due to poor weather reports from the UK the C1 stayed in contact with ZA147 for 45 minutes and took on 119,000lb of fuel so that it would have enough reserves. Arriving in the early morning of 22 December after only 14 hours and 58 minutes on the return flight XR806 was back at Brize.
Three hours after XR806 left Brize, a second couple of VC10s left with ZA149 leading XV109 towards the South West. Between Land's End and the Azores XV109 took on enough fuel to reach Ascension with the needed reserves. Due to the isolated location of Ascension a significant amount of holding fuel is needed to cater for delays due to any possible bad weather at Ascension. ZA149 returned home to Brize, landing from an ILS approach after 3 hours and 5 minutes in the air.
In the evening of 20 December 1987 the two VC10s sat side by side on the pan at Mount Pleasant airfield. This was the first time that any VC10 had visited the island but certainly not the last time that this sight would be possible. From 1996 on VC10s borrowed from 101 Squadron would be stationed with 1312 Flight at this remote location to provide AAR around the islands to based fighters. This continous presence of VC10s in the South Atlantic lasted for seventeen years and ended when ZA147 left in September 2013.
This first visit of the two VC10s to the Falkland Islands was a short one, two hours after XR806 left on its direct return flight XV109 was airborne too and heading for Ascension Island. On this return flight refuelling in the air was not necessary and with a flighttime of 6 hours and 51 minutes XV109 took 21 minutes off the previous record which was recorded as 912.03 Km/hr by the FAI. John Halstead captained this first return leg but after landing at Ascension Island the crew was changed so that XV109 could leave again as soon as it had been refuelled. Squadron Leader John Knapp got in the left seat for the last leg and flew through the night to get back to Brize in the morning hours of 22 December. As no island reserves were needed for this last stretch XV109 could fly this sector unrefuelled again and took 8 hours and 10 minutes (20 minutes off the previous record) to complete the last record for this operation. (Link to FAI record)
These four records were all set in the C1 and C1P class in Group III of the FAI's records structure. A note on the certificates mentions that these four flights did not use in-flight refuelling. That is obviously not completely correct as only the return flights that XV109 carried out via Ascension did not use AAR. Quite why this little fact has been changed in the FAI's records is unknown. Also only three of the six records are to be found in the online database of the FAI, the other ones will probably turn up at some point but I've been told that these old records are added to the online database only when time permits.
OP MEDAL TRAIL was a very useful exercise that netted six new official records (which are still current records in 2013 as far as I've been able to find out) and showed the flexibility of the VC10 as a transport and as a tanker. It demonstrated that the VC10 C1 could play its part in any part of the empire and that the supply line to the Falklands could be relatively short if needed. Every part of the station showed tremendous support to enable this operation and special mention should be made of the engineers who prepared the aircraft, the Operations Wing staff, the Station Navigation officer and the Tanker Training Flight (TTF) who put together a training programme at very short notice and provided a pilot to travel on each aircraft (in 1988 the then OC 10 Sqn mentioned that the next time they would go for records "we won't have to borrow a pilot from the OCU to do the prodding" as the first sqn captains had just been qualified to receive). And of course 10 Squadron was very grateful to 101 Squadron for providing the tanker aircraft that made these records possible. Coordination at the Air to Air Refuelling Cell was done by Sqn Ldr Strang, OC Flying Support Squadron at Brize and Flt Lt Weston, AAR 1d HQ 1 Gp at Ascension. Wg Cdr Mike Westwood from RAF HQ travelled on XR806 as the record assessor. Which leaves the crews who did the flying:
FAI record assessor Mike Westwood had an important role to play as without him the records from XR806 could not be ratified by the FAI. He has shared some of his recollections of the record flights with us.
"In 1987, I held the post of Air Transport 2 in the Air Defence Branch of HQ Strike Command. When I was asked to be the official FAI assessor for the record attempts, I welcomed the opportunity to have a few days out of the office.
With five pilots on the VC10 (including myself), each of us had a spell on the flight deck to share the workload. To my mind, the star of the flights was the Air to Air Refuelling Instructor, Sqn Ldr Barrell. It was a delight to watch him during the refuelling brackets. Having plugged in at the first attempt to take on some 120,000 lbs of fuel, he flew the aircraft with one hand whilst occasionally nudging the throttles forward to maintain position as the weight of XR806 increased. With amazing nonchalance, he even drank a cup of coffee during the refuelling procedure. To say that the other pilots were very impressed, is an understatement!
Also on board XR806 were two journalists, one from the Daily Telegraph and the other from the Oxford Mail. The Telegraph reporter was Lance Price, who later in his career worked in 10 Downing Street and currently appears on TV news programmes. Both of the journalists filed their copy during the flight southbound, via a phone patch with Upavon Flight Watch. Brian Symes worked hard to ensure that HF contact was maintained as the journalists coped with the unfamiliar phone patch procedures.
A few days after the VC10 record breaking Falkland Island flights, without any fanfare 216 Sqn stole a march on 10 Sqn. On 24 December 1987, the Squadron was tasked with delivering a renal unit as quickly as possible to the hospital in Stanley. Using Tristar ZD951, Sqn Ldr Tony Hoyle (ex 10 Sqn VC10s) and Sqn Ldr Walker flew via Ascension to the Falklands. The flight times were: BZZ to ASI 1940 - 0340 (8hrs 00mins), 1 hour turn round and then ASI to MPA 0440 - 1130 (6hrs 50mins). Total elapsed time 15hrs 50mins (5 minutes more than the VC10) and airborne time 14hrs 50 mins (55 minutes less than the VC10!). The equipment arrived in the Falklands 22 hours after the initial request (not bad as it happened over Christmas). However, in the absence of an FAI assessor, 216 Sqn could not claim a record. Sad really!"
Indeed it is sad in a way that this later flight did not net any official records but this made it more important for me to have it mentioned on this page. It is a reminder that many of the flights that the RAF carried out, and which they carry out today, do not get a lot of press but all of them are important in one way or the other. The other side of the argument of course is that this Tristar flight would have kicked the VC10 out of the record books and the lack of a FAI assessor on that day means that XR806's records stand to this day.
Update: on 2 and 5 June 2020, a RAF Voyager set two new records, flying non-stop from RAF Brize Norton to Mount Pleasant Airfield in 15 hours and 9 minutes. It returned after three days, clocking 13 hours and 22 minutes on the return leg. Not only are these times better than those set by XR806 in 1987, the modified A330 was also able to carry out this feat without the use of air-to-air refuelling. See here for the details on the AirTanker website.
As the newspaper article above isn't completely legible, here is a transcript. It is interesting to see that the main focus of this article is the non-stop flight, no mention of the other VC10.
Sources: FAI, Gateway Magazine, PPRuNe. With thanks to I. MacMillan, J. McCrickard, J. Ager, M. Westwood, Wg Cdr Peter Morgan