In the third and final installment Maurice Ungless tells us about the tropical trials of the Super VC10 at Johannesburg and some other incidents which he witnessed.
Part 3: More tropical trials and firsts
The Super VC10 Tropical Trials were scheduled to re-commence early in January 1965. On this occasion the aircraft to take the honours was G-ASGB, having been ferried from Wisley to London Heathrow for an evening departure on 8th January 1965. Six weeks after the original abandoned trials Gulf Bravo departed about 9.00PM, 3000 lbs over weight. This was to be a direct flight and a record speed attempt on the then record for London to Johannesburg.
En-route to South Africa G-ASGB carried out the first and probably only flight of a VC10 over the Sahara Desert and definitely the only record attempt London to Johannesburg, South Africa direct by a VC10. However the planned direct flight was thwarted by high speed head winds of 90mph over the Sahara Desert, which consequently reduced our range by some margin. It was decided to stop off at Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia for a "splash & dash" fuel stop. This would be the first landing and take off by a Super VC10 at Salisbury, after a 20 minute stop over for fuel the flight resumed to Johannesburg. The direct flight record speed attempt failed due to high speed head winds encountered over the Sahara Desert, but on arrival at Johannesburg Jan Smuts Airport on 9th January 1965 a new record was set of something like 10 hours 15 minutes, even with the stop over at Salisbury for fuel. Incidently this would also be the first and only flight of a VC10 direct from London to Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia.
G-ASGB spent several weeks on Tropical Trials at Johannesburg Jan Smuts Airport, South Africa. One of these trials was the VMU runway trial. (Velocity for Minimum Unstick). The trial consisted of rotating the aircraft prior to the recognised VR speed and holding the aircraft in that attitude until lift off and climb out. The resulting lift off speed was then recorded as the minimum speed where liftoff could be achieved. This trial was carried out several times at different Take-Off weights and a chart built up for inclusion in the VC10 Flying Manual. The equipment that can be seen being installed by the author (photo above) at the tail end of Gulf Bravo is a tail proximity arm. The arm had two micro switches which were activated when the attitude of the aircraft had nine inches and three inches between runway and installed wooden tail skid, fitted to the orange brackets on the fuselage rear belly. The brown wood skid block can be seen laying on the ground awaiting fitting. The pilot, Bill Cairns, had two lights on the flight deck to indicate the distance between the runway surface and wood skid block. I cannot remember the skid ever having marks of contact with the ground, an amazing piece of flying skill.
The second important runway trial, also similar to the ones carried out at Torrejon and Johannesburg on the Standard VC10, was the Max. K.E. Stop (Maximum Kinetic Energy Stop) or High Energy Stop. This trial was carried out with the aircraft at Max Take-Off weight and using Max braking effort from V1which resulted in the brakes becoming white hot. To prevent the tyres exploding with higher pressure due to heat soak and temperature rise within the tyre, the fuseable plugs in the wheel hub melted, thereby deflating the tyres. The fuseable plug temperature rating had already been upgraded to a higher value of temperature before melting to delay tyre deflation for this trial run. The photo above shows the smoke haze emanating around the aircraft from thrust reverse and brakes smoking. On this occasion, unlike the Standard VC10 trials at Torrejon, the aircraft was stranded on the runway with eight deflating tyres. We the ground crew however were ready with equipment on a flat bed truck and were on the scene soon after the aircraft came to a halt. De-fuelling immediately commenced, stirrup blocks put into place and stirrup jacks engaged before the tyres completely deflated, to prevent the weight of the aircraft being bourn by the wheel hubs. We had only a finite number of hubs but plenty of spare tyres. Had the weight been placed on the hubs they would have had to go through a lengthy servicabilty check in the workshops. To say the least every trial of this nature was fraught with impending danger of injury, having to approach an overheated wheel and tyre and white hot brake units. As pressure was being released from tyres we were between two lethal entities, attempting to fit stirrup blocks and stirrup jacks to the bogie beams, before the aircraft settled on the wheel hubs. And to boot, defuelling operations were being carried out at the same time. There was no time to loose, we were blocking the only runway at Jan Smuts Airport, Johannesburg. We had the eight main wheels and brake units off within an hour and new wheels on in about the same time, but no brake units. We were brakeless again for the tow back to base. The runway had to be cleared as soon as possible.
On 31th January 1965 Gulf Bravo went on a day trip to Durban from Johannesburg for hot ambient engine ground running trials. I believe this was the first and only flight of any VC10 to land & take-off from Durban Airport South Africa. Upon arrival at Durban Airport we were met by Farnborough Air Show like crowds welcoming the first pure jet powered aircraft to land since the early days of the deHavilland Comet aircraft that used to fly the route in the fifties. On this flight we also gave a one way lift to Durban for the then up and coming South African golfer Garry Player. Bill Cairns had also taken his golf clubs on trials!!! On take-off for the return trip to Johannesburg Captain Bill Cairns carried out a typical VC10 near vertical take-off to entertain the crowd and then proceeded to carry out a low level run over the Indian Ocean parallel with the shore line of Durban, which seemed only a few feet above the waves. The aircraft then entered into a tight turn with the wings almost vertical, which when looking out the cabin window down the length of the wing looked like the wing tip was about to collect some sea weed. That was an amazing manouvre and was probably the lowest any VC10 in flight has got, you cannot get any lower than sea level without the obvious. Certainly over the Indian Ocean at any rate.
Having been surfing for a few news links with regard to the VC10, knowing someone must have taken further pictures of events at Johannesburg or Durban, by chance I found this:
I know of one photo of the VC10 landing at Johannesburg, cannot be sure whether Standard or Super, but it was on the front page of a Johannesburg newspaper and was an image taken from the opposite end of the runway to landing end just on touch down. With the heat haze and mirage effect it looked like a bat with long legs. I had a copy but failed to bring it home. I wonder if it still exists in an archive somewhere.
On return from Durban a few days later we departed Johannesburg for a flight to Nairobi, Kenya, en-route for our journey back to the UK, this again was another first. It was the first flight of a Super VC10 from Johannesburg to Nairobi as well as the first Super VC10 to land and take-off from Nairobi Airport Kenya. This stop over at Nairobi was to demonstrate the Super VC10 to East African Airways management and staff, who were about to order a number of Super VC10s. Soon after this last take-off from Johannesburg, an engine had to be shut down due to loss of engine oil. On arrival at Nairobi a three-engined landing was carried out, and that I believe was one of the only, if not the first, in flight engine shut down due to an engine problem during all the VC10 trials. The Conway was and probably still is a very good and reliable engine. The defect causing the oil loss was not an engine related defect as such, but a leaking oil transfer bobbin to the Godfrey Cabin Air Compressor. There was no quick fix, and I don’t think we carried spares for this at any rate. Also we were not about to divulge a problem to the prospective customer. After attending the lunch and reception given by East African Airways at Nairobi Airport, we again boarded Gulf Bravo for our journey back to the UK after replenishing the engine oil tank. Three engines were started on the apron and the problem engine was started at the last minute on taxi out for take-off, then shut down immediately after take-off and climb out. The flight in fact was a three engine ferry back to the UK, landing at Wisley on three engines. So another first for Gulf Bravo was being the first and possibly only VC10 long range three engine ferry flight of 4,240 miles. East African Airways placed an order a few months later in April 1965.
One of the last trials I was involved in with the Super VC10 was at Boscombe Down where we had been deployed for a noise abatement trial on the Super VC10. Bifurcated jet pipes had been fitted to all four engines and we were deployed at the area of Boscombe Down where the nuclear defence bomber force were normally deployed to on occasions of high alert status. The Super VC10 would take-off at max take-off weight, carry out a circuit, then land again. Noise abatement observers would monitor the noise at predetermind locations on the flight path. As the aircraft was above maximum landing weight every time, the aircraft had to be put down like a feather on the runway. Captain Bill Cairns did this every time, what would you expect otherwise, he had that midas touch for the VC10, as he did on all the trials abroad we carried out. The aircraft would be taxied in after every landing, engines remained running and Tim, the Dunlop representative, would check the tyre temperatures for satisfactory safe take-off again. This procedure was carried out several times, but the bifurcated jet pipes were never used in service.
My last involvement as far as the VC10 at Wisley was concerned, was to be part of the ground crew in the recovery of a stranded RAF VC10 (presumably XR806) at Stansted airport, where in those days just a few Nissen huts were used as passenger terminals. The VC10 had been on a RAF flight crew training flight at Stansted prior to entry into service, having flown out of Wisley for the day's training exercise. However after numerous take-offs and landings, (circuits and bumps), at Stansted, one brake unit had seized after landing and the aircraft was left stranded on a taxi way. An engineering group was put together hastily at Wisley with spares and we were flown over by Brian Trubshaw (Trubbie) in G-ARTA. On disembarking and spares off-load Trubbie flew G-ARTA back to Wisley and left us at Stansted to repair the RAF VC10. We were flown back to Wisley by the RAF crew and during this flight training carried on as stall recovery training was carried out. That was a first for all the ground crew involved that day on a VC10. Normally only flight crew would be on board for such trials or training exercises.
I have issues with both versions of events during that incident with G-ASIW at Gatwick that have been voiced by previous donors of information or opinions (click here to read these stories). Although I wasn’t present when the incident occured (I was during the period of repair at Gatwick) I can only voice an opinion of someone who over 4 years had considerable experience of raising and lowering VC10s at Wisley and abroad.
Firstly even if the brakes had been left applied during lowering, and I don’t know whether they were or not, the undercarriage bogie beam would be tilted rear down in its normal trailing condition with load off wheels, that is if it was in a fully raised condition to carry out undercarriage functions. The two rear wheels would impact the hangar floor first on lowering, this would not initially be a reason for concern in the scenario of brakes applied as all the weight is still very much on the jacks and none on the undercarriage. I would have thought some juddering or screaching from the rubber on the hangar floor with the wheels unable to turn would have alerted those on the nearby wing main jacks to the noise and re-coup the situation and remove the application of the brakes. However lets assume the brakes were left on. As a Licensed Aircraft Engineer I’ve been either involved, observed or supervised raising and lowering of aircraft over the last 50 years (I’ve been retired for 10 years, so make that 40 years experience) on many aircraft types, whether it be at Vickers, BEA or British Airways. VC10s, Vanguards, Viscounts, Comets, Tridents, Concorde, B767, B757, B747 and L1011 Tristars, the VC10 is or was the most difficult. During these practices it is paramount that brakes are released soon after the initial weight of the aircraft has been taken by the jacks, but still firmly on the ground prior to raising. Also it is paramount to release the brakes before lowering commences, with wheel chocks set a small distance from the tyres to prevent the aircraft rolling once on the ground, but also so they do not get jammed under the tyre on fully lowering. Usually if brakes are left on during lowering and there is a build up of tension in the tyres to the extent of pushing the aircraft one way or the other, this will occur to all jacks as the load is completely released from the jacks. There were a few incidents of that nature in lowering L1011 Tristar aircraft at British Airways with minor damage to the lower wing panel. The point I am attempting to make is the unlikely contribution to the incident of lowering the aircraft, with brakes on, that would cause only the rear jack to become detached from its pad. If that was so, why did not the main jacks also become detached at the same time? No in my opinion it is the classical example of rocking between main wing jacks and main undercarriages as the load transfers in the later stages of lowering, which is inherent in the VC10's de-jacking operation, which can only be prevented by using the procedure we adopted at Wisley. This meant allowing a nose down attitude in the intial stages, such that the rocking can be prevented. Sadly on this occasion there was not enough good supervision to prevent this happening, and was very probably embarressing for those involved.
As far as scrapping the aircraft "had it pierced the main frame". Usually aircraft are not scrapped after an accident unless they are uneconomical to repair, and there is always a repair scheme, believe me. I’ve seen, been aware of, and been involved in some very large repairs to aircraft. Anyway the jack head would have probably slid by the frame perhaps making a mark but hardly doing too much damage. The frame after all is a substantial frame which is capable of taking rear jack loads, the only damage I think here is reputations, and the fuselage skin and perhaps a stringer or two.
With regard to the VC10 Static Test Rig at Wisley which comprised the fuselage (without front section), engine nacelles, wings and fin. The fuselage had a steel bulkhead attached at the forward open end to complete and seal the test fuselage. The fuselage was filled with blocks of polystyrene to capacity to reduce the volume of air within the fuselage. This was in case there was a sudden rupture of the fuselage during test cycles as it was in a confined space of the hangar. Had the fuselage structure suddenly failed, under maximum cabin pressure of something like 10psi, and great volumes of air had been expelled suddenly, the roof of the hangar would have been blown off. The complete envelope of aircraft cycles were carried out for many months continually, the hangar reverberating to creaking sounds either from the aircraft structure or the test rig equipment. There was a large indicator board at the end of the port wing on the rig structure with information of flight cycles, flight equivalent hours and particular cycle the aircraft was in. It was fascinating to watch.
The cycles even included refuelling, pulling the wings down as if fuel would be loaded. The wings were then being vibrated up and down as if on the runway on the take-off run, then the take off cycle pulling the wings up as the aircraft load was taken by the wings. Then cycles of in-flight fluctuations of wing deflections up and down, including sudden gusts encountered during flight, either up or down. Included in this was the extra deflection of the wing upwards as the fuel load decreased. Then finally the landing whereby the wings would be pulled down on the aircraft's perceived impact on the runway, plus a heavy landing now and again. During all these fluctuations of the wings, the fuselage pressure cycles for take off, cruise and finally landing would also be carried out.
Finally after all the cycle tests had been completed over many months to something like the expected life of the airframe of many tens of thousands of hours (I think the initial life was set at something like 100,000 hours plus), the ultimate load test was carried out during which the wing was expected to break somewhere. This actually didn't occur. The wing was so strong in design that the ultimate load test was exceeded without breaking and the wing could not be pulled up any further due to the hangar roof limiting the height of the test rig structure.
I was an apprentice in my 3rd year when the Vanguard wing and structure went through a similar series of tests at Wisley, I was present on that occasion and witnessed that wing breaking after the ultimate test had been achieved with an almighty "BANG" and the complete test rig shuddering.
One day we were stranded at Boscombe Down with a VC10, we could not return to Wisley as a BAC 1-11 had crashed on the runway there. A "Safari Bus" was deployed to Boscombe Down to collect us. By the time we got back to Wisley it was dark and cranes could be seen raising the aircraft under arc lights. The next day I went to inspect the BAC 1-11 in the hangar and had a look inside. Where as before entry into the flight deck was a simple matter of walking in, now a step up was required. The left engine was detached from its mount, just hanging by service ducts and cables. The tail plane was bent down, the whole aircraft was severely damaged and written off. We recovered the stranded VC10 either the next day or the day after that. This incident with the BAC 1-11 was before the modification of the elevator controls which were servo tab operated at its inception. Later these were modified to power controls with manual servo tab operation as a manual reversion. All three BAC 1-11 crashes were caused by the original servo tab operation of the elevators. I believe the pilot on this occasion was Peter Baker who got an Air Pilots Commendation for getting the aircraft on the runway as it was out of control some miles out. I believe Peter Baker was the co-pilot on the first and second tropical trials of the Standard VC10 G-ARVB at Spain and South Africa. He was re-deployed to BAC 1-11 testing after the accident to G-ASHG (the crash of the prototype on Salisbury plains). On this occasion, from eye witness accounts, the aircraft struck the runway in a nose down attitude shearing the nose landing gear off, hence the step up into the flight deck. The main landing gears next contacted the ground and sheared off, I believe it was the left engine that sheared its mount but remained attached to the aircraft by services and ductings etc. The tail plane was bent down on both sides. The aircraft remained on the runway and ended up opposite the control tower (about half way down the runway), facing the opposite direction having turned 180 degrees in its voyage down the runway. Escape windows in the cabin apparently started to open before the aircraft came to rest by all accounts. All on board were uninjured except for a few bruises, and a bit of dampness. The BAC 1-11 apparently was a pig to fly below 8,000ft, absolute heaven above. Peter Baker I believe was also at the controls of the BAC 1-11 that crashed on Salisbury Plains at approximately 30 mph. Having believed he had entered a deep stall condition he deployed the tail chute to recover. However for some reason he could not then release the tail chute, and flopped onto Salisbury Plain at something like 30mph doing little damage. The aircraft was later retrieved by disassembly and reconstructed and put into service with BUA (this same airframe later became XX105 with RAE Bedford).
My only commercial flight in a VC10 was from the UK to Sri-Lanka for a holiday on 17th March 1974, leaving from Terminal 3 at Heathrow with my wife and 2 year 8 month old son, by way of my entitlement to airline staff travel, another free flight. I worked for BEA and was entitled to staff travel with them, and moves were about for both BEA and BOAC to join as British Airways so both sets of staff of the individual airlines were entitled to all routes eventually. In nearly fifty years of travelling I've only paid twice for flights, other than taxes etc over recent years.
The route to Sri-Lanka took us to Cairo as a first stop, thinking I've been here previously some 11 years before on another kind of flight. We weren't allowed to leave the aircraft for security reasons, G-ASGO Amsterdam Schiphol 3 March 1974 had just occurred and we actually wondered beforehand about the advisability of this journey, but hey ho, off we go into the unknown.
Next stop was Bahrain, again not allowed off the aircraft. Here there was an hours delay as the forward cargo hold door seal had been damaged and repairs had to be effected. The next stop was supposed to be, I believe, Bombay but as no passengers were to be disembarked or embarked at Bombay it was decided as there had been the delay at Bahrain the aircraft would proceed direct to Colombo, Sri-Lanka. On arrival we went to collect our two suitcases, one of which contained mostly disposable nappies. Our boy was not yet clean at night but ok during the day, for the duration of the trip of 17 days. However the other suitcase was soaking wet and must have been near the air leaking forward cargo door collecting condensation. The door seal hadn't been repaired in a satisfactory manner.
The return journey was un-eventful but we were delayed in boarding as our flight was on a standby basis, but they found seats for us in the end. Oh, the vagaries of staff travel, but it has saved a fortune over the years, and you get to be upgraded into Club or First Class if lucky.
I could imagine all those noises of aircraft taking off or landing. The whine of engines starting or running down, taxi out, returning from flight. Waving off and waving in Vanguards and VC10s. The whine of BAC 1-11s starting up with their lower cowlings opened, with the noise detuners in the cowlings they sounded like a hundred banshees howling. Watching Vickers Supermarine Scimitars (carrier borne naval fighters of the era) coming and going during trials for inflight re-fuelling, sometimes with the Scimitar tanker's donor hose cone broken off on the receiving Scimitars refuelling lance.
We took the opportunity to walk up the west end taxi way and onto the runway, which is now very much dilapidated over the years. We walked the whole length from west to east, something I had never done before when it was operational as you can imagine. Other than driving across the runway and getting clearance to drive along the grass to the compass swing bed for aircraft compass swings. A nice job on a sunny summers day.
Walking up to the eastern end threshold and compass swing base. This is used by the farmer now for depositing animal manure and is only just visible. The non-magnetic base, which I believe was bronze, having been removed when the airfield closed down.
The old control tower and flight crew base is no longer there, again just a footprint. Sad really for what the country had in aviation, never to be retrieved I'm afraid.
And finally I would like to dedicate my memoirs to all those fine participants who designed, constructed, maintained during flight trials and deliveries and tested one of the iconic airliners to be produced.
Firstly, Sir George Edwards and his design team who remain nameless.
Secondly, the flight test crews who risked their lives in the pursuit of testing the VC10 for the safety of future passengers and crews.
Bill Cairns, test pilot, who was third pilot/flight engineer on the first flight of the prototype VC10 G-ARTA on 29th June 1962. Who was the commander of all tropical trials carried out on the Standard and Super VC10. And who was second pilot to Brian Trubshaw on the majority of initial test flying including stall trials after Chief test pilot Jock Bryce transferred his attentions to the BAC 1-11.
Jock Bryce, Vickers Armstrongs Chief test pilot who commanded the first flight of the VC10 G-ARTA with Brian Trubshaw as second pilot and Bill Cairns as third pilot/flight engineer.
Brian Trubshaw, test pilot, second pilot to Jock Bryce on the first flight of the VC10 G-ARTA, who after Jock Bryce retired as Chief test pilot for Vickers Armstrongs/BAC became the Chief test pilot.
Peter Baker, test pilot, I believe was the name of the second pilot to Bill Cairns on the tropical trials of the Standard VC10, to later transfer to the BAC 1-11 programme.
John Cochrane test pilot, 2nd pilot to Bill Cairns for the Super VC10 tropical trials at Khartoum and Johannesburg. John Cochrane joined the VC10 programme midway through the VC10 flight test programme after serving with the RAF I believe as a Vulcan pilot. Later to accompany Brian Trubshaw in flight testing the Concorde.
The nameless flight observers aboard the test aircraft during the flight trials period.
The nameless BOAC pilots and Flight Engineers to be seconded to Vickers Armstrongs/BAC during the flight trials. Vickers Armstrongs/BAC had no flight engineers and not enough pilots to carry out the full flight test programme. (BOAC SEO Gordon Sears and EO Bill Lindsay were the Flight Engineers that had been seconded to Vickers. NB.)
Finally the aircraft engineers/mechanics I worked with from 1960 to 1966 in maintaining aircraft at Wisley, testing at Wisley or Boscombe Down or tropical trials and constructing at Weybridge, where I can remember their names, other figures not forgotten but names elude me, but if someone said "do you remember so and so", I'm sure I would recognise the name.
Bill Oldfield, (leading hand/supervisor) : Colin Donaldson : Jack Wright : Bob Wright, (mechanical inspector) : Joe Lindsey : Eddy Cappel : John Randell : Eric Bennet : Ken Norridge (nogger) : Ron Bennet : Denis Wells : Toby Tobias : Denis Collier : Jack Pulfer (electrician) : Wally Davis (Wisley foreman) : Peter Walcotte : Denis Moller : Maurice Barney : Bill Rozier : Allan Burfield (Mechanical Inspector) : Min Covis (Electrician) : Bill Fagan (Mechanical Inspector) : And a few I can only remember by "nicknames", "Mogs" Moller : Dad Moller, yes there were 3 Mollers all related : "The Bone", a hairless leading hand with a reputation, hence the name : "Cheshire Cat" : Lenny (mums bum) : And there are many more, but the passing of time fogs the memory for names but not events and memories.