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VC10 - Icon of the Skies - Lance Cole

A review of the new VC10 book from Lance Cole that was released in March 2017. Thanks to Pen and Sword's generosity I have three copies to give away. See below if you want one.

The story of the VC10 spans more than 50 years of development, construction, testing, operations with both civil operators and the Royal Air Force and its retirement and preservation in various museums. Lance Cole has previously done his best to pay hommage to the type in his book ‘Vickers VC10’, which was published by Crowood in February 2000. 17 years later he has written a second book about the VC10, so what is different about his new publication ‘VC10 - Icon of the Skies’? The bare facts first: this Pen & Sword published book is not a coffee table book filled with photos, it contains mostly text but does include some (black & white) photos and diagrams in its 224 pages. It is sized as a large hardback novel and reads like that as well.

Regarding the contents, Lance Cole has not tried to rewrite his first VC10 book but he has taken a distinctly different approach. He has taken a big step back and has filled out the basic and known story of the type’s development and troubled sales with many different aspects such as the political choices that led to the VC10 orders, the development of its competitors and the background of the airline that wrote the specification for what became the VC10: BOAC. By doing this he has provided a lot more context to the history of the VC10 than has been written so far. The story in this book contains aspects of a thriller, in that even though we know the outcome you do get curious about the different twists and turns in the story.

Lance Cole is a trained designer and has a background as a journalist and author, having written about various subjects from the aviation and automotive world. With this book he has used his investigative skills to dig deeper into the VC10’s history, and in several different directions. In doing this he has tried to answer the question ‘what went wrong?’ The VC10 was a good design and lived up to the expectations, so why did Vickers sell only 54 examples? Lance Cole states that the record of that time left behind by BOAC might be ‘tainted’. He says: “This is why I spoke to people who were there and did not rely on the potentially partisan written records. It is clear there was an attempt to smear the VC10 and protect airline management and political players. All these decades later, should we just accept the record, when even former 'establishment' airline transport leaders have condemned BOAC's behaviour and the records?” This is a very interesting question, and it is certainly the case that there was a distinct ambiguity in BOAC’s attitude towards the type. It is also a large challenge for an author to have to answer this question.

With this book Lance Cole has done three things:

1. For those readers who have not read all the other VC10 books out there, he has summarised enough parts of the type’s history to provide the context for the rest of the book. But this also enables you to read this as a standalone book. There is a good bit of information on the design iterations that led from the Vickers 1000 via the Vanjet to the eventual VC10 design, enough of the story of the VC10 in airline service with BOAC, intertwined with the political developments behind the scenes, and a thorough summary of the other operators and the VC10’s RAF career.

2. In his previous technical history book about the VC10 Lance Cole already paid tribute to the genius of all the people who designed and built the VC10. In this book he takes up that torch again and makes sure that a lot of the people who worked for Vickers have been named. Some more background also emerges, such as Sir George Edwards’ involvement in the Farren mission, interviewing German aerodynamicists in post-WWII Germany. This provides an interesting link between Edwards background, the developments in aerodynamics during and after the Second World War and the design lineage from the Viscount, through the Vickers 1000 to the Vanjet and the VC10.

3. Where this book shines, and where Lance Cole takes on the challenge he has set for himself, is in the pages he devotes to the mindsets in the BOAC boardroom and the struggles between them, Vickers and the policy-makers in Whitehall. He strays further from the familiar story than other writers have done so far, including the Imperial Airways days with their large flying boats, the orders for jet airliners from other airlines such as KLM and Qantas, the road that led to Boeing’s 707 airliner (including an interesting look at a delta-winged design) and a comparison of the performance of the 707 against the VC10 on some hot and high airfields.

The author certainly doesn’t try to hide the fact that he is a VC10 fan, this is clear from the way he describes the type’s various strengths throughout the story. In a way this can be seen as a small flaw in this publication: his enthusiasm about the VC10 is present throughout the book but this may have overshadowed his objectivity at times. In chapter 6 when the structure of the tailplane, engine mounts and rear fuselage is explained it becomes clear that this is a corner of the airframe where a lot of metal was needed to keep everything attached at all times. Mr. Cole then connects this to the upsets that some of the VC10s encountered in service and, rightfully so, points out that the outcome could have been a lot worse if it hadn’t had this strong construction. In all fairness though, the description also screams of an over-engineered structure and added weight that assisted in driving up the operating costs of the type, but this side of the coin doesn’t get as much attention, which is a shame as that was certainly one of the reasons that the VC10 didn’t sell well. That’s not a big problem in the end though, Lance Cole’s enthusiasm about this charismatic airliner is infectious and this, coupled with the momentum of the story that keeps on going, it makes for an enjoyable read. There are one or two small factual mistakes in the book but they don’t take away from the main message between these covers, that the history of the VC10 has been tainted by some of the actions and omissions of its main client and we should not forget what a great icon of industrial design has been created by the ‘band of brothers at Brooklands’.

At the time of writing this, Pen and Sword still have this title on sale on their website at £5 below the recommended retail price (click here). Strangely Amazon (at least the UK shop) is still having problems sorting out the reviews for Lance Cole’s two VC10 related books as there are still several reviews for his first book on the page about this new title. Somehow the expected delivery dates are also consistently showing 2 to 4 weeks on Amazon, while there is plenty of stock at Pen and Sword. Hopefully this will be resolved soon.

VC10 - Icon of the Skies
Lance Cole (2017), Pen and Sword, ISBN 978 1 47387 532 6
Published 2nd March 2017

Giveaway: get a free copy of VC10 - Icon of the Skies

With thanks the generosity of Pen and Sword books I have three copies of Lance Cole's title 'VC10 - Icon of the Skies' to give away to readers of this site. If you want one, send me an e-mail containing your full name and adress, no later than Wednesday, 21st June. I will draw three names at random and will then drop these books in the mail.

Update: the three books are on their way to the three lucky winners.

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