Back in 1987, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the VC10's first flight, Sir George Edwards, OM, CBE, FRS, wrote about the type's difficult conception, the end of its civil career and he hoped that it would continue to have a long and fruitful career with the RAF. This long career was coming to an end in 2012, when an event at The Brooklands Museum marked the VC10's 50th anniversary. I could not let the 60th anniversary go by without a word, so here's my take on the type's long career. Using the great advantage of hindsight, and reusing (most of) the headings that Sir George Edwards chose, I have tried to look at the past, present and a bit of the future. I have also included BAC's official crew biographies below.
Getting the VC10 off the ground was a big achievement for Vickers, the UK and the aviation industry in general. It led the way, showing off a number of technologies that we now take for granted. It was a source of pride from the start and today, 60 years after its first flight, it still evokes those proud feelings, although by now it is often tinged with sadness about the days gone by. The fact that a relatively small airframe builder in the Surrey countryside could produce 54 of these large airliners, fly them out of their own backyard and deliver a take off performance that left Boeing 707s in the dust was no mean feat. Elements of the VC10's technical design can be found in many modern airliners, from system layouts to electrically powered controls and landing gear designs. Photos posted on several large social media sites still provoke many a fond memory, are liked by lots of visitors and are shared across the different platforms. Although the numbers do not reach values that would get the average influencer out of their beds, the continued presence of the VC10 across the online world is a clear indication of its popularity.
Sir George Edwards lamented the loss of the Vickers 1000 project and saw that as a step backwards for the British aviation industry. But what if....
If the Vickers 1000 project had continued, it would have used an engine layout that did not offer a lot of flexibility in engine upgrades, wing changes or made engine maintenance very easy. All issues that would show up in the Comet fleet and its descendants, the Nimrod family. While the Vickers 1000 would have offered an early lead in jet airliner design, it too would most likely have been overshadowed by the Boeing 707. Just look at the current crop of airliners to see which configuration won out in the long run. Yes, the VC10 suffered from some of the issues mentioned too, but to a lesser degree.
The difficult conception mentioned leads us to the haggling between Vickers, its main client and the government. I have discussed this in more detail elsewhere on this website but in short, if it wasn't for the government's insistance, we would most likely never have seen a VC10 flying, let alone see it fly on for 51 years of continuous operation. Starting out as the unloved child, it became a dependable supporter of BOAC and BA's route structure and it turned into a unique transport and tanking capability in the Royal Air Force's service.
The Changing Outlook
A lot has changed between the 50th and 60th anniversary. In 2012 there were still some VC10s flying and although there are plans to get ZA150 back up in the air, 2022 has not seen any VC10 move under its own power so far. We went from flying VC10s to taxiing VC10s for several years but have now seen these silenced too. ZA150 is awaiting developments at Dunsfold, owned by GJD Services on behalf of a US client. ZD241 was scrapped earlier this year as its continued existence at Bruntingthorpe did not fit in their plans anymore. We have gone from a population of eight flyers, three in storage and three airframes on display (14 complete VC10s as well as various bits) in 2012 to a population of just six complete airframes ten years later. Right now our focus should be on preserving what we have left as several of these could use some TLC, if not now then over the next couple of years. And don't forget the cockpit and fuselage sections (including full-length Standard fuselage G-ARVM) that at least allow a part of this design to be enjoyed. See here for an overview.
G-ARTA on the runway during one of the high-speed taxi runs. The company Dove in the background would carry Sir George Edwards and Julian Amery, the Minister of Aviation, to Wisley.
We have had to say goodbye to both ZA147, the airframe that performed the last landing of a VC10 at Bruntingthorpe in 2013, and ZD241, the airframe that was certified to carry passengers during taxi runs at Bruntingthorpe. While their demise is a shame, it shows how circumstances can change over the years and how preserving large airliners for the future is a big and expensive job. A serious attempt to gather funds to move one of the two airframes never got anywhere near the six-figure sum needed.
How it started... the first take off 60 years ago
Good Health - Long Life
The VC10 certainly turned out to be a type that could boast about a good health. Apart from a modification to the tailplanes, accomplished without scheduling issues by rotating an extra tailplane through the BOAC fleet, no major structural issues ever surfaced during the 51 year lifespan of the type. Especially because of the RAF's use of the various tankers, concerns were raised about the health of the aging fleet. That was warranted by the fact that the K2s, K3s and K4s all had a previous career under their belt, added to this were the major structural alterations and very different flying that was done in the military environment. In 1988 the aviation world got a wake up call when Aloha Airlines flight 243 lost a major part of the 737's structure and this gave rise to the newly named Widespread Fatigue Damage issue. At the time, the K2s and K3s had just been completed and the K4 programme was being discussed, so there was plenty of though given to their health and the possibility that cracks might be present in their structure. A long research programme would look into this, and continue to evaluate the VC10's health both by analysing parts of scrapped examples and by calculating safe fatigue lives for the flying examples. We can now conclude that the VC10's structure was certainly safe from any major fatigue issues and it safely carried its passengers and cargo on the many routes flown.
Airborne! G-ARTA climbs away from the Brooklands runway.
The Ultimate Analysis
It is sobering that the 2022 Platinum Jubilee flypast over Buckingham Palace saw a 707 descendant joining the Voyager, A400M, Typhoons and others, confirming that Boeing's design won the longevity race. Interest in the VC10 has not diminished though and there are plenty of channels, both online and offline, where you can get your fill of VC10 information, stories and photos. As the active career of the type starts to become part of history, we should do our best to preserve this history, warts and all. Not that there are all that many to find of course.
More and more books with crew memoirs are finding their way to the bookshops and our bookshelves. This year should also see the completion of a new book about the complete career of the VC10, courtesy of John McCrickard and Air-Britain. This should go a long way towards an ultimate appraisal of the long and varied career of this iconic Vickers type.The VC10 continues to be held in high affection by the aviation fraternity, even after nearly a decade since withdrawal from a long and illustrious service to Queen and Country with the Royal Air Force. Finishing off this article, I would like to recall the crew who were on board G-ARTA when it first took to the skies. They were the first to enjoy the comfort, serenity and enjoyment that a trip on a VC10 could provide, although I suspect that they did not have a chance to reflect on this a lot during that first short flight from Brooklands to Wisley, lasting only 19 minutes.
VICKERS VC10 FIRST FLIGHT - THE CREW
The Flight Crew.
Flight Test Observers:
G R (Jock) Bryce was appointed Chief Test Pilot of British Aircraft Corporation in 1961 following 10 years as Chief Test Pilot of Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft) Ltd, now a company of BAC. Jock Bryce, born 1921, educated at Glasgow High School, commissioned in the Royal Air Force at the age of 18, came into test flying with Vickers at Weybridge in 1946 from the King’s Flight. During the war he served with Fighter, Coastal and Transport Commands. As second pilot to the late Captain “Mutt” Summers, then Chief Test Pilot of the company, Jock Bryce made first flights on the Valetta, Nene Viking, Varsity, Viscount and Valiant. Later he captained the first flight of the Valiant Mk2 and made the first flights of many production Valiants and Viscounts.
As Chief Test Pilot he has been responsible for most of the test and development flying on Viscount, Valiant and Vanguard. Last first flight of an entirely new type came on 20 January 1959 when Jock Bryce lifted the first Vanguard off the water soaked runway at Weybridge in the wake of a storm. Subsequently, almost 2,000 hours of intensive test and development flying were completed before the first Vanguard deliveries were made to BEA and TCA. A similar task awaits Jock Bryce and his team using the first batch of VC10s off the production line. The first VC10, G-ARTA, is owned by Vickers but is a production machine identical with the BOAC aircraft.
Jock Bryce, awarded the OBE in the 1959 New Year’s Honours List, brings over 7,000 hours of flying experience on some 50 different types, to his new task.
E B Trubshaw, Chief Test Pilot of Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft) Ltd, since 1961 and Deputy Chief Test Pilot from 1953, has been principally concerned in recent years with flight development of the Viscount and Vanguard airliners and the Valiant “V bomber”. For the VC10’s maiden flight, Brian Trubshaw will be in the co-pilot’s position as right hand man, in every sense, to Jock Bryce. The two men shared similar responsibilities with the first flight of the Vanguard in 1959.
Brian Trubshaw served in the RAF with Bomber Command and later, in 1946-47, with the King’s Flight including the Royal Tour of South Africa. At the Empire Test Pilots School in 1948 and on the Staff of the Royal Air Force Flying College in 1949-50, he joined Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft) Ltd as an experimental test pilot in 1950. Brian Trubshaw, born in 1924, educated at Winchester, school cricket captain, played cricket for RAF; awarded MVO in 1949 New Year’s Honours List.
At the Flight Engineer’s station will be the third flight crew member, test pilot W B (Bill) Cairns. Mr Cairns joined Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft) Ltd as a test pilot in 1953. For five years he was concerned with development and production acceptance test flying at the Company’s Bournemouth (Hurn) airport factory, where the majority of Viscount airliners have been built. In 1958 he came to the parent flight test centre at Wisley to fly Valiants, and more recently Vanguards.
Age 38, educated at Rutherglen Academy, Lanarkshire, Bill Cairns joined the RAF in 1942. He flew Stirlings on special duties involving supply dropping, paratrooping and the dropping of agents in enemy France and Norway. In the closing stages of the war, with Transport Command, he flew Stirlings and Halifaxes and later, Hastings. Mr Cairns was awarded the Air Force Cross in 1951. He completed his RAF service as personal pilot to the Commander in Chief Coastal Command.
G R Holland, Assistant Flight Test Manager, is leading the three man team of Flight Test Observers on the VC10’s first flight. Mr Holland, who joined the Vickers-Armstrongs aircraft company in 1941 as an apprentice, has been engaged on flight test work since 1945; his flight development experience spans every post-war Vickers type, from the piston engine Viking, through the small Viscount 630 prototype of 1948, the Valiant, first of the V-bombers, the production Viscount developments to the latest 810 series, and more recently the Vanguard.
I R Muir, age 37, has flight test experience with the company over a similar period. Joining Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft) Ltd as an apprentice in 1941 Mr Muir went over to flight test work in 1945, in time to participate in tests of the last of the geodetic aeroplanes, the Warwick and Windsor. Since the war he has been particularly concerned with flight development of Viscounts and Valiants.
C A Mullen, age 37, who came to the flight test department of the Vickers-Armstrongs aircraft company in 1952. He has been concerned with flight development work on Viscounts and Vanguards. Mr Mullen served with the RAF as a Flight Engineer from 1943 to 1947 and afterwards joined Aer Lingus in a similar capacity. Later he worked with the Napier company on aircraft de-icing development trials before joining Vickers-Armstrongs.
The crew for the first flight pose with the prototype VC10 after arrival at Wisley.
A 1958 brochure that linked the new VC10 design to the exploits of Alcock and Brown.