On the 50th anniversary of the first flight of the VC10 prototype, Captain Richard King was invited by The Brooklands Museum to talk about his experiences with the VC10, which included the last ever landing of A4O-AB at the museum in 1987. He has kindly allowed me to reproduce his story here.
"Sadly I walked across the apron of Nairobi’s Embakasi Airport towards a British United Airways (BUA) VC10, parked in the Kenya sunshine, one afternoon in January 1966. The brilliant blue sky was dotted with snow-white, puffy, cumulus clouds that stretched as far as the eye could see across the wide open savannah of the Athi Plains. If those same clouds had been absent, as would be the case later in the day just before sunset, when the daytime convective heating of the land would subside, I would have been able to catch a final glimpse of Kilimanjaro’s snowy summit, some ninety miles or so to the south-east.The air temperature was about 26°C as I turned for the final time and waved a sad farewell to my family whom I could see on the outside waving base of the terminal building. It had been opened by HM Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, a few years before but would, a few years later, be replaced by a completely new terminal on the far side of the runway which stretched in front of me from right to left, pointing towards the rounded lump of Ol Donya Sabuk, a lonely hill protruding on its own from the plains to the northeast. I had returned to Kenya, for my UK college Christmas holidays. Now it was time to go back to reality. Some eight and a half hours later the aircraft touched down at London’s Gatwick Airport. My first flight in a VC10 had been smooth, quiet and comfortable.
Some nine months later, one of the other students at my college asked if I would join him on a visit to the Farnborough Air Show. We skived off college for the day; not a difficult decision to reach, as I knew deep down that the course I had chosen was really not for me and hence generated little enthusiasm. And so at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon sunshine, on that Farnborough, September afternoon, we watched one of the RAF’s latest acquisitions carry out a flying display that caught everyone’s attention. Flying at an altitude unusually low for so large an aircraft, the VC10 of No 10 Squadron enthralled me as it circled, climbed, descended, and rolled during its display. With a final deafening selection of full-power to its Rolls Royce Conway engines it spiralled upwards at a rate of climb that held the onlookers spellbound, myself included. I recalled my earlier flight to the UK from Nairobi in one and how impressed I had been with it from the passenger point of view. At the time BOAC, BUA’s rival, were using the advertising slogan, “Try a little VC10 derness”.
Two years after that Farnborough visit I had joined the RAF for pilot training. After tours on Britannias and as then as a flying instructor, I was posted to No 10 Squadron, flying VC10s based at Brize Norton. The world-wide flying undertaken by the RAF now even included visiting Nairobi again, once as a Detachment Commander for 6 weeks.
Three years in the right-hand seat, as a co-pilot, were followed by my ‘command’ and in 1985 I was asked to be the air display pilot. Coincidently, this was to replace my close ex-Kenya school-friend, Robbie Robinson, who had joined the RAF straight from school and was also on 10 Squadron. We had continued our friendship for all those years and flown together frequently on 10 Sqn. Robbie had been selected for an exchange-posting to the Royal Canadian Air Force. Before he left he was required to put me through my paces and qualify me to take over the exacting task of air display flying which was so different from the aircraft’s normal role of long-range route flying in the Air Force’s ‘airline’. After two or three flights he passed me fit to take over. That unknown seed, planted deep at Farnborough years before, had finally born fruit.
Two years later, having obtained my civilian flying licence, I left the RAF and was offered a job based in Muscat, Oman, flying the last surviving VC10 on the world civilian register. It comprised one of the fleet of aircraft and helicopters on the Sultan of Oman’s private “Royal Flight”. Varying slightly from the RAF aircraft, one of the most apparent differences was the lack of a navigator’s position behind the captain’s seat. Technology now produced equipment in the shape of black boxes, known then, as INS or inertial navigation systems, which did the navigation job better than humans and at less cost. However, it never bought the crew a round of beer. (On reflection, I add somewhat unfairly and purely for humour, that not that many navigators did either!)
During my first week I found that many of the Omani VC10’s flying manuals were embellished with the logo and headed pages of British United Airways, the fore-runner of British Caledonian. The aircraft had been bought from them in the mid nineteen-seventies. Now with the Omani registration A4O – AB ( alpha, four, oscar, - alpha, bravo, ) its previous British registration was still obvious in the many documents, manuals and log books that made up the aircraft’s library. The UK registration mark had been G - ASIX. For me the job unfortunately, only lasted a year, since I had known when I accepted it that the aircraft was being replaced by a more modern Boeing 747. It was not Omani policy to pay for type-training on their aircraft and, since I didn’t have a Boeing on my licence, I knew when I took the job that when the 747 was delivered, I would be on my way. Coming towards the end of its 25 year life in 1987, the Sultan of Oman donated the aircraft to the newly-formed Brooklands Museum at Weybridge, Surrey, situated coincidently, at the very place where Vickers had built their VC10s in the 1960s. After manufacture, all of the 54 Vickers VC10 aircraft took off from Brooklands, Weybridge. Few VC10s returned there because the runway was considered to be rather short, with numerous obstacles near the runway threshold. Adjacent Wisley airfield had always been used for most factory maintenance visits that were later required by any VC10 once in airline service. Back in Oman we, on the Royal Flight, had planned for some weeks how to achieve a safe landing at extremely light weight, with barely any fuel, on the short, disused, Brooklands airfield. The Brooklands’ and ex-Vickers’ staff had been busy too: trains would be stopped on the London to Bournemouth railway line that bounded the Weybridge airfield at the northern side in case we need to carry out a last-minute, low altitude ‘go-around’ and the local and the Byfleet council agreed to take down some of the street lamps near to the touch-down point to facilitate our desired low approach altitude from the south. Unusually brown-coloured electric pylons, only a short distance from touch-down, and difficult to see in poor visibility, added to the obstacles to avoid.
A week before the event the Museum staff had also thoughtfully arranged for us to fly in a helicopter stopping at various salient altitude points on the approach to engrain the view into our memory for the big day. Mention must be made also of the considerable effort made by the Brooklands staff to advise householders in the Byfleet area of our forthcoming noisy arrival. David Parsons, who was with me on the flight-deck when we landed, recalls that one of the retired Vickers performance gentlemen worked out that after landing, if our engine reversers failed but the brakes worked we would stop in the landing distance available (actually Performance ‘A’ requires this to be the case anyway). He went on to work out further, that if the brakes failed but the reversers worked, we would make contact with the railway embankment at the northern end of the runway at about 43 knots. Cold comfort ! - I suppose we could call all this detailed planning “Risk Assessment” in today’s jargon.
As we left Heathrow for the final time, London Radar handed us over to Farnborough Approach. Knowing we had time to spare before our Brooklands planned arrival time, they told us they had received a request from Lasham Airfield in Hampshire for us to carry out a flypast. This was where our Omani VC10 had been serviced in the UK. We were happy to oblige. And later, heading east for Brooklands we were then asked by Farnborough if we could do a similar flypast at Farnborough itself. The proviso was, they insisted, that we did not fly above 500 feet due to other “air traffic” above us. We realised from this sublety that they wanted to see us too. 1966 and the VC10 that I had seen displaying there then, seemed but yesterday. Again we obliged their request. Arriving at Weybridge via over-head Wisley, from the south we then carried out a high-speed flypast before circling for our final landing, from south to north.
As a result of the detailed preparations made by the Brooklands Museum staff and other outside agencies, our arrival and landing there, on that fine morning of 6 July 1987, was as most VC10 flights tended to be; thankfully uneventful. Nevertheless, I am sure that a few accidents must have been narrowly avoided, as motorists below gawped at the rare sight of us crossing low over the M25 shortly before touchdown. From the flight-deck, the comparatively short runway gave us the impression that we were lining up for an aircraft carrier landing.
We were used to runways being usually about 10,000 feet long; this was in the region of only 3,500 feet! I regret that I now forget exactly how much was available to us; let’s say between 3,300 ft and 3,700 feet. – It will probably get shorter as I grow more old! Nevertheless, as the saying goes, it concentrated the mind a little. Contrary to some comments that I have now seen on internet forums, we did not land in a southerly direction over the railway line, nor was any motorway closed to facilitate our approach. It was all VC10’ingly dignified and understated. After relatively little hard braking we found that we even needed to put power on the engines to reach the taxiway at the far end, from where we could leave the runway. The conversation on the flight-deck ceased for a moment’s quiet reflection just before we closed the HP (high pressure) fuel cocks and shutdown the engines for the final time. There are four engines on a VC10 and hence four HP fuel cocks. The four crew members took one each and closed them in turn:- a symbolic gesture.
After the noise of the Rolls Royce Conway engines subsided and we had finished the shutdown checks, Flight Engineer Jan George, an ex 10 Squadron flight engineer, passed me the Tech Log (for military only folk, it’s the equivalent of the Form 700) for me to officially close the flight by appending any technical snags that had occurred. I signed my name in the appropriate block on the page noting his already-written comment in the space provided; Jan had written the simple statement, “Nil Defects”. Did it really matter now though?
The first VC10, designed by Sir George Edwards and his team, had first flown away from here at Weybridge some 25 years before, almost to the day. It was therefore a fitting finale that Sir George, long into retirement from Chairmanship of the British Aircraft Corporation, was there in person again to greet our crew as we descended the steps. We could see that he was wearing his trade-mark brown trilby hat as he shook the hand of the Omani Ambassador to the UK, who had been on board from Heathrow. The rest of the crew followed him; Air Loadmaster Khamis Haikal and Flight Engineer Jan George descended first and then David Parsons. Although he was the Deputy Commander of the Oman Royal Flight, and therefore more senior to me, David only flew the VC10 from the right-hand seat. Today though, as ever the gentleman he was, he gave me my five minutes of fame by allowing me the privilege of leaving the aircraft last:- a sad day in some ways that was more than made up for though by the enthusiasm of the welcoming crowd of onlookers.
After Oman, I moved to the north-west of England and flew Boeing 757s and later 767s based at Manchester Airport. Aircraft technology had taken a quantum leap forward from that of the VC10. Now even the flight engineer’s duties were monitored by computer and hence the flight deck crew comprised merely two pilots, a captain and a first officer. I would joke that having started my flying career on the four-crew flight-deck of RAF Britannias and VC10s, which had then been reduced to three in Oman and now two on the 757, I would probably end my career in single-seaters!
In the middle of the summer of 1988 I was given a rare Sunday off. Since most holiday-makers chose to start their two weeks away to the sun at the week-end, such a week-end day off was a rarity. As usual, on days off, it rained. In the late afternoon I settled down for yet another nostalgic viewing of the film ‘Born Free’ on TV. I had seen the film a few times before and it always had me hankering after the sunshine of East Africa. Watching it again, I noted the part where actress Virginia McKenna arrives back in Nairobi, landing at Embakasi Airport in a BUA VC10. Clearly visible were the aircraft’s registration letters : G-ASIX, the same aircraft that had been re-registered A4O-AB on the Oman Royal Flight and which I had flown to its final resting place at Brooklands. I had never noticed this in the film before in previous viewings. It set me thinking. I abandoned the rest of the film and dug out an old shoe-box, full of personal photos. When I had left Nairobi, all those years before in 1966, my father had taken a photograph of me, with hunched shoulders pronouncing my sadness, walking out to the BUA VC10 that was to take me to the UK. The registration mark was clear in the twenty-one year old photo. It was……. G-ASIX - the same aircraft.
And so, having been the first VC10 that I had ever travelled in, it had, unbeknown to me, played a significant part in my life. I had subsequently played a small part in its life too, by making a small contribution to the efforts of the Brooklands’ staff who had promised to sustain its heritage. This would be assured at its final Brooklands’ resting place rather than being broken up for scrap.
It remains here still for all to see……….."
As an encore, here are some images from Oman and the Royal Flight.