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Introducing the VC10 C MK1 into RAF service

The start of the VC10's RAF career

John 'George' Revell joined the RAF in 1941 and after what was already a distinguished career was involved with the introduction of the VC10 into RAF Service. He was there to observe the first teething troubles that always turn up when a new, complex aircraft starts to rack up flying hours. In 2003 he decided to put pen to paper (or rather fingers to typewriter) and share his experiences of getting the VC10 into RAF service with us. It has taken a while for his story to turn up here but it was worth the wait. For more about John's interesting career have a look at the bottom of the page where some of his exploits are summarised. As I was preparing this article for inclusion on the site I received the sad news that John Revell had passed away on 2 April 2014.

"In early 1963, whilst serving at RAF Abingdon I attended an interview at Headquarters Transport Command at RAF Upavon with several other Chief Technicians who had volunteered to serve with a team of ground tradesmen who would join with a team of BOAC during ‘Route Proving’ of the civil VC10. This was at the time that the RAF had decided to buy five of the civil versions of the VC10, albeit in RAF Transport Command colours.

Having said at the interview that ‘I am single, had toolkit - will travel’ my name then went forward to the Central Servicing Development Establishment (CSDE) at RAF Swanton Morley who’s task included placing teams of tradesmen at any factory with contracts to provide aircraft or equipment to the RAF.  Their job was to learn all they could and to make recommendations on servicing policy, spares, tools etc. to the appropriate branches at the Ministry of Defence sponsoring the contract. The team also produced the necessary servicing schedules to maintain the aircraft/equipment.

At the subsequent interview at CSDE I met up with several other Chief Techs in the aircraft trades who were there for this selection for the co-operation with BOAC. Following the interview with W/Cdr Birchmore, who was the OC Projects Wing, I was advised that the requirement could best be met by two Chiefs from Bomber Command who had served as Crew Chiefs on Victors at RAF Gaydon and one other from Bomber Command who was an Instrument Fitter well qualified in Flight Systems Avionics. However, there was a vacancy on the team at British Aerospace Warton on the CSDE team with the TSR2 if I was interested, which I certainly was! I would be advised further on return to my unit and there would be no need to attend any further interview.

What could have been... John Revell initially would be posted to work with the TSR2 but ended up on the VC10 liaison team.
Photo J. Hieminga

Within a week or two W/Cdr Birchmore rang the Officer i/c the 2nd Line Servicing Hangar at Abingdon and asked to talk to me. This surprised the W.O who shared an office with the Hangar Boss, as Senior Officers didn’t usually contact S.N.C.O’s like that.

However, the W/Cdr advised me that things had changed since my interview at CSDE and there was now a further vacancy on the usual Project Team on the VC10 at BAC Weybridge that had been at the factory since 1962 when the MOD contract had been placed. I was delighted to find that he wished me to fill this vacancy.

In due course my posting came and I left RAF Abingdon for CSDE RAF Swanton Morley at the end of that hard winter in Jan/Feb 1963. I spent a couple of weeks at Swanton Morley finding out a little of how the Project Teams worked and then proceeded to RAF Chessington where I was to be accommodated whilst on duty at the Weybridge factory. Some of the TSR2 Project Team were also at Weybridge and we travelled together to work from then on.  The three chiefs on the BOAC exercise were also accommodated there and were about to start the exercise with BOAC who had a 300 hour Route Proving Programme with their first VC10. The general idea was to fly daily from Heathrow to Beirut and return and one of our three would be aboard each trip and note what went on.

Sqdn. Leader ‘Barney’ Trodd who was the CSDE Project Officer VC10 was also staying at RAF Chessington and travelled with us daily. He was a very likeable officer and we all got on well together. His team consisted of 2 Airframe Fitters, of which I was one, one Engine Fitter, one Electrician, one Instrument Fitter, one Radio Fitter and Warrant Officer ‘Taff’ Purnell a Fitter 1 who was the Deputy Project Officer. I learnt that my job was to attend meetings at which provisioning of spares would be arranged and to assess requirements for tools and servicing schedules for bay servicing of components. 

This meant getting to know people in the Design Office, Manufacturing and Inspection/Testing to learn how bits and pieces were designed, made, tested and installed.  BAC had a school at Weybridge where representatives from the company, customers etc. attended courses on the company aircraft and BOAC had some of their engineers attending a VC10 course which I was able to join so that I had a good idea how things worked.

I spent some time learning the company drawing system as I was expected to make a contribution at the Spares Provisioning Meetings, which were to be held monthly at Weybridge, or at the factories of ‘Vendors’ who were contractors making components for installation on the VC10.

By this time the MOD contract had changed considerably. Following Freddie Laker’s order for VC10s for BUA, which required his aircraft to have freight carrying capacity in the forward end of the passenger cabin in addition to the freight holds below floor, a large cabin freight door of about 12 feet by 7 had to be provided in the left side of the forward fuselage.

A close up showing the freight door and rearward facing seating on a RAF VC10. With folding hatracks and a strengthened floor the aircraft could be quickly converted from passenger to freight carrying.
Photo copyright BAE Systems / Brooklands Museum archives

This also suited the RAF and the order for civil VC10s in Transport Command colours was superseded by one for 11 with this large freight door, a strengthened cabin floor to accommodate vehicles and to include a ‘wet’ fin as was already envisaged for the Super VC10 which also had a stronger undercarriage, up rated engines and wing.  These changes were to be included in the Military VC10 C Mk1, which also had an Auxiliary Power Unit in the tail to provide ground electrical and hydraulic power to assist in ground support. The flight deck differed as did some of the avionics.

Later when Sir Giles Guthrie of BOAC favoured the Boeing products to British, the BOAC order was cut back and the RAF took up some places on the production line. Our order was increased to 14 and the delivery dates brought forward. This pleased the aircrew as they would get flying earlier but unfortunately the training of ground crew and the availability of spares etc. was not brought into line with this new in service date. In addition to the CSDE contingent at Weybridge, we met up with the Project Pilots, Flight Engineers and Navigators who were spending time with the development flying of the Civil VC10 at the test airfield at Wisley and with BOAC. All this went on throughout 1963, 1964 and 1965. 

Gaydon, the proposed base for the VC10 was changed to Brize Norton. During this time the aircraft industry suffered many a set back, the TSR2 was cancelled, the Valiant was taken out of service and, as was mentioned, the VC10 production was cut back. The work force of 14,000 at Weybridge was reduced in very short order.

The TSR2, which was in part built at Warton and in part at Weybridge was assembled at Weybridge but could not be flow out. The only TSR2 to fly was in fact transported to Boscombe Down to be assemble and flow from there. On arrival, by road, the fuselage came off the transporter!!  What an omen!!  Fortunately the damage was repairable. S/Ldr Johnson replaced S/Ldr Todd as our leader. (Actually it was the second TSR2 that fell off the low loader, this airframe is now at the RAF Museum Cosford– JH)

The first VC10 C Mk1 for the RAF, XR806, was flown out from Weybridge in November 1965, landed at Wisley after a short flight and continued development flying there. Two (XR806 and XR807) were delivered to Boscombe Down in 1966 for acceptance trials. I spent time at Wisley during this time and advised the team at Weybridge how things were going and eventually all of us moved down to Boscombe Down.

After the first flight of XR806 on 26th November 1965 a celebration was held. This invite turned up in 2014 when clearing out an old shed.
Image via J. McTurk / Brooklands Museum

During the flying one aircraft sustained damage to a main undercarriage oleo leg as a result of a heavy landing by a Boscombe Down crew - I believe the Wing Cdr landing the aircraft was taken ill on the approach - he certainly looked pretty sick when coming off the aircraft.  The aircraft was flown out to Wisley where a BAC working party from the Weybridge works changed the damaged leg and the aircraft returned to Boscombe.

The first aircraft, XR807, arrived at RAF Fairford in July 1966 and I went over to see it in before returning to Boscombe Down. I then joined their team taking XR806 out to the American Air Force base at Wheelus for trials that lasted about 2 weeks and was concluded without problems.

During the early part of 1966 a limited number of RAF tradesmen who had attend a course with BOAC at Heathrow joined us at Weybridge/Wisley and were at Fairford to look after XR806. Whilst John Readman, our Engine Fitter and one of the team on BOAC Route Proving, and myself were in Wheelus the remainder of the Project Team moved over to Brize Norton. The aircraft continued operating from Fairford until Brize Norton’s facilities had been progressed.

As mentioned earlier, the original intention was to operate the VC10 from RAF Gaydon in Warwickshire, where the Victor OCU had been for years. Apparently some problems had been highlighted in the surveys at Gaydon which showed that we would be best to find an alternative.

The American Air Force had decided to move out from Brize Norton and Fairford and the decision was taken to move the VC10 and the Belfast into Brize Norton. During our stay at Weybridge the Project Team had visited Brize Norton and learned that we would be operating from the side of the airfield previously the American Readiness Alert area whilst the rest of the facilities were built. In the event it was found that to suit the landing system for the Belfast work was necessary on the runway and so both the Belfast and the VC10 would operate from RAF Fairford. 

Brian Trubshaw chatting to two RAF officers in front of XR806 after its first flight.
Photo copyright BAE Systems / Brooklands Museum archives

For several months we lived at Brize Norton and travelled to Fairford early in the morning.  The Red Arrows, who were based at Kemble, had used Fairford until we arrived but we still had the experience of them flying between hangars etc.!! Facilities were very limited at Fairford – a shuttle service between Brize Norton took care of shift personnel, spares etc but it was very limited.

On return from Wheelus and Boscombe Down, John Readman and I rejoined the team at Brize Norton to learn of the first of several problems XR808 had experienced whilst doing some training flights. On one such into Gaydon a tyre burst during taxiing and of course Gaydon did not have the means of fixing that.

The necessary bods, tools and spares were taken to Gaydon from Brize Norton/ Fairford by road only to find that the jacking stirrup needed to locate the lifting jack onto the bogie of the undercarriage with the burst tyre wouldn’t fit! Part of the time at Weybridge had been taken up in witnessing trials of all sorts of equipment – including wheel change tools. It seemed that the stirrup had been modified after the trial we had witnessed unknown to us and our stirrup had not been so modified.

The Project Aircrew, who had been at Wisley, were monitored by BAC staff aircrew who were able to supervise their training to the point that in August 1966 we were ready for our own Route Proving out of Hong Kong via Bahrein, Gan and Singapore, returning via Gan, and Akrotiri in Cyprus. The passengers included MOD Staff, others from Transport Command etc. and ground crew to service and demonstrate servicing en route.

Presentations on the aircraft operating etc. were given by S/Ldr Johnson at each ‘port of call’ and on return to Singapore from Hong King we loaded up with  freight in the freight holds which included items belonging to Air Chief Marshall Sir John Grandy who had recently handed over as AOC Far East Air Force to his successor. I learned from the passenger list that Flt/Lt Digby, who had been the AOC’s PA was on board to ensure that ‘Sir’s’ goodies were safely delivered. Flt/Lt Digby’s father, a retired Wing Cdr. was brother to my mother in law – I, having married early in my stay at Weybridge.

We had a good trip – on the return journey we had a day or so off in Gan that nice little tight little island in the Indian Ocean where I met up with Joe Biggs, an old colleague of mine who gave me a coconut to bring home!

XR808 with full Transport Command titling on the fuselage seen during a turn around at RAF Gan.
Photo R. Rodwell, Flight Magazine

I was absorbed into the Shift System at Fairford as flying training progressed to the point where overseas trips were to be undertaken.

As it was known that there were very few personnel down the route who had had any VC10 training at this time, each overseas trainer carried its own ground crew with one of us from the Project team in charge. The routes were varied and some included Nairobi on to Gan and Singapore with timing to give experience of night landings. There were no spares down the route either so we carried a spare packup and tools - including a tow bar - such was the lack of ground support that came about partly due to bringing the in service date forward to suit the flying boys.

We gained a lot of experience from all this and in due course further aircraft were delivered to Fairford. More ground crew were given training at BOAC and we were also getting to know a bit about the Belfast. Their Project Team had also been absorbed into the shift system and they had their problems too as the Belfast was treated as the poor relation. Lacking spares and publications they had a worse time than the VC10 in some respects.

By October 1966 the route training was well advanced, the AOC Transport Command was scheduled to visit the Far East and John Readman took his turn down the route. Whilst that aircraft was away a second VC10 on a local training flight from Fairford had an undercarriage, which was lowered but failed to lock down. It was being flown by S/Ldr Taylor, one of the two Project Pilots who decided to ‘try a greaser’ and on touch down the gear locked down. This meant an investigation before the aircraft could fly again.

The hangar available at Fairford would not accept a VC10 completely – the tail was well outside the doors.  We had enough jacks to support the aircraft, although not complete for power jacking which was the easier method. We had to borrow a hydraulic rig from Weybridge but didn’t get the other items I requested, as I was responsible for carrying out the investigations of the defect.

The BAC representative, George Carrick, was available and provided some help.  As this happened on a Friday there was little help available anywhere over the weekend. It meant that we had to jack the aircraft and check out the undercarriage system as far as we could before the end of an extended working day and let the aircraft down on to its wheels, having ensured that it was safe overnight. 

The rig arrived from Weybridge and our checks progressed without finding a fault.  Eventually we decided to lubricate the complex down lock mechanism and the gear locked down like a charm. This was over a period of three days by which time I was pretty weary. The work carried out was signed up by a corporal working with me and I had to sign for an independent check of the operation of the undercarriage and the work carried out.

The aircraft was prepared for an air test late on the Monday and I returned to Brize Norton and awaited the result. During the evening a Master Engineer who had been on the air test congratulated me on getting the undercarriage fixed – pity about the loss of electrics he said!

The circuits lost were cables running down the undercarriage leg, they had been cut by bolts which secured the cover and fouled the cables as the gear went down. I had to meet the Wing Commander Tech at Brize Norton to explain!!!

In the meantime the aircraft down the route with the AOC on board had reached Gan but an engine failed to start when preparing to depart for Singapore. A Comet was passing through and the AOC transferred, in spite of the advice Jonnie Readman gave his crew that he could fix the snag without too much delay. It was also decided to alert the Rolls Royce representative in Singapore to ensure that there were no further delays for the AOC.

I believe they flew the aircraft out of Gan on three engines in spite of John’s pleading to let him ‘have a go’. Of course, the problems with the undercarriage on the remaining aircraft at Fairford meant that it wasn’t available should it be necessary to follow up the aircraft down the route and you can imagine the pressure put on us by the ‘powers that be’ to get the undercarriage snag resolved.

When John Readman got back from his trip he was also pretty weary and expected to get away for a couple of days off having handed over the packup to his successor due down the route. He was the only Engine Fitter who could authorise others to carry out engine starts after a number of starts under supervision.

A sergeant engine fitter who had carried out a number of starts under supervision was ready for his final check out for John to authorise him to carry out starts - and the Officer in charge of the shift asked John to carry out this authorising before leaving for home.

I gather that John, as usual, went conscientiously through the start procedure, watching the sergeant, which included the closing of the cover over the engine start controls at the engineer’s station on the flight deck. Part of this procedure included setting the engine start switch, which over-rode valves in the air anti icing systems, which also provided the flow of air from a ground trolley to the engine for starting purposes. Once the engine was started these valves had to be reinstated to avoid over pressuring the ducting and a block was positioned on the cover for the switch which prevented the cover being closed unless the valves had been reinstated.

The black rotary switch is the engine start switch. The block on the cover which prevented closing of the cover with the switch in the wrong position can be seen at bottom right.
Photo J. Hieminga

John had been so intent in talking to the people on the flight deck that he overlooked the need for the cover to be closed until the engine had been running for a little while.  That little while, with the valves in the wrong position, had resulted in over pressuring the anti icing duct.

John came into the Line Office to advise what had happened as the ducting had to be inspected for damage.  It was obvious that damage could have occurred as a rupture disc in the system had ruptured as shown by the outlet in the engine stub wing. John was allowed to go home which involved a journey on his ‘Noddy Bike’ (like the police used with quiet running) to Leamington at night. 

A day later we heard that John would not be able to return to duty on time after his stand down as he had broken his collar bone! On the way home his bike had hit a patch of loose gravel and they had parted company. He’d picked himself up and had completed the journey home on his bike but in some pain. His wife had persuaded him to see a doctor although he was reluctant to do so as he wanted to know the result of the engine start episode - John’s father brought him back to Fairford where he was given further time off to recover from his accident.

The damage to the aircraft was such that the Line Squadron personnel could not cope with the rectification so the aircraft was handed over to the Base Servicing Squadron who were set up in the hangar at Fairford and were now going to anticipate a Base Servicing that was not really due. The damage to the anti icing ducting included the bellows at various positions in the system that allowed for expansion of the system when operating. Bellows at the fridge packs in the wing leading edge, part of the air conditioning system but driven from the anti icing system, were suspect as were those in the long length of duct that went up the leading edge of the fin to supply warm air to de-ice the fin and tailplane leading edges.

These ducts and/or bellows had to be removed and work at the fridge packs included the isolation of the electrics to the slat operating circuits. Circuit breakers were tripped and the slat operating levers in the flight deck clearly labelled prohibiting the use of the slats.

During the Base Servicing referred to above, a sergeant electrician ignored the instruction and reinstated the circuit breakers so when electric power and hydraulic power came on the slats, previously extended for work to be carried out, they retracted causing further damage to ducting in the area. The new long duct for the fin leading edge was duly supplied, brought over from Brize Norton and off loaded from a lorry, which promptly drove over it causing irreparable damage.

I don’t know what happened to the driver and others concerned but dear old John Readman was charged with negligence I believe - he got a severe reprimand anyway.  He had been promoted to Flight Sergeant during our time at Weybridge and when the Base Servicing Hangar at Brize Norton was brought into use he became the Flight Sergeant there with Sqn.Ldr. Johnson and at some point was awarded a B.E.M. and was eventually made up to Warrant Officer.

By April 1967 sufficient training had been completed to start operating the routes with passengers but Fairford could not accommodate them, neither could Brize so they continued to stay in the Route Hotel at RAF Lyneham and a VC10 would position at Lyneham the night before departure. One of us from the Project Team would go over to Lyneham to ensure that all went well and remain until after departure - and as time went by await an incoming aircraft.

Eventually Brize Norton was able to operate the Belfast and the VC10 but could not accommodate passengers who still used the Route Hotel at Lyneham - coming over to Brize in time for departure. It got a bit tricky if a snag cropped up on the aircraft due to take the route whilst the passengers were in transit from Lyneham. In those days operating from Brize Norton was not easy with ambitious officers expecting us to cope with working in a builder’s yard, with limited tools and spares and the usual problems of shift work.

XV104 and two other VC10s on the pan at Brize. This was after 1967 as the fuselage titling has been changed to 'Royal Air Force Air Support Command'.
Photo copyright BAE Systems / Brooklands Museum archives

I was no longer single and my family had to be considered with divided loyalties. I felt disappointed having been in at the beginning of seeing into service a sophisticated aircraft and was not sorry to leave.

I applied for the redundancy programme in 1968 being the right age, right trade, right rank, right length of service only to be told that I could not go. I was advised that I could ‘quit’ without the benefits of redundancy, having completed 27 years and 52 days of service….. I decided to go.

Fortunately I was given a job in the Service Department at Weybridge as a Liaison Engineer on the VC10 - initially with civil customers and eventually with the RAF so all was not lost.

The above from memory.

April 2003."

When I started editing this article for inclusion on the site I asked Doug Evans, a good friend of John, about John Revell's career and he was kind enough to type out some details from a conversation he had with John in February 2014. As it is such a varied, interesting and impressive career I decided to add this summary to this page.

1941: John 'George' Revell Joined RAF for training as a Flight Mechanic Airframe (Flight Rigger) at RAF St. Athan. Technical course as Flight Mechanic completed at RAF St. Athan. (17 weeks) Recommended for further training to "Fitter" standard, remained at St. Athan for further 9 weeks to completion. Posted to 604 Squadron RAF Middle Wallop as Flight Mechanic Airframe (Beaufighters). Very short stay with 604 Squadron.

1942: Overseas posting destination undisclosed. John Revell, together with approximately 120 other airmen of various ranks and 20 RAF pilots, was ordered to report to Liverpool where he joined a Merchant cargo ship "Cape Hawk", sailing on 9 February. The destination was not disclosed until well into the voyage. It turned out to be a voyage of 11 days to Gibraltar. The hold Cargo included 16 large containers, each containing a dis-assembled Spitfire destined for Malta, for re-assembly in Gibraltar. The ship moored in the inner military basin alongside Aircraft Carrier HMS Eagle. 16 Spitfire containers secretly unloaded overnight, over a period of two nights. The Spitfires were re-assembled by the accompanying RAF personnel in the aircraft hangar of HMS Eagle below decks. John Revell and RAF colleagues were now living on board HMS Eagle. After two days, HMS Eagle sailed into the Med with RAF airmen aboard to finalise assembly, complete with 90 Gallon overload petrol tanks; - but for some reason these tanks were not properly delivering their contents. HMS Eagle returned to Gibraltar to sort out this fuel transfer problem. After fixing this issue HMS Eagle succesfully despatched 16 Spitfires to Malta. John made some four to five further voyages on HMS Eagle into the Med from each of which some 16 Spitfires were progressively flown off to Malta. Because of the high ambient temperatures a solution had to be found to prevent a take-off performance problem from Eagle`s flight-deck. This was dealt with by placing blocks of wood between the flap and the flap shroud above, achieved by lowering the flaps then raising sufficiently to lock the blocks into the "take-off " position; the pilots lowered flaps after take-off for the blocks to fall away.

John Revell was then posted back to the UK and ordered to report to Glasgow to join the Aircraft Carrier HMS Furious which was carrying 40 Spitfires, stowed in her two hangars below decks. The carrier left on 5 August 1942 and had to sail at high speed to catch up with the rest of the convoy before Gibraltar. After final assembly en-route to the Med the Spitfires were to be flown off to Malta. The convoy was the well documented Operation Pedestal, subjected to continuous air and submarine attack after passing through the Straits of Gibraltar. The convoy also included the tanker Ohio and a massive Royal Navy accompanyment.The Spitfires were duly flown off on 11 August on their way to Malta and, as planned, HMS Furious turned round after nightfall and returned to Gibraltar (arriving the next day). On this same day John Revell witnessed the sinking of HMS Eagle, as well as other sinkings.

1943: John Revell volunteered for a Unit called the Servicing Commando Unit, personnel to be on hand to provide re-fuelling and re-arming of Spitfires, Typhoons and Hurricanes from temporary airstrips and airfields after the opening of the 2nd Front.

1944 June 6 - D-Day. He boarded an LCT with other members of his Unit, bound for the Normandy beaches, but his LCT suffered a German E-Boat torpedo attack en-route. After rescue he was taken back to the UK, returning to the battle area in Normandy some 7 - 8 weeks later as a member of 420 RSU (Repair and Salvage Unit) supporting mainly Spitfires operating from advanced landing strips and airfields from behind the British lines.

1945: End of hostilities - posted to Germany via UK.

1946: De-mob but re-joined RAF, continued as Airframe fitter.

1963: John Revell posted to the RAF Unit involved with the RAF VC10 programme. After initial contract for 3 VC10s - all as per BOAC spec, the RAF requirement was progressively increased to 14.

1963 to 1966. In regular liaison with the builders, Vickers, at Weybridge.

1966 XR806 and XR807 were delivered to Boscombe Down for evaluation and testing. RAF Unit now also in regular liaison with developments at Boscombe Down. John Revell was at Fairford for the arrival of VC10 XR808 (first delivery of a VC10 to 10 Squadron).

1968 Remained with the VC10 project until finally leaving the RAF in 1968.

1968 Appointment with Vickers Company as a Liaison Engineer - continued involvement with RAF VC10 programme until retirement.

2 April 2014 - John 'George' Revell passed away, aged 92.


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