DALLAS – Today in Aviation, British Airways (BA) retired from its fleet its last Vickers VC10, a mid-sized, narrow-body long-range jet.
The VC10 was an iconic jet, and despite its limited production numbers (only 54 were ever built), the type played a pivotal role in British aviation.
The VC10 can trace its origins back to 1952 when aircraft manufacturer Vickers announced plans for the Vickers 1000, a military transport project for the Royal Air Force (RAF). British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) was interested in a passenger variant designated the VC7 for its trans-Atlantic operations. But just six months before the prototype V-1000 was due to be completed, the RAF pulled out of the project, leaving the VC7 on the drawing board.
Despite introducing jet-powered aircraft to the world via the de Havilland Comet, a series of crashes left confidence in British aircraft design at an all-time low. Across the pond, Boeing raced ahead with its new 707 jetliners.
In October 1956, BOAC ordered 15 707s to replace its Comet 4 fleet. According to the official comment from BOAC, this was “because no new British aircraft can be made available in time.”
However, it was soon realized that the 707 was underpowered for BOAC’s routes to Africa and Asia, with their ‘hot and high’ airports considerably reducing the type’s performance.
Enter the VC10
Vickers returned to the table with the state-of-the-art VC10. With its high T-tail and large wing with various lift-generating devices, it had excellent take-off and climbing performance. Its four rear-mounted Conway engines further away from the runway surface were an important factor in operations from poorly surfaced runways common in Africa and the Middle East at the time.
The VC10 also had state-of-the-art flight deck technology and advanced avionics with a ‘quadruplicated automatic flight control system.’
Along with the ‘Standard’ VC10, Vickers also worked on a stretched version, dubbed the ‘Super’ VC10, for BOAC’s lucrative North Atlantic routes. This higher capacity variant would have a greater range and more powerful Conway 550 engines.
Politics and Planes
BOAC had initially ordered 35 of the standard variant for delivery in 1964, with options for a further 20. This was, at the time, the biggest single contract placed for a British civil airplane, valued at £77m. The British Government, which controlled the national carrier, then put pressure on the airline to order a further ten examples of the Super VC10.
BOAC refused, stating that it was economically impossible to justify such a purchase on top of the existing order. A compromise was found, and on June 23, 1960, they converted ten of the initial orders to the ‘Super’ model.
But this was not the end of the story. It became clear that the economics of the ‘Super’ variant meant less of the ‘Standard’ would be required. In early 1961 the order was changed again to 15 VC10s and 30 Super VC10s.
Following the recession in 1961, the order for the Standard VC10 was cut yet again to just 12 examples. The Super VC10 order would also later be cut back to just 17 examples.
A Passenger Favourite
The first Standard VC10 (G-ARVJ) entered service with BOAC on April 29, 1964, between London Heathrow and Lagos. The Super VC10 was introduced on April 1, 1965, with G-ASGD put to work on the Heathrow to New York route.
BOAC would go on to publicly criticize the VC10s economic performance and even demanded that the British Government pay a subsidiary for operating the type. This created an uphill battle for Vickers when offering the type to other airlines. Indeed, only nine other passenger operators would ever use the VC10.
Despite management’s reservations, passengers loved the VC10. Its quiet cabin, thanks to its rear-mounted engines and smooth ride during turbulence, actually made people request to fly the VC10.
BOAC would go on to use this to their advantage, launching advertising campaigns with iconic slogans such as ‘Try a little VC10derness’ and ‘Swift, Silent, Serene’. The type became the flagship of its ‘Monarch’ service between New York and London and later replaced the 707 on the London-Montreal-Chicago route.
British Airways is Born
The retirement of the Standard VC10 began in 1974. BOAC had now received its new flagship, the mighty Boeing 747, and so the Super VC10 was taken off the trans-Atlantic routes and used to replace the Standard variant on Middle-East and African rotations.
On March 31, 1974, BOAC merged with the UK’s other national carrier, British European Airways (BEA), and British Airways was born.
The newly formed airline had inherited a large and varied fleet. BA began to withdraw older aircraft types to streamline its operations and reduce costs.
However, the last Standard VC10, G-ARVM, was retained until 1979 as a standby for the Super fleet. Meanwhile, the Super VC10 began to leave in April 1980, and a full retirement of the type was completed the following year.
G-ASGL flew the last commercial flight of a British Airways VC10 on March 29, 1981. The airline had put on two special charters for enthusiasts from Heathrow. With 137 passengers on board, it overflew Manchester, Prestwick, and the Vickers factory at Brooklands before landing back at Heathrow 2 hours later.
The RAF took up 14 out of the 15 examples retired. These were initially used for spare parts, but five of the younger examples would later be converted to air-to-air refueling tankers. They continued to serve the RAF until September 20, 2013, when the type was finally retired from service.
Loved by crews, passengers, and aircraft enthusiasts alike, the VC10s potential as a world-leading passenger aircraft was sadly never fully achieved. But even after all these years, the type retains its status as one of the best and most iconic British airliners ever built.
Featured Image: Parked at the British Airways Maintenance base at Heathrow this aircraft was later aquired by the RAF for spares and broken up at Brize Norton in 1982. Photo: Steve Fitzgerald (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2), via Wikimedia Commons.