The British-built VC10 was a long-range quadjet introduced in 1964. Only 54 were built, and they served with BOAC and the UK RAF, and several African and Middle Eastern airlines. It was a popular and long-lasting aircraft, staying in military service until 2013, and forms an important part of British aviation history.
Initial development with the RAF
UK manufacturer Vickers-Armstrong was a military and civilian engineering company, operating from 1927 until 1977. Many of its early airliners were converted from military aircraft, but after the Second World War, it went on to build dedicated passenger aircraft, including the VC1, Vickers Viscount, and Vickers Vanguard.
The VC-10 was its last passenger aircraft built. It originally took shape as a military project in 1951 with the RAF, with the Vickers 1000 intended as a military transport aircraft. The RAF dropped out of this in 1955, though, after prototypes had been built. And the other potential user (BOAC) was more interested in the de Havilland Comet.
Vickers managing director George Edwards expressed his disappointment at the time, saying:
“We have handed to the Americans, without a struggle, the entire world market for big jet airliners.”
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Demand from BOAC for a new jet
In 1957, BOAC requested a new jet capable of serving its African, Middle Eastern, and Asian routes. The first Comet has suffered several problems in its early service, and BOAC had ordered the Boeing 707. This worked well for the airline on many routes but was too large for these markets and underpowered for hot and high airports.
Vickers proposed the VC-10 using parts of the design from the Vickers 1000 and several modifications for better high altitude and hot conditions. The aircraft matched BOAC’s needs well, and it ordered 25 aircraft in 1957. In 1958, it increased this to 35 aircraft with an option for 20 more. At the time, this was one of the largest British aircraft orders to date.
In an attempt to increase sales to other airlines, Vickers also modified the design to offer a Super VC10. This used more powerful engines and extended the fuselage by just over eight meters (taking capacity up to around 210).
Rear engine quadjet
The VC-10 was designed to meet BOAC’s needs in Africa and the Middle East. Like the 707, it was designed as a quadjet but had more powerful engines. The high, fuselage-mounted engines were also a better choice for rough or dusty runway conditions. Only the VC-10 and the Ilyushin Il-62 have such a design.
It focussed on short-field performance and hot and dry conditions. It used a high T-tail design which increased performance from short runways and had wide flaps and full-span leading-edge wing slats.
In service in UK and Africa
The VC-10 first flew in April 1964 with BOAC. BOAC merged with other airlines to form British Airways in 1974. It was by far the largest operator, although other UK airlines operated it. British United Airways had four aircraft, with added cargo doors for combined freight used. These passed to British Caledonia after their merger.
And with its design for hot and high environment, a number of other airlines in the Middle East and Africa also operated it. This includes Air Ceylon, Air Malawi, East African Airways, Ghana Airways, Middle East Airlines, Nigeria Airways, and Gulf Air.
Several military air forces have also used it, and many of the civilian aircraft moved to the military for extended service. The UK RAF was the largest operator, using it as a transport and a refueling aircraft.
The VC10 was a reliable workhorse for BOAC and other airlines. But it also held a more glamourous record for many years – the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by a subsonic jet airliner. In March 1979, G-ASGC (a Super VC10) flew from New York JFK to Prestwick airport in Scotland in five hours one minute.
This record was not beaten until a British Airways 747 flew from JFK to Heathrow in four hours 56 minutes in 2020 – boosted by the effects of Storm Ciara at the time.
Retirement and preservation
The VC-10 retired from passenger operations mostly by the early 1980s. British Airways (which inherited the VC-10s from BOAC) retired its last VC-10 in 1976 and Super VC-10 in 1981.
Several military operators kept them in service much longer, though. The UK RAF was the largest such operator and the last. It saw use in many conflicts over the years, including the Falklands War, the Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Its last use was with 101 Squadron as aerial refueling aircraft until 2013. The Airbus Voyager took over this role.
Several aircraft remain preserved on display in museums or airports across the UK. There are also a couple of aircraft in the Middle East. One aircraft, former BOAC registration G-ASGM, remains in ground running condition at Bruntingthorpe, although there are concerns over its future.
Would you like to share any experiences of the VC10, either in service or in preservation? Feel free to discuss this further in the comments.