The Vickers Viscount – The World’s First Commercial Turboprop

This month marks 68 years since the Vickers Viscount was introduced into commercial service with British European Airways (BAE). Notably, the British medium-range production became the first turboprop aircraft to conduct passenger operations. Along with this achievement, its modern capabilities enabled it to become a significant success in the industry.

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The Vickers Viscount undergoing high altitude trials over Mount Kilimanjaro in East Africa in 1950. Photo: Getty Images

A new climate

The Vickers Viscount was one of the few types from Britain to sell well in North America. With durable Rolls-Royce turboprop engines supporting the plane, operators flocked to it, with post-war sales only outdone by the smaller de Havilland Dove.

The aircraft was initially going by the monicker of the Vickers VC2 project. The firm’s chief designer, Rex Pierson, sparked the idea in December 1944 during talks with the Brabazon Committee. This group had the task of concluding the UK’s aviation needs after the fall of World War II. The committee’s discussions also eventually led to the formation of the first-ever commercial jet service the following decade with the de Havilland DH 106 Comet.

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The Vickers Viscount Network highlights that the VC2 was proposed as a second-generation airliner, which was then ratified in the Committee’s Type IIB specification. It was described as a short to medium-range transport, backed by the then breaking through turboprop engine.

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The plane conducted its maiden flight on July 16th, 1948, before entering into service four years later. Photo: Michael Jefferies via Flickr

Pierson submitted his proposal to the Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP) in 1945, which was accepted with the extra requirement of a pressurized fuselage. Following its introduction, the type was an instant hit.

Airlines and passengers appreciated the cabin conditions, which included revolutionary pressurization, along with a decrease in vibration and noise. Passengers also enjoyed the new panoramic windows. Overall, the plane went on to become one of the most successful models in post-war commercial aviation.

“The first production Vickers Viscount Type 701 (G-ALWE) flew in August 1952, entering full passenger service on 18th April 1953. The type was an immediate success both in terms of economics, and passenger appeal and it was sold all over the world. It was popular not least for its superb passenger windows and smooth ride,” BAE Systems shares.

“The proven success of the type in BEA service led to orders from Air France, Aer Lingus and Trans-Australian Airlines (TAA). These were followed by key orders for 15 aircraft for Trans-Canada Airlines and 60 aircraft for Capital Airlines. Ultimately, 147 of the 445 Vickers Viscounts sold were exported to the North American market.”

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445 units of the type were built between 1948 and 1963. Photo: Getty Images

Throughout the decades

Variants of the Vickers Viscount include the Type 630, Type 663, Type 700 Series, Type 800 Series, and the Type 810 Series. The powerful Type 810 had a capacity for 75 passengers, a range of 2,220 km / 1,200 NM, a service ceiling of 25,000 ft / 7,600 m, and a max speed of 352 mph / 566 km/h. Additionally, the four Rolls-Royce Dart Mk 525 engines each achieved 1,990 hp (1,484 kW).

Even airlines emerging in later decades put the plane to good use. For instance, Virgin Atlantic deployed the type from Maastricht in the Netherlands to London Gatwick. The last block of six Vickers Viscounts built went to the Chinese CAAC Airlines, which arrived in 1964.  Many units also went on to be refurbished and carried on operations with African airlines. These second-hand planes continued to sell in the 1990s, but eventually, the final airworthy Viscount, registration 9Q-COD, last hit the skies in January 2009, for the Democratic Republic of the Congo-based Global Airways.

Altogether, the aircraft may be well and truly gone from passenger service now, but it’s important to remember how it paved the way for the next generation of propellers. Turboprops still play an important role in aviation today, and the Vickers Viscount helped to spark the fire.

What are your thoughts about the Vickers Viscount? Did you manage to ever fly on the aircraft over the years? Let us know what you think of the legendary plane in the comment section.