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Vickers Super VC10

 

Queen of the Skies

When Vickers Armstrong's stunningly beautiful VC10 first took to the skies in 1962, its soon to be universally accepted nickname seemed inevitable. That long, noble fuselage, the elegant swept wing and the magnificent sweep of that soaring tail quickly earned her the title, "Queen of the Skies". But this superb airliner - still second only to Concorde for the fastest passenger-carrying flight across the Atlantic - had a troubled and difficult birth.

Britain's early lead in jet-powered transport had been eroded by the 1960s. The pioneering Comet - the world's first jet airliner - had been beset with problems and delays, allowing American jets like the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC10 to steal the advantage. By the early 1960s, the 707 especially had become virtually all-conquering. But it had a serious Achilles heel: it was underpowered, a shortcoming that was worsened by low air density.

Hot and High

As air temperature rises it expands, becoming less dense in the process - this is why hot air rises. Altitude also reduces air density. As an aircraft relies on the density of the air to produce lift, it follows that "thin" air produces less lift for a given speed. When high temperature and high altitude occur together, a plane's lifting power can be considerably reduced. The 707's performance at airports such as Addis Ababa, Nairobi or Mexico was so poor that passenger and/or fuel load had to be significantly reduced.

BOAC, who had ordered 15 707s in 1956, were experiencing difficulty in servicing the "hot and high" airports on several of their crucial routes, especially to Asia and Africa. Their Comet 4s were now safe and reliable, but their carrying capacity was inadequate; a replacement was vital.

Although British aviation manufacture in the 50s and 60s was carried out by private companies, development was largely funded by the Government. While this allowed aircraft to be developed that might not otherwise have been possible, the scheme was prone to both time and cost overruns. So when Vickers Armstrong's pitch to BOAC included a proposal for the company to self-fund the project, the airline was immediately interested; here was a manufacturer willing to back its claims with hard cash in a commercial world.

Revolutionary Design, Established Principles

The new aircraft penned by Vickers Armstrong's design department was strikingly modern and undeniably elegant, but its roots lay in earlier concepts from the company. In the 1950s the company had suffered from the vagaries of government funding, with the failure of its promising VC7 prototype. The VC7 was to use the new, high-powered Rolls-Royce Conway engines and would seat 131 passengers in rows of six. With the high power of the Conway engines, an advanced wing and seating capacity well in excess of that planned for the Boeing 707, the aircraft was a potential world-beater.

Vickers VC10 cockpit
Captain and first officer in a BOAC VC10. The navigator (left) and flight engineer(right) are just visible at the edges of the photo

The promising design came to the attention of the British Ministry of Supply, who requested a military transport version. Designated the V1000, this was to provide cargo support for the new V-Bomber force. It seemed a huge opportunity for Vickers, but it proved disastrous for both the passenger and military prototypes. RAF requirements for short take-off/landing and self-loading capabilities created huge delays and ultimately both projects were cancelled.

But valuable lessons had been learned - not least that Government funding wasn't necessarily a benefit! The Conway engines showed great promise, and the advanced wing of the prototypes had shown that Vickers had the capability of producing an ideal "hot and heavy" solution for BOAC. The new design, designated VC10, took the unusual step of mounting the four engines each side of the tail. This left the wing "clean", allowing it to produce more lift and less drag. Massive Fowler-type flaps could be mounted along most of the trailing edge, and leading edge slats could be extended across the full span. These features would provide exceptional short-field performance as well as delivering extra lift in the thin air of the hot and high airports.

The rear mounting of the engines meant that the tail had to be mounted high, out of the jet exhaust, giving the VC10 another of its signature recognition features. As a bonus, the engine position also made the aircraft uncannily quiet for passengers.

Recognising that many African runways were in poor condition, Vickers paid particular attention to strengthening the undercarriage. The VC10 sat low to the ground, allowing for shorter legs. Large, low-pressure tyres were used to cushion impact, and the massive flaps and slats yielded low take-off and landing speeds. Linked to the power of the Conways, this gave an aircraft capable of operating from short, rough runways at virtually any altitude or temperature. Vickers had designed a machine that was inherently safer and more usable than any of its contemporaries.

Problems, Problems

In 1958 BOAC increased its initial order to 35 aircraft, with an option for a further 20 to follow. As 35 units was the number required for Vickers to break even, the company was able to put more resource into manufacture. New jigs were designed (the VC10 had previously used fuselage jigs from Vickers' Vanguard turbo-prop liner), allowing the development of a longer, higher-capacity version. The Super 200 offered up to 212 seats. along with higher performance from its uprated Conway engines.

Just as things appeared to be going well, Vickers Armstrong began to experience financial difficulties. The company tried to realise some fast cash by offering ten Super VC10s to BOAC at £2.7 million each. Unfortunately, not only did the airline feel that it would be unable to fill such a large aircraft, it began to express second thoughts about the 35 standard VC10s already ordered. Faced with financial ruin, Vickers was forced to relinquish some of its proud independence and approach the British Government for support. Financial backing was provided and an order for the Super 200 was placed on 23 June 1960.

In recognition of BOAC's scepticism of the need for a 200 seat airliner, Vickers reduced the length of the Super 200 by 15 feet (4.6 meters) to create the Super VC10, an example of which you see here today. BOAC amended its original order to 35 of the new Super VC10 and 15 of the original standard type.

The early 1960s saw the meteoric growth of the international airlines beginning to slow. Just as deliveries of the VC10s began in 1964, BOAC proposed to cut its order to just seven of the larger type. The government stepped in with an order for the cargo version - which had larger doors and a strengthened floor - for use as military transport. This beautiful and advanced aircraft would go on to a long career with the RAF, but its potential as a world-leading passenger airliner would never be fully achieved.

Datafile: Vickers Super VC10

First flight:29 June 1962
Passenger capacity:151
Powerplant:4 x Rolls-Royce Conway Mk.301 turbofans of 100.1kN (22,500lbf) thrust
DIMENSIONS 
Wingspan:44.6 metres (146 ft 2in)
Length:50.8 metres (166 ft 8in)
Height:12.3 metres (40 ft 6in)
Empty weight:63,278 Kg (139,505 lb)
PERFORMANCE 
Maximum speed:933 km/h (580 mph, 504 knots, Mach 0.76)
Range:9,415 km (5,850 miles, 5,084 nmi)
Service ceiling:13,106 metres (43,000 feet)
 
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