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Vickers V.701 Viscount

 

The world's first turboprop airliner

The Viscount is a true hero of British aviation. Before its introduction in 1953, a flight from Birmingham to Glasgow usually meant climbing aboard a Douglas Dakota, which was less of a novelty mid-century than it is today. The journey involved battering through whatever weather was in the way to step down in Abbotsinch around three hours later, slightly deaf and in need of rest and recuperation. By comparison, the smooth turboprops of the Viscount provided - for the early fifties - an uncanny peace. The pressurised cabin allowed flight well above the weather, and those enormous windows provided spectactular views.

To our eyes today, she looks a little dumpy, even matronly, and that huge dihedral on the tailplane places her squarely in the 1940s design fashion. But, in 1953, she was a revolution.

Jet propulsion was still regarded as somewhat experimental, and turboprop engines were regarded with still more suspicion. A turboprop is essentially a jet engine, but with the principal thrust obtained by propellers attached to the engine's compresser shaft. The jet exhaust also provides some thrust, as for a traditional turbojet. 

THE END OF THE RAJ

The aircraft was originally christened "Viceroy", after Lord Louis Mountbatten, Viceroy of India. Inconveniently, India became independent in 1947, requiring the name change (and Lord Louis' demotion) to "Viscount".

Vickers, recognising the potential of the new engine, advocated turboprop power for the new airliner, but the Brabazon Comittee was sceptical. Unlike Handley Page, who yielded to this scepticism with the Herald, thus crippling their aircraft's potential, Vickers stayed resolute. The committee eventually split the specification between turboprop and piston engines. The piston-engined response came from Airspeed, who designed the lovely Ambassador, the sole survivor of which can be seen here in the British Airliner Collection.

A team led by Rex Pierson completed a prototype design in 1945. Designated Type 630, it featured four Rolls-Royce Dart engines and a 32 seat capacity. Work began on two prototypes the following year. Its designed maximum speed of 443 km/h (275mph) comfortably exceeded the Brabazon Comittee's specification of 320 km/h (200mph). Pierson died in 1948, and the project was taken over by George Edwards, who would later lead the design of the Valiant and Vanguard.

BEA Guides Progress

The Type 630 flew for the first time on 16 July 1948. Its test pilot was the legendary Mutt Summers, who lfew more prototypes than any other test-pilot. Summers was also second only to Eric "Winkle" Brown for the number of aircraft types flown - in a career of 5,600 flying hours he piloted more than 300 distinct types. He was greatly impressed by the machine, not least by its smoothness.

MUTT'S BALANCING ACT

"Never having flown other than piston-engined aircraft I was tremendously impressed with the smoothness of the four Dart turboprop engines. As I sat in the cabin, a coin was balanced on its edge on the table."'

Mutt Summers on the Type 630's first flight

The Type 630 received its Certificate of Airworthiness on 27 July 1950, and entered service as the Viscount with BEA on 29 July. On that day it carried fourteen paying passengers from Northolt to Le Bourget, becoming the world's first turbine-powered aircraft to do so.

BEA, however, felt that the 360's 32 seats were insufficient, and instead ordered twenty of its larger rival, the Ambassador. But in this case, BEA's capriciousness - which blighted the future of the Trident - was later to prove the making of the Viscount. Vickers countered by revising the Viscount's design to create the Type 700, which could carry up to 53 passengers. BEA ordered 20, and airlines all over the world followed suit. By the time production ceased in 1964, 445 Viscounts had been built.

While the quietness, smoothness and comfort of the Viscount found favour with passengers, its dependability, speed and low running costs greatly endeared it to the operators. Vickers continued to develop the airframe while Rolls-Royce continued to improve the Dart engines. Passenger capacity grew to 75, while maximum speed climbed to 520 km/h (320 mph). Airlines from North America to Australia were all but queuing to take on this world-beating aircraft.

As the mainstream airlines moved on to more modern airliners, the Viscount soldiered on with smaller operators and charter organisations. They remained a common sight in Africa well into the 1990s.

 

Datafile: Vickers V.701 Viscount

First flight:16 July 1948
Passenger capacity:75
Powerplant:4 x Rolls-Royce Dart turboprops of 1,484kW (1,990hp) each
DIMENSIONS 
Wingspan:34.3 metres (112 ft 8in)
Length:31.9 metres (104 ft 8in)
Height:13.9 metres (45 ft 9in)
Empty weight:18,722 Kg (41,276 lb)
PERFORMANCE 
Maximum speed:566 km/h (352 mph, 306 knots, Mach 0.46)
Range:2,221 km (1,380 miles, 1,199 nmi)
Service ceiling:7,620 metres (25,000 feet)
 
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