UK Military Aviation

AUG 29 2012
Military Aviation >> 101 Sqn Celebrates 50 Years of the VC10

Originally conceived as a pure long-range airliner, capable of operating from the shorter runways then prevalent in the hot and high parts of Africa, the VC10 is something of an oddball in terms of layout, with its four Rolls-Royce Conway Mk.301 turbofans (each capable of producing 22,500lbs of thrust) mounted in pairs just about as far back on the fuselage as is physically possible. The Soviet-built Ilyushin Il-62 is the only other aircraft of this size in existence featuring a comparable arrangement. Indeed, it is this configuration that has ultimately made it such a success in a role it was asked to perform in later life, but more on that later.

The RAF’s own association with the VC10 began in September 1961 when an Air Ministry order was placed for five ‘Type 1106’ VC10s. This model mixed aspects of both the Standard VC10 and the later Super VC10, as well as having a detachable probe for in-flight refuelling and an auxiliary power unit at the rear of the aircraft. Unlike its civilian equivalent, the (up to) 150 passenger seats were mounted in a rearwards-facing fashion, as this was considered to be a more survivable arrangement in the event of a crash. Without the seats in place, 78 stretchers could be accommodated, as well as seating for flight attendants.

Follow-up orders came in August 1962 (six aircraft) and July 1964 (three aircraft), and the RAF’s first VC10 C.1 took to the skies on 26 November 1965. By the end of 1967 all 14 C.1 variants had been delivered to No. 10 Squadron, RAF Transport Command.

Some ten years later, in 1977, studies began to assess the practicality of converting a number of now redundant, ex-airline VC10s into air-to-air tankers. Ultimately the RAF placed orders with British Aerospace for the conversion of five former-BOAC Standard VC10s, as well as four ex-East African Airways Super VC10s, with the aircraft receiving the designations VC10 K.2 and VC10 K.3 respectively.

By installing extra fuel tanks internally, in what was previously the passenger cabin (simply via the forward freight door on the K.3, whereas a large section of the fuselage roof structure needed to be removed to achieve this on the K.2s), it was possible to increase the maximum fuel loads to 77 tonnes on the K.2 and 82 tonnes on the K.3, albeit the reality was that the maximum take-off weight (MTOW) would actually be reached prior to the tanks being full! Refuelling pods were mounted on each wing, and a centreline refuelling point - the Hose Drum Unit (HDU) - was fitted to the rear freight bay. The addition of a refuelling probe, like that used on the C.1, meant that the aircraft could receive fuel as well as off-load it, and a camera for monitoring the refuelling process was mounted on the underside of the aircraft.

The nine K.2 and K.3 aircraft were delivered to the newly reformed No. 101 Squadron at RAF Brize Norton in 1983.

14 ex-British Airways Super VC10s were purchased in 1981, primarily as a source for spares, however, five examples were later selected for conversion to K.4 standard in the early-1990s. As the addition of internal fuel tanks to the K.2 variant had proven to be such a massive undertaking, and, with the proposed K.4s themselves lacking the forward loading freight doors, it was decided that that variant would not receive them.

Such was the success of the VC10 as an aerial tanker that all 13 of the remaining C.1 aircraft were given a tanking capability of their own - whilst still retaining their original air transport function - thanks to the addition of wing-mounted refuelling pods. No HDU was fitted, so the C.1K, as it became known, was only able to give fuel from two points, unlike the three of the K.2, K.3 and K.4. As with the K.4, no additional fuel tanks were installed.

In 2005, 10 and 101 Squadrons merged under the latter unit’s number plate to provide a combined air transport and air-to-air refuelling squadron supporting RAF and allied operations throughout the world.

In the type’s heyday, 27 VC10s with air-to-air refuelling capability were shared between the two squadrons at RAF Brize Norton, but, with the arrival of the Voyager into RAF service currently expected at some point in 2013, fleet numbers are being gradually wound down.

The K.2s had already been phased out by the end of March 2001, while examples of other variants have been periodically withdrawn since then, most recently to Bruntingthorpe where the spare parts that have been reclaimed have, and still are, being used to maintain the eight remaining aircraft (three C.1Ks, four K.3s and one K.4) in an airworthy and serviceable condition.

Today, there is an expectation that four aircraft will be available on any given day, with one in Oman supporting on-going operations on Operation HERRICK, one in the Falkland Islands, one maintaining a permanent Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) status in the UK and one available for crew training.

It was the closure of St Athan’s VC10 deep servicing facility last February that will ultimately determine when specific aircraft are forced into retirement, since 101 Sqn’s own engineers are not able to provide the same depth of servicing that the dedicated facility could. Individual aircraft maintenance programmes were planned to ensure that those required to remain in service the longest are able to do so.

According to Wg Cdr Brookes, that number of eight remaining airframes is likely to be reduced further by the end of the year, most likely with another two aircraft going to Bruntingthorpe. They will be C.1Ks, since they are the “least useful” to the squadron, on account of their lack of centreline hose, which means they’re unable to give fuel to the RAF’s larger aircraft.

The VC10 has seen service in all of the RAF’s wartime operations since the Falklands Conflict (10 Sqn's C.1s providing an airbridge then), all the way through to the on-going efforts in Afghanistan. Indeed, the presence maintained by the RAF’s VC10s in the Gulf region has been almost continuous since the start of Gulf War I, some 22 years ago.

According to those that still operate the aircraft, the VC10 remains an extremely popular delivery platform with receivers, thanks in no small part to the positioning of the engines, which leave a beautifully ‘clean’ wing, with none of the airflow disturbances associated with aircraft with wing-mounted engines. Added to that is the fact that pairs of frontline jets are able to tank concurrently from the wing pods, meaning that, in times of conflict, aircraft can arrive and depart the tanker together, maximising the usefulness of the fuel uploaded and removing the need to hang around waiting for your wingman to take his turn.

The 28 August event held at RAF Brize Norton saw no fewer than six VC10s on the ground at the same time – a number that is unlikely to ever be bettered again. Unfortunately, a proposed formation featuring an example of each variant remaining in service was scuppered by a slight delay in the maintenance schedule of the K.4, prompting a minor change to the plan.

So, shortly after 1000 local, C.1K XV108/Y, K.3 ZA147/F and C.1K XR808 – the latter sporting special marks to commemorate both the 95th anniversary of 101 Sqn (as celebrated in July) and the 50th anniversary of the VC10 - departed Brize’s Runway 26 at thirty second intervals as ‘Tartan 21 Combine’ and set off on a journey that would see them refuel three Tornado GR.4s and give and receive fuel within their own formation, as well as overflying the RAF stations of Leuchars, Lossiemouth, Linton-on-Ouse, Waddington, Cranwell, Coningsby and Marham.

At 1525 they returned to the Brize overhead, where the three-ship flew down Runway 08 in Vic formation before coming right, then left onto the downwind leg for Runway 26, ahead of an echelon-right run and break down Runway 26 and into the circuit for landing.

After touching down, the aircraft rolled to the Bravo intersection, where each was met by its own handling team, before taxying back to parking on the northside, in unison.

While this might not quite be the end for the VC10 – and no fixed timescale for her demise has been set - her time is unquestionably ebbing away. For an aircraft that was, relatively speaking, a commercial failure, she’s served the Royal Air Force with tremendous distinction across five decades. From speaking to pilots, navigators, engineers and those who have relied upon her to bring them home from theatre after an active duty tour, it is clear just how deeply loved she is by those who operate, maintain and use her – even today.

As Wg Cdr Brookes surmised: “The VC10 has notched 46 years’ service with the RAF, from 10 Squadron in July 1966 to the present day; I think, over that time, she’s certainly shown her flexibility, capability and versatility.”

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2013-02-21 - Howard Collins
As a child I spent many flying hours on VC10s and Super VC10s. I lived in Trindad in the West Indies and travelled from London toPort of Spain. Early years it was 707s that hopped from Bermuda, Antigua< Barbados and then Trinidad. When the VC10s arrived it shortened the time as we flew direct to Barbados. i have my Junior Jet Club book with plane IDs. i wondered whether any of the plane I flew in are still in the RAF or were up until recently? I still have the publicity booklet of the BOAC introduction to the VC10 - great times Howard

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