Friday 20 September 2013 saw the Royal Air Force’s last remaining pair of Vickers built VC10s perform their final operational mission. Chris Wood reports for GAR.
The RAF has been operating the VC 10 since July 1966 (some 47 years) when the first of 14 VC10 C1s was delivered to No. 10 Squadron. The aircraft initially operated from RAF Fairford until the facilities at their eventual home, RAF Brize Norton, were finished in May 1967 and Brize Norton has been home to the RAF’s VC10s ever since.
Additional aircraft were acquired in the early 1980s for conversion to air-to-air refuelling tankers. Five former Gulf Air standard VC10s became VC10 K2s, whilst four ex-East African Airways Super VC10s became K3s. Additionally, 14 former British Airways Super VC10s were acquired and placed in storage until the early 1990s, when five of these were converted to tankers, becoming K4s. The remainder were used for spares reclamation to keep the operational fleet flying. All the tanker aircraft were operated by No. 101 Squadron.
In 1993, the 13 surviving C1 aircraft were given an air-to-air refuelling capability too, being designated as C1Ks. Having built the fleet up, in 1998 the first aircraft was retired and there has been a gradual dwindling of numbers since then, starting with the K2s and then most of the K4s.
No 10. Squadron was disbanded in 2005, with its aircraft being transferred to No. 101 Squadron, which became the sole operator of the type, and by the end of that year the fleet was down to 15 aircraft. The rundown gathered pace in 2010 with the commencement of the withdrawal of the C1Ks, with only six examples left in service at the beginning of 2013: one C1K (XR808 – known as ”Bob”! – which soldiered on until 29 July), all the K3s and one K4.
In total, only 54 VC10s were built and 28 of these served with the RAF, with another ten (nine Supers and one former British Airways standard VC10) being used for spares.
The last two aircraft in service were a pair of K3s, ZA147/F and ZA150/J. For the last flight they departed as a pair, using the callsigns Tartan 51 and Tartan 52 (although 52 departed first!), getting airborne from RAF Brize Norton at 1000.
They headed north to Air-to-Air Refuelling Area 7 (AARA 7) over the North Sea and practised refuelling from each other.
They were then joined by a number of other aircraft, with Tartan 51’s (ZA150) trade being a pair of No. 1(F) Squadron Typhoons and Tartan 52 (ZA147) receiving a pair of No. 617 Squadron Tornado GR4s, plus a C-130J Hercules.
The formation then split and each aircraft carried out a number of flypasts at places of significance to the VC10, a mixture of the bases of its regular customers – the RAF’s fast jet force – and sites that had supported its operation. Tartan 51 took the northern part of the country, overflying RAF Lossiemouth, RAF Leuchars, Prestwick Airport and the BAE Systems sites at Salmesbury and Warton. Tartan 52 took the south, paying visits to RAF Coningsby, RAF Marham and Birmingham Airport. The aircraft then rejoined for a pairs arrival at Brize Norton with a run and break into the visual circuit.
Tartan 51 landed first at 1414 with Tartan 52 close behind, leaving ZA147 as the aircraft with the distinction of having made the last operational landing by an RAF VC10.
The two aircraft taxied in together and shut down in front of a large crowd of current and former VC10 personnel who had gathered to witness this historic event. Then, as the eight Rolls-Royce Conway engines wound down, it was all over. Well, not quite! There was a dinner that evening open to anyone associated with the aircraft which, perhaps not surprisingly, went on into the wee small hours and involved many stories and much reminiscing.
The very last flights of a VC10 are scheduled to happen this week, with ZA150 (the last of 54 VC10s built at Brooklands during the 1960s) due to be flown to Dunsfold today, Tuesday, 24 September – having being bought by the Brooklands Museum – and ZA147 going to Bruntingthorpe tomorrow, Wednesday, 25 September. Then it really will all be over, and the skies of Oxfordshire will be a far quieter place, without the roar of four Rolls-Royce Conways in close formation, which has been a feature for the last 47 years.
Additional photography by Shaun Schofield, and thanks to Tony Osborne and Andy Aitchison for the use of their photographs.