Observation Deck

Still Elegant After All These Years


Commentary about the recent retirement from service (military; earlier from civil service) of the Vickers VC-10, a beautiful airliner.

An airliner type’s 49-year career ended on September 24, 2013, when RAF serial number ZA150 landed at Dunsfold Park in the U.K. Some readers might be wondering why ATW is commemorating a military aircraft, but the type, the Vickers VC-10, had a significant career in airline service, as well. And the specific aircraft, in a reversal of the typical human pattern, had entered military service at mid-life, after having flown previously as a civilian airliner.

The VC-10 was developed out of a long-range requirement for British Overseas Airline Corporation (BOAC) and the Royal Air Force (RAF). Of particular concern were the so-called “Empire” routes from the U.K., many of which required ‘hot and high’ performance characteristics. This would come back to haunt the type in commercial use, since it was unable to match the operating economics of the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8, which were designed to less-stringent takeoff performance characteristics. What resulted was an aircraft with a (then) unique planform: a clean wing, a T-tail, and four engines (two on each side) mounted on the rear.

The engine placement led to a relatively quiet cabin, which led BOAC to promote the aircraft as “Swift, Silent and Serene”, although airport neighbors had cause to doubt the veracity of the middle term from an external standpoint. Entering service in 1964, 17 “Standard” VC-10s were delivered to three airlines (British United and Ghana Airways, in addition to BOAC), plus 14 more that went to the RAF. Beginning in 1965, 17 “Super” VC-10s went to BOAC; the only other deliveries of this variant went to East African Airways, a consortium airline formed by Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. These were the only as-delivered airline VC-10s to incorporate a forward main-deck cargo door.

Passenger acceptance, especially in the highly-competitive North Atlantic market, was excellent. Transportation writer David P. Morgan stated “Beautiful from any viewpoint is BOAC’s VC-10…and a fine passenger’s plane on the recommendation of everyone from {U.S. magazine] Esquire’s Richard Joseph to me.” Morgan continued, presciently, that it was “Also apparently Britain’s last big-time subsonic jet venture. More’s the pity, too.”

For a relatively small group of aircraft, the 17 BOAC Supers cast a large shadow in the airline world during their service with the British flag carrier. They regularly visited all six historically-inhabited continents, and were particularly prominent in Africa and the Middle East.

The VC-10 is member of the select group of aircraft on which continuous round-the-world journeys could be made on a single airline. During its BOAC (and early British Airways) days, it was possible to cross both the Atlantic and Pacific on flights with ‘BA’ in the ticketing code box. Indeed, since Australia was served from the U.K. in both directions, the Southern Hemisphere could be included, as well. In 1973, for example, it was possible to set out from London Heathrow Airport for Sydney and Melbourne via New York (JFK); Los Angeles; Honolulu; and Fiji. Return to the “mother country” could be accomplished via the “Kangaroo Route” (since many hops were included) via various points in Asia and the Middle East back to LHR, all aboard Super VC-10s.

My wife and I were lucky enough to complete a round trip to Sydney from New York in the spring of 1973, with stopovers in both directions at HNL. Local/cabotage traffic could not be carried between the U.S. points, including Hawaii, but stopovers were permitted on the through ticket to Australia. This gave us a chance to sample three of the fleet: G-ASGA, ASGD, and ASGG; “Golf Delta” appeared in the logbook for a second time on the final, HNL-LAX-JFK portion of the return trip. This departed Honolulu in the late morning, and arrived at Los Angeles by early evening. There, passengers were taken to a local hotel for dinner and a brief rest, prior to setting out for JFK at a more normal late evening “red-eye” departure time, which put the aircraft into New York at a more reasonable arrival time, with the aircraft continuing on to London as the daytime service.

By the 1980s, British Airways was retiring the type from its fleet; many were sold to the RAF for conversion to either military transport aircraft or tankers. Interestingly, scheduled service of a different sort, on the run between the U.K. and Dulles Airport, outside Washington, DC, continued until August 29, 1995. Fittingly, the last VC-10 landing, performed by ZA150, was made by the final production aircraft, which had entered life registered 5H-MOG, one of the five Super VC-10s ordered by East African Airways.

Discuss this Blog Entry 2

on Dec 21, 2013

George your perfectly correct in addition to being graceful & super to fly she was possibly the most beautiful commercial airliner aircraft to date .
Though you should know that BOAC stands for the British Overseas Airways Corporation.

on Dec 29, 2013

Thanks for the clarification!

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