Saturday, September 21, 2013

Goodbye VC10

Another iconic British-design is about to leave our skies forever.

The Vickers VC10, may never have been a commercial success, but the U.K. Royal Air Force (RAF) has done really rather well out of its 1960s investment. After buying 11 VC10s back in the early 1960s for strategic transport, the RAF later went onto purchase aircraft retired from the commercial market, converting many into air-to-air refueling tankers during the 1980s. In total, the RAF have operated 28 VC10s of differing variants, and the aircraft conducted a range of tasks from troop and VIP transport, aero medical missions and even air sampling after nuclear tests.

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617 Sqn Tornadoes refuel from "Tartan 52" - Photos: Tony Osborne/Aviation Week unless credited.

But now, the VC10’s career is almost at an end. Next week, the last two flying VC10s will conduct final one-way flights from their home base at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire The first, involving aircraft ZA147 will fly into Dunsfold airfield on September 24, in preparation to join the Brooklands Museum, while ZA150 faces an undetermined future when it flies into Bruntingthorpe airfield in Leicestershire on September 25.

It’s a sad end for an aircraft which has enjoyed a 47 year career and taken part in many of the air arm’s operations across the globe. But while in recent years, many aircraft retirements have passed with little more than a whimper mainly due to force reductions, such as the Panavia Tornado F3, the Nimrod, RAF commanders were keen to give what they refer to as the “Queen of the Skies” a final farewell, and so on September 20, they did just that, launching ZA147 and ZA150 - both former East African Airways Super VC10s - into the air for the type’s last operational aerial refueling mission and a grand tour of flypasts over key locations associated with the aircraft’s career.

And Aviation Week was onboard to see history in the making.

The two aircraft launched shortly after 10am getting airborne in spectacular fashion, trailing black smoke in a spectacular snake-climb departure associated with the VC10 during its Cold War days. As “Tartan 52” flight, the aircraft headed north in tight formation before reaching the North Sea and a rendezvous with Eurofighter Typhoons from RAF Leuchars and Panavia Tornados from RAF Lossiemouth where the two types took fuel from the VC10’s wingtip hose drogue units.

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With refueling complete the two aircraft split and the six-strong flight crew of ZA150, led by Sqn Ldr Tim Kemp descended the aircraft low over the Moray Firth to run in for the flypast over Lossiemouth, with a 500 ft pass over the airfield before an impressively steep climb away, fine for those in the cockpit, but less for those in the small passenger cabin where the seats, like on all RAF VC10s, face aft rather than forward. The same the procedure was repeated at Leuchars, Prestwick airport, near Glasgow and the BAE Systems plant at Warton before another rendezvous with the other VC10, which had done flypasts down the Eastern U.K. at Newcastle, RAF Coningsby, RAF Marham and Birmingham. The two together then formatted close for a dramatic pairs arrival in the circuit of Brize Norton, where hundreds of cameras on the ground were trained on the aircraft for their streamed arrival at 2.14pm. The aircraft were greeted by families and personnel from 101 Sqn who cheered when the crews emerged.

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The VC10s arrive back at Brize Norton - Photo: Graham Cherry

Officers hail the type’s reliability, but there is no doubt, that keeping the aircraft in the air has been a labor of love, and indeed the fleet has shrunk partly in order to provide spare parts for those flying, while BAE Systems has had to occasionally scour the internet to find parts to keep its maintenance tools for the seemingly ancient VC10 avionics system.

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The crew of "Tartan 51"

The VC10’s departure from operations marks a period of major change for the RAF’s air transport operations. Next month will see the retirement of the Lockheed C-130K Hercules, four of which remain service to support domestic operations around the U.K. while the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar exits in March, although the RAF have an option to extend operation of that aircraft should it be deemed necessary.

The VC10s and Tristars are being replaced by the Airbus A330 Voyager transport provided by the AirTanker consortium. The VC10 becomes the second longest serving type in the RAF’s inventory with 47 years of service just narrowly eclipsed by the English Electric Canberra which was withdrawn in 2006.

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