VC10 ZA148 Retirement

Just before 11am on Wednesday 28th August, 2013 Vickers VC10 K3, ZA148 ‘G’, made its final landing at Newquay Airport, Cornwall (the former RAF St. Mawgan).  In doing so the aircraft completed its 48,351st flying hour but now takes up permanent residence as a static exhibit with the Classic Air Force (CAF), where the crew Flt Lts Nick Millikin, Jess Gannon, Kev Booth and Bruce Thompson were greeted by hundreds of enthusiasts and well-wishers. Richard Freail was on hand for AeroResource.

The aircraft, which took off from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire and flew a tour of southern England before arriving at Newquay, was one of the last three airworthy VC10s out of 54 built for airlines and the military.  The aircraft was received by CEO Trevor Bailey who said “We are delighted to welcome this VC10 to the Classic Air Force. With the retirement of Concorde the VC10 was the fastest airliner in the world – often flying at more than 550mph. The imminent retirement of the remaining two VC10s will mean the end of an era for British aero engineering.”

Airliner Days

The prototype VC10 flew in June 1962 and the aircraft quickly gained an excellent reputation during its service with airlines. Due to its smooth handling, flight characteristics, passenger comfort and speed the aircraft was frequently referred to as the ‘Queen of the Skies’.

ZA148 had a career spanning 46 years, initially serving as an airliner and then later being converted to an air-to-air tanker for the military. Manufactured as a Vickers Super VC10 Type 1154, construction number 883, it was one of three ordered by East African Airways (EAA) in April 1964. The airline was owned and managed by the governments of Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika, while Zanzibar owned less than a 1% stake and played a less active part. It was formed in 1946 to provide passenger and freight services in the East Africa region, these nations being under British colonial rule at that time.

EAA received its first two VC10s in October and December 1966.  ZA148 first flew in its civilian guise in March 1967 and was delivered to the airline just one month later in April, registered as 5Y-ADA. The fleet was configured to carry 14 first class passengers and 111 in economy, while transporting 6,000lbs of cargo. Immediately after the delivery of this aircraft the airline ordered a fourth aircraft and placed an option on a fifth, which were delivered in 1969 and 1970 respectively. The fifth aircraft was registered 5H-MOG and was the 54th and final VC10 manufactured by Vickers. The VC10s replaced EAA’s de Havilland Comets on its European and Indian routes in late 1967 and regularly flew into London, Paris, Frankfurt, Rome, Karachi and Bombay (now Mumbai). With the fleet growing to five VC10s the routes expanded to include Copenhagen and Bangkok. However, in April 1972 the fleet was reduced to four aircraft when 5X-UVA crashed on take-off at Addis Ababa airport killing 43 of the 107 persons on board.

EAA had endured a number of political and financial issues over the years and it finally ceased operations in February 1977, with the owning governments choosing to form their own national carriers.  The VC10s were repossessed by BAC and returned to the UK.

New Tankers Needed

In the late 1970s the RAF was examining potential replacements for its aging Victor tanker fleet. Whereas previously old V-bombers such as the Valiant and Victor had been converted for tanker roles this time there would be a different solution.  The Vickers VC10 C1 was already serving the RAF in the transport role with 10 Sqn, an initial order having been placed for five aircraft in 1961, a further six in 1962 and then three more in 1964. Following a feasibility study which recommended using ex-civilian VC10 airliners, nine airframes were purchased from British Aerospace for conversion at its Filton plant. These included five from Gulf Air (Bahrain) which had ceased VC10 operations and returned their aircraft along with the remaining four EAA aircraft.  The ex-Gulf Air aircraft were Type 1101s and subsequently became the VC10 K2 in RAF service, while the four ex-EAA machines became the VC10 K3.

The RAF required three refuelling points, extra fuel tanks, a small passenger capability and commonality with the VC10 C1 already in service. The level of work required was very demanding and necessitated the aircraft being completely stripped down for conversion, although the work was a little easier on the Type 1154 as the cargo door could be utilised for installing the additional five internal fuel tanks in the former passenger cabin. The K3 also retained the fin tank of the Super VC10, giving this variant a theoretical maximum fuel load of 90 tons (against 85 tons for the K2). To dispense the fuel the aircraft was fitted with a Flight Refuelling Ltd Mk 17B hose-drum unit in the underside of the rear fuselage, whilst a Mk32/2800 pod was fitted under each wing. A CCTV system was installed under the fuselage to monitor refuelling operations. The forward passenger cabin of the civilian VC10 was retained to provide a small transport capacity for personnel.

101 Sqn was formed with VC10 tankers, initially with just the K2, in May 1984. The first K3 arrived the following year and VC10 K3, ZA148, first flew in its new configuration in July 1984 and delivered to 101 Sqn in 1986. Since then, the RAF’s VC10 tanker fleet has served all over the world;  whether it be on exercises in North America, deployments to the Far East, or during the recent wars in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, ZA148 and her sister aircraft have been there. In fact, the squadron has been on constant operations since the early 1990s.

The VC10 tanker draw-down started some years ago, but this latest retirement from the fleet means that now only two VC10s remain in service with the RAF (ZA147 ‘F’ and ZA150 ‘J’, at Brize Norton and the Falkland Islands respectively) – although both of these airframes will be retired by the end of September 2013. The Airbus A330 MRTT Voyager now stands ready to take over from the VC10 (and Tristar early next year) in both transport and air-to-air refuelling roles serving with 10 and 101 Sqns.

Static Display

ZA148 now sits on the ramp at Classic Air Force where it will form the centre piece of the attractions on offer at the Classic Air Force. Unlike much of the collection which flies regularly, this aircraft will never take to the skies again, with the four Conway engines being removed and returned to the MoD.

The original RAF VC10s were all named after Victoria Cross recipients, but as the fleet has diminished the remaining aircraft have gained more than one ‘name’. ZA148 is named after three such VC holders: Flt Sgt George Thompson VC (from VC10 XR806), Wg Cdr Guy Gibson VC (from XV102) and 2nd Lt William Rhodes-Moorhouse VC (RFC) (from XV108).  101 Sqn has kindly loaned the CAF its 13 framed replica citations, complete with medals, which will be displayed with the aircraft allowing the public to read and learn of the heroic exploits of these holders of the Victoria Cross, many of whom gave their lives in the service of our country with either the RFC or RAF.

Acknowledgements: The author wishes to thank the staff at Classic Air Force and the personnel of 101 Squadron, Royal Air Force. Credit to Simon Westwood for the title image.