AIN Blog: Farewell to the Queen of the Skies

 - September 20, 2013, 3:02 PM
On its final day in service, a Royal Air Force VC10 refuels two Tornado combat jets. The type is retiring after 47 years military service in the UK. (Photo: Chris Pocock)

The UK Royal Air Force (RAF) has bid a fond farewell to the VC10 air refueling tanker, a type that has been in British military service for 47 years. The majestic T-tailed, four-engine jet airliner may not have been a commercial success, but the RAF extracted great value from a fleet that numbered 28 at its peak, performing also in the passenger and cargo transport roles, and aeromedical airlift.

AIN was aboard the final flight from RAF Brize Norton on September 20, comprising the last two VC10 K.3 aircraft serving with No. 101 Squadron. The takeoff was sporty, thanks to the four Rolls-Royce Conway turbofans providing a total 85,000 pounds of thrust. The VC10 was designed for hot and high airfield performance, one reason it was never able to compete economically with the Boeing 707 and DC-8. Thus it became the last airliner to be entirely built in Britain.

The five-man crew led by Sqn Ldr Tim Kemp first demonstrated the difficult art of closing one large aircraft behind another for a refueling hookup. All of the RAF’s VC10s were equipped with refueling probes, as well as drogues. Then it was off to a refueling track over the North Sea to rendezvous with two Tornado strike aircraft, followed by two Typhoons. On a beautiful day, with the sun reflecting on the sea below, it was a joy and a privilege to behold this aerial ballet.

Aircrew said that the VC10 was an ideal airplane for tanking. “A delight, even in challenging conditions,” said Air Cdre Dave Lee, the current RAF Air Mobility Force Commander, previously a Nimrod pilot who refueled from them. “This is a pilot’s airplane…the harmonization of the controls, so well balanced,” enthused Gp Capt Steve Lushington, a VC10 veteran who is now the Brize Norton station commander. Capable of cruising at Mach 0.96, the VC10 was the fastest subsonic airliner, and once flew nonstop from the UK to Perth, Australia, in 15 hours and 53 minutes.

After the combat jets were replenished, our VC10 did flyovers at four airfields so that spectators could catch a final glimpse of “The Queen of the Skies.” First, the RAF bases at Lossiemouth and Leuchars (where we were joined in formation by two more Typhoons based there). Then Prestwick airport and BAE Systems’ airfield at Warton, home to a Typhoon assembly line. Another VC10 did similar flybys at Newcastle and Birmingham airports and the RAF bases at Coningsby and Marham. A pity we could not do a flyby at London Heathrow, where British Airways forerunner BOAC introduced the VC10 to service in 1964. I am old enough to remember seeing at LHR the very aircraft in which we were flying today (ZA150), in the colors of East African Airways. Only three foreign airlines bought the VC10 new.

The last operational sorties were nearly over. The two veteran four-jets joined up again to perform a flypast at home base, before breaking into the pattern for a final landing at Brize. Our aircraft is destined for the scrapheap, but the other (ZA147) will fly into Dunsfold next Tuesday for the Brooklands Air Museum. This is located on the former Vickers airfield at Weybridge, where VC10s were built. The VC10’s replacement is the Voyager, the RAF’s name for the Airbus A330 multi-role tanker transport. They are being provided under a private finance initiative (PFI) by Airtanker, a consortium comprising EADS, Babcock, Cobham, Rolls-Royce and Thales.

The VC10’s retirement date was postponed due to the late commissioning of the Airtanker fleet, but six are now in service, with eight more to come.

View a slideshow from the event. (Photos: Chris Pocock)