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Flying the VC-10 with the Royal Air Force

June 2007 - October 2009

 

This story owes a great deal to two outstanding Royal Air Force Officers at RAF Brize Norton. Without their support, generosity and hard work on my behalf none of this would ever have happened.

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Between 2007 and 2009 I was involved in an civilian ATC liaison programme with RAF 101 Squadron which gave a number of rare opportunities to experience an air-to-air refuelling mission onboard the units tanker airplanes based at RAF Brize Norton. It was an immersive and valuable insight into the world of military operations with the Royal Air Force. I was additionally fortunate - the action took place aboard my favourite airliner of all time, the wonderfully charismatic Vickers VC-10.

 

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Onboard Vickers VC-10 K MK4 ZA149 during an AAR mission over the North Sea - July 24th 2007

With thanks to Ian Nicholas

 

Vickers built a total of 54 VC-10s between June 1962 and February 1970. 14 were originally delivered to the Royal Air Force (RAF) as new airframes under an original purchase agreement between 1966 and 1968. In later years, the RAF subsequently sourced a further 24 airframes from airline operators who were retiring their fleets and replacing the VC-10 with newer equipment. The majority of the former British Airways (BOAC) fleet, along with those airframes formerly with Gulf Air and East African Airways, were acquired by the RAF. Most were subsequently modified for military service, with just a handful being cannibalised for spares. A total of 28 airplanes actually saw service with the RAF, with all the airframes eventually being modified to either C MK1 K, K MK2, K MK3 or K MK4 standard to provide air to air refuelling capability. A further 10 were utilised for parts to keep the active fleet airworthy. In its various transport and tanker roles the airplane served the RAF for a total of 47  years between July 1966 and September 2013.

 

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The first Vickers VC-10 delivered to the RAF in July 1966 was XR806. The airplane was photographed at Bournemouth-Hurn in November 1995 during the process of being converted to a C MK1 K tanker. The most noticeable  features are the two underwing refuelling pods installed by FRA Limited - all the other modifications such as extra fuel lines, pumps and the strengthening of the outer wing structure are not apparent externally.  XR806 was re-delivered to 10 Squadron as a C MK1 K in February 1996.

  

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ZA143 Vickers VC-10 K MK2 on the flight line at RAF Brize Norton October 30th 1991. The nose art displayed relates to the RAF role during hostilities following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and subsequent military action during operation "Desert Storm" to liberate Kuwait in 1991. The "petrol pump" logos represent the number of AAR missions this VC-10 undertook during the campaign. The airplane still wears the post-modification Hemp colours which were applied during the tanker conversion programme after the airframe was acquired from British Airways. ZA143 never wore the later Barley Grey scheme that graced many others in the squadron - the airframe was retired in August 1998 and scrapped in 2001.

 

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October 30th 1991 was our first mission with Royal Air Force 101 squadron on board Vickers VC-10 K MK2 ZA143. This was a long time before the liaison programme was initiated but with patience AAR observation trips were possible. However, it was very dependant on tasking, as hostilities continued in the Middle East and this always meant that sorties could be cancelled or changed at short notice. It was also towards the end of the slide film era and combined with some less than optically perfect glazing, it was not ideal conditions for achieving high quality images. Never the less the sight of RAF 4 Squadron Harrier GR7s from RAF Gutersloh as our first receivers was an impressive sight.

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Operating with the call sign “02F46”, we were later joined by RAF Tornado F3s of 5 Squadron from RAF Connigsby. The F3 is the air defence interceptor version of the Tornado and here displays clean lines, devoid of external armaments such as Sidewinder or Skyflash missiles.

The Royal Air Force aqquired the VC-10 as a tactical and strategic asset for transporting troops and equipment, VIP duties and medical/casualty evacuation. The tanking roles only evolved later in the airplanes life when the RAF needed to replace its ageing Victor and Valiant tanker fleets (those airframes themselves had originally been designed as bombers and later converted to the tanking role). Ex-commercial airline airframes were the first to be converted, with the RAFs original C1 models only converted towards the end of the programme which eventually saw all the operational RAF VC-10s modified to provide AAR (air to air refuelling) capability.

The RAF VC-10s were equipped with either two or three AAR hoses. The C MK1 K was a conversion from the RAFs own new-build VC-10 C1 airframes, and was fitted with two pods under the wings from which hose and drogue refuelling lines could be trailed. The MK1s were not fitted with the additional fuel tanks in the cabin - the full seated interior and associated personnel transport capability was retained. The idea was that the MK1 would only be used as a last resort when no other AAR assets were available. The K MK2, MK3 and MK4 airfames were specific tanker conversions from various re-built ex-airline airframes. These conversions added a centreline hose and drum unit (HDU - often referred to as the ''hoodoo'') to facilitate a third refuelling point. The MK2 and MK3 airframes were also fitted with extra fuel tanks in the cabin mounted on a strengthened floor, though the MK4s were not. The former East African Airways MK3 version was ultimately the most capable of the VC-10 AAR platforms, being based on a ''Super'' airframe with a long fatigue life, extra cabin tanks, a fin tank and 3 AAR hoses. It was these MK3 airplanes that remained in service with the RAF until the very end, when the type was retired in September 2013.

 

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ZA150 Vickers VC-10 K MK3 with the centreline hose deployed from the centre line HDU prior to commencing AAR with an RAF C130 Hercules over the North Sea on October 1st 2009. This airplane was the last of 54 VC-10s built and was originally delivered to East African Airways in February 1970. It is now preserved at Dunsfold Airfield as part of the Brooklands Museum collection.

  

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Air to air refuelling is a fine art, and the size, speed and performance differences between these two types make it all the more challenging. This image was shot from VC10 C1 K XV106 operating as TARTAN41 as part of a 2 ship formation.

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XV104 Vickers VC-10 C MK1 K is seen here during an AAR mission refuelling RAF Tornados on June 4th 2007. A 15 Squadron Tornado GR4 is hooked up to the port wing hose of Vickers VC-10 K MK3 ZA150 operating as TARTAN 11. XV104 was carrying a delegation of high ranking officials from the Pakistan Air Force who were tasked with observing the RAFs methods and procedures during their AAR operations.

 

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As well as operational front line aircraft such as the Tornado and Typhoon, the VC-10 also provided AAR for larger types in RAF service. Regular sorties conducted AAR tasking with the Boeing E-3 Sentry, the Lockheed C-130 Hercules, the Airbus A400 Atlas (which entered service shortly before the VC-10 was withdrawn) and also with other VC-10s. On this particular sortie, the pilot officer under training is practicing alignment behind another VC-10 tanker as a two ship formation. The lead airplane is XV104, a C MK1 K model which does not have the centreline HDU and therefore cannot engage our airplane. However the object of this exercise is to demonstrate a pilots ability to maintain station safely using gentle throttle and flight control inputs before they progress to actual AAR engagement. Markings and lights on the underside of the lead airplane provide visual cues to aid positioning under the watchful eye of a qualified instructor in the left seat. Although for RAF tanker crews this is an almost daily routine for which they are highly trained and suitably qualified, to a civilian observer this is a truly amazing experience. The two airplanes weigh in excess of 300,000 lbs each when on a typical sortie and whilst flying in formation or performing AAR, and are rarely more than a couple of hundred feet part at any time. The view from the jump seat as seen here was truly unforgettable.

 

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May 21st 2009 proved to be one of the most diverse and busiest AAR missions of the whole programme. On board VC-10 K MK3 ZA149, operating as TARTAN43, over the 4 hours of the sortie, receivers included Boeing E-3D Sentry ZH105 from 23 Squadron RAF Waddington.

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From the flight engineers station the receivers can be monitored by a CCTV camera mounted under the belly. Here the E-3D can be seen hooked up to the centreline hose in the turn at the end of the racetrack air refuelling pattern.

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As part of the NATO commitment there is regular participation from other member air forces during 101 Squadrons AAR sorties. Here two Armee De l’Air Dassault Mirage F1CRs from 112 Squadron take on fuel from VC-10 K MK3 ZA149 over the southwestern approaches. The F1CR is the reconnaissance version of the Mirage F1, and subsequently all Mirage F1 variants were withdrawn from service with the Armee De l’Air in 2014.

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Two RAF Typhoons from 11 Squadron and one from 3 Squadron formate off the port wing of VC-10 K MK3 ZA149 prior to taking on fuel over the North Sea on May 21st 2009.

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Postscript - The Nimrod report

Shot from the cockpit of VC-10 C MK1 K XV106, RAF Tornado F3 ZE342 of 111 Squadron lights the afterburners as it departs after refuelling over the North Sea. This sortie on October 1st 2009 proved to be the last trip as part of what was a very worthwhile programme between NATS and 101 Squadron.

On September 2nd 2006 RAF Hawker Siddeley Nimrod XV230 was lost whilst operating over Afghanistan. The 37 year old airplane experienced an internal fuel leak and subsequent in-flight fire following air to air refuelling whilst on a reconnaissance mission. The airplane exploded and broke up in mid air. All fourteen crew lost their lives. An extensive investigation followed and identified a wide range of safety flaws with both individuals in the chain of command, and within the various parties involved in the airplanes design, production, operation and maintenance. A very interesting and very damning read in itself, the report was finally published on October 28th 2009. Spreading the blame for the accident across many parties, it identified 1,500 faults in the Nimrod - 26 of which were a direct threat to the airplanes safety. Many other failures within the military system all combined to lead to a wide-ranging review of RAF procedures and the safety of flight operations - particularly with the ageing fleets, including the VC-10. Following the fallout from the report and the liabilities inherent in subsequent flight operations, 101 Squadron were given no choice but to restrict future VC-10 flights to essential military personnel only with effect from October 28th 2009. The collaboration between civilian ATC and 10 Squadron came to a sad end.

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VC-10 K MK3 ZA147 flares for a touch and go on runway 08 at RAF Brize Norton February 18th 2013

Following the end of the liaison programme, those of us who still admired the VC-10s aerodynamic grace and the howl of its Rolls Royce Conways continued to hang out around the perimeter at RAF Brize Norton to enjoy the airplanes final few years of operations. The type was scheduled for retirement in 2012, although with continuing commitments in the Middle East and delays with the replacement Airbus Voyager programme, this was eventually extended until September 2013.

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ZA147 Vickers VC-10 K MK3 landing at RAF Brize Norton in the late afternoon of February 18th 2013 after an AAR mission over the North Sea. It had been a 2 year wait to get this shot. It needed good weather in Oxfordshire but an easterly wind so that the landing direction made it necessary to shoot into the sunset. It also needed a low sun to capture the silhouette, so the airplane had to be recovering around 30 minutes before sunset. In addition it also required the freedom from other commitments, the knowledge that the airplane was flying a mission at the most suitable time of day,  and to be able to travel to Brize Norton in good time for the landing. On top of that, the shot had to right first time as it was unlikely those circumstances would be repeated in the remaining 7 months before the few remaining VC-10s were withdrawn from service.

  

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ZA147 Vickers VC-10 K MK3 landing at Bruntingthorpe, Leicestershire on September 25th 2013. This was the last ever flight of a VC-10 - 51 years, 2 months and 27 days after the first VC-10 took to the air.

With thanks to Flight Sargent Lucy Robinson, Warrant Officer Steve Taylor and Jelle Hieminga and his excellent www.vc10.net website

 

To view a further extensive gallery of VC-10 images click on the image below