Gary Parsons reports on changes to the RAF's VC10 tanker fleet. Pictures by the author and Damien Burke
10 Squadron, or 'Shiny Ten' as it is affectionately known, officially disbanded at RAF Brize Norton on an overcast and breezy Friday 14 October. A three-ship flypast of 'shiny tens', as the VC10 is also known, had been planned to overfly a parade ceremony during the early afternoon, but the low cloudbase put paid to that with a singleton aircraft at 1400L followed by a pairs flypast at 1430L, signifying the end of 10 Squadron's operational flying.
In a transition to an enlarged 101 Squadron, Wing Commander Jon Ager, current OC 101 Squadron, will hand over command to the present 10 Squadron OC, Wing Commander Mike Smart. Jon is off to a desk job in Whitehall, having served as the boss of 101 for the last two years.
Six 10 Squadron crews have recently transferred to 216 Squadron and the TriStar, as this squadron will be taking on much of the Air Transport duties previously undertaken by the 'Shiny Ten's' VC10. Experience in the Second Gulf War of 2003 proved resupply and Air Transport cannot be readily achieved by chartered civilian aircraft, it being unreasonable to expect civilian crews to fly into dangerous areas such as Baghdad and Khabul. This transfer leaves a total of twenty-seven crews available to 101 Squadron, together with sixteen aircraft, making it the largest squadron in front-line service comprising of some 550 personnel. Three VC10 aircraft will be retired from the fleet before the end of the year - ZD230, ZD240 and XR810. The latter is the only 10 Squadron aircraft to go, the others being later purchase K4 aircraft.
Long since retired from the civilian scene, the VC10's last refuge is the RAF, who placed its faith in the design with orders in 1961 prior to the first flight and hasn't regretted it since, bolstering the numbers as airframes became available from civilian operators. Not one has been lost in thirty-five years of military operations, but several have reached the end of their useful lives and suffered at the hands of the scrapman. Of the very first order for five C1s, two will remain in service (XR807 and '808), having been converted to C1K tankers in the early nineties. The age of the fleet requires careful monitoring of airframe hours, and as time passes the cost of maintenance becomes ever higher, hence the need to find an up-to-date replacement in a few years time, currently being evaluated under the FSTA procurement process.
Brize Norton is today's home for the VC10, the current fleet comprising three marques; the C1K, K3 and K4. The C1K is the most numerous, all being ex-10 Squadron machines - the K3 and K4 are conversions to former civilian operated aircraft, mainly ex-British Airways and African airline examples. The age of the VC10 perhaps belies the number made; the production run was quite small, with just fifty-four built in total, the MoD orders accounting for fifteen. Its commercial failure can be attributed to several factors, and is probably a book in itself, but basically it was a design just too late to effectively compete with Boeing's 707 and Douglas's DC-8 on economic terms. The standard VC10 airframe was just too small to make the passenger-per-mile equation pay, although passengers complimented its quietness and smoothness compared to the American offerings.
For military use, its rear-engined, high-winged layout is ideal for the air-to-air tanking role, as turbulence is much reduced compared to more traditional layouts, enabling the receiver an easier time of remaining 'in the pod'. This role only came about in the early eighties as the RAF needed a new tanker to bolster the dwindling number of Victors available, as each reached the end of its fatigue life. Initially five ex-Gulf Air standard VC10 Type 1101s were converted to K2 status, entering service in 1982 with the newly reformed 101 Squadron. At the same time four ex-EAA Super VC10 Type 1154s were converted to K3 status, entering service shortly after. Both types incorporated 3,500gallon fuselage tanks, the K3s being slightly longer which eased their installation. All nine aircraft were delivered by 1987.
Since then, all the K2s have been retired due to lack of fatigue life left in the airframes. They were actually the oldest in the fleet and had flown considerably more hours than their RAF cousins while in civilian service - the oldest, ZA144, was the fourth off the production line while XR806, the first RAF airframe, was the eighteenth. The K3s, on the other hand, are the youngest in terms of age, being the last four VC10s to be produced. Five K4s were produced in the early nineties from the best of fourteen ex-British Airways Super VC10 Type 1151s, being almost a complete rebuild. It emerged as almost a brand new aeroplane without the fatigue restrictions of the earlier types but didn't include the 3,500 gallon fuselage tank, having an extra 1,750 gallon tank in the fin. At the same time a contract was placed for the conversion of the C1s to C1K standard, although no extra fuel capacity was added, the conversion being the simplest so far with just two wing pods and associated fuel lines added. The last to be converted, XR808, was delivered back to 10 Squadron in October 1996. In April 2002 the first K4 was retired, this being ZD235, which was transferred to St Athan for 'spares recovery'. Ironically '235 was the last K4 to be delivered in 1996. ZD240 is the most recent retirement, heading to St Athan in September 2005.
Although 10 Squadron is celebrating its 90th year, 101 Squadron has a very slightly longer continuity of service during its eighty-eight years and is therefore considered as the 'senior' squadron. For a brief history of 10 Squadron, visit the RAF website. 10 Squadron's standard will be laid up at Cranwell, a good sign that it will be resurrected sometime in the future - the strong rumour is that it will form the first A330 tanker unit once the FSTA contract details have been finally agreed, sometime shortly after 2010. In the meantime, let's raise a glass to the 'Shiny Ten', both squadron and aircraft!
With thanks to Kate Zasada, Brize Norton MCO