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Our thanks to Howard Wheeldon FRAeS, for allowing us to reproduce his overview of the VC10 retirement and the immediate future.



As I write this, the last in-service flight of a Vickers VC10 aircraft is probably taking place at close to Royal Air Force Brize Norton. I do not have final detail but I suspect that the two remaining VC10 K3 aircraft – ZA147 and ZA150 - may well be flyinng alongside the latest KC-30 'Voyager' aircraft that is set to replace both VC10 and TriStar in the tanker refuelling and transport role very soon.


I have to admit to a huge soft spot for the Vickers VC10, primarily because it is a British designed and built aircraft that has been in service with the Royal Air Force all through my professional working life. In the 51 years since this brilliantly designed piece of engineering first took to the skies in June 1962, the VC10 has provided exemplary service to the Royal Air Force and in commercial airline service, in what was later to become British Airways plus a handful of other airlines.

VC10 may be regarded as Britain'€™s final attempt to design and build a long-haul aircraft that could compete with American built aircraft and to this day, the aircraft holds the record of being the fastest non-supersonic commercial airliner in the world. That it ultimately failed to achieve commercial success was political in both senses of the word and is certainly no reflection on Vickers or its then chief, the late Sir George Edwards. For those that have a larger interest in the story of the VC10 I have published a fuller account of the VC10 programme development and the politics that surrounded this in a four page article to be found in the September edition of the Royal Aeronautical Society Journal '€˜Aerospace'™.

Suffice to say, that since the first aircraft were delivered to 10 Squadron in 1966, VC10 carried British troops and military service personnel all over the world with reliability and efficiency. Since 1979 when the aircraft began to replace the Handley Page Victor in the tanker refuelling role, VC10 has supported Royal Air Force, USAF and NATO aircraft in this role in just about every conflict that Her Majesty'€™s armed forces have been involved.

The Royal Air Force has justifiably been proud of its brilliant air-to-air tanker refuelling role and I know from experience how highly regarded the work of 101 Squadron and the capability and reliability of the VC10 tanker aircraft is held by our own fast jet pilots and by those of USAF as well. Today then we say farewell to what I regard as a beautiful aircraft with its massive '€˜T'€™ tail and the superb, if somewhat noisy Rolls-Royce '€˜Conway'€™ engines mounted in pairs on the rear fuselage. A delight to those who love analogue dials and switches in abundance, VC10 really is the last of a line. You have done us proud and we really do thank you for that.

The withdrawal of VC10 tanker refuelling capacity opens a new chapter in this vitally important mission and that will see what the Royal Air Force has named '€˜Voyager'€™, the Airbus KC-30 begin to take over the air-to-air tanker refuelling and military personnel transport role.

Based on the hugely successful A330 passenger aircraft '€˜Voyager'€™ is a giant leap forward in design, capacity and performance and will provide the Royal Air Force with a significant increase in available capability. With a capacity to carry 291 military personnel over 6,000 miles (9,600km) in far greater comfort than the aircraft they replace, the Airbus KC-30 aircraft – Voyager - will when in full Royal Air Force service, have double the available transport, cargo and tanker refuelling capacity of the Vickers VC10 or Lockheed TriStar 1011 aircraft that they will replace.

A total of 14 Airbus KC-30 aircraft will eventually be available to the Royal Air Force under a £10.5bn, 24-year (from delivery of first aircraft) Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contract programme that was signed by the Labour Government and Air Tanker (a partnership between EADS, Thales, Rolls-Royce, Cobham and Babcock) in 2008.

To suggest that the FSTA PFI arrangement has been without critics would of course be wrong, but with the programme now moving forward apace and the capability requirement clearly urgent, it seems to me that further debate on how the programme was decided and agreed is futile. Understandably, given the giant leap forward in size, capacity and technology of the KC-30 '€˜Voyager'€™ aircraft particularly in tanker refuelling form, getting to where the programme now is has not been without some difficulty. I suspect that some difficulties have arisen in part because the multi-role-tanker refuelling element of KC30 has been based on new and sophisticated software based capability. In addition, it should be borne in mind that although KC-30 is based on the hugely successful Airbus A330 commercial platform, being completely new to UK military authorities it has of necessity, taken much longer to achieve the various clearances required by the Military Aviation Authority (MAA). In the process, much has been learned and some elements of the refuelling equipment modified or changed. For instance, hose oscillation and flight characteristics in respect of drogue systems within the High Speed Variable Drag Drogue (HSVDD) system have I understand, been resolved by moving back to the more traditional Sergeant-Fletcher designed drogue fitted to the VC10 and many other tanker refuelling aircraft.

The positive news is that the Military Aviation Authority has now cleared Voyager for Tornado GR4 and Typhoon refuelling operations and it is expected that clearance for other aircraft types will follow in due course. Air Tanker is not due to officially take on tanker refuelling responsibility until March next year and with a full '˜Voyager'€™ in-service date planned for May 2014, existing Royal Air Force tanker refuelling requirement (including the Falklands) will over the next year be supplemented by the remaining fleet of Lockheed TriStar 1011 aircraft. These near forty-year old aircraft will then be retired.

Since the FSTA (Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft) PFI agreement was signed in 2008, the Air Tanker consortium has put considerable investment into new facilities at RAF Brize Norton and which will continue to act as the hub of all Royal Air Force tanker refuelling and transport aircraft. Although not part of the FSTA PFI operation of Boeing C-17 and Lockheed Martin C-130J, operation continues to be based at RAF Brize Norton as will be Airbus A400M operation when this steps up in 2015.

Amongst other things investment by Air Tanker that is specifically related to FSTA has included construction of a two-bay hangar workshop, significant drainage improvements, new stores and three floors of office accommodation. The new €'Hub'€™ will operate all necessary KC-30 Voyager related maintenance and operational capability requirements, act as the flight operations centre and will house all civilian and military personnel working on the FSTA arrangement. Currently employing I understand around 150 people who have come from a range of relevant backgrounds including former RAF military personnel, defence industry specialists, pilots and engineers, my current understanding is that when the programme is fully up and running Air Tanker expect to be employing over 500 personnel. Of these it is anticipated that just over half will be seconded from the Royal Air Force and the rest will be directly employed Air Tanker personnel together with Sponsored Reservists.

When all KC-30 Voyager capability has been fully delivered, Air Tanker will have a total of fourteen aircraft available to the Royal Air Force. However, of this capability and when not required by the military a total number of five aircraft will be made available for lease to commercial airline operators. This is a particularly novel aspect of the MFTS contract. Given that the KC-30 is a variant of the hugely popular Airbus A330 it seems likely that with the ability to quickly convert the aircraft for whatever purpose required that the lease idea will prove popular with third parties who would operate them when not immediately required for RAF use. Potentially, this arrangement could deliver further cost saving ability to the MoD and it does at the very least ensure that the considerable capability advantages of the KC-30 are to be considered affordable.

In tanker form my current understanding is Voyager will be made available to the Royal Air Force as a 2-point tanker (originally planned to be equipped with 2 FRL Mk32B 900E pods) and that some aircraft will eventually be fitted as 3-point tankers. Full passenger and cargo capability can be used at the same time and while the KC-30 is configured for air-to-air refuelling operation, the cabin will remain fully configured for passenger carrying capability with cargo compartments unobstructed. This together with its size,– will be the largest aircraft in the Royal Air Force. Capacity, operational capability and scale is a major advance.

On a typical deployment across the North Atlantic, I am reliably told that a single Voyager KC-30 in tanker configuration form would be able to refuel four Panavia Tornado GR4 aircraft and still carry 11,000lb (5000kg) of freight/passengers. I am in no position to verify any of these figures, but as Voyager will have the capacity to carry a maximum of 110,000 kilos (240,000lbs) litres of fuel and when the programme is complete all aircraft will be fitted with a full defensive aids suite (DAS) I conclude that this will be an awesome aircraft.


Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

(18 September 2013)

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