As of 2002, the RAF had 19 of its 4-engined VC10 aerial tankers in service. These sleek aircraft with the unusual engine arrangement form the backbone of its aerial tanker fleet, and continued to do so for about another decade until the new Airbus A330 MRTTs began entering service as part of a pathbreaking private-public partnership deal.
VC10s also had an early role in the RAF’s pursuit of a “future contracting for availability” approach across its fleets, which aims to pay for available planes rather than for man-hours and spare parts. In September 2013, the British-designed VC10 fleet reached the end of its contributions to operations and to military contracting, and retired.
The UK’s VC10 Fleet
The RAF’s 19 Vickers VC10s are famous for having 4 engines – 2 mounted on each side of their rear fuselage. This has the happy side-effect of minimizing turbulence for pilots taking up refueling stations behind the wings. They are equipped with a probe-and-drogue refueling system capable of refueling 2 aircraft simultaneously from the 2 underwing pods; they can also use the single fuselage-mounted Hose Drum Unit (HDU). Unlike the Tristars, the VC10s can also be refueled themselves, thanks to the installation of a probe in their nose. The aircraft comes in 3 tanker versions:
The VC10-C.1Ks (11 serving as of 2002) were converted to the aerial refueling role in 1993 with the fitting of a Mk32 refueling pod under the outboard section of each wing. They carry their internal fuel, and can also accommodate 124 troops plus 9 crew, or aero-medical evacuation of up to 68 stretchers. A large, cabin-freight door on the forward left side of the aircraft allows combi passenger/freight or full-freight configuration. In its full-freight role, the cabin can hold up to 20,400 kg/ 22.4 tons of palletized freight, ground equipment or vehicles, on its permanently strengthened floor. They were operated by 10 Squadron until disbandment in October 2005, then by 101 Squadron until the type was retired entirely in July 2013.
The RAF’s 4 VC10-K.3s are equipped with fuselage fuel tanks mounted in the passenger compartment, and can carry up to 78,000 kg of fuel. The aircraft has a very limited passenger-carrying capacity used almost exclusively to carry ground crew and other operational support personnel.
The RAF’s 4 VC10-K.4s carry 69,800 kg of fuel using their original 8 fuel tanks, and add another 1,750 gallon tank in the fin. The aircraft had been purchased in 1981 from British Airways, and were converted by BAe in 1990. These VC10s went through almost a complete rebuild, emerging without the airframe fatigue flight restrictions placed on many of the other VC10s in the fleet. The K.3s and K.4s are operated by 101 Squadron.
The VC10s have been out of production for well over 20 years.
The JAVELIN Program
The Joint Approach to VC10 Engineering and Logistics INtegration (JAVELIN) began with the original GBP 207 million JAVELIN Red program, signed in 2003. BAE Systems took responsibility for providing spares and inclusive major maintenance of the VC10 fleet at DARA St Athan in partnership with the UK’s Defence Aviation Repair Agency (DARA), and supporting first and second-line maintenance at RAF Brize Norton.
JAVELIN Amber, a GBP 38 million contract extension agreed in mid-2005, transferred second-line maintenance to St. Athan, established the forward and depth maintenance arrangements agreed with the MoD, transferred additional responsibilities for fleet maintenance and maintenance policy to BAE Systems, and offered contract incentives based on aircraft availability.
The June 2007 GBP 123 million (about $245 million) contract modification extended those arrangements to the VC10s’ out of service date, currently planned for “the middle of the next decade.” The final A330 MRTT aircraft is expected to enter service in 2016, which places the likely phase-out date around 2015-2017.
It also paved the way for the next phase, JAVELIN Green. This will be a full “future contracting for availability” contract under which ready-to-go aircraft are made available to the front lines at agreed-upon level, for the system’s remaining service life, under a pre-agreed budget.
In May 2008, BAE Systems announced that JAVELIN Green had been reached with a 5-year contract worth GBP 43.9 million, based on availability metrics, wherein BAE Systems will take responsibility for much of the ‘on-base’ VC10 engineering, logistics and technical support, including engineering bays at RAF Brize Norton and Oxfordshire which are currently managed by Serco. The contract includes post-design services, air refuelling equipment, spares and spares inclusive repairs as well as the disposal of airframes at the end of their service life.
Sept 20/13: Final Flight. The VC10 performs its last operational flight for the RAF. The 2-ship VC10 K3 sortie (tails ZA147 and ZA150) included the full range of counterparts: Typhoon and Tornado GR4 fighters, Hercules transports, and even extending the mission by refueling one VC10 from the other. To mark the tanker’s long service, a VC10 flew over various RAF stations, including RAF Lossiemouth, RAF Coningsby, RAF Marham and RAF Leuchars, as well as sites in Warton, Birmingham and Prestwick.
The formal retirement ceremony is Sept 25/13, but in our books, the last flight is the end. Sources: UK MoD release.
This is the end… beautiful friend
July 29/13: The last Vickers VC10 C1K passenger & cargo is delivered to Bruntingthorpe by 101 Squadron, RAF Brize Norton, and into retirement. The final aircraft, tail #XR808, served for over 46 years and amassed 43,865 flying hours.
The entire fleet was supposed to be retired by March, but the RAF will operate them 7 months past that date. The remaining 3 VC10 K3 aerial tankers will continue in service until their retirement in October 2013, which will end the VC10’s tenure in RAF service. 101 Squadron, which operates all VC10s, is due to become the RAF’s 2nd A330 Voyager squadron. RAF.
June 25/12: Flight International explains the deadline pressures facing the transport and tanker fleet:
“By the end of this year, the last of the UK’s Lockheed Martin C-130K Hercules will be retired from use, while the replacement Airbus Military A400M won’t start appearing on the ramp at RAF Brize Norton until during 2014… But it is in the tanker sector that the biggest headache is emerging. The RAF’s last nine Vickers VC10s… [will be] retired in March 2013, with its Lockheed TriStars (including four tankers) to follow by the end of the same year… Only one [A330 Voyager] is currently in service, initially in an air transport capacity only, and I’m hearing that fuel venting problems encountered during earlier refuelling trials have yet to go away… The RAF needs tankers to sustain quick reaction alert duties… as well as supporting deployed examples defending the Falkland Islands and allied strike aircraft flying over Afghanistan. With the noise of the VC10’s “Conway quartet” to fall silent in only nine months, the pressure is really on for the Voyager to deliver.”
DID is going out on a limb, and predicting that either or both of the VC10 and L-1011 Tristar fleets will remain in service past their current retirement dates. Even private aerial tanker services like Omega wouldn’t be able to fully cover those needs, though a mix of Tristars for distant missions and contractors for Quick Reaction Alerts might work for a limited time.
May 28/12: Engine extension. A Rolls Royce announcement says that its VC10 engine support contract has been extended to 2013. Under current plans, the VC10 fleet will retire in March of that year.
Valuing Rolls Royce’s VC10 extension is difficult, because it’s presented as GBP 100 million in contracts to cover both engine support to 2015 for the RAF’s C-130 fleets, and support for the RAF’s VC10 tanker fleet and their Rolls Royce Conway Mk. 301 turbofan jet engines until 2013. Rolls Royce.
Oct 18/10: Britain’s new government releases its 2010 Strategic Defense and Strategy Review [PDF]. The VC10s will be restricted to aerial refueling roles from now on, and will not remain in service past the current 5 -year support contract.
Britain aims to retire the fleet in 2013, as the FSTA Air Tanker Ltd. service begins operating. That’s sooner than originally planned, and will leave the UK with less aerial refueling capability until the new service reaches full capacity around 2016. Unless the Air Tanker Ltd. planes install defensive systems by 2013, this will also leave aerial refueling operations over Afghanistan solely in the hands of the remaining L-1011 Tristar takers.
Feb 6/09: BAE Systems announces 2 UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) contracts worth GBP 119 million.
A GBP 15.5 million contract will provide wheel, tire and brake service across the Harrier, Nimrod MR2 maritime patrol, Hawk trainer, and VC10 tanker/transport fleets.
This other availability service contract, worth GBP 103.5 million, will see BAE Systems assume responsibility for the provision of spares and repairs, and technical, software and test equipment support for a range of Electronic Counter-Measures (ECM) equipment in Harrier and Tornado fighters. Under CAPS (Commodity Availability Procurement Strategy), the current ATTAC Tornado contract is amended to include key primary warning and defensive protection equipment for both the Tornado GR4 and Harrier fighter fleets. At present, key commodity items are managed by individual Integrated Project Teams within the UK MoD; CAPS will transfer those responsibilities to BAE. The UK MoD expects it to result in savings of about GBP 20 million.
Work will be carried out at Sealand in North Wales, Edinburgh in Scotland, Luton north of London, RAF Cottesmore in Rutland, and RAF Marham in Norfolk. BAE Systems and the UK MOD will continue to develop CAPS, in order to cover other commodity items that will support in-service aircraft. Ultimately, the UK MoD believes that CAPS could cover up to 73,000 stock items. UK MoD | BAE Systems.
Additional Readings & Sources
* RAF – VC10
* Vector Site – The Vickers (BAC) VC10
* Air Scene UK – Ten’s Tens Are Forty! The VC10 began deliveries in 1962; a total of only 54 were produced, 15 for the RAF. Subsequent purchases from other operators, including a far-sighted purchase of 14 aircraft from British Airways in 1981, have kept the RAF’s numbers up.