10 Reasons the Vickers VC10 was the Keith Moon of Jetliners
Too loud, too fast and too thirsty for mainstream acceptance, Britain’s VC10 was the Keith Moon of jetliners. Both Moon and the VC10 thundered onto the world’s stage in 1964; one was the best jetliner of its time, the other was The Who’s wild-man, the most influential drummer of his generation. While Keith Moon was frequently ‘hijacked’ by substance abuse, the VC10 suffered a disproportionate number of actual hijackings and other acts of violent freakish misfortunate. In getting to the bottom of this incredible story, I enlisted the help of an aerodynamicist, an aeronautical engineer, a professor of flying noise, an oil-rig worker – as well as a leading comedian/historian/percussionist. Oh, and a former Sea Harrier pilot for good luck.
Talking about my s-s-second generation jetliner…let’s find out why the VC10 was the Keith Moon of jetliners.
10. The Who versus ‘The Wey’: A need for speed
The VC10 was born close to Weybridge in Surrey, England at Brooklands. This was the centre of British speed, both motor racing and aircraft production. Brooklands was where the Hurricane took its first flight, and was instrumental in the creation of the declinist poster-boy, the cancelled TSR.2 bomber. Keith Moon was a centre of speed in his own right in both his drumming and drug of choice, in an interview he described his favourite food as ‘French Blues’ a slang term for Dexamyl amphetamines. Moon was born in Wembley, one time home of the Aircraft Operating Company.
The VC10 was one of the fastest airliner this side of Concorde and the Tu-144. Its never exceed speed was a spritely Mach 0.94. There is a story of a medical emergency onboard a VC10 en route from South Africa being addressed with a FL430 flight at a hair-singeing Mach 0.95. This would have even given Elvis’ speedy Convair a run for it money.
While the American Boeing airliners were getting progressively slower by generation, British airliners were getting faster.
Whereas the 707, in the guise of the E-3, often wore a ‘high-hat’, it was something Keith (and the VC10) would avoid like the plague. We asked historian and drummer Al Murray his thoughts:“Moon eschewed conventional technique it’s fair to say, as best recorded in Mono so that it sounded like one great big drum kit. As studios became more complex he got harder to get down on record. He used no hi hat, (until really late in his career) which is really odd; his style is best described as “lead drummer”.
The VC10 was considered for every conceivable military role including airborne early warning, but not with a large dish on the top but a big ‘bollock’ at the front and one at the back. According to Chris Gibson, author of Nimrod’s Genesis: RAF Maritime Patrol Projects and Weapons Since 1945, “A rotodome for a VC10 is a stupid idea and never looked at. The single bollock was the original alternative to the Fore Aft Scanner System (FASS).”
Although much touted as offering a quiet passenger experience, outside the aircraft it was a very different story. According to aircraft noise expert Prof. Michael Carley “Noise from VC10, according to then head of powerplant at Rolls Royce, was about 115EPNBb. Supposedly The Who were measured at 126dB 32m from the speaker, so I’d say they were about the same. The VC10 was about as loud as The Who. A 737 is about as loud as what you hear using a lawnmower. Somehow, it seems like what we deserve (A VC10 is cooler than one of Ryanair’s 737). It’s like a souped up Lambretta versus e-bike.”
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|The Who (32 metres from speaker)||N/A||126|
(the British aircraft are manufacturer’s estimates and likely to be generously under the real figure)
7. Peaky blinder
We’re going to go a bit hardcore technical in this entry so if you haven’t had your coffee yet, feel free to scroll to number 6.
Over to aerodynamicist Stephen McParlin, “The VC10 was a significant milestone towards the early Airbus wings (although a Weybridge, rather than Hatfield design, RAE and NPL were providing much of the technology underpinnings for the aerodynamics). It’s recognisably a sonic rooftop design* for cruise, and these are usually pretty robust, in terms of their buffet margins when shocks eventually form. I think there’s something more important though. The earlier jet transports had high lift systems as an afterthought. Long runways were very much an operational paradigm for the B707 and DC-8, particularly with earlier engines. The VC10 was designed around a better balance between field length and cruise performance. This is important, because a better high lift system enables a smaller wing, and higher wing loading at cruise, hence better cruise Lift/Drag… This eventually became important for the next generation economics, when the A300B4 took on the US wide body trijets, and demonstrated superior economics, doing the same job with only two engines.
The VC10 wing design was a development that benefited extensively from work done by Kuechemann and Weber at RAE, and by Pearcey and others, including Robin Lock, at NPL. It was a fully 3D design, intended to have a near-sonic rooftop pressure distribution at cruise Mach numbers, with slightly higher Mach numbers in the leading edge suction peak. The numerical methods used (essentially the Inverse Weber method) were limited to purely subsonic Mach numbers normal to the wing isobars, although the locally supersonic peaks were an empirical add-on. There’s a great RAeS historical paper by Steve Liddle, describing an earlier form of the technology as applied to V-bombers… and review papers from 1961 and 1964 by John Bagley and Robin Lock respectively, in PiAS, covering design methods for swept wings.”
The VC10 was a significant milestone towards the early Airbus wings (although a Weybridge, rather than Hatfield design, RAE and NPL were providing much of the technology underpinnings for the aerodynamics). It’s recognisably a sonic rooftop design for cruise, and these are usually pretty robust, in terms of their buffet margins when shocks eventually form. I think there’s something more important though. The earlier jet transports had high lift systems as an afterthought. Long runways were very much an operational paradigm for the B707 and DC-8, particularly with earlier engines. The VC10 was designed around a better balance between field length and cruise performance. This is important, because a better high lift system enables a smaller wing, and higher wing loading at cruise, hence better cruise L/D. This eventually became important for the next generation economics, when the A300B4 took on the US wide body trijets, and demonstrated superior economics, doing the same job with only two engines.
*What is a sonic rooftop design? Ok, this gets into transonic aerodynamics. The ‘rooftop’ is that part of the design pressure distribution on the wing upper surface, from just aft of the leading edge peak suction (hence ‘peaky’) to a location further aft, where the pressure has to recover to something reasonably close to stagnation pressure at the trailing edge. The local Mach number at the rooftop is important. If it exceeds unity, you eventually have to deal with supersonic effects, including shock waves, and their adverse impact on drag, buffet boundaries and control effectiveness. A sonic rooftop design is one where the local Mach number in the rooftop is *just* subsonic, hence no shocks. Until 1968, when Murman & Cole cracked the problem in an early CFD method, mixed subsonic/supersonic flows weren’t amenable to numerical analysis, hence this was a technological limit on design. Until then, Weber’s compressibility rule was one of the best for designing right up to the limits of subsonic flow. A key difference between the VC10 and A300B4 wing was the level of rooftop suction allowable… and the A310 took that further, with the availability from RAE of transonic CFD methods that could handle both weak shocks and boundary layer effects. This was stretched even further by the A320, which was very much a joint effort between Des Treadgold at RAE and Jack Wedderspoon at Weybridge, for which both organisations received Queen’s Awards for technology.
6. POWER and GRACE
Modern airline engines are too big to be put at the back, but this wasn’t the case in the VC10’s time. According to McParlin, “The rear-mounted Conways were touted as reducing cabin noise, but the Conways suffered from being an early turbofan, and having a lower bypass ratio than later engines. These days, having engines in close proximity is considered a potential hazard for common mode failures, with uncontained failure in one engine potentially causing failure in the adjacent engine. There are issues around rear-mounted engines requiring heavier structure in both wings and fuselage, a consequence of losing bending relief in the wings, and having to beef up the fuselage structure to cope with the aft mounting of both wing and engines. However, post-Comet U.K. aircraft structures were detail designed to avoid crack propagation to a paranoid degree. The BAC 111 is probably the classic example of a structure where no details were left to chance when it came to fatigue, or stress corrosion. How these compared with the traditional conservatism and legendary damage-tolerance of Boeing structures is open to debate. The Aloha 737 incident showed what Boeing structures were capable of surviving. Thankfully, we’ll never know if a BAC 111 would have developed those cracks in the first place.
Joe Wilding notes, “The rear engine layout also came from the rough-field requirement as it provided for shorter landing gear that could be made lighter while withstanding the heavier loads. -Of course the rear mounted engines have their own drawbacks due to uncontained rotor burst, and maintenance accessibility. But overall, it resulted in a high performance aircraft for both takeoff and cruise speed. This is hard to achieve on a high-speed aircraft. The VC10 has a thrust/weight ratio roughly 20% higher than the 707 and DC-8. which probably explains even more of the takeoff performance. The Conway turbofan engine helped with this as it has a 10% better thrust/weight ratio than the original JT3C engines on the 707 and DC-8. (Later models of each of these aircraft also used the Conway. Of course the rear mounted engines have their own drawbacks due to uncontained rotor burst, and maintenance accessibility. But overall, it resulted in a high performance aircraft for both takeoff and cruise speed. This is hard to achieve on a high-speed aircraft.” It is not known the thrust/weight ratio of Moon, but he was likely the highest of The Who.
The take-off distance was up to 15% shorter than the 707 or DC-8, despite the VC10’s smaller wing. Similarly, Moon’s power was not dumb and indiscriminate but applied with great intelligence, according to Al Murray, “There’s the great story about Elvin Jones setting himself up as a drum teacher when he was in town. Everyone in London goes for a lesson. Moon turns up, Jones says ‘Ok show we what you can do’ and Moon does his thing – and Jones sits in astonishment at the whirling dervish before him. He asks Moon how much he earns, and terminates the lesson on the grounds that there’s nothing he can teach him.”
It’s one thing living a chaotic life of vandalism and wild sex, but bringing the actual apocalypse is clearly another level of carnage. Wisely, there were never plans to arm Keith Moon with up to eight Skybolt nuclear missiles.
4. Johanna Weber
Like Keith Moon, a woman was vital for the creation of the VC10 – over to historian Dr Nina Baker, “Dr Johanna Weber, was one of the foremost aerodynamicists of her generation”. Talking about her g-g-generation.
Born in Düsseldorf, Weber recieved teacher training but was barred from actually becoming a teacher as she bravely refused to join the Nazi party. Rather oddly, this did not apparently bar her from work in armaments. She first did ballistics research for the Krupp company in Essen and later moved to Göttingen’s Aerodynamics Research Institute (Aerodynamische Versuchsanstalt Göttingen) in 1939. This started her career-long work with aerodynamicist Dietrich ‘carrot’ Küchemann in Germany and later in Britain. “
At the end of the War, the British Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) recruited Küchemann and Weber, probably on the recommendation of Hilda Lyon who wrote the report covering their work. Her initial work at RAE was in Frances Bradfield’s Low Speed Wind Tunnels division, on air intake cowlings for jet engines, on which she co-authored a series of papers. The work for which she is more remembered today was on wing design, showing that a thin delta wing could generate sufficient lift to for take-off and landing for supersonic planes. Her concepts were implemented in the Concorde, VC10 airliner and Airbus A300B designs. She retired from the RAE in 1975 at the grade of Senior Principal Scientific Officer.”
3. Trashing & helicopter raids & hijackings A Quick One, While He’s Away
Keith Moon loved to trash a hotel room, much in the same way Israeli commandos loved to trash Lebanese airliners. In a widely condemned action, Israeli commandos stormed Beirut International Airport (arriving in 3 Israeli Air Force Super Frelon helicopters) and blew up 14 airliners, including one VC10, on 28 December 1968. In a similarly unexpected helicopter landing, Keith Moon landed on other famous piss-head Oliver Reed’s property. Oliver Reed had better air defences than Beirut Airport (a 12-gauge shotgun) but fortunately failed to shoot down Moon’s chopper.
On 20 November 1969, Nigeria Airways Flight 825 crashed on landing at Lagos, Nigeria killing all 87 onboard. This was the worst day in the VC10’s career but far from the only incident. On 9 September 1970, BOAC G-ASGN was hijacked, and blown up three days later at Zarqa, Jordan, in the Dawson’s Field hijackings. In another horrific accident, East African Airways Flight 720 5X-UVA crashed on take-off from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, killing 43. On 3 March 1974, BOAC G-ASGO was hijacked and landed at Schiphol in the Netherlands. The aircraft was set on fire and fucked beyond economic repair.
Considering only 54 VC10s were built you’d thinking statistically its curse would have ended there, but on 21 November 1974, British Airways Flight 870 from Dubai to Heathrow was hijacked in Dubai. It refuelled at Tripoli before flying on to Tunis. Utterly badass Captain Jim Futcher had returned to fly the aircraft knowing the hijackers were on board. The three hijackers demanded the release of Palestinian prisoners in Egypt and the Netherlands. One hostage was killed, before the hijackers surrendered to Tunisian authorities on 25 November.
Whereas to 1960s’ eyes, fun and charisma of led many to turn a blind eye to toxic behaviour, today a more nuanced view can see the damage these great thunderous masterpieces left in their wake. Moon’s abuse of his ex-partner, and the VC10’s of the environment don’t seem so charming now. Different times. A prime example of the guilt of enjoying these smoky days can be smelt in the somewhat creepy hatred that some reactionary commentators express for the young environmental activist Greta Thunberg. A generous assessment of the VC10 would note its stellar aerodynamics and pioneering turbofan were a big step forward towards more efficient airliners, likewise separating Moon’s fabulous art from his personal life is possible.
1. Tankenstein’s Monster
Moon visited his enabling pal Oliver Reed for Reed’s 40th birthday party. During the celebrations, Moon performed an improvised helicopter impression by leaping from the dining table and grabbing the rotating blades of an overhead fan. As he spun he spattered the guests with blood from his gashed hands. At this point, even Reed wondered if Moon may be drinking a little too much. Both Moon and the VC10 loved drinking – and sharing it. When we asked former Sea Harrier pilot Paul Tremelling his thoughts on tanking from the VC10, he described it “Easiest of the lot! The Herc and Transall were way too slow. The Tristar on the centreline had few useful references. Same with buddy tank off Super Hornet. The KC-10 was OK but similar to Tristar.”
When the RAF pressed ex-airline VC10s into service as air-to-air refuelling tankers they had made a very good decision, the aircraft proved extremely well suited to the task. Chris Gibson, in his top 12 tanker aircraft, noted “By the mid-1970s Britain’s defence posture had pretty much settled down after the long retreat from Empire to focus on northwest Europe and the eastern North Atlantic. The GIUK gap was seen as a crucial theatre (like Cats or The Mousetrap) and the interdiction of NATO convoys by Soviet forces was viewed as a major threat. With Buccaneers to take out the surface threats and the new Tornado ADV to tackle Soviet air assets, there was a need to increase the RAF’s tanker force from the twenty-odd Victors then in service. Luckily, British Airways was dispensing with its VC10 fleet and, if a few more were acquired from airlines in east Africa, a couple of squadrons could be put together. So, the Air Staff got their tankers and the MoD saved money. It was trebles all round in Whitehall.”
McParlin: “The biggest issue for outboard receivers is part-span vortex shedding in the wake <essentially this means messy air makes air-to-air refuelling even more difficult>. VC10s would have very clean near- and mid-distance wake roll-up <again meaning nice predictable air>. The jet efflux would also be clear of both the outboard receiver and large aircraft using the centreline HDU. Probably a more benign case than the A330 or Tristar. Least said about the KC-135 for probe-and-drogue receivers, the better.”
Did you spill my drink? No, I’m flying a VC10.