Recollections and reflections — a seasoned reporter’s view of aviation history
A true story. All those years ago, when I was but a lad, the British aircraft industry was still very much in its prime. It was in early 1964 that an aviation society to which I belonged organised a coach trip to the British Aircraft Corporation’s Brooklands factory at Weybridge, Surrey to see the VC10 in production. In 1964, BAC Weybridge was thriving, with several ongoing programmes. On the civil side, Viscount production had finally come to an end after 438 examples had been built, although the following Vanguard had never really taken off with a run of just 43.
Cynics say that the company lost on the Vanguard all the money it had made on the Viscount. The major activity at Weybridge at the time was the VC10. Prototype G-ARTA had flown on 29 June 1962 and the type would be awarded its certificate of airworthiness on 23 April 1964. G-ARTA — and all subsequent VC10s — made its first flight from Weybridge, the lightly fuelled aircraft taking off to make the short hop to land at the company’s test airfield at Wisley, just a few miles away. The Weybridge runway was just 3,800ft long and a departing VC10 needed to make full use of every last foot of concrete. To achieve this, G-ARTA was pushed back by tractor to the very end of the runway, which backed on to the Waterloo-West Country railway line, and trains were temporarily halted. In the event it took off, safely, to the south-west in just 2,150ft. As to military types, Valiant production at Weybridge had come to an end, but BAC was partnered 50:50 with English Electric on the design and production of the wildly ambitious TSR2, promising ‘Mach 2 from a dirt strip’, which was eagerly anticipated by the RAF.
Anyway, back to the coach trip. There were 45 of us and, as we arrived at the Weybridge main gate, a cheery security guard asked, for the record, “None of you got any cameras, have you?” Well, every one of us had, and some more than one. Each was laboriously handed over to security, listed and a receipt issued. After what seemed like an hour, our BAC guide came on board and we drove around the site.
VC10 production was in full swing and we disembarked to walk the line, where milling from the solid had been adopted for much of the aircraft’s structure, in a striking example of what was then the best in modern practices. With our visit drawing to a close, we got back on the coach prior to heading home.
But as we passed one of the hangars, its doors slid open to reveal the TSR2 line, with first development batch aircraft XR219 and a couple more in white paint, and other less complete airframes still in primer. Out from nowhere — or, indeed, from duffle bags — came many suddenly rediscovered cameras, which were pointed into the hangar to record the scene. Our BAC guide commanded the driver to “drive on”, while all the other passengers urged him vociferously to “stop”. As a result, the coach lurched forward, then halted, a process that was repeated several times until the guide’s will prevailed and we headed definitively for the main gate. By this time, much film had been exposed on this surprise addition to our tour. As for me, I had clearly been too honest (or too stupid) and had handed my camera in earlier.
Although I flew several times on VC10s in both civil and military guises, I never got to see a TSR2 in the air on any of its 24 flights
Within a year the TSR2 had been cancelled, while VC10 production never got beyond 55 examples and the factory closed in the 1980s. Although I flew several times on VC10s in both civil and military guises, I never got to see a TSR2 in the air on any of the just 24 flights it made in 1964-65. This, along with never having met Debbie Harry, remains one of my life’s great regrets.