In a soon-to-be-released special publication, Stephen Skinner details RAF VC10 Afghanistan and Iraq operations, where the quadjet saw frontline action in both the air-to-air refuelling and transport roles.
Despite their busy time in the 1990s the new millennium brought new threats, highlighted by the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. 101 Squadron crews were already deployed on an exercise in Oman when Operation Veritas, led by the USA, began a series of airstrikes in October 2001 in reaction to 9/11 against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Five VC10 tankers supported USN aircraft operating from carriers in the Indian Ocean. Many of these sorties involved flying deep inside Afghanistan, as close as the VC10s had ever been to actual combat. During this period 101 Squadron co-operated with 10 Squadron, sharing crews and aircraft and also flying Air Transport tasks. This operation was succeeded by two smaller operations culminating in Operation Herrick, the UK’s operations in Afghanistan which took place from 2002 until 2014.
The VC10s made a superb commitment to the conflict refuelling Tornados and Nimrods over the country. According to Hansard, ‘A small detachment of VC10 and occasionally TriStar aircraft is based in the wider Operational Herrick area on a rotational basis to support Air-to-Air refuelling operations over Afghanistan. They do not land in Afghanistan during these missions. The number of Operation Herrick Air-to-Air Refuelling sorties undertaken by VC10 or TriStar for 2010 were 319 VC10 AAR and just 2 Tristar AAR’.
2003 Iraq War – Operation Telic
Despite the ongoing operations in Afghanistan (and the need to cover UK airspace and the Falklands) in 2003 the emphasis temporarily shifted back to Iraq and 101 Squadron crews were heavily involved in Operation Telic, the invasion and final overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime. With more than 12 years of continuous deployment in the Middle East 101 Squadron’s considerable AAR experience bore fruit with a 100% sortie success rate, despite sandstorms and damage from enemy fire.
The VC10s operated out of Al Udeid air base in Qatar. They would typically take off with 83 tons fuel and transfer 40 tons to RAF aircraft, USN F-18s, USAF, Italian or French types. The Squadron wanted to operate from Iraq and though there was no problem in crossing Syria, there was a fee of £50,000 for each journey. Operations were not confined to AAR as 101 Squadron helped evacuate over 1,000 casualties to hospitals in Cyprus. These casualties were carried in both the C1(K)s and also in the limited provision fitted to K3 & K4.
Flying into Basra
After Basra in southern Iraq was occupied by British forces 101 Squadron could fly in there. However, as fighting was still continuing in Iraq it was very dangerous, as below 20,000ft there was the possibility of handheld AAA (Anti-Aircraft Artillery). If the pilots were instructed to ‘slide’ or ‘scram’ by Air Traffic Control they would take evasive action and accelerate away.
Owing to dangers of AAA the Squadron devised a new descent graph. The VC10 would descend at 2,000fpm (feet per minute) to 20,000 feet and then would put the spoilers out and extend the undercarriage, thus grossly increasing the drag and accelerating the descent rate to 9,000fpm. The aircraft would level off at 2,000 feet, make a quick circuit and land. On the first occasion this was tried in anger the machine achieved 11,500fpm and took less than two minutes to descend from 20,000 feet to 1,500 feet while still carrying passengers! Apparently these were Special Forces troops who had been briefed beforehand but they screamed as it happened. The VC10 had never been tested for this procedure but the aircraft was a Vickers design and made by a company that built battleships! This descent procedure was used for 18 months and kept the aircraft out of danger. There were no losses. As the crews were flying over hostile zones they were on duty for three weeks at a time and took helmet, respirator and body armour.
During the Iraq conflict the VC10 C1(K)s carried a lot of freight into Basra and it was discovered that the freight door was often not shutting properly. After two to three weeks it was discovered the only way to shut the door easily was for the pilots to park the aircraft with nose wheel alignment directly ahead – for unless the parking was spot-on it caused a fractional twist to the airframe and meant shutting the door was difficult.
Tanking Typhoons to Singapore
While 101 Squadron continued to be deployed in the Gulf and the Falklands it was supporting, in both AAR and transport roles, the other global commitments for the UK Forces. It successfully air refuelled the deployment and return of two Eurofighter Typhoons to Singapore in July 2004 for an evaluation as part of their Next Fighter Replacement program, and this operation coincided with a need to test a number of elements of Typhoon. For these sorts of operation, as in supporting the deployments for Red Flag to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada a trail procedure was employed. The VC10’s navigator plotted regular points where its receivers must be refuelled but where they could still divert to land in the event of a tanker problem.
All VC10s concentrated into 101 Squadron
In late 1999 the first of 101 Squadron’s older and less capable VC10 K2s were withdrawn from use and flown to St Athan where they were scrapped. Two C1(K)s had already been scrapped; XR809 never returned to the RAF after its use as a RB211 testbed and was scrapped at Kemble while XR806 was damaged beyond repair at Brize Norton in December 1997 during a defueling incident, when it tipped up on its tail and so was scrapped on the airfield. At the end of 2000, XV103 which had been the first tanker/transport C1(K) conversion was due a major overhaul.
Repainting to plain grey (since it was the last aircraft still in white) would have been costly, so the commercial expedient was to withdraw it from use. It had been delivered to the Air Force from Wisley after 16 hrs of flying and was now retiring 33 years later after 34,628 hrs. The last of the original VC10 K2s – ZA142, previously British Airway’s G-ARVI – was at that time undertaking the unit’s Falklands duty but on return to Brize Norton in March 2001 it was retired to RAF St Athan for scrapping.
With the VC10’s numbers shrinking, in October 2005 No 10 Squadron was disbanded and all their VC10 C1(K)s joined 101 Squadron’s K3 and K4 tanker fleet. At that time there was a combined total of 17 airframes; ten C1(K), four K3s and three K4s. Withdrawals continued as aircraft were broken down to provide spares for the others until the end of September 2013. The last offensive operation that 101 Squadron’s VC10s took part in was Operation Unified Protector, the liberation of Libya 2011. VC10s flew in support of RAF Tornados to enforce the ‘no fly’ zone and during the hostilities which led to the downfall of Ghaddaffi.
On 16 February 2011 VC10 K3 ZA140 engaged in tanker trials with the first prototype Airbus A400M Atlas F-MMMT. These dry hook ups did not go smoothly and film of incident shows the A400M becoming increasingly unstable behind the VC10, hurriedly disengaging from the drogue and rising almost uncontrollably and dangerously near the VC10’s tail. Testing ceased while Airbus rewrote the control law for such a manoeuvre and only engaged in trials in 2013 with an Airbus Voyager, which are slowly replacing the RAF’s VC10s.
This article is from VC10 Special
One of the truly iconic jet airliners, the Vickers VC10 is superb example of British engineering that left a lasting impression on many; those who flew it as pilots, or in it as crew or passengers, those who worked on the initial design, manufacturing, or maintenance programmes, or those many more who simply saw it in the skies.