Updated: Oct 20, 2019
Despite the early success of the 707, the British aircraft industry was not yet ready to throw in the towel. During the 1950s the Vickers company had designed a military transport aircraft called the V1000, which was a derivative of their Valiant bomber. They also planned a civil airliner version named the VC7. At a late stage in the aircraft’s development the RAF cancelled their order and BOAC turned down the civil version. George Edwards, Vickers’ outspoken managing director commented: ‘We have handed to the Americans, without a struggle, the entire world market for big jet airliners.’
BOAC were happy with the 707 for their North Atlantic routes, but in 1957 they called for a new type of aircraft to replace their Britannias and Comets on the African and Asian routes which the 707 was less well-suited to. Vickers answer was the VC10, a four-engined, long-range aircraft that would able to carry a useful payload into the ‘hot and high’ airports that had long been a problem. Instead of the under-wing engine configuration of the 707 and DC8, Vickers opted to cluster four Rolls-Royce Conway engines (the same powerplant that BOAC had specified for their 707s) at the rear. The advantage of this design was a ‘clean wing’ which, unencumbered by engines and pylons, reduced the take-off and landing speed by around ten knots, allowing the VC10 to operate from airports with high elevations and short, narrow runways. The disadvantage of the design was that the necessary strengthening of the wing and tail increased the weight and fuel consumption, thereby making the VC10 less economical than the Boeing. BOAC placed an order for 35, with options for 20 more, although the numbers would change several times before the aircraft were delivered.
In 1963 the government appointed Giles Guthrie as Chairman and Chief Executive of BOAC. Although the airline was then making a profit, it had made heavy losses in the late 1950s and early 1960s and when Guthrie arrived it was carrying a total debt of £80 million (every penny of which was owed to the government). BOAC also had a capital borrowing facility in place for a further £180 million which had been set aside to pay for the VC10s. Guthrie had been hired because he had a background in both aviation and banking, he was a distinguished pilot who had previously been a director of BEA and had also run his family’s merchant banking business. He was the first head of BOAC to be told that he must run the corporation along purely commercial lines, i.e. for profit, and not as a loss-making public service. The government had made it clear that they wanted to see BOAC returned to long-term profitability.
The plan that Guthrie presented to the Minister of Aviation, Julian Amery, was bold and simple: the only way that BOAC could be put back on its feet financially was for the government to write off all the debt and refinance BOAC as if it were a new start-up business. At the same time, the VC10 orders should be cancelled. Amery agreed to write off the debt but not to cancel the VC10, fearing that this would destroy the British aircraft industry. As a compromise, Guthrie agreed to reduce BOAC’s order for VC10s. BOAC would now operate a fleet of both VC10s and 707s in roughly equal numbers.
Guthrie’s plan worked and BOAC returned to growth and profitability. He resisted government pressure to purchase a proposed double-deck variant of the Vickers Super VC10, and by August 1966, he had placed orders for the world’s first wide-body aircraft, the Boeing 747. He won this argument largely because, as had so often happened in the past, it was known that Pan American would operate the 747 on the North Atlantic, meaning that BOAC would have little option but to follow suit. All the same, there were elements in BOAC, and elsewhere, who would never forgive him for trying to stop the VC10. Caroline Ely, who was a BOAC stewardess at the time recalled: ‘I remember that there were notes appearing on the flight deck which said, “Put Guthrie in Khartoum”, that’s what people thought of him.’
In the end, thanks to brilliant marketing by BOAC, the VC10 was a success, becoming so popular with passengers that on some routes the load factors were anything up to 50 per cent higher than for the rival 707. Like so many other British airliners, including the earlier Britannia and Comet IV, the VC10’s problems had really been caused by delay. By the time it went into service the Boeing 707 had been operating for six years, the DC8 for four, and most of the world’s long-haul airlines had already opted for one or the other. Worse still, by the early 1960s, the ‘hot and high’ runways for which it was specifically developed had been lengthened to accommodate the 707 and DC-8, depriving the VC10 of its unique selling point.