BOOK REVIEW: ‘VC10: Icon of the Skies: BOAC, Boeing and a Jet Age Battle’.

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Reviewer: NZ Crown Mines

Title:  VC10: Icon of the Skies: BOAC, Boeing and a Jet Age Battle

Author:  Lance Coles

Total Number of Pages: 224

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent) 8

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In commerce the adage; ’The Customer is always right; even when he is wrong’ is well known. But what happens if the ‘Customer;’ continually changes his mind? If he makes outrageous demands, yet when these are met, changes his mind once more? What happens if he then says that it’s ‘All the (metaphorical) shopkeeper’s fault anyway’ and then buys an inferior product from the opposition? Absurd?  Unfortunately no, and this is essentially the narrative presented within this book. Yet despite such actions, the result was a magnificent, much loved and very beautiful aeroplane; the Vickers (later BAC) VC10. This volume relates its story.

This well-written and readable book tells two parallel and frequently-intertwined stories. One concerns the design and development of an aircraft; the other, the machinations, confusions and incompetency’s which repeatedly altered, stalled and frustrated the development of that particular machine. The author well-summarises the situation when he states that ‘This is the story of not just an airliner, but also the airline industry, an airline and the nation and society it served’. He then adds ‘Other national airlines have served political , as well as passenger needs, but the circumstances surrounding BOAC [the British Overseas Airways Corporation], the end of an era, and government edict to a national, yet State-supported carrier are circumstances unique to BOAC and the VC10’.

The ‘aircraft’ story relates the story of the development of the concepts and airframes which ultimately led to the design and construction of the VC10; the aviation-subject of this volume. In the process it details at length the sad and sorry story of the VC7 / V1000, an airliner with the potential to have given Great Britain a significant portion of the international aviation market during the late 1950’s – mid 1960’s period.  That it didn’t do so is largely as a result of BOAC’s actions, although experience gained with the VC7 /VC1000 contributed significantly to the VC10’s design and development. The ‘airline’ story, in contrast, narrates the attempts by BOAC to eliminate both the VC7/V1000 and the VC10 in favour of another, foreign, and less-capable machine. That the VC10 was even built under such circumstances is in itself remarkable. That it survived despite BOAC’s machinations, indecisions and (at times) deliberate opposition, is even more so; it is a most unusual tale. BOAC was not however the VC10’s only operator.

There were others (both civil and military) and their activities are described in detail. Proposed developments of the basic design are also discussed and illustrated.  Unsurprisingly, the VC10 had several competitors. These and their parent companies are analysed in detail and at length in Chapter 8 (Boeing’s Big Beast: Deltas, B-52s and Stratotanker to Stratoliner).

 Within the volume, and after the Contents page, separate Acknowledgements and Introduction sections precede the 10 Chapters which present its narrative. The former thanks those who contributed to the volume; the latter both precis’s the volume’s contents, and contains  personal reminiscences from the author. The Chapters themselves detail the development of the aircraft and the various machinations that attended its use by BOAC. They also provide background to the development of that airline and its role within the British Empire. Endnotes are used to provide additional information within the volume. They are numeric in format, chapter-specific and sequential. The relevant citations appear in a designated Notes section after the volume’s last chapter. A two-page Bibliography and Sources section then follows. Curiously, an Appendix (Designated Appendix I), is placed after the Bibliography and Sources section instead of after the final chapter; the usual place for Appendices. It records the individual Registrations of each VC10, together with some details of its airline and military service. It does not give individual airframe histories. An Index placed behind the Appendix concludes the volume. The book contains plans, schedules, monochrome photographs and half-tone drawings. There is no mention of their existence on either the Contents page or in the Index. There are no maps.

While this reviewer found the volume informative, he believes it to be let down by a lack of attention to small details, the description of the 1934 De Havilland Comet racer as being ‘Single seat’ on p.56 being a case in point (it was actually two seat), In a similar vein, diagrams within Chapter 5 do not appear on the pages which refer to them (p.84 being one such example; the statement ‘The early sketches (see below)…’  revealing only more text, not the expected diagrams). Although minor, the discovery of such details raised doubts about the veracity of the larger narrative.

These ‘imperfections’ notwithstanding, this volume may appeal to a variety of readers. Devotees of the VC10 aircraft will definitely find it of interest as will aviation enthusiasts of a more ‘generalist’ nature, particularly those interested in airline history and operations. Geopolitical researchers and Historians interested in corporate histories and Government-private sector interaction may find the machinations of BOAC of interest, while modellers may find the photographs to be a useful resource.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume an 8.

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nzcrownmines is available for book reviewing. Contact: nzcrownmines@gmail.com

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘VC10: Icon of the Skies: BOAC, Boeing and a Jet Age Battle’.