VC-10 Tanker Sortie Feature Report
Thursday 10th February
We've all marvelled at air-to-air photographs, whether they be from the back seat of a fast jet or of frontline aircraft taking on fuel from a tanker. The unblemished backdrop, the guaranteed sunshine, and the rich, deep colours in the skies at altitude, all combining to make a memorable image. It's something we'd all love to try, given the opportunity. Being based at RAF Brize Norton, it was high time I took a slice of the action for myself!
climbs above the clouds to report from 20,000 feet. All photos copyright the author.
For the past three months, I'd been trying to get onto a tanker sortie but for reasons beyond my control, it just wasn't happening. Then on the morning of the 9th of February, I get a call from a VC-10 co-pilot who happens to be a fellow photographer, saying that he's lined up a flight for me the next day. Would I be interested? If so, turn up at flight planning to meet the VC-10 crew, callsign 'Tartan 42' at 11:30am. I was working nights throughout that week so an 11:30 start would mean only three hours sleep that morning. Could I do it? Hell yes!
I arrived at flight planning where I met the crew. They informed me that the flight deck would be very busy as they were flight checking a newly qualified pilot so there would be little chance for any photography up there but the passenger hold would be relatively empty with only an air steward, and one other photographer down the back. Excellent news as I'd heard stories of photographers getting very competitive when the passenger compartment is full! The captain, Flight Lieutenant Curtis, told me that we were headed for a tanker track over the North Sea and that it would take only fifty minutes to get on station. Our customers for the two and a half hour sortie would be Harrier GR.7's, Tornado GR.4's & Tornado F.3's. We also had a couple of empty time slots after bad weather forced the cancellation of a pair of Typhoons.
Take off time was at 14:00, so at 13:00 we get on the crew bus and head out to our aircraft. VC-10 C.1K serial number XV105 was guzzling the seventy tonnes of F-34 fuel needed for the sortie from a fuel bowser when we arrived. Twenty tonnes was to be available to the fast jets while the rest would be used by the VC-10 to complete the sortie. Onboard down in the passenger hold, the floor had been rolled for pallets which meant that there were only two rows of seats at the front and the rest of the area was just a roller floor. This was good news as it would give me unrestricted access to any window I wanted. I then met the other photographer, Derek Bower. His name rang a bell and I finally realised that I was in the company of one of the best aviation photographers around. He was onboard to hopefully photograph some 3 Sqn Harrier GR.7's for an article he was writing. Derek and I sat in the same row for take off and had a great chat about his work. With 14:00 approaching, the four Rolls Royce Conway 301 engines were started and with clearance from air traffic, XV105 started to taxi down to runway 26. Once lined up, throttles went to full and we accelerated down the runway. Anybody who's been to Brize would know that the VC-10 is one of the loudest aircraft around, but inside the cabin it was surprisingly quiet.
Since its introduction into the RAF way back in 1966, the VC-10 has built a reputation of being extremely dependable at refuelling aircraft, carrying passengers and hauling freight. The age of each aircraft means that the groundcrew from 10/101 engineering squadron are kept extremely busy keeping the fleet in the air. Even more so at a time when the aircrew of both 10 & 101 squadrons are supporting operations all over the world, accompanying fast jets when on route to a deployment or flying missions in the UK to keep fast jet pilots qualified in air-to-air refuelling. There are stories during hostilities in Afghanistan of F-14 Tomcats choosing VC-10's over KC-10's and KC-135's because they are regarded as the best "probe 'n drogue" re-fuellers in the world!
Once airborne, we headed east for Lincolnshire, climbing to our desired altitude of 20,000ft where we saw the Red Arrows practising at RAF Scampton. I bet not a lot of people can claim to have watched the Red Arrows perform below them! How I wished that they would come up to meet us and pose for my camera. Daydreams aside, it was time to get the camera out as we were fast approaching our rendezvous with our first customers - Fang 1 & 2, a pair of Tornado GR.4's from 9 Sqn.
Out of nowhere, the GR.4's appear and before I even get a chance to take a photograph of them, they slid behind XV105's wings to take on fuel. I manage to get one photograph of GR.4 (s/n ZA400) while it's plugged in to the basket but the angle was too great to get quality shots. Surprisingly, this Tornado was still in its Op Telic markings with sharks' mouth & nose art still applied. After only a short amount of time on the baskets, the two Tornados completed their post-tanking checks on our Port side, allowing us to get a few seconds of photographs, then broke away to carry on with their mission.
A few minutes later, our second lot of customers arrive. Blacksmith 1 & 2 were two Tornado F.3's from 43 sqn (ZE165 & ZH559). They were suddenly joined by Saturn 1 & 2, another pair of Tornado F.3's this time from 56(R) sqn (ZE965 & ZE837). Tornado F.3 ZE837 wears the markings of an 111 sqn jet but it's temporarily detached to 56'r' sqn having returned from the Italian Air Force. Photo opportunities could not have been better as the sun was in the right place & there was at least three aircraft staying on our starboard wing while one refuelled. Derek Bower had printed off a large black arrow glued onto a luminous red A4 sheet. With this, he could point in any direction he wanted the F.3's to go. Thankfully, we had a great set of aircrew flying the Tonkas & were always willing to move around so as we could get the perfect picture.
Within minutes, Scorpion 1 & 2 arrives while Blacksmith 1 & 2 departs having taken on enough fuel to finish of their CAP. Scorpion flight was a mixed flight of two Tornado F.3's from 43 sqn (ZE207) & 56'r' sqn (ZE869). Again, the two flights formed on the starboard wing while they took turns on the basket. They then moved over to the starboard side indicating that they had finished refuelling & broke away.
Our last customer of the day appeared soon thereafter - Chaos 1 & 2. They were two Harriers GR.7's (ZD379 & ZD463) flown by aircrew from 3 sqn. Unfortunately for Derek, the flight lead was flying a 1 sqn aircraft which meant that the only 3 sqn jet was usually too far away. A pity really as the 3 sqn jet was carrying dummy AGM-65 Mavericks'. The Harriers didn't spend that much time refuelling as they had a slot at a range that they couldn't miss but they did pose for a little while before they departed.
With no more aircraft to refuel, Tartan 42 had accomplished its mission & turned for home. Fifty minutes later we landed at a soggy RAF Brize Norton. Quite a contrast to the beautiful blue skies & bright sunshine we had just minutes beforehand. In just two & a bit hours, I had experienced something truly amazing & thanked the crew of Tartan 42 for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime. Unfortunately, the VC-10 is in the twilight of its career but it's still a good number of years before a replacement enters RAF service (thanks to political wrangling). It'll be a sad day when the sound of the VC-10 ripping through the Oxfordshire air comes to an end.