28th January 1972
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Here is a special page dedicated to G-ARTA and the events early that January morning
The Vickers VC10 prototype, serial number 803 was a Standard 1100; she was registered as G-ARTA. Serial numbers 801A, 801B and 802 were used for fuselage sections in the original test programme.
She was rolled out from Vickers plant at Brooklands on 15th April 1962 and first took to the skies some two months later on 29th June. Though as the prototype she would be used for flight / system testing and many promotional tours before finally entering commercial service.
At the end of the lease OD-AFA was restored to the British Register as G-ARTA on 15th April 1969, by which time British United Airways had concluded their negotiations to purchase her from Laker Airways.
BUA had successfully been operating the VC10, Type 1103s, since the arrival of G-ASIW in September 1964, shortly followed by ASIX and then ATDJ in July 1965.
The Type 1103s were mainly used on the long haul routes to Africa and to South America. All three BUA VC10’s had a large cargo door and were capable of carrying large amounts of air freight, they started operating on the well used and successful Africargo service in January 1969.
G-ARTA, without a cargo door, went into service on BUA’s charter services to North America and Canada, configured for 141 passengers. The VC10 was a popular aircraft with the travelling public; they were quick, modern and aesthetically pleasing, and the rear mounted engines made the passenger cabin a lot quieter.
Though it would not be long before the VC10 production programme itself would be cancelled, continual changes and order cancellations from BOAC and the RAF all led to the premature end of production.
In the meantime, back with G-ARTA she was soon to have a new livery. The Caledonian Airways takeover of BUA came to pass in September 1970 and she was liveried in CALEDONIAN//BUA titles, with the Lion Rampant on her tail, and within a year British Caledonian titles. Though the cessation of the VC10 production programme would now become a major factor in the decision on future aircraft purchases by BCal.
Tango Alpha spent much of her early life in the livery of the launch customer, BOAC, though she never went into commercial service with them.
Her first commercial owner was Laker Airways, who took ownership of her from BAC on 19th January 1968 but she would never wear a Laker livery.
Prior to this TA had been converted to a Type 1109, though she was still unique, and she was the only one with that type designation. Essentially a hybrid, mainly a Type 1100, but she now had Type 1106 wings for airline service.
She was immediately sub-leased by Laker Airways to Middle East Airlines and was registered OD-AFA on 24th January 1968. She entered service soon after and flew the innaugural MEA service between Beruit and Geneva.
Caledonian, although recognising the VC10 was hugely popular with the public, had previously opted for the 707.
They sold aircraft seats en-mass to tour operators primarily so the public choose the holiday, not the aircraft.
Also the 707 was easier to maintain abroad, as more airlines were flying them and thus more able to attend to any problems away from Gatwick.
Now there were no more new VC10’s available, the only sensible purchasing strategy was to expand the existing 707 fleet, and further utilise the facilities already in use.
Though BCal continued to make good use of their four VC10s and they were seen in South America, Africa and on many charters world-wide. But the fleet was reduced to three on 28th January 1972.
G-ARTA had been diverted to Heathrow the day before as Gatwick had been fog bound. A crew was sent to Heathrow very early that morning to ferry Tango Alpha back to LGW so she would be in the right place for that day’s service.
Whilst landing at Gatwick, at 05:19hours on 28th January, G-ARTA was damaged beyond economic repair. She had suffered severe structural damage in the landing. BCal held a Court of Inquiry into the incident, and along with other reports, below are the details of the events that day.
The flight crew of three, Captain, First Officer and Flight Engineer were driven to Heathrow, where they checked the meteorological forecast and what the conditions were at Gatwick by telephone.
There were strong winds reported and being measured at Gatwick on the morning of the accident, and earlier in the night the crosswind had been beyond safe operating limits. Though the wind had veered around and a within-limits landing was now possible, the weather conditions were expected to improve further.
Preparations were made for the short flight from LHR to LGW, and 16,000kgs of fuel were loaded with 4,000 kgs in each main tank. A fuel bowser was left on stand-by in case additional ballast fuel was needed for the centre tank, but none was taken onboard in the end.
The load sheet was prepared by the Captain, and pre-flight checks and briefing were given. Due to the short nature of the flight, a pre-landing briefing was given too at the same time. At this point the recollections differ; the Captain recalled that he asked for “spoilers and reverse thrust as soon as possible after touchdown….but at his command”. The First Officer recalled the briefing called for spoilers and reverse at touchdown, without further command.
Though the briefing was non-standard in nature and not as laid down in the Ops Manual, the First Officer did not query it, and the engines were started prior to taxiing without either having realised there was a misunderstanding. They were assigned an altitude of 2,000ft for the flight to Gatwick, and aside from moderately severe turbulence (strong winds), the flight was normal.
On arrival over Gatwick they were assigned an ILS (instrument landing system) approach to Runway 08. The cloud cover was near total at 1,200ft but at 1,000ft had all but broken up and visibility was 4,000metres. The temperature was 4oC and the wind was given as 040o 15-20 knots with occasional gusts to 32 knots.
Once established on the ILS, aside from higher than normal power settings, the approach was normal, with clear skies and full visibility from 600ft. The target speed on approach in still air was 121 knots, though the Captain had added 7 knots to cater for the expected wind gusts, then a further 10 knots were added, making an approach speed of 138knots over the threshold. Both pilots maintained they were on the glide slope at the threshold.
The final wind speed passed to the aircraft from the tower was 050o 12 knots. Though, it was later found that a gust of 28 knots (030o) had been recorded at the time of landing, near the centre of the airfield.
The flight recorder showed that their speed over the threshold was 145 knots, some 9 knots in excess of the maximum allowed for their weight and conditions, 121 knots +15 knots. This speed, 145 knots, was maintained until the point of flare when the aircraft’s rate of descent is reduced rapidly for landing. The throttles were closed 8 seconds prior to touchdown and the same instant flare was commenced.
She touched down heavily at 126 knots; a 1G impact was recorded, and she actually became airborne again after only one ½ second on the ground. The nose was pitch up, control induced, and this had the effect of driving the main undercarriage hard onto the tarmac. There was a difference of opinion; the Captain reported they were on the ground for a measurable time, the First Office that they were back off immediately.
The VC10 was a strong aircraft, designed for rough and ready runways; she may have popped a few seals in her undercarriage hydraulics, but would have survived this first heavy landing.
Though, this is the point where things started to go very badly wrong.
Even as Tango Alpha was pitching up to 6o after her first contact with the ground, spoilers and reverse thrust were called for by the Captain (thinking they were on the ground for a measurable time). It appeared the First Officer anticipated this command, as this was his understanding from the briefing, and the aircraft levelled off and went 4o pitch down in mid-air. Her nose wheel struck the ground first, before the main undercarriage came down and she bounced again, this time pitch up to 15o. She contacted the ground for a 3rd time, bounced pitch up to 11o before landing for a fourth time on the main undercarriage. This time the nose wheel came down and she stayed down, after porpoising along the runway.
The 2nd and 3rd contacts with the ground recorded 1.75G (119 knots) and 3.55G (103knots), the 4th contact (landing) 94 knots and just 0.4G. G-ARTA was brought to a stop on the runway, and all the engines fire extinguisher systems were deployed as a precaution as part of a shortened shut-down drill.
Tango Alpha was essentially written off in the incident, the nose undercarriage was badly damaged, both tyres had burst and one wheel had separated due to a broken axle.
The fuselage was creased just ahead of the wing root position, the external indication of the main damage that was hidden inside. It was given as “severe distortion of the centre section torque box”, part of the aircraft’s main structure was damaged.
The damage was done on the 2nd and 3rd ground contacts, debris was found from the nose undercarriage in the vicinity of these contacts, and the vertical decelerations and G forces she was exposed to were extraordinary.
Summary of Findings.
The Board of Enquiry found that all the crew had the correct licences and qualified to carry out the flight and the aircraft was flight-worthy with no recorded faults.
Though they did find errors in the load sheet and the aircraft was very close to being outride of the operational Centre of Gravity limits. They acknowledged that the wind conditions were not ideal and this aggravated the difficulties experienced, but it should not have been unexpected by the crew.
The non-standard briefing was in error, even though the Captain called for spoilers and reverse thrust immediately, the First Officer was already performing the actions. It should not have been a pre-programmed action. The incident, according to the Board of Enquiry, was that it was crew error.
The fate of G-ARTA
She had her titles removed and was placed in storage at Gatwick where she sat for best part of two years, slowly being used for spares for the remaining VC10 fleet. Parts of her fuselage were used by the engineering apprentices, who made silhouettes from her skin, and these were sold in aid of the Golden Lion Children’s Trust.
Photo Caz Caswell
From the Board's report