What invisible force powers our hopes and aspirations? I pondered this question whilst witnessing the achievement of an intrepid team of aeromodellers who, over the last six years, have created a stunning jet-powered example of the VC-10. This 11% scale aircraft has recently undergone initial flight trials and, from all accounts, has proven very successful.
The whole idea for this big jet project was borne out of inspiration by another jet modelling team. Terry Mason, Bill James and Steve Mitchell were at RAF Cosford to enjoy the LMA model show in 2005 and watched with keen interest as Team Rickett – Steve and his father, John – demonstrated their new twin JetCat 120 powered DH Comet. Resplendent in its BOAC livery this 105 lb (47.6kg), 14% scale, 15ft 3” wingspan beauty was built and finished to an immaculate standard and had a relatively light wing loading of 44.9oz / sq. ft. or, if you like, 13.7kg / sq. m). A full-size commercial pilot, Steve knew exactly how to present the model at scale speed, using rates of turn and bank angles that gave the illusion that one was watching the real thing. His carefully measured display culminated in a perfect landing approach, the huge flaps tipping the nose forward and the Comet floating into a beautiful ground effect-prolonged flare, gently kissing the tarmac and rolling safely to a standstill. With this, the air filled with rapturous applause, and rightly so.
This superb model and its performance wasn’t lost on Terry, Bill and Steve, who later retired to the pub armed with a bucketful of inspiration. They all had the same vision, a desire to sample the same pioneering era of aviation as the Comet and take on their own jet-powered project.
The initial consideration was to build a Nimrod Mk.4, a Comet derivative, however this was soon dropped in favour of the Super VC-10 as this had yet to be modelled at large scale for jet power. A pertinent point was the fact that Terry and Bill worked for 43 and 45 years respectively for BAe Systems, so they had a little sway in procuring pertinent information relating to the airframe structure and the myriad systems of the original design.
Motivation was high and aspirations to realise a model of their beloved VC-10 became overwhelming. So it was, then, that Team VC-10 was born!
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The team chose the military tanker ‘Super’ version because the longer forward fuselage makes the aircraft – 11% scale for a 16ft (4.9m) wingspan – much more attractive. Four Wren Super Sport jet engines nestle together in the tail, providing a combined thrust of 72 lb (32.7kg) that gives the 140 lb airframe a power-to-weight ratio of slightly under 1:2. As you can imagine, then, it’s no slouch.
The airframe replicates the full-size design right down to the wing section but, of course, uses traditional modelling materials. Accordingly, plywood, cyparis, liteply and balsa have been used. Balsa sheet skins the airframe – 1/8” on the fuselage and 3/32” on the wings – this being glass clothed with skinning resin using the Fibre-Tech system (now known as Graham Bucks Composites, who has kindly provided sponsorship). Terry reports that this product was a delight to use and provides an excellent, resilient finish but with very little weight penalty.
This model is entirely home-made, including the scale landing gear that was painstakingly replicated out of aluminium chunks acquired over the years. Meanwhile, the massive flap system has been lovingly recreated exactly to scale. This means there are ten sections of flap surfaces, each driven on flap tracks with 5” of travel being provided by a single electric motor, the latter mounted centrally in the fuselage. Cleverly, the wings plug onto the drive shaft automatically when pushed onto the substantial wing joiner tubes. A gearbox reduction system ensures that ample power is delivered through the elaborate drive shafts and corresponding couplings, these very items ensuring equal flap deployment on both wings.
Pitch control and compensation had to be addressed on the full-size as the huge flaps generate a massive forward pitch moment when fully extended, so much so that it has to be trimmed out using an all-moving tailplane design. This distinctive feature has also been painstakingly replicated, using a home-made drive system emanating from a powerful sail winch servo through a neat and clever gearbox unit. Four elevator surfaces (each driven by a dedicated servo) provide pitch control in the usual way, the all-moving tail trim system being used only in unison with flap deployment. This is realised through a dedicated transmitter mix on the Futaba 2.4GHz radio that talks to no fewer than four 10-channel receivers. Four 2s Li-Po packs power the electronics through Jeti battery backers, which provide a clean, regulated power supply.
A mammoth project such as this does have a knock-on domestic effect. At one point the wings were residing in Bill’s garage whilst he sorted out the final details of the enormous flaps, and Terry had the fuselage (which is in two parts) in his conservatory; Steve has had his fair share of input and home invasion duties, too. On occasion various parts had to be shipped out of the way to John Jackson’s house so that family functions (such as Christmas!) could be conducted.
Colin Leach also came on board to provide invaluable expertise, not just with the flap systems but also the considerable complexity of electronics and radio systems employed throughout the aircraft. Colin’s now firmly established within the team, and his support has been greatly appreciated and valued.
There’s no doubt that the VC-10 project has challenged the skills, patience and resolve of this quartet of gentlemen over their protracted journey, and their long-suffering spouses and family are equally bound into the very fabric of the VC-10 entity.
I was with the team last September to share the thrill of the first occasion the assembled aircraft rolled under its own power, this at the annual Wren Turbines open day that’s held at the company’s premises. There’s been a close working relationship between these two parties, Wren having generously sponsored team VC-10 from the outset, an engine project that has run to over £4000 to date. At the Wren factory the model was taxied around the whole car park area that’s shared by other business units, a wonderful sound reverberating when all four Super Sport jets were pulsating in perfect harmony. Their close proximity to one another made a unique resonance that I’ve never experienced before, and I don’t mind telling you that it sent shivers up my spine. Wonderful.
As the team approached the threshold of committing the VC-10 to flight there was a noticeably less-relaxed atmosphere in the camp. Legendary master of big, jet-powered models (airliners included) – and LMA Chairman – Dave Johnson very bravely accepted the role of chief test pilot, which took the pressure off the boys so they could concentrate their efforts on support and systems management. After 1000 hours of build time it was no surprise that there was a growing level of trepidation, coupled with an understanding feeling of uncertainty, that we all feel when treading into unknown territory – in this case, the ‘third dimension’ of flight. Even so, an underlying atmosphere of confidence was also present, for all were convinced that everything had been done absolutely right.
The first flights were conducted at Woodford aerodrome (an ex-BAe Systems manufacturing and flight testing base in Cheshire) and, as you can see from these early photos, fly she did! That, however, is all I’m going to tell you for in true cliff-hanger style, I’ll be back with a flight report and photos of the finished model very soon. In the meantime I’m sure you’ll all join me in wishing the VC-10 team every success in moving the project to completion.
- This article was first published in Dec 2012, the VC-10 has since delighted crowds across the UK.
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