From “big Viscount” to Merchantman: The abbreviated journey of the Vickers Vanguard

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An advertisement announcing the introduction into service of Trans-Canada Air Lines’ Vickers Vanguard short to medium range airliner. Anon., “Advertisement – Trans-Canada Air Lines.” Maclean’s, 3 December 1960, 8-9.

If yours truly may be permitted to jump into the fray without so much as a hello, the great American stand-up comic Rodney Dangerfield, to use the stage name of Jack Roy, born Jacob Rodney Cohen, used to say that he got no respect. It might be exaggerated to say (type?) that the subject of today’s article got no respect, but I will argue that it deserved more success than it got.

The subject of today’s article, as you may have guessed by now, I hope, is the Vickers Vanguard short to medium range airliner.

In 1953, Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft) Limited, the aeronautical division of British industrial / defence giant Vickers-Armstrongs Limited, began to look into the possibility of developing a larger successor to its Viscount short to medium range airliner, the first turboprop airliner to enter service as you well know, in April 1953 – and an aircraft found in the mind blowing collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario.

Discussions naturally centered on the needs of the first Viscount operator, and an important one at that, government-owned British European Airways Corporation (BEA). This being said (typed?), it soon became apparent that another government owned air carrier, Trans-Canada Air Lines (TCA), might also be interested in acquiring the new airliner. The presence of this dynamic duo enabled Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft) to launch the project on a private venture basis.

Mind you, TCA’s expression of interest did not mean that it only looked at the aircraft Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft) was proposing. Nay. The airline was also interested in a short to medium range airliner under development in the United States, the somewhat smaller Lockheed L-188 Electra, which flew in December 1957.

In the end, as expected, BEA ordered 20 Vanguards, as the new airliner was called, in July 1956. Although very pleased with the low purchase price and operating costs of the British aircraft, TCA indicated that the payload it could carry over long distances was not quite sufficient. Eager to please, Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft) duly proposed another version of the Vanguard. TCA liked what it saw and ordered 20 aircraft in January 1957, a number later increased to 23. In turn, BEA liked what it saw. It therefore amended its own order, which resulted in the delivery of 6 original type Vanguard and 14 aircraft similar to those ordered by TCA.

Given its larger size and greater weight, the Vanguard needed more galloping horses under the hood of its 4 engines than the superb Rolls-Royce Dart turboprop engines of the Viscount could deliver. Rolls-Royce Limited, a well-known British firm mentioned in several issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since April 2018, proposed a new engine, the equally superb Tyne, to the Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft) engineering team. The extra oomph turned the Vanguard into one of the fastest turboprop airliners in history.

Would you believe that a pilot flying a tad over 3 000 metres (10 000 feet) allegedly maintained altitude with one engine at maximum cruise power and the others with propellers set on feathered (no thrust), not at maximum weight of course – and without passengers on board? But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

The prototype of the Vanguard flew in January 1959. It never carried paying passengers.

While BEA wanted to put its new Vanguards in service in July 1960, for the summer season, when air travel was at its peak, slight problems with the Tyne engine made this impossible. The airline thus began to operate the aircraft, on an ad hoc basis, during the 1960 peak Christmas travel period, flying between London, England, and Paris, France. The new machine went into full scheduled service in March 1961.

Oddly enough, the Vanguard had gone into full scheduled service the previous month, in Canada. And yes, it looks as if TCA had also hoped to put its new Vanguards in service in the summer of 1960, when air travel was at its peak.

In any event, the airline’s new machines were soon flying from Montréal, Québec, Ottawa, and Toronto, Ontario, all the way to Vancouver, British Columbia, with one or more stops along the way. Mind you, they also flew to New York City, Detroit and Chicago, in the states of New York, Michigan and Illinois. As well, the Vanguards flew from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Boston, Massachusetts, as well as from Toronto, to St John’s, Newfoundland. For a while, they also flew to Florida, the Caribbean and Bermuda.

The Vanguard proved so economical that TCA was soon able to cut its fares on a number of routes by as much as 35 %, which greatly boosted ticket sales.

The introduction of the new British aircraft led to the withdrawal of TCA’s last Canadair North Star airliners, in April 1961. And yes, the fantabulastic Canada Aviation and Space Museum has a North Star, an aircraft mentioned a few times in our you know what since November 2017, in its collection.

Would you care for a brief video, my reading friend? Type no more. Your wish is my command.

You may wish to note that Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft) and 2 other British aircraft manufacturing firms, Bristol Aeroplane Company and English Electric Aviation Limited, were brought together in February 1960 to form a government-owned firm, British Aircraft Corporation Limited (BAC). The government headed by Maurice Harold Macmillan thought / hoped that this consolidation of the British aircraft industry would help it to compete with the much larger American aircraft industry.

And yes, BAC was mentioned in a June 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. Bristol Aeroplane, on the other hand, was mentioned in June 2018, November 2018 and April 2020 issues of that same famous publication.

Yours truly would like to say (type?) that the introduction into service of the Vanguard proceeded without a hitch. Alas, this was not the case. Like any high tech device, the British airliner had its share of minor technical problems. An issue which proved all but unsolvable was the rather high level of vibration and noise. In that regard, passengers consistently preferred the Viscount to its big brother.

While aware of the vibration and noise, cabin crews were impressed by the spaciousness of the 2 galleys of the Vanguard.

Pilots really liked the Vanguard. The flight deck of the aircraft was spacious and offered great visibility. The Vanguard was fast, handled well, and was built like the proverbial tank. Some of that strength was added as a result of a request made by TCA. Said strength proved vital in May 1963 when a TCA Vanguard ran into turbulence over the Rocky Mountains. It plummeted up to 300 metres (1 000 feet) in a matter of seconds, but suffered no visible damage. A passenger died of a heart attack, however, and 25 unattached passengers, not to mention all 3 flight attendants, suffered injuries. Airline engineers who studied this event thought that an aircraft less solid than the Vanguard might have lost its wings.

Tragically, a similar set of circumstances had led to the disappearance of a TCA aircraft in December 1956. The wreckage was located only in May 1957.

BEA’s Vanguards gradually took over busy trunk routes, both in the United Kingdom and continental Europe. Carrying close to 140 tourist class passengers, these aircraft proved solid, reliable and economical. Better yet, on flights of 485 kilometres (300 miles) or less, these speed birds got their passengers out the door of airports as quickly, and rather more economically, as the newfangled jet-powered airliners which became ever more present in the 1960s, classic airliners like the Sud-Aviation SE 210 Caravelle, Hawker Siddeley Trident, Boeing Model 727, British Aircraft BAC 111, and Douglas DC-9, a machine mentioned in June 2019 and March 2020 issues of our you know what and one found in the amazing collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. The BAC 111, in turn, was mentioned in the same June 2019 issue of our you know what.

Indeed, the Vanguard went into service as these newfangled jet-powered airliners entered service. Faster, quieter and less affected by vibrations, the new jetliners became all the rage. No one saw the need to order turboprop airliners. As a result, only 44 Vanguards were built, as compared to almost 450 Viscounts. One has to wonder how big a pile of dough Vickers-Armstrongs lost on that venture.

One could argue that the managements of Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft) and / or Vickers-Armstrongs made an error in judgement when they initiated the development of the Vanguard at a time when the Boeing Model 707 and the Douglas DC-8 medium to long range jet-powered airliners were being developed. Indeed, these two classic designs were test flown before the Vanguard, in December 1957 and May 1958 respectively.

Worse still perhaps, the British aircraft already had a direct jet-powered competitor, the aforementioned Caravelle, a French twin-jet aircraft mentioned in June 2019 and March 2020 issues of our you know what and the world’s first operational medium-range jetliner. Would you believe that the prototype of the Caravelle had made its first flight in May 1955 – and that this elegant machine had gone into service in April 1959?

And let’s not forget the aforementioned Electra. Even though this machine had to be seriously modified after a trio of deadly crashed in 1959-60, it found more customers than the Vanguard. All in all, 170 Electras took to the air between 1957 and 1961.

Mind you, the Electra also gave birth to one of the most successful maritime patrol aircraft of the 20th and 21st century, the Lockheed P-3 Orion, an aircraft used over the years by the armed forces of nearly 20 countries, including Canada. The Royal Canadian Air Force’s CP-140 Aurora is indeed a version of the Orion. All in all, close to 760 Orions and Orion derivatives took to the air between 1959 and 1990.

Both the Orion and Aurora were mentioned in a December 2020 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee. And yes, hopefully an Aurora will one day be added to the amazing collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. (Hello, EG!)

In fairness, Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft) thought that the fuel efficiency of the Vanguard would impress the management of many airlines. As well, it did not realise, indeed few people realised, how much the travelling public would fall under the spell of the new jetliners, thus forcing the hand of airline executives for whom the Vanguard made sense when operated over the relatively short distances many of their routes covered on a daily basis.

The cherry on top of the proverbial cake was that, after spending a lot of moolah acquiring medium to long range jet-powered airliners, many airlines could not afford to buy a new short to medium range aircraft like the Vanguard. They chose to hang on to their older, piston-powered aircraft until the aforementioned Trident, Model 727, BAC 111 and DC-9 entered service. That, or they bought second hand Viscounts.

In any event, aware of the public’s feelings toward jetliners but convinced that the Vanguard still had much to offer, Air Canada, as TCA became in 1965, removed the seats from one of its aircraft, in 1966, and turned it into a cargoplane. The Cargoliner, as it was called, proved very successful. Even though the airline seemingly considered the possibility of converting many / most / all of its Vanguard into cargoplanes, no other aircraft was converted – in Canada.

You see, my reading friend, and you thought I had forgotten you, don’t you, you see, say I, just like Air Canada, BEA knew that the air cargo industry was experiencing a solid growth. The delivery of British short to medium range jetliners like the Trident and BAC 111 allowed it to convert 9 of its Vanguards into Merchantmen cargoplanes from 1969 onward. It made more sense to take this route than attempt to sell the Vanguards given a glut of second hand non-jet powered airliners on the market.

The absorption of BEA into a new British national carrier, British Airways Corporation, in March / April 1974, led to change in the daily life of the passenger-carrying Vanguards. The last one landed for good in June of that year. The last Merchantman, on the other hand, was retired only in 1979.

A Vickers Vanguard of Air Canada, Toronto International Airport, January 1968. Wikipedia.

A Vickers Vanguard of Air Canada, Toronto International Airport, January 1968. Wikipedia.

As time went by, Air Canada and British Airways gradually sold their Vanguards. The aircraft of the former were taken out of service between 1969 and 1972, for example. Smaller operators based in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Indonesia, Iceland, Gabon and France operated some of these aircraft until they themselves disposed of the survivors.

The last commercial flight made by a Vanguard was made in September 1996 by a cargoplane operated by Hunting Cargo Airlines Limited, a subsidiary of the British group Hunting Public Limited Company.

And that is all for today. Today, or tomorrow, I shall raise my glass in memory of the Vanguard, a superb aircraft that time forgot.

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Rénald Fortier