Paul Robinson – keeping our aviation heritage alive

Paul Robinson stands by ZA150

When it comes to hobbies, Paul Robinson’s is quite unusual. And very loud. When he’s not working in our Operations Control Centre (OCC) Paul is part of a small team who keep our aviation heritage alive by maintaining a Vickers VC10 aircraft in ground-running condition at Dunsfold Aerodrome. We put on some ear defenders and went along to watch the historic aircraft perform a taxi run.

Paul’s story

In 1973 Paul Robinson reported for his first day as an engineering apprentice at British Caledonian Airways (BCal) at Gatwick. Four years down the road he began working in the hangar, and during this stint at BCal he played an important role in Virgin Atlantic’s story. Just before we welcomed our first customers onboard, we flew our final approval flight for the Civil Aviation Authority. While in the air, one of the engines suffered a compressor failure, and British Caledonian – who looked after our engineering work back then – had to quickly get a new engine onto the aircraft. Paul was part of the team who saved the day. Without that engine change (our first ever) we might never have got off the ground.

In the late 1980s BCal were absorbed into BA and Paul came to work at Virgin Atlantic as we set up our own engineering division. Paul now works in the high-pressure OCC environment, where he relies on his vast experience of aircraft engineering to assist pilots and engineering teams around the world with any engineering issues as they arise. A shift consists of monitoring all our aircraft in flight and talking to engineering teams on the ground. As soon as he’s advised of a defect it’s time to make sure all the resources needed to repair it are in place and that everyone who needs to know does. This could be anything from a blocked toilet to a major technical issue necessitating calling the aircraft back to base. Although the final decision always rests with the captain, in reality that decision is usually a joint one with the OCC.

ZA150

When not at work Paul puts his engineering experience to another use as he maintains an historic aircraft at Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey. Part of the Brooklands Museum collection, Vickers VC10 ZA150 was the last of this type of aircraft to be built and it flew for East African Airways before being converted to a refuelling tanker for the RAF. Paul’s association with the VC10 goes back to when he joined British Caledonian airways and worked on the aircraft as an apprentice engineer.

ZA150 started out life as a mixed passenger cargo aircraft for East African Airways with registration 5H-MOG. Seen here at Nairobi in the 1970s

ZA150 started out life as a mixed passenger cargo aircraft for East African Airways with registration 5H-MOG. Seen here at Nairobi in the 1970s

The Vickers VC10

For those not familiar with the VC10 it’s a very distinctive looking British built airliner which has four engines mounted on its tail. It was designed to fly long haul, to the hot and high airfields of Africa in particular. Built in Brooklands, Surrey, the first VC10 took to the skies in 1962 and was an instant hit with customers. The one Paul looks after, known as ZA150, was the last one off the production line.

A few times a year Paul and his team start the engines on the VC10 and do a fast taxi run so that aviation enthusiasts can hear the distinctive sound of the four Rolls Royce Conway engines. It’s literally a blast from the past. Something witnessed by thousands of people who attended the Wings and Wheels event at Dunsfold Park this past weekend.

Inside ZA150 are the giant fuel tanks installed as part of its RAF conversion.

Inside ZA150 are the giant fuel tanks installed as part of its RAF conversion.

The final flight of the VC10

When ZA150 landed at Dunsfold on 24 September 2013 it was the penultimate flight of the VC10 (one more was delivered to Bruntinthorpe the following day). At the controls that day was Tim Kemp, on his final flight as an RAF pilot. Also on the flight was Shane Stiger. Both have since left the RAF and joined us as pilots on our Airbus fleet. Here Tim recalls the flight:

“I have great memories of my time on the VC10. We did a great mix of flying, from short haul transport (Brize Norton to Belfast), long haul (Calgary), UK air-to-air refuelling, operational AAR (Middle East, Libya, The Falklands) and ‘trails’, where we took fast jet aircraft to the Middle East or USA refuelling them en-route. As an aircraft long-retired from civilian flying, we would always generate interest at airports we went to.

Final flight in formation with the Voyager tanker which replaced the VC10

Final flight in formation with the Voyager tanker which replaced the VC10

“The last flight into Dunsfold was interesting as we conducted some formation with an RAF Voyager A330 en-route, as a photo opportunity with a Hawk chase plane. It certainly made it a memorable last flight, both in the VC10 and for me as my last military flight. Driving away from Dunsfold and seeing ZA150 in the rear view mirror was slightly sad.”

Tim, second right and Shane, far right, after the successful delivery to Dunsfold.

Tim, second right and Shane, far right, after the successful delivery to Dunsfold.

This video shows Tim and Shane flying the VC10 into Dunsfold

Engine talk

As you’d expect, engine performance has come a long way since the VC10 Rolls Royce Conways came into service. The most noticeable difference between the VC10 engines and modern jet engines is the bypass. The Conway engines have inlet vanes which don’t turn, while a modern engine has those familiar huge turning fanblades. As well as providing additional ‘free’ thrust, the bypass gas acts as a blanket around the engine that plays a big part in keeping noise down. Compared to the new engines on aircraft like the Boeing 787 the VC10 was incredibly noisy. The unique sound and signature ‘crackle’ is one of the reasons aviation enthusiasts enjoy the taxi runs that Paul and the team put on twice a year at Dunsfold.

Fill her up

Captain Ian Black approaches the VC10 tanker in his Lightning fighter je

Captain Ian Black approaches the VC10 tanker

Captain Ian Black, who flies our 787s, shared this photo of him approaching a VC10 tanker in his Lightning jet. You can read Ian’s comparison of the Lightning and our 787 here

Six facts about ZA150

  • ZA150 started life for East African Airways which was a combined national airline for Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania
  • Aside from Concorde, the VC10 is the fastest airliner. This is one of the reasons it made a particularly good tanker.
  • The VC 10 has a periscope which could be inserted into the rear fuselage to view the engines.
  • The distinctive shape of ZA150 has been a regular sight on car show Top Gear over the years. Dunsfold is where some of the programmes  are filmed
  • The fuel needed to keep the VC10 engines in running order and to do the taxi runs is generously supplied by Aerobytes
  • All RAF VC10 were named after RAF Victoria Cross holders. ZA150 is named after Donald Garland VC, Thomas Gray VC and Lanoe Hawker VC.

If you want to find out more about the VC10 you can find an excellent resource at VC10.net and keep an eye on the Brooklands Musuem website for news of the engine runs where you can go along and meet Paul and the team. Ian Black has a number of books out about his time in the RAF at Firestreak books.

About Dave Gunner

Dave is the co-editor of Ruby, the Virgin Atlantic Blog. He has worked at Virgin Atlantic for over two decades. In that time he has amassed some truly epic memories but never lost his fascination with the airline world. Dave's on a mission to bring you some great insights into our people, planes and planet.
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