The Vickers Viscount Down Under

by Peter J. Gates


Cited as perhaps the most successful British Civil Airliner of all time, the Vickers Viscount first flew on 16 July 1948 when the prototype G-AHRF departed Wisley Airfield in the U.K. and thus was born an airliner that would eventually fly in almost every corner of the globe.

The Australian airline industry has always prided itself in being at the “cutting edge” of new airliner technology, so when TAA (Trans-Australia-Airlines) placed an order for the “revolutionary” Vickers Viscount it came as no surprise. TAA was in fact the first airline outside Europe to order the aircraft and the type was to become one of the most useful airliners in the history of the airline.

The first Viscount for TAA, VH-TVA “John Batman” Msn 44 was delivered on October 15, 1954 and brought to the Australian flying public, an aircraft that boasted speeds of over 300mph (483 kph), standards of passenger comfort that by far surpassed the piston engined airliners it was destined to replace and above all, smooth pressurised and vibration free flight. Sadly this aircraft was written off in a training accident on 31st October 1954 prior to introduction to scheduled services. The first scheduled Viscount flights operated by TAA took place on December 18, 1954 when VH-TVB and VH-TVC entered service on the Melbourne-Sydney-Brisbane route. The original Type 720 series for TAA was soon supplemented with the more powerful Type 756 and later the larger and faster Type 816.

Another Australian Viscount operator was Butler Air Transport of New South Wales who operated two Type 747 aircraft, VH-BAT & VH-BUT until the carrier was absorbed into the Ansett Group. These two aircraft were subsequently re-registered VH-RMO and VH-RMP respectively. Ansett-ANA also operated a substantial fleet of the larger 800 series Viscounts and the type was to form the backbone of their prop-jet fleet until finally retired from service in 1970. During the years in Australian service the Viscount became a firm favourite with the flying public so much so that during the early days of Viscount operations, TAA found that all flights operated by a Viscount would be fully booked leaving comparable services operated by older types such as the Douglas DC-4 half empty…all this despite reduced fares being offered on the airline’s Douglas equipment.

The passenger load factor in TAA’s Viscounts for the first year of operations was 86% and daily utilisation was averaging 8 hours per aircraft. TAA Viscounts in one year carried 230,000 passengers, set up 16 inter-city speed records and flew 116 million passenger miles, with a fleet that built up to five aircraft during the year.

In some respects the performance of TAA’s Viscounts came as a surprise to airline executives. The aircraft had originally been developed as a short / medium range transport but TAA found that it could be successfully operated on the Adelaide - Perth route, albeit with only 32 seats fitted (over a dozen less than usual). By the end of 1959, the Viscount fleet, the 15 strong, was credited with lifting 77.4% of TAA’s load, and itself had a load factor of 74.7%.

The Viscount was not without it’s share of tragedies while in Australian service and several crashes could easily have spelt disaster for the type in the early days. The previously mention crash of the first 700 series for TAA, VH-TVA at Mangalore, Victoria on 31st October 1954 was eventually attributed to (to quote the official Aircraft Safety Investigation Report)“an error of judgement on the part of the pilot-in-command in that he took the aircraft into the air at a speed below the minimum control speed, following loss of directional control during the ground run”. Fortunately this was in no way a fault of the aircraft itself and public acceptance never waned despite this incident. Several events led to the grounding of the 700 series aircraft in Australia, the first was the loss of VH-TVC which was under lease to Ansett-ANA and operating a regular passenger service from Sydney to Canberra on 30 November 1961.

The aircraft flew into severe turbulence which overstressed the starboard wing and tailplane causing in-flight separation. The second major incident involved VH-RMQ (originally VH-TVB with TAA) which plunged into the ground near Port Headland, Western Australia on 31 December 1968 while operating for MacRobertson Miller Airlines. The resultant enquiry cited the cause as metal fatigue of the main wing spar and this led to the grounding of all 700 series Viscounts in Australian service. Later recommendations by DCA (Department of Civil Aviation) saw the later Type 756 aircraft cleared for re-introduction, but the end was in sight and few remained in service after this time, the bulk being withdrawn from service.

Of the 800 series Viscounts, VH-RMI was tragically lost some thirteen miles from Winton, Queensland on 22 September 1966 due to structural failure caused by on board fire in the air conditioning blower.
The Australian carriers gradually reduced their Viscount fleet during the latter part of the 1960’s as larger and faster jet equipment namely the Boeing 727 and Douglas DC-9 was introduced. With the exception of the 800 series aircraft, Australian Viscount 700’s fared badly after removal from service. Most were reduced to scrap at various Australian airports a situation that, in this age of historical awareness, remains a sore point with the many museums and restoration groups scattered throughout Australia. The only exceptions to this planned “Antipodean Carnage” being VH-TVA, TVB and TVC that were lost in accidents whilst still in Australian service and VH-TVE & VH-TVF which were flown to Southend U.K. but eventually they too faced the scrap merchant’s torch in their homeland.

The sole survivors of the Australian 700 series was VH-TVN which was sold to Botswana National Airways in 1969 as A2-ZEL, VH-TVL which was poorly dismantled at Brisbane and trucked to Toowoomba, Queensland and the complete nose section of VH-TVJ which is currently on show at the Queensland Air Museum just north of Brisbane. The later 800 series aircraft fared much better and were sold to various overseas companies including FEAT (Far Eastern Air Transport), British Midland, Air Zimbabwe and Merpati Nusantara Airlines of Indonesia.

It’s sad to say the Australian operators failed to see the benefits of freighter conversion a situation that was so very popular with the United Kingdom carriers such as BAF and Parcel Force until recent times. This could have seen the Australian Viscount operating for many years as freighters had the option been taken up.

The RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) acquired a modest Viscount fleet for their VIP squadron operating A6-435 (Msn 435) and A6-436 (Msn 436).

The most exciting news concerning the Viscount in Australia was the restoration of ex-TAA VH-TVR (Msn 318) which was withdrawn from use in 1970. This aircraft had been sitting at a children’s funpark prior to removal to Moorabbin by the owners, the AARG (Australian Aircraft Restoration Group) who plan to display the aircraft in her full TAA livery. Details of the restoration may be viewed by visiting the AARG Website . At the time of writing the restoration seems to have stalled. Thus one of the most influential airliners to operate in Australian skies will be preserved so that future generations of aviation enthusiasts may admire this truly magnificent airliner.