VETERAN VC10 air refuelling aircraft from RAF Brize Norton are still on active service almost 50 years after the plane first took to the skies as an airliner.

A trio of planes from 101 Squadron have been sent to the Mediterranean to support Nato attack jets patrolling the skies over Libya.

Two VC10 K3s are operating from Trapani Birgi airport on the west coast of Sicily, with a third plane based at RAF Akrotiri on Cyprus.

The planes are flying round the clock, topping up an international fleet of aircraft from the 78 tonnes of fuel held in their tanks.

A typical day’s duty will see the planes based in Sicily carry out two refuelling sorties each. Airborne controllers in an Awacs plane direct the VC10 crews to designated rendezvous points to meet their airborne customers.

Despite their age, the VC10s are still popular with their crews. One pilot said: “It is a great aircraft. It really is the Queen of the Skies. It is one of the last pilot’s aircraft – you have to have your hands on to fly it. And it still does the job.”

The VC10s on Sicily are commanded by Squadron Leader Tim Kemp, who said: “Tanker support is crucial for the fast jets to spend any meaningful time over Libya.

“I am proud of what people are achieving here. When we deployed here, there was nothing. We were flying operations within 36 hours of arriving.”

The first of a new fleet of 14 Voyager refuelling and transport planes, converted from Airbus A330-200 airliners, is due to enter service at Brize Norton later this year.

The VC10s will be phased out by 2013, but will still be flying in June next year on the 50th anniversary of the first flight by the prototype.

* The plane was designed as a long-range airliner in the late 1950s.

The VC10 has a top speed of 568mph and a range of 4,630 miles with a full payload, cruising at 550mph.

The prototype first flew on June 29, 1962, from Weybridge to Wisley, in Surrey.

The RAF ordered its first VC10s in 1962 as long-range strategic transport planes which were often used to carry Prime Ministers on overseas visits.

Just 54 VC10s were built, with the plane’s high fuel consumption said to have put off prospective customers.

Nine former VC10 airliners were converted into air refuelling planes for the RAF in the late 1970s, with five more being added to the fleet in the 1980s.

The RAF tanker fleet was used in the Falklands campaign, in both Gulf wars, in Afghanistan and on operations over the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.