Classic British Bombers – BAe (Handley Page) Victor

The UK started to develop its own nuclear weapons in the period after World War II, and in 1946 the Royal Air Force issued an ambitious requirement for a bomber to carry such a 10,000 lb (4536 kg) ‘special weapon’ or a heavy load of conventional bombs over a great range at high subsonic speed at an altitude of over 50,000 ft (15240 m). Among the several companies that responded to this requirement, which was technically feasible in all except the stipulated maximum take-off weight of less than 100,000 lb (45360 kg), were the two companies which had supplied the RAF’s two most important heavy bomber types of World War II, the Avro Lancaster and the Handley Page Halifax.

Last of the three British V-bombers to enter service, the Handley Page H.P.80 Victor was to serve longer than either of the other two aircraft, the Avro Vulcan and Vickers Valiant, and was finally retired from RAF Strike Command service in 1993, although by then its illustrious manufacturer had long since gone out of business, a victim of its own founding father’s steadfast desire to remain independent of the conglomerates that had become the dominant force in the British aero industry.

Designed under the joint leadership of Reginald Spencer Stafford and Godfrey Henry Lee, the H.P.80 was at first considered, like the Avro Type 698 that became the Vulcan, too radical when first tendered to Specification B.35/46 to justify even a prototype order, both Sir Frederick Handley Page and the Air Staff anticipating that an extended period of research would be required before any hardware was ordered. Indeed, a tunnel model of 1947 shows the aeroplane with a crescent-shaped wing, wing tip fin-and-rudder units, and at the head of a very short fin all-moving tailplane intended solely for trimming purposes. The fuselage was of circular section, and it was planned that the powerplant of four turbojet engines would be enclosed within a wing whose root thickness/chord ratio was expected to be about 14%. By the time work was under way to examine the benefit of wing tip control surfaces, and the likelihood of wing flutter, the Handley Page company’s technical adviser, Gustav Lachmann, appears to have favoured a much taller fin to ensure directional control at low speeds, with the tailplane raised accordingly. With a conventional rudder now logically admissible, the wing tip control surfaces became superfluous.

At much the same time early in 1948, it was decided to build a 40% scale research aeroplane as the H.P.88, reproducing the crescent wing and the tall T-tail configuration. Built by Blackburn and General Ltd. at Brough, the H.P.88 featured the fuselage of the Supermarine Swift complete with its Rolls-Royce Nene RN.3 centrifugal-flow turbojet engine rated at 5,500 lb st (24.47 kN) dry, the whole aeroplane being defined in a special research requirement, Specification E.6/48. With a span of 40 ft 0 in (12.19 m), the wing combined three progressive angles of leading-edge sweep, 48.5° on the inboard section, 37.5° at semi-span, and 26.75° on the outboard section; and a small, single-piece all-moving swept tailplane was mounted high on the swept fin-and-rudder unit. The H.P.88 recorded its maiden flight at Brough on 21 June 1951 in the hands of Flight Lieutenant Gatrell Richard Ian Parker, some 14 months later than scheduled. While this research type served to confirm much of what had been learned from wing tunnel research on the H.P.80, it broke up in the air low over Stansted airfield on 26 August, killing its pilot, after only 14 hours in the air, during which it had been cleared for flight at up to 477.5 kt (550 mph; 885 km/h).

By that time construction of the first H.P.80 was under way in response to the contract signed on 26 April 1948 for two prototypes (WB771 and WB775). The H.P.80 was planned from the start with a four-engined powerplant based on the engine that was known at the beginning of its design, in 1947, as the Metrovick F.9, an axial-flow turbojet rated at 6,800 lb st (30.25 kN). In 1948 development of this engine was taken over by Armstrong Siddeley Motors Ltd. as the Sapphire and, when the time came for installation in WB771, this was delivering 7,500 lb st (33.36 kN) dry. Like the Vulcan’s powerplant of four Bristol Olympus engines, the H.P.80’s four-Sapphire powerplant was located in the wing roots as a closely spaced pair on each side with leading-edge air inlets. The inherent efficiency of the new wing form adopted for the H.P.80, which by now had received the name Victor, was boosted by Fowler trailing-edge flaps, Krueger leading-edge flaps, elevons and speed brakes in order to retain good handling qualities at low speed in an aeroplane that was to be by a considerable margin the greatest load-carrier of the three V-bombers, and also marginally the fastest: an early production example of the Victor was inadvertently to exceed Mach 1 in a shallow dive at high altitude during 1957.

The H.P.80 was based on a circular-section fuselage whose forward section was pressurised for crew accommodation and extended in depth to provide the volume for the large radar that was to be the primary nav/attack system. Other elements of the design were retractable tricycle landing gear with a twin-wheel nose unit and four-wheel main units (supplemented by a small twin-wheel tail bumper with a brake chute for shorter landings), a large lower-fuselage weapons bay, and flying surfaces with the crescent-shaped leading edges that offered the highest possible cruising Mach number. The wing was located in the mid-set position with thickened roots accommodating the four turbojet engines, and the tailplane was a sharply dihedralled unit located at the top of the vertical tail surface. The type was of advanced construction primarily in light-alloy sandwich material with either corrugated or honeycomb filling between the two skins.

Also at the heart of the original design was the provision of an enormous lower-fuselage weapons bay which, as no definitive dimensions were yet available of the nuclear weapon to be carried, was intended to be able to accommodate either one 22,000 lb (9979 kg) free-fall conventional bomb of the ‘Grand Slam’ type, or two 12,000 lb (5443 kg) free-fall conventional bombs of the ‘Tallboy’ type DP bombs, or 35 1,000 lb (454 kg) free-fall conventional bombs, all with volume to spare. After being informed that the ‘special store’ (nuclear weapon) was likely to weigh ‘about 10,000 lb’ (4536 kg), the design team scaled down the 12,000 lb (5443 kg) bomb and came up with a bay capable of mounting four such weapons. However, as events were to prove, this ‘Blue Danube’ bomb was an especially bulky weapon, and only one such device could be carried. To permit take-off in overload conditions, it was planned to make provision to mount a pair of Havilland Spectre rocket motors, each rated at 8,000 lb st (35.59 kN), under the wing roots, these being jettisoned after take-off.

The antenna of the H2S Mk 9 nav/attack radar, associated with a navigation and bombing computer, was located under the nose in a very large radome beneath the pressurised cabin. The customary five-man crew (comprising the pilot, co-pilot, tactical navigator, radar operator and air electronics operator) was situated on one level, only the pilots being provided with ejection seats. In respect of the latter emergency equipment, the Air Ministry instructed Handley Page to investigate the provision of an escape capsule, encompassing the entire nose, for explosive detachment in a dire emergency and subsequent descent under a large parachute, although the concept was later abandoned as a result of its weight.

The first of the two Victor prototypes recorded its maiden flight at Boscombe Down on 24 December 1952 in the hands of Squadron Leader H. G. Hazelden, and the second prototype followed on 11 September 1954. Trials revealed the need for a number of modifications such as a reduction of 1 ft 3 in (0.381 m) in the height of the fin and an increase of 3 ft 4 in (1.016 m) in the length of the nose to improve the centre of gravity range, and this paved the way for the Victor B.Mk 1 initial production model that first flew in February 1956 for a service debut in November 1957. The first of 50 Victor B.Mk 1 aircraft (XA917) off the production line made its initial flight at Radlett on 1 February 1956 and, like the Valiant and Vulcan, the first five aircraft were set aside for development work and trials. XA920, for instance, underwent production assessment at Boscombe Down. It is worth noting that production of the Victor had gone ahead despite major opposition by the Treasury, which for cost reasons advocated the standardisation of the Vulcan B.Mk 1, in the face of the Air Ministry’s ultimately successful contention that the selection of a single type might prove disastrous should a major failing in the selected type become clear only after the type had entered service, as had happened recently with the Supermarine Swift fighter.

The Victor B.Mk 1 started to reach ‘A’ Squadron of the Gaydon-based No. 232 Operational Conversion Unit, which received five early production examples shortly before the end of 1957. Early in 1958 four more aircraft, in this instance equipped with ‘Yellow Aster’ reconnaissance radar, were also delivered for the conversion of crews formally on the strength of a Valiant unit, No. 543 (Strategic Reconnaissance) Squadron, before these crews and their aircraft moved to Wyton to form the Radar Reconnaissance Flight. It is believed that this early reconnaissance variant of the Victor, which carried an extensive range of electronic sensors apart from the ‘Yellow Aster’ radar, were not accorded a separate designation, and never featured in any of the conversion programmes. This fact suggests that much of their work was of a clandestine nature.

The first operational unit to equip with the Victor B.Mk 1 was No. 10 Squadron at Cottesmore, during the course of April 1958 with No. 15 Squadron at the same base following in September of the same year. The Victor B.Mk 1 thus entered service just as the first ‘Yellow Sun’ megaton-class thermonuclear bombs were becoming operational, but it was the two current Vulcan B.Mk 1 squadrons, which had been expecting the new weapon for several months, which first became operational with the ‘Yellow Sun’ bomb. Nos 10 and 15 Squadrons, therefore, worked up for the conventional bombing role over much of 1958, with the Victor B.Mk 1 aircraft of a second production batch starting to reach service by the time a third unit, No. 57 Squadron, converted to the type, in this instance at Honington.

The data for the Victor B.Mk 1 included the powerplant of four Sapphire ASSa.7 Mk 202 engines each rated at 11,000 lb st (48.93 kN) dry, span of 110 ft 0 in (33.53 m) with area of 2,406.00 sq ft (223.52 m²), length of 114 ft 11 in (35.03 m), height of 28 ft 1.5 in (8.59 m), empty weight of 79,000 lb (35834 kg), normal take-off weight of 185.000 lb (83916 kg), maximum take-off weight of 205,000 lb (92988 kg), maximum speed of 545 kt (628 mph; 1010 km/h) at high altitude, service ceiling of 56,000 ft (17070 m), and range of 5,200 nm (5,988 miles; 9636 km).

The type’s primary armament was one 10,000 lb (4536 kg) ‘Yellow Sun’ Mk 2 bomb, as the British free-fall nuclear weapon was named, but the weapons bay could also be configured for a typical conventional load of 35 1,000 lb (454 kg) bombs by contrast with a theoretical maximum of 78,000 lb (35381 kg) comprising one 22,000 lb (9979 kg) ‘Grand Slam’, or two 12,000 lb (5443 kg) ‘Tallboy’, or four 10,000 lb (4536 kg) or 48 1,000 lb (454 kg) bombs, or alternatively 39 2,000 lb (907 kg) Type S mines.

At the same time 24 examples of the Victor B.Mk 1 were modified to the Victor B.Mk 1A standard whose primary external difference was a shorter and blunter tail cone enclosing ECM equipment with a radar scanner. Internally the crew stations were revised, and powerful transformers (with an ethylene glycol cooling system) were installed for the new ECM equipment. Redelivery of these aircraft, initially to No. 57 Squadron, was completed by February 1961.

As the Victor B.Mk 1 was taken out of first-line service in favour of the much improved Victor B.Mk 2, it was decided to convert a number of them into reconnaissance aircraft and inflight-refuelling tankers. The reconnaissance standard was designated as the Victor B(PR).Mk 1. The discovery of serious fatigue cracks in the Vickers Valiant’s wing spars led to the grounding of all these aircraft early in 1965, some three years earlier than planned, and this required the immediate launch of a high-priority programme to convert most available Victor B.Mk 1 and B.Mk 1A to the inflight-refuelling tanker role. As a matter of urgency, the first six aircraft were fitted with two Mk 20B HDUs (Hose-and-Drogue Units) under the wing to become Victor B(K).Mk 1A machines for delivery to No. 55 Squadron in mid-1965. In 1968 the aircraft received the revised designation Victor B.Mk 1A(K2P). The next 11 conversions from Victor B.Mk 1 standard produced Victor K.Mk 1 aircraft with a Mk 17 HDU in the rear section of the weapons bay, which was permanently sealed and also fitted with two additional fuel tanks, as well as the two Mk 20B underwing units to provide three-point refuelling capability. Some 14 Victor B.Mk 1A conversions to a standard essentially similar to that of the Victor K.Mk 1 produced Victor K.Mk 1A tankers. By the end of 1966 Nos 55, 57 and 214 Squadrons were all operational with Victor K.Mk 1 and Victor K.Mk 1A tankers.

With the V-Force now approaching its planned strength, and with 60 examples of the Douglas Thor intermediate-range ballistic missile deployed in four wings in Yorkshire and East Anglia, attention now turned to the update of the first Victor B.Mk 1 production aircraft as well as the introduction of the Victor B.Mk 2 improved model. As early as 1957 Handley Page learned that development of the Sapphire engine was about to be terminated with the result that, if the Victor was to keep pace with the Vulcan, whose Olympus was being progressively uprated, an alternative engine would have to be found. With virtually all Olympus production allocated to the Vulcan and the proposed British Aircraft Corporation TSR-2, and the de Havilland Gyron abandoned at the end of the 1950s, the only other available engine in the required 15,000-20,000 lb st (66.72-88.96 kN) rating was the Rolls-Royce Conway turbofan unit, a type of engine whose greater fuel economy also offered the advantage of significantly enhanced range. Thus when the proposed development of the Sapphire ASSa. 9, rated at 14,000 lb st (62.28 kN) dry, was terminated, and Sir Frederick Handley Page’s reluctance to adopt the Rolls-Royce turbofan engine were overcome, Stafford suggested the start of work on an interim Victor ‘Phase 2A’ with Conway engines in a wing increased in span to 120 ft 0 in (36.58 m) with an area of 2,597.00 sq ft (241.26 m²). The selected engine was the Conway RCo.11 Mk 103 unit rated at 17,250 lb st (76.73 kN) dry, and the first Victor with such a powerplant flew recorded its maiden flight in February 1959 as a production-standard machine that was followed by another 33 bombers all fitted at delivery with the ECM system of the Victor B.Mk 1A.

By comparison with those of the Victor B.Mk 1, the wing roots of the Victor B.Mk 2 had to be extended by 3 ft 0 in (0.91 m) on each side to accommodate the Conway engines, and other changes included larger inlets as demanded by the greater mass flow requirement of the turbofan powerplant, a dorsal fin fillet, two retractable scoops on the fuselage sides to feed air to the two turbo-alternators that powered the wholly revised electrical system, a Turbomeca Artouste auxiliary power unit in the starboard wing root to make the type independent of ground services, and provision for the carriage of the Avro ‘Blue Steel’ stand-off nuclear missile in a semi-recessed installation under the fuselage.

The first of a planned 62 Victor B.Mk 2 (XH668) aircraft recorded its maiden flight on 20 February 1959 in the hands of John Allam, and in June of the same year was delivered to Boscombe Down for a series of familiarity flights by the personnel of the Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment. On 20 August the aeroplane was lost in an accident off the Pembrokeshire coast during investigation of the buffet boundaries during turns at Mach 0.94 at 52,000 ft (15850 m). No radio message was received before the aeroplane disappeared from ground radar, and the nature and cause of the accident remained a mystery for many weeks. Only after the most extensive salvage operation ever undertaken, during which almost 600,000 fragments of the aeroplane were recovered from the sea bed and reassembled at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, was it deduced that buffet vibration of the Victor’s wing tips in a high speed turn had caused the starboard wing tip pitot static head to come adrift. The loss of this pressure head would have caused spurious data to be fed to the Mach trimmer and stall detector, which in turn would have depressed the pitching controls, causing an instantaneous nose down attitude; this catastrophic manoeuvre when flying at Mach 0.94 caused the Victor to disintegrate. All five members of the crew died, but the cost of remedying the fault was comparatively tiny.

The Victor B.Mk 2 entered service in October 1961, and was soon tasked with the low-level penetration role in succession to the Vickers Valiant. This operating regime placed considerable strain on the Victor’s airframe, which had been designed for the high-altitude role, but the strains were alleviated by the type’s drooped leading edges and ‘Küchemann carrot’ bodies, which were a pair of large pods extending rearward from the wing trailing edges to delay the appearance of shock waves at high subsonic speeds.

By the time the Victor B.Mk 2 reached Nos 139 and 100 Squadrons in February and May 1962 respectively, the whole future of the V-Force had been thrown into doubt when it became evident that neither the Vulcan nor the Victor could operate above the effective ceiling of Soviet SAMs. The American cancellation of the Douglas Skybolt air-launched ballistic missile, which was being considered for the Victor as well as for the Vulcan then combined with the purchase of Polaris submarine-launched missile to signal the end of the UK’s air-launched nuclear deterrent before the end of the decade.

Running some two years behind the Vulcan in terms of production, the Victor B.Mk 2 accordingly suffered heavier cutbacks, despite being somewhat superior in performance and load-carrying to the Avro bomber, 28 aircraft being cancelled and only 34 delivered. Thus Nos 100 and 139 Squadrons were the only bomber units to fly the Victor B.Mk 2 equipped with the ‘Blue Steel’ stand-off missile, and their aircraft were steadily upgraded. The Victor B.Mk 2R (Retrofit) aircraft were fitted with the Conway R.Co 17 Mk 201 engine rated at 20,600 lb st (91.63 kN) dry, which in turn resulted in the maximum take-off weight of 223,000 lb (101153 kg) at which it was normal to employ two de Havilland Spectre RATO units each rated at 8,000 lb st (35.59 kN). ‘Red Steer’ ECM equipment was fitted, as were very large underwing fuel tanks. Apart from these tanks, the most obvious external additions were two ‘Küchemann carrot’ bodies above the wing’s trailing edges after such bodies had been shown to delay the formation of shock waves at high subsonic speed: these bodies were nicely placed and conveniently sized to accommodate ECM chaff dispensers.

The Victor B.Mk 2R had a span of 120 ft 0 in (36.58 m) with area of 2,597.00 sq ft (241.26 m²), height of 30 ft 1.5 in (9.20 m), empty weight of 91,000 lb (41227 kg), maximum take-off weight of 233,000 lb (101150 kg), service ceiling of 55,000 ft (16765 m), and radius of 4,000 nm (4,606 miles; 7412 km) with inflight refuelling, or 2,000 km (2,303 miles; 3706 km) on a hi-hi-hi mission, or 1,500 nm (1,727 miles; 2780 km) on a hi-lo-hi mission.

The Victor B.Mk 2R machines were all phased out of service in 1968, a move as much dictated by the imminent introduction of the Royal Navy’s Polaris missiles as by the uncertainty of Handley Page’s future. The company had run into financial difficulties during its development of its Jetstream turboprop-engined light commercial transport and, despite the injection of capital from a number of sources, including an American company which acquired a controlling interest, Handley Page was compulsorily wound up on 27 February 1970 when the US backer withdrew its support.

Nine examples of the Victor B (PR).Mk 2, later redesignated as the Victor SR.Mk 2, were produced for delivery to No. 543 (Strategic Reconnaissance) Squadron at Wyton from May 1965, these aircraft being equipped to carry F.49 Mk 4, F.89 Mk 3 and F.96 Mk 2 cameras, sideways-looking radar, ‘Red Neck’ reconnaissance radar and up to 72 8 in (203 mm) photo-flashes. With a range of 2865 km (3,300 miles; 5310 km) at high altitude, as a result of their enlarged fuel capacity, and a maximum ceiling of more than 62,000 ft (18900 m), a single Victor B(SR).Mk 2 could reportedly photograph every ship in the Mediterranean in the course of a single sortie.

Sir Frederick Handley Page had died on 21 April 1962, at a time when a suggested merger with the Hawker Siddeley Group might have avoided the Victor B.Mk 2 production cancellations, and it was therefore all the more poignant that, when a contract was issued in October 1969 for the conversion of 24 Victor B.Mk 2R aircraft to Victor K.Mk 2 tanker standard, the aircraft were delivered to Hawker Siddeley Aviation Ltd at Woodford (formerly A. V. Roe & Co. Ltd.) in 1970 for the work to be carried out. The first Victor K.Mk 2 flew in March 1972 as a complete rebuild with span reduced by 3 ft 0 in (0.91 m), and though no two conversions were identical, a ‘typical’ Victor K.Mk 2 had some 100,000 lb (45360 kg) of transfer fuel.

After No. 214 Squadron was disbanded in January 1977, Nos 55 and 57 Squadrons continued to provide all inflight-refuelling services for Strike Command’s Hawker Siddeley (Blackburn) Buccaneer, Hawker Siddeley (Hawker) Harrier and SEPECAT Jaguar warplanes, being joined later by BAC VC10 and Lockheed TriStar machines as Victor numbers gradually diminished. Almost the entire strength of the Victor tanker fleet was deployed to Ascension Island during Operation ‘Corporate’, the British campaign to regain the Falkland Islands from Argentine occupation) during 1982, initially by making it possible for Vulcan bombers to reach and bomb Argentine forces in the islands during ‘Black Buck’ missions, and then to refuel Lockheed Hercules transports en route to the islands.

The last Victor K.Mk 2 aircraft were retired from service when No. 55 Squadron was disbanded at Marham on 15 October 1993. This unit had established a Royal Air Force record, the Victor having served longer with this one squadron than any other operational aeroplane in the service’s history. Bearing in mind the numerous setbacks, repeated hostile political attempts to curtail its development and the final demise of its illustrious manufacturer, the Victor was aptly named.

Specification

BAe Victor K.Mk 2

Type: inflight-refuelling tanker

Accommodation: flight crew of four or five including pilot and co-pilot on Martin-Baker Mk 4 zero/90 kt (104 mph; 167 km/h) ejection seats on the enclosed flight deck

Powerplant: four Rolls-Royce Conway RCo.17 Mk 201 turbofan engines each rated at 20,600 lb st (91.63 kN) dry

Internal fuel: typically 127,000 lb (57607 kg) including 27,000 lb (12247 kg) in two fixed underwing tanks; external fuel none; provision for inflight refuelling

Performance: maximum level speed 555 kt (639 mph; 1028 km/h) at 40,000 ft (12190 m); cruising speed, maximum 530 kt (610 mph; 982 km/h) at high altitude; service ceiling 52,500 ft (16000 m); ferry range 6,500 nm (7,485 miles; 12045 km); typical range 4,255 nm (4,900 miles; 7885 km)

Weights: empty 114,500 lb (51936 kg) equipped; normal take-off 223,000 lb (101242 kg); maximum take-off 238,000 lb (197955 kg)

Dimensions: span 117 ft 0 in (35.69 m); aspect ratio 6.22; area 2,200.00 sq ft (204.38 m²); length 114 ft 11 in (35.03 m); height 28 ft 1.5 in (8.57 m); tailplane span 32 ft 8 in (9.96 m); wheel track 32 ft 5 in (9.88 m); wheel base 24 ft 6 in (7.47 m)

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