15% DISCOUNT

Handley Page Victor

The V-bomber best remembered for its Black Buck support role

DURING the early part of the Cold War, Britain’s nuclear deterrent was carried by the V-bombers, the plane etched into the mind of most being the Avro Vulcan.

Its iconic status is down to the aircraft’s classic streamlined design, combined with the infamous Vulcan howl that anyone who’s heard one in action never forgets.
The RAF V Force. An Avro Vulcan B1A (XA904), leads a Vickers Valiant (XD869) and a Handley Page Victor B1 (XA931) on 13 January 1958

(The RAF V Force. An Avro Vulcan B1A (XA904), leads a Vickers Valiant (XD869) and a Handley Page Victor B1 (XA931) on 13 January 1958)

But there were two other aircraft that made up the triumvirate of V-bombers, the Handley Page Victor and the Vickers Valiant, the importance of both somewhat buried under the Vulcan’s delta wing, a construction that seemed way ahead of its time.

The Handley Page Victor was the final V-bomber to come into service in 1958, but it is now best remembered as a tanker, refuelling aircraft on long-haul flights, most famously working alongside the Vulcan in Operation Black Buck – the bombing of Port Stanley airfield during the Falklands War in 1982.

But it started life following a request from the Air Ministry to aircraft manufacturers for replacements to the piston-engine bombers of WW2, the idea for the new planes to carry a nuclear payload. The requirements were for “a medium range bomber landplane, capable of carrying one 10,000lb bomb to a target 1700 miles from its base”. The altitude specified was between 35,000ft and 50,000ft, with no defensive weapons carried, the plane’s speed (up to 600mph) and altitude supposedly enough to avoid enemy fighter planes.

Handley Page, known for the Halifax bomber, came back with the HP.80, a crescent-shaped swept-wing design expected to achieve the required performance. Two prototypes were constructed, WB771 conveyed from the factory in Radlett, Hertfordshire, to Boscombe Down, broken down as much as possible due to secrecy and conveyance issues.

Chief test pilot Hedley Hazelden took WB771 on its maiden 17-minute test flight on Christmas Eve 1952; the Air Ministry impressed enough to announce the new aircraft’s name would be Victor, a few days into 1953.

Testing continued with only minor setbacks until WB771 itself crashed with the loss of four crew at Cranfield in July 1954: the tailplane sheared off due to stress and fatigue on the bolts holding it in place. Changes were made to strengthen the attachment of the tail section to the main body of the Victor and by early 1956 the first Victor B1 came off the production line, taking to the air on February 1. However, it would be further 21 months before the first deliveries to No 232 Operational Conversion Unit, OCU, occurred.

A Victor, Valiant and Canberra From RAF Wyton Flying Over Ely Cathedra on 28 August 1959

(A Victor, Valiant and Canberra From RAF Wyton Flying Over Ely Cathedra on 28 August 1959)

No. 10 Squadron became the first unit to fly Victors after they reformed at RAF Cottesmore on April 15, 1958, No. 15 Squadron following soon after; the new bombers joining the Vulcans and Valiants to form the UK’s nuclear deterrent, the Victors initially carrying the Yellow Sun hydrogen bomb.

By this time, Handley Page’s work on a B2 version was at an advanced stage, flying higher and faster it would prove more than a match for the Vulcan, the updated model’s maiden flight in February 1959. Early testing was slowed by a B2 crashing into the Irish Sea in August of that year during high-altitude engine testing, the cause a pilot head failure forcing the aircraft into an unrecoverable Mach 1 dive.

Entering service in 1962, the Victor’s role was soon changed to low-level bombing, carrying the Blue Steel nuclear missile, its arsenal then switching to the new American Skybolt missile. The new missile was bad news for Handley Page, the Government cancelling orders for new Victor aircraft in production as four Skybolt missiles could be carried by one plane, meaning fewer aircraft were needed.

As the B2s replaced the B1s, the mid-60s saw a decision to convert earlier models into three-point refuelling tankers, a role that was then being carried out by the Vickers Valiants. However, during the early conversion programme of the Victors, all Valiants were grounded due to massive fatigue factors discovered in many aircraft, resulting in a number of Victor B1s taken out of their defence roles for speedy two-point refuelling conversions; the first converted aircraft flew in April 1965, 55 Squadron the first operational Victor BK.1A unit.

The Victors were now at a crossroads as its main role was effectively ended when Britain’s nuclear deterrent switched from the RAF to the Royal Navy and the submarine-based Polaris missile. However, many were converted for reconnaissance duties and the pressure was mounting on Britain’s tanker force in the late 1960s as the early Victors approached the end of their working lives, and new aircraft were desperately needed. Unfortunately, Handley Page was struggling as the firm repeatedly resisted Government pressure to merge with a fellow aircraft firm, ensuring that it struggled to compete for orders.

Converted Victors were still needed after Handley Page went into liquidation in 1970, Hawker Siddeley, HS, instead carrying out the work, which proved more expensive and complicated than expected with a steep learning curve for HS designers and technicians to overcome.

Victor K.2 of 55 Squadron in 1985

(Victor K.2 of 55 Squadron in 1985)

The Victors’ most famous work as tankers was undoubtedly in 1982, playing a critical part in Operation Black Buck, at the time the longest bombing mission ever carried out – an 8,000-mile flight from the Ascension Islands to put out of action the Falkland Islands only airstrip and attack the occupiers’ air defence radar.

Along with two Vulcans, four Victor tankers took off from Wideawake on the Ascension Islands at around midnight on April 30, 1982, seven further Victors departing in support to complete refuelling. The lead Vulcan was forced to return soon after take-off due to problems with cabin pressurisation, the second aircraft successfully completing the mission.

The operation was not without its setbacks, with high winds and broken probes leading to the final Victor tanker, XL189, turning back to Ascension carrying insufficient fuel to reach Wideawake. However, a further Victor headed back to refuel XL189, with all aircraft and personnel returning safely.

Victor tankers were back in demand as the MoD came to terms with the need to protect the Falklands Islands ahead of a new runway being built at Port Stanley, and no nearby bases offering a friendly welcome. With the VC-10s beginning to take on the tanker role, the Victors’ working life was extended by the first Gulf War, refuelling not just RAF aircraft, but also allied forces.

A Victor of 55 Squadron refuelling a Tornado GR1 and Buccaneer S2 on their way to a target during Operation Granby.

(A Victor of 55 Squadron refuelling a Tornado GR1 and Buccaneer S2 on their way to a target during Operation Granby.)

Their retirement finally came on October 15, 1993, when No. 55 Squadron disbanded at RAF Marham, the station keeping a model as gate guardian until 2020.

Four Victors are currently on display in England, one being XM715 Teasin’ Tina at Bruntingthorpe in Leicestershire. It remains in taxiable condition and made the last recorded flight of a Victor, accidentally taking off and landing during a fast taxi run on May 3, 2009, reaching a height of 30 metres.

Other Articles You May Also Enjoy

RAF in Dorset
RAF in Dorset
Dorset's RAF history dates back to WWI, the county important in the defence of Britain from the threat of both airship a
Read More
RAF in Somerset
RAF in Somerset
The county of Somerset has long-standing links with the RAF dating back to the 1920s
Read More
Avro Shackleton
Avro Shackleton
The longest serving RAF maritime patrol aircraft known for its ‘growl’
Read More
RAF in Berkshire
RAF in Berkshire
For a location bordering the western outskirts of England’s capital city, it is perhaps surprising that Berkshire boaste
Read More
101 Squadron
101 Squadron
No. 101 Squadron pays tribute to one of its most famous sons
Read More
Tempest Project Gathers Pace
Tempest Project Gathers Pace
Tempest project gathers pace as Defence Chiefs sign official treaty
Read More
RAF in Oxfordshire Part Two
RAF in Oxfordshire Part Two
RAF in Oxfordshire part two K-W
Read More
RAF in Oxfordshire Part One
RAF in Oxfordshire Part One
A hotbed of aircraft activity from pre-WWI to the present day, Oxfordshire remains a key location for RAF operations
Read More

Leave a comment