Handley Page Victor Heavy Bomber / Aerial Tanker Aircraft
The Handley Page Victor formed the third - and last - point of the RAF V-Bomber triangle of nuclear-capable bombers.
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The Handley Page Victor formed the last part of the RAF's "V-Bomber" triangle which also included the Vickers Valliant and the Avro Vulcan (both entries detailed elsewhere on this site). All three would make up the British strategic nuclear strike arm (given life by way of a 1946 British Air Ministry requirement) throughout the Cold War (1947-1991) and, though the Victor was never to fire a shot in anger, it served the Royal Air Force well in her twilight years as an aerial tanker aircraft. The Victor was noted for its elegant lines and streamlined design - very distinct in overall appearance when compared to her contemporaries.
Victor began life as the "HP.80", an early Handley Page design with superior altitude capabilities and speed. The distinct wing arrangement was courtesy of Godfrey Lee who, after the war with Germany had ended, visited the leftover plans of German aircraft. Following his journey, Lee returned to England and designed the crescent wing concept. Two prototypes were built in April of 1948. To test the validity of this new wing, a radio-controlled glider known as the HP.87 was constructed at 1/3 scale. Unfortunately for Handley Page, this test aircraft crashed on its maiden flight. This set the project back some to the point that the British Air Ministry called for a full-scale piloted version - this becoming the HP.88. The HP.88 design consisted of a Supermarine Attacker fuselage mated with the crescent wing. The tail of the Attacker was revised to a traditional high-mounted "T"-style arrangement. Despite all of this work to prove the validity of the wing design, the original HP.80 had already evolved into something more different than a Supermarine Attacker could faithfully represent, effectively nullifying all the progress done on the HP.88, itself lost in a fateful flight on August 26th, 1951. Despite the setback, production had already been ordered with an initial batch of 25 "Victor" bombers, this occurring even before either of the first two prototypes were ever completed.
The first of the two HP.80 prototypes took to the air on Christmas Eve, 1952 as the WB771 taking off from Boscombe Down (WB775 becoming the second prototype). The initial flight proved the design a success. Despite an impressive showing at the 1953 Farnborough Air Show, WB771 was also fatally lost in July of the following year due to a weakness in the tail unit. WB775 was revised to include a reinforced tail unit and went airborne on September 11th, 1954. This new tail unit, however, proved to make the design quite tail-heavy and thus production Victors had their fuselages lengthened a full 42 inches and their vertical tail fins shortened to compensate. The instrument panel was rearranged through feedback during testing and the crew entry/exit door was positioned in a more safe manner away from the engines.
The first production aircraft was airborne by early 1956 and entered service trials. This period saw the aircraft delayed on a variety of fronts as challenges were found and applicable fixes were sought in response. On June 1st, 1957, the Victor became the largest aircraft in the world to break the speed of sound. Operational status was achieved in November of that year and eventually found its first home with RAF No. 10 Squadron and then made up No. 15m No. 55 and No. 57 Squadrons. Initial production models were designated as Victor B.Mk 1's and totaled 50 examples. Due to the countless Victor program project delays - either due to fatalities or technological issues - along with enemy technological advancements, the B.1 was already in some ways made inadequate for the given role. A new standard, Victor B.Mk 1A, was devised, giving the massive bomber a defensive chance with the inclusion of the "Red Steer" tail-warning radar system. Along with this addition came jamming transmitters and a radar warning receiver (RWR) to complement the bombers defensive suite. The B.Mk 1A was also fitted with the Blue Steel, an air-launched, rocket-propelled nuclear stand-off missile common throughout the whole of the "V-Bomber" force and of British origin. These Blue Steel-armed Victors were fielded with their nuclear potency during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
1955 saw Handley Page attempting to iron out all of the workings that had made the initial production Victors a handful. The Victor B.Mk 1 served as the prototype (which was, again, fatally lost) and featured 4 x Rolls-Royce RCo.11 Conway 103 series turbojet engines of 17,250lbf thrust each. The wings were extended a total of 10 feet while the electrical suite was revamped. A mid-air refueling probe was added over the cockpit as were underwing fuel tanks for increased range. Additional defensive measures were integrated to the mix and the role of the bomber was now of a low-altitude attacker as opposed to the original high-altitude version. This move was necessitated by the defensive technological advancements made on the part of the Soviets and was quite unavoidable considering the cost and energies put forth into the Victor design up to this point. The new aircraft emerged as the Victor B.Mk 2. Just 34 examples of the B.Mk 2 model were produced. These were followed up by the Victor B.Mk 2(RS) model which featured more powerful engines up to 20,600lbf. Additionally, these aircraft had provisions for the "Blue Steel" standoff missile. The missile - due to its sheer size - was held externally in a recessed belly position.
From there, Victors did little in the way of armed combat. They would never release any of their ordnance in anger. As time wore on, the type served as a strategic reconnaissance platform in the form of the modified Victor SR.Mk 2. SR.Mk 2's were appropriately fitted with various photographic and reconnaissance systems for the role, and the bomb bay of the Victor proved to offer enough internal space for such a conversion. These reconnaissance systems were then pressed into service to replace the long-running - and now decidedly aged - Vickers Valiants in the role. At least 9 Victor SR.Mk 2's were created by modifying existing Victor B.Mk 2 bombers with the first being flown on February 25th, 1965 and entering service with No. 543 Squadron in May of that year.
Likewise, the first generation Victors were pressed into service as in-flight refueling tankers to replace - once again - the aging Valiants. These Victors initially took on the designations of BK.Mk 1 and BK.Mk 1A based on their former model designations but these were late more aptly named to K.Mk 1 and K.Mk 1A as their initial roles of dedicated bombers were all but over. The K.Mk 2 soon followed suit and were (naturally) based on the Victor B.Mk 2 series. K.Mk 2's operated from July 1975 onwards, joining up with No. 57 Squadron and began replacing the K.Mk 1's. Victor tankers served in an operational role through the 1993 Invasion of Iraq and quietly ended their careers from that point on.
A total of 86 Victors of all types were constructed as bomber, reconnaissance and tanker forms. Essentially, the Victor was produced in three major batches - the being the two prototype forms followed by the 50 B.Mk 1 models and then the 34 B.Mk 2 models. Tanker, reconnaissance and updated bomber forms basically appeared as conversion models of the two production batches.
Design-wise, the Victor was such a unique aircraft even when viewed from any angle. The top-down view offered up a form similar to that of a swallow. Nothing like it had ever flown before. Wings featured the aforementioned crescent shape which consisted of the wing root, then a bend that formed the remaining inboard and outboard wing sections. The four engines - two to a side - were ingeniously mounted inside the wing roots to produce a most aerodynamic design and consisted of 4 x Armstrong-Siddeley Sapphire 7 202/207 series turbojet engines developing 11,000lbf of thrust each. This choice of engine placement, however, must not have endeared the large aircraft to her ground crews as engine access was hardly an easy affair. The fuselage was pinched at the nose and the tail. The nose appeared as though a finely crafted arrowhead or bullet with a streamlined cockpit made up of framed windows. The fuselage was larger in the forward portion consisting of the cockpit and slimmed somewhat just aft of this area. The fuselage then slimmed much more towards the empennage eventually ending to a point. The empennage was decorated with a high-mounted T-style horizontal planes on a single vertical fin mounted to the extreme point on the fin. The horizontal surfaces had noticeable dihedral. It should be noted that virtually all surfaces of the aircraft featured sweep back, making for one truly streamlined machine.
The undercarriage of the Victor was of a traditional tricycle type. The main gears retracted into the wings and featured 8 wheels to a gear. The nose landing gear was fitted with two wheels and recessed aft under the cockpit. When on the ground, the Victor did not offer much in the way of clearance particularly under and around the bulbous forward fuselage.
The cockpit offered up quite a bit of room for pilot and co-pilot alike. The forward view was dominated by the slanting window frames while the main instrument panel took up the rest of the area. A centrally-located console was positioned between the pilots. Crew accommodations amounted to the two pilots, a pair of navigators and a dedicated electronic systems officer. Despite the crew of five, only the pilot and co-pilot were afforded ejection seats.
As a conventional bomber, the Victor could be fielded with a collection of some 34 x 1,000lb bombs. Much like the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, the Victor could be used in carpet bombing sorties to suppress or disrupt enemy formations and structures through sheer force. Munitions were held in an internal bomb bay which could also be used for additional fuel in place of armament for a vast increase to overall operating range.
Seeing it that the Victor was only designed as a conventional operator in a secondary role, the system was fully integrated to carry and release nuclear-armed munitions - the aircraft's primary role. This nuclear armament could consist of a "British Yellow Sun" thermonuclear bomb or American inspired nuclear weapons as available. Beyond these offensive-minded implementations, there was little in the way of defensive armament for the crew to handle. These were the days of the Cold War of course, so speed and altitude were everything for a bomber - that is - until the advent of more sophisticated radar and surface-to-air homing missiles by her enemies.
Victors were used in their tanker form during the British 1982 Falklands War with Argentina. Victors provided much needed in-flight refueling for RAF bombers in an effort for the heavy hitters to reach Argentine ground targets. Beyond that, the aircraft served in a similar role during the 1991 Persian Gulf War against Iraq. These Victors would serve both US and British aircraft in the conflict and would be removed from this (and any other role) with British forces from 1993 onwards.
The final point of the V-bomber triangle - as rough of a development period as it was - proved to be a pinnacle of British Cold War bomber design. The aircraft exhibited much of what made it unique in terms of both form and function and provided the RAF with a long-range, high-flying, heavy-hitter that made the world notice. Advancements by adversaries on the ground eventually changed the intended role some and time altogether removed her as a potential player in future roles. At the very least, the Victor proved to be something of a special plane, providing a futuristic style to design a complimentary capabilities that made her a powerful factor in the English strategic nuclear air arm.