The Handley-Page Victor

In the 1950s, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) acquired a strategic nuclear strike force in the form of the "V-Bombers" -- the Vickers Valiant , the Handley-Page Victor, and the Avro Vulcan . The Victor was arguably the most unconventional of the three, at least in hindsight, but it proved very successful, persisting in service into the 1990s in the tanker role. This document provides a history and description of the Victor.

Handley Page

The Handley Page Victor B.1

The Handley Page Victor B.1 "V" bomber

Victor Origins

The Handley-Page Victor was the last of the three British V-bombers to enter service. It was submitted in response to the same 1946 British Air Ministry requirement that gave rise to the Vulcan, B.35/46, though Handley-Page had been considering concepts for some time and the basic design, designated "HP.80", was already in hand when the requirement was issued.

The HP.80 was designed to operate at high speed and altitude, above the ceiling of contemporary fighters. The aircraft featured a "crescent" wing, with the sweep decreasing in three steps from the root to the tip, and the chord similarly decreasing to ensure a constant limiting Mach number across the entire wing and a high cruise speed.

The HP.80 had its roots in wartime design work performed by Dr. Gustav Victor Lachmann, a German national who had been working for Handley-Page when war broke out and had been interned. Handley-Page was eventually able to prevail on the authorities to let Dr. Lachmann continue work for the company, in cooperation with his deputy, Godfrey Lee. Just after the end of the war, Lee went to Germany to learn about German advanced aircraft research, and when he returned to England he came up with the crescent-wing design while bedridden with pneumonia. Incidentally, the Germans had designed a similar crescent wing for an improved version of the Arado Ar-234 jet bomber, but it does not appear that Lee saw any of the plans for it during his visit to Germany.

In any case, the company liked Lee's concepts. He later said: "Perhaps we were the only firm brave enough or daft enough to do it." The Air Ministry also thought the idea had merit, and authorized construction of two prototypes in April 1948.

The HP.80's crescent wing was to be tested on a one-third scale radio controlled glider, designated the "HP.87", but it crashed on its first flight. This exercise having proven a failure, in 1948 the Air Ministry issued another specification, "E.6/48", for a piloted demonstrator, which emerged as the "HP.88".

HP.88 design and construction was farmed out to General Aircraft LTD. General Aircraft obtained a fuselage for the Attacker jet fighter from Supermarine and refitted it with a crescent wing and a tee tail. The HP.88 performed its first flight on 21 June 1951. General Aircraft had been bought out by Blackburn by this time, and Blackburn test pilot G.R.I. Parker was at the controls.


The Handley Page HP.88, based on the fuselage for the Attacker jet fighter from Supermarine

The Handley Page HP.88, based on the fuselage for the Attacker jet fighter from Supermarine

However, the HP.80's design had changed in the interim and the HP.88 wing was no longer representative of the aircraft it was supposed to be testing. In addition, the initial HP.80 prototype was already under construction; to make the HP.88 a completely dreadful exercise in futility, it broke up in flight on 26 August 1951, killing the pilot, "Duggie" Broomfield.

WB771, the first of the two HP.80 prototypes, was hauled by road 145 kilometers (90 miles) from the Handley-Page factory at Radlett to the test center at Boscombe Down for flight trials. There was a runway at Radlett and the original expectation had been that test flights would take place there, but the government decided that the longer runway at Boscombe Down would provide an additional margin of safety.

The transfer of the aircraft was a fair project in itself. The route had to be scouted out for clearance, with alterations made by bulldozer to the terrain alongside two curves, and then the aircraft was broken down and packed up. The fuselage was disguised with some wood framing before it was wrapped, and the words "GELEYPANDHY / SOUTHHAMPTON" were stencilled on the covering, as if it were some sort of boat being taken to harbor for launch. GELEYPANDHY, incidentally, was supposed to be an anagram of "Handley-Page", but either through clumsiness or a desire to conceal the clue, it actually sorted out to "Handley-Pyge".

WB771 was reassembled at Boscombe Down. While the aircraft was being run through ground hydraulic tests preparatory to the initial flight, a fire broke out and doused three techs with burning hydraulic fluid, one of them dying in the hospital a few weeks later. WB771 was finally put into condition for taking to the air, and the prototype performed its initial flight on 24 December 1952, with Handley-Page's chief test pilot, Squadron Leader Hedley George Hazelden, at the controls. WB771 was powered by four Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire 7 Mark 200 turbojet engines. It was not fitted with operational kit, ballast being used to achieve flight trim. Hazelden described the initial flight as "comfortable" with "no anxieties". The takeoff run was surprisingly short; there had been no real need to move the machine to Boscombe Down.


The Handley Page HP.80 prototype

The Handley Page HP.80 prototype

WB771 made an appearance at the Farnborough Air Show in 1953, with the aircraft painted in spiffy colors -- black fuselage with a red cheatline and silver wings. Trials showed the basic design to be sound, with some corrections needed. Unfortunately, one of the corrections was discovered very much the hard way, when WB771 was lost in a crash on 14 July 1954 while on a low-level run. The tail assembly was weak and tore off, with test pilot Ronald Ecclestone and his crew all killed.

The second prototype, WB775, which featured a reinforced tail, performed its initial flight on 11 September 1954. It had the same spiffy color scheme that had been applied to the first prototypte, and actually took a joyride to the Farnborough air show during the initial flight. It was fitted with operational kit.

Production of the HP.80 had been ordered in June 1952, well before the first flight of the intial prototype, when the British Air Ministry had ordered a batch of 25 production bombers, to be designated "Victor B.1". First flight of a production aircraft was on 1 February 1956, with test pilot Johnny Allam at the controls. Allam "accidentally" broke Mach 1 in a shallow dive on 1 June 1957, making it the largest aircraft to that time to exceed the speed of sound.

Service trials stretched out, with fixes piling up and leading to delays. The type finally entered RAF service with Number 232 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) in November 1957, and reached its first operational unit, RAF Number 10 Squadron, in April 1958.

Victor B.1 & B.1a

The Victor was an aerodynamically clean aircraft, with very exotic and absolutely unique "the future as seen by the past" lines. It was made mostly of aluminum aircraft alloys, in the form of a two-skin sandwich with corrugated filling, held together with spot welding. The wing had large flaps and leading-edge flaps -- somewhat oddly called "nose flaps" -- to reduce takeoff distance, plus a sweptback tee tail.

The Victor featured tricycle landing gear. The nose gear had twin wheels and retracted backward; each main gear unit consisted of eight-wheel bogies, with two rows of four tires, and retracted into the wings. Large hydraulic airbrakes were fitted to each side of the tailcone, and the tailcone contained a drag chute. B.1s were initially painted in a tidy overall "anti-flash white" to reflect the heat of a nuclear blast.

The Handley Page Victor B1

The Handley Page Victor B1

The B.1 was fitted with four Armstrong-Siddeley Sapphire 7 202/207 turbojet engines with 49.0 kN (4,990 kgp / 11,000 lbf) thrust each. The engines were buried in the wingroots, a configuration that improved aerodynamics but made servicing somewhat more troublesome.

The Victor carried a crew of five, including a pilot, copilot, two navigators, and an electronics systems officer, all in a spacious cockpit. Ejection seats were only provided for the pilot and copilot, on the basis that they would generally stay with the aircraft until the rest of the crew got out. There had been thought of building the entire crew compartment as an escape module, but the Air Ministry judged this measure too tricky and expensive.

The nose featured a large dielectric panel for navigation / targeting radar. The Victor could carry a single thermonuclear bomb, generally a British Yellow Sun weapon, though it also carried American fusion weapons under a "dual command" arrangment. For conventional carpet bombing, the Victor B.1 could carry up to 35 450 kilogram (1,000 pound) bombs in its internal bombbay. The bombbay could also be fitted with a long-range ferry tank.

Some sources state that the Victor had a heavier bombload than the much bigger Boeing B-52 , but that was only true if the B-52's external bombload capability was ignored, and the B-52 also had a much longer unrefueled range. Sources also claim that the Victor could also carry two of the World War II 5,440 kilogram (12,000 pound) Tallboy deep penetration bombs, or one of the Tallboy's "big brother", the 9,070 kilogram (20,000 pound) Grand Slam bomb. However, it is unclear if the Tallboy and Grand Slam were ever trialled on the Victor, and very uncertain that they were ever service weapons for the aircraft.

The production B.1 visibly differed from the two prototypes in a number of respects. The prototypes had proven uncomfortably tail-heavy, and so the forward fuselage was stretched by 1.07 meters (42 inches) and the height of the tailfin was cut to fix the problem. In addition, the crew door was moved to allow the crew to bail out without being sucked into the engines; cabin glazing was increased and rearranged; the tailfin fillet was eliminated and the tail tee-joint bullet fairing was modified; and the top of the outer wing was fitted with a set of small "vortex generator" airfoils to ensure proper low-speed airflow.

The prototypes had also proven very responsive to control inputs -- too much so, in fact, and as a result the production machines had "heavier" controls. The cockpit dashboard layout was also rearranged after initial trials, much to the frustration of Handley-Page engineers; they had reviewed the matter with the Air Ministry in the design phase, but when it came time to actually fly the machine, the layout was judged "unacceptable".

A total of 50 B.1s was built, with the last delivered in February 1961, and it also equipped Numbers 15, 55, and 57 Squadrons. By the time the Victor was in full service, adversary fighters and other defenses were well able to reach or exceed the its speed and altitude. To improve the survivability of the type, 24 were modified to the "Victor B.1A" standard, being fitted with the "Red Steer" tail-warning radar, a radar warning receiver (RWR), and a set of jamming transmitters.

Handley Page Victor landing with braking Parachute deployed, 1961

Handley Page Victor landing with braking Parachute deployed, 1961

Some sources claim that a number of B.1/1As were later converted to a dedicated reconnaissance configuration, but squadron assignments don't bear this out. However, the B.1/1A did carry reconnaissance gear, at least on an experimental basis, with pictures surviving of a B.1 fitted with large underwing antenna booms for the "Red Neck" side-looking radar system. The Victor never carried the Red Neck in service.

Victor B.2 & Sr.2

Handley-Page felt they could do better with the Victor, and in 1955 began work on the definitive "Victor B.2". A Victor B.1 was modified as the prototype, performing its initial flight on 20 February 1959. Unfortunately, this machine splashed into the Irish Sea in August 1959 during trials, the crew being lost. The program went ahead despite the mishap; the B.2 initially went into service with RAF Number 139 Squadron in February 1962. The B.2 also equipped RAF Number 100 Squadron.

The Victor B.2 featured:

  • Four Rolls-Royce RCo.11 Conway 103 turbojets replacing the Sapphires of the B.1 and providing 76.8 kN (7,825 kgp / 17,250 lbf) thrust each. There had been initially plans to fit Olympus or advanced Sapphire 9 engines, but these schemes fell through and the Conways won by default. Fit of the Conways required substantial inlet modifications to provide greater airflow.
  • A stretched wing, extended 46 centimeters (18 inches) at the root and 1.07 meters (3 feet 6 inches) for an overall stretch of 3.06 meters (10 feet).
  • A revised electrical system, plus a Blackburn-Turbomeca Artouste auxiliary power unit (APU) in the right wing stub for engine self-starting.

Although some shots of early production Victor B.2s show them to have an externally "clean" configuration, they soon acquired a good deal of clutter in the form of a midair refueling probe, sticking out from the top of the cockpit; underwing tanks; "speed pod" fairings on the rear of the wings to improve aerodynamics, with the pods also carrying chaff dispensers; a "hump" in front of the tailfin with jamming gear, featuring two prominent "elephant ear" cooling intakes preceding it; and a countermeasures system in the tailcone, which was ringed with small antenna fairings. Apparently B.1s in service were also fitted with the flight refueling probe, though only one carried the underwing tanks, as a trials fit.

Since the introduction of Soviet surface to air missiles (SAMs) had rendered high-altitude attacks obsolete, Victor B.2 flight operations were refocused on low-level attacks, with the bombers fitted with low-altitude navigation radar and rolling map displays. Anti-flash white colors gave way to a disruptive camouflage scheme, with the first camouflaged B.2s going into service in early 1964.

wingspan36.48 meters 120 feet
wing area241.3 sq_meters 2,597 sq_feet
length35.03 meters 114 feet 11 inches
height8.57 meters 28 feet 1 inch
empty weight41,275 kilograms91,000 pounds
max loaded weight97,980 kilograms 216,000 pounds
maximum speed1,030 KPH640 MPH / 555 KT
service ceiling16,000 meters 52,500 feet
combat radius3,700 kilometers2,300 MI / 2,4000 NMI

A total of 34 B.2s were built up to April 1963, with 21 of these quickly modified to the "Victor B.2(RS)" specification, featuring uprated RCo.17 Conway 201 turbojets with kN (9,345 kgp / 20,600 lbf) thrust each, and the ability to carry the Blue Steel standoff missile semi-externally.


Handley Page Victor B.2 fitted with "Blue Steel" standoff missile

Handley Page Victor B.2 fitted with "Blue Steel " standoff missile

The Victor was also to carry the US-built "Skybolt" air-launched ballistic missile, with two under each wing for a total of four. The Air Ministry felt Skybolt would give more bang for the money and decided to reduce the Victor production buy accordingly, but Skybolt was much too ambitious and the Americans axed the program in 1963. The Victor had to struggle on with the increasingly obsolescent Blue Steel .

The Victor never fired a shot in anger. In 1963, Victors were redeployed to Singapore in response to Indonesian hostility to Malaysia. Although there were some small border clashes during the confrontation, that was about as far as the conflict went, and the Victors never did perform any bombing attacks.

In the early 1960s, the Vickers Valiant was the RAF's platform for the strategic reconnaissance role, but the Valiant fleet was permanently grounded in 1964 due to structural fatigue problems. There had already been plans to modify some of the Victor B.2s to the "Victor SR.2" strategic reconnaissance configuration; the program was accelerated to make up for the loss of the reconnaissance Valiants.

The first Victor SR.2 was flown on 23 February 1965. It featured camera and other reconnaissance sensors, including a radar mapping system, fitted into the bombbay. A total of nine B.2s were converted to the SR.2 standard, and operated by RAF Number 543 Squadron, which received its first SR.2 in May 1965.

Victor Tankers

With the introduction of the Victor B.2, the Victor B.1/1A was judged obsolescent for the bombing role. A B.1 was converted to a tanker configuration in 1964 to evaluate the usefulness of the type for midair refueling, but the Valiant was also being used as a tanker and the retirement of the Valiant force in that same year meant that the RAF suddenly needed new tankers right away and couldn't wait for the trials program to be completed.

Six B.1As were hastily fitted with a Flight Refueling FR.20B "hose and drogue unit (HDU)" under each wing to provide a two-point refueling capability. In principle, these machines were still capable of performing strike missions. They were originally designated "Victor BK.1A" and later redesignated as "Victor B.1A(K2P)".

The initial tanker trials were completed and the rest of the conversions of the B.1/B.1A were more thorough, with these machines fitted with both the wing HDUs and an FR.17 centerline station, with a fuel tank in the bombbay. Eleven B.1s and fourteen B.1As were modified to this three-point configuration. They were originally designated "BK.1" and "BK.1A" respectively, later changed to "K.1" and "K.1A" since they really didn't have any bombing capability. The first Victor tanker squadron, Number 57, became operational in February 1966, to be followed by Number 55 and 214 Squadrons.

The Victor had not been designed for the low-level operational role, and by 1968 it was apparent that the B.2s would have to be retired from this duty, leaving the Avro Vulcan with its big robust delta wing to carry on in that function. The decision was made to refit the B.2s to a three-point tanker configuration. Handley Page had conducted technical studies on the matter from 1967, but the company went under in 1969, and the contract for the upgrades was awarded to Hawker Siddeley in 1970. Hawker Siddeley completed the upgrade program, with some difficulty since the company had little expertise with the Victor and had to start from scratch.


The Handley Page Victor K.2 Tanker could carry 41,000kg / 91,000lbs of fuel

The Handley Page Victor K.2 Tanker could carry 41,000kg / 91,000lbs of fuel

24 B.2s were upgraded to "Victor K.2" spec, with the first flying on 1 March 1972. All the bombing gear was removed, while the wing was strengthened and 46 centimeters (18 inches) were clipped off each wingtip to reduce flight stress. The undernose glazing was finally eliminated. The K.2 could carry 41,000 kilograms (91,000 pounds) of fuel.

Number 543 Squadron was looted for B.2s to make the K.2s, and as a result the squadron was disbanded in May 1974. The first Victor K.2s went into service with RAF Number 57 Squadron in July 1975, followed by service with RAF Number 55 Squadron beginning in April 1976. With the improved K.2s in service, Number 214 Squadron, which had been operating the old K.1s, was disbanded. The SR.2s had already been retired by this time, with the last withdrawn from service in 1975 for conversion to K.2s. They were replaced by reconnaissance-configured Vulcan B.2s.

Victor In Action

Although the Victor never fired a shot in anger, it did see action in the tanker role. In 1982 Argentina seized the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, and as part of the operation to retake them, the RAF was to conduct raids with Avro Vulcan bombers. The nearest RAF base was on lonely Ascension Island in the central Atlantic, so that meant a heavy reliance on midair refueling, provided by Victors. The effort was codenamed BLACK BUCK.

All the Vulcan attacks involved a single bomber, supported by a number of Victors. The first BLACK BUCK strike was on 1 May, with a Vulcan bombing the runway at Port Stanley in the Falklands with high explosive (HE) bombs. It was the longest bomb raid that had ever been flown to that time; it was not only effective in denying local air support to the Argentine Falklands garrison, but also gave the Argentine government notice that the RAF could bomb Buenos Aries or other mainland targets if needed.

A second raid with HE bombs was flown on 3 May. Vulcans were then fitted with Shrike anti-radar missiles provided by the US, with a flight on 28 May being scrubbed inflight due to a technical problem with a Victor, but similar missions were flown on 29 May and 2 June, with Argentine radar installations successfully targeted and disabled. The fifth and last BLACK BUCK flight, carrying HE bombs fuzed for airburst to attack Argentine troops, was on 11 June, with the Argentine garrison finally throwing in the towel on 15 June.

The second combat operations of the Victor took place in the Gulf War. Following Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, an American-led Coalition assembled overwhelming force to throw him out. The RAF was a significant contributor to the effort, the British component being named OPERATION GRANBY, and eight Victors provided tanker support. They were painted in "Desert Pink", really more of a sand color. The Victors flew 229 sorties, providing refueling services for US Navy aircraft along with the RAF fleet. Victors also provided tanker support for air patrols over Iraq into 1993.

Photo Adrian Pingstone

Nose view of a Handley Page Victor from the early 1960's

Nose view of a Handley Page Victor from the early 1960's

However, this was the swan song of the Victor, since the the Vickers VC.10 was gradually replacing it for tanker duties. The last Victor unit, Number 55 Squadron, was disbanded in October 1993, dissolving the very last remnant of the "V-force". There is now no flying example of any Victor left. Five remain as static display items, all in the UK.

Summary, Comments, Sources, & Revision History

The following table gives a Victor variant and production summary:

HP.80 2Initial prototype.
B.1 50 Initial bomber variant.
B.1A - 24 B.1 with improved ECM.
B.1A(K2P) -6 B.1A quick bomber / tanker conversions.
K.1 - 11 B.1 tanker conversion.
K.1A- 11 B.1A tanker conversion.
B.234- Improved bomber, new engines, wider span.
B.2R - 21 B.2 with Blue Steel , uprated engines.
SR.2 -9 B.2 strategic reconnaissance configuration.
K.2 - 24 B.2 tanker conversion.
total 86

As with any successful aircraft, there were a number of unbuilt variants of the Victor. There was talk of a commercial airliner / transport derivative, with the same flight surfaces but a different fuselage, variously designated the "HP.97" and "HP.111". Handley-Page also considered a supersonic Victor, with a redesigned forward fuselage, an "area ruled" rear fuselage, a shorter wing, and new engines. The company also came up with an unbuilt design for a low-level bomber, with short wings, but it had little in common with the Victor except for the cockpit.


Design study for a Supersonic Victor

Design study for a Supersonic Victor

Author: Greg Goebel