Flightline: 189 - Handley Page Victor
The last of the UK's V Bombers, the Victor was retired from the strategic nuclear role in the late 60s but served as a tanker until the 1990s.
The origins of the British atomic bomber fleet, later known as the V Bombers as all had names starting with that letter, began in 1946 with the issuing of Air Staff Operational Requirement OR.1001, which anticipated the development of a "Special Gravity Bomb" (aka nuclear weapon) not to exceed 7.37m in length, 1.5m in diameter and weighing no more than 4,500kg. With this in mind, in 1947 the Ministry of Supply issued Specification B.35/46 calling for a replacement of the WW2-era Avro Lancaster, as well as the current Avro Lincoln, with a new aircraft capable of carrying one OR.1001 spec weapon 2,800km at 930kmh and between 11,000 and 15,000 meters altitude. B.35/46 also stipulated that the maximum weight of this new bomber would not exceed 45,000kg, and that a conventional bomb load of 9,100kg was also a requirement. No defensive armament was called for, as the speed and altitude of the new aircraft was deemed to be sufficient protection from interception.
Handley Page responded to B.35/46 with a design designated the HP.80, which featured a novel crescent-shaped swept wing designed by company aerodynamicists Dr. Gustav Lachmann and Godfrey Lee. Both the sweep and chord of the HP.80's crescent wing decreased in three distinct steps from the root to the tip, in order to ensure a constant critical Mach number across the entire wing; consequently, the design had a high cruise speed. Initially, the HP.80 was a tailless design, with combination flight surfaces on the wings affecting pitch, yaw and roll, but results from wind tunnel and scale model tests resulted in the addition of a vertical tail with a high-mounted, all-moving horizontal stabilizer with a pronounced dihedral.
Both the HP.80 and Avro's competing Type 698 design (which became the Vulcan) sufficiently impressed the RAF to garner contracts for two prototypes of each, but, recognizing the advanced nature of both designs, the RAF also approved the Vickers 667, which was later named the Valiant, as a fall-back measure if either failed to mature. The two HP.80 prototypes, s/n WB771 and WB775, were built at Handley's Radlett factory, then disassembled and transported to RAF Bascomb Down for flight testing. The move was carried out with some secrecy, and the sections were transported under wooden framing and tarps printed with "GELEYPANDHY / SOUTHAMPTON" (GELEYPANDHY being an anagram of "Handley Page", further obscured by a printer's error) to make it appear to be a boat hull in transit. The maiden flight of WB771 was held on 24 December 1952, and lasted 17 minutes. Testing proceeded well, though both aircraft were found to be tail heavy due to the lack of operational equipment in the cockpit, which was remediated by the addition of ballast.
WB771 landing at Bascomb Down at the Farnborough Air Show in 1953. The aircraft was specially painted for the occasion: the fuselage was black with a red cheatline while the wings and tail were silver. | Photo: RAF
In January 1953 the HP.80 was approved for production under the name Victor B.1. During a subsequent test phase in 1954, WB771 was lost on 14 July when the stabilizer detached during a low-level, high speed pass over RAF Cranfield. The entire crew was killed in the accident, which was traced to fatigue cracks around the three bolts holding the tailplane to the vertical fin. The accident led to changes in the production models, chiefly the addition of a fourth bolt and a shortening of the tail fin. Production B.1 also differed in having a longer nose, which moved the crew escape hatch further from the intakes; this modification also improved the Victor's center of gravity.
Specifications and variations
Orthograph of the Victor K.2. | Illustration: Kaboldy
The Victor was large and rather futuristic-looking, being 35m long and with a wingspan of 34m. The aircraft was 8.6m tall, and weighed 40,000kg empty. Max TO weight was 93,000kg, with up to 35 450kg conventional bombs or a single free-fall or stand-off nuclear weapon. Power was provided by four Armstrong Siddeley Sa.7 Sapphire turbojets of 49.2kN each, which gave the Vulcan a top speed of 1,009kmh at 11,000m. In order to maximize range, every effort was made to streamline the aircraft, which resulted in a step-less windscreen and the engines being buried in the wing roots. As a result, the Victor could fly up to 9,600km, and had a maximum altitude of 17,000m. The aircraft had a crew of five, a pilot and co-pilot seated side-by-side on ejection seats, with the navigator/plotter, navigator/radar operator and air electronics officer seated behind them in rearward-facing seats. The bombardier was also provided with the Navigational and Bombing system visual bomb aiming position, indicated by the three triangular windows on the underside of the nose; in practice though, this was little used. The crew in the aft compartment were not provided ejection seats, but their chairs did have "explosive cushions" inflated by a CO2 bottle that could assist them to their feet and to the hatch in case of a bail-out situation, but in a true emergency the navigators and AEO had little chance to escape.
For nuclear deterrence missions, the Victor could carry a single Blue Danube nuclear bomb (the first weapon to come out of OR.1001), which had a yield of 10-12kt. The Blue Danube was more of an experimental design than an operational one, and was unsuited for the rigors of ground handling and flight. As a result, the Yellow Sun design began to replace the earlier model in 1959. The first high-yield, operationally stressed weapon, Yellow Sun could be armed with either the Green Grass fission warhead, with a yield of 400kt, or the Red Snow thermonuclear device, which was based on the American W28 and had a yield of 1.1Mt. In 1962 the Red Beard tactical nuclear weapon, with a yield of 15kt for the Mk. 1 and 25kt for the Mk. 2, entered service and could be carried by all of the V Bombers. Under the "dual command" arrangement, American-built Mk.5 nuclear weapons could also be carried, if need be. Unconfirmed reports indicate that the Victor could be fitted with two WW2-era 5,440kg Tallboy bunker-busters or a single 9,070kg Grand Slam "earthquake" bomb, but there are no records indicating that either were qualified for carriage.
For navigational and bombing guidance, the B.1 was fitted with the latest variant of the H2S radar as well as the Green Satin Doppler navigational aid. Input from the radar systems was fed into an analogue electromechanical aiming computer, which had an accuracy of +/- 400 yards, which was deemed to be sufficient for high-altitude nuclear bombing.
The Victor had fully-powered and -duplicated flight controls, with artificial feedback being provided to the pilot. For survivability, separate hydraulic circuits were provided for the landing gear, flaps, nose flaps, air brakes, bomb doors, wheel brakes, nose-wheel steering, and ram-air-turbine air scoops.
The AEO was responsible for the communications and electronics countermeasures, which included chaff dispensers and the Orange Putter tail warning radar unit originally developed for the English Electric Canberra. The ECM equipment was capable of disrupting Soviet radar and radio, including the guidance radar of early missiles, though rapid advances saw the equipment rapidly made obsolescent.
An RAF crew scrambles to man their Victor B.1, painted in anti-flash white for high-altitude nuclear bombing. | Photo: UK MOD
Fifty Victor B.1 were completed between 1956 and 1961. Beginning in 1958, 24 examples were upgraded to B.1A spec, which involved adding a larger tail core to mount the Red Steer tail-warning radar. Other additions included the Blue Saga radar warning receiver (RWR); Green Palm voice communications jammer; Blue Diver & Red Shrimp radar jammers, and new chaff dispensers. During a flight on 1 June 1956 a production B.1 exceeded the speed of sound when the pilot dropped the nose slightly while in high-speed flight. Cockpit indicators recorded a speed of Mach 1.1, and reports of a sonic boom were made from Watford to Banbury. At the time, the Victor was the largest aircraft to exceed Mach 1. Aviation author Andrew Brookes later claimed that test pilot Johnny Allam broke the sound barrier deliberately to demonstrate the Victor's superiority to Valiant and Vulcan, but Allam maintained that it was an accident.
Orthograph of the B.1/B.1A. Compare to the B.2 below. | Illustration: Greg Goebel
In 1955 Handley Page began work on the upgraded Phase 2 Victor, to be powered by 62kN Sapphire 9 engines, followed up by the Phase 3, which would have a wingspan of 42m and would be powered by either Bristol Siddeley Olympus turbojets or Rolls-Royce Conway turbofans. Both Phase 2 and 3 aircraft would have greatly improved performance, allowing a heavier bomb load to be carried at a higher altitude. The Sapphire 9 was cancelled however, and the modifications needed by the Phase 3 aircraft were determined to be too invasive to maintain the needed production rate, so a less involved Phase 2A was proposed and approved, which would see needed changes paired with the Conway RCo. 11 turbofans. Produced as the Victor B.2, the new aircraft had enlarged air intakes to feed the new engines, as well as retractable scoops on the aft fuselage to feed ram air turbines which provided emergency power to the plane in case of engine failure. The whole electrical system saw major upgrades, including the addition of an auxiliary power unit in the right wing stub to provide a self-start capacity. Also added were new ECM gear in a hump forward of the tail, and an inflight refueling probe above the cockpit. Extra fuel tanks partially faired into the wings added even more range, and the wingspan was increased to 36.5m. A B.1, s/n XH668, was remanufactured as the B.2 prototype, and took its maiden flight on 20 February 1959.
The B.2 prototype had accumulated 100 flight hours when it crashed on 20 August 1959 while carrying out high-altitude engine tests over the Irish Sea. The mission to salvage XH668 took until November of the following year, and it was determined that a failure of the starboard pitot head resulted in the flight control system commanding a dive which the crew could not recover from. A simple modification resolved the issue, and the B.2 entered service in 1962. 34 aircraft were completed by the time production ceased in April 1963, and Handley Page swiftly began modifying 21 of those aircraft to B.2R spec, which swapped in uprated RCo. 17 Conway 201 engines, modified the bomb bay to carry a single Blue Steel standoff nuclear missile semi-externally, and modified the wings with redesigned leading edges and "Kuechemann carrots" (aka "speed pods"), which reduced wave drag at transonic speed and improved high-altitude stall characteristics (and additionally housed more chaff dispensers).
A Victor B.2 at RAF Khomaksar, Aden in 1964 during low level trials. | Photo: Cthornborough
Orthograph of the B.2, showing the Blue Steel standoff weapon in its semi-conformal carry position. | Illustration: Greg Goebel
The acceptance of the B.2 and B.2R allowed the RAF to convert their existing Victor B.1 and B..1A to tanker aircraft, following the withdrawal of the Valliant tankers in 1964 following the discovery of fatigue cracks. Six B.1A were quickly fitted with FR.20B hose-and-drogue units under each wing and began immediate trials. As these aircraft were still capable of carrying out strike missions, they were designated B (K).1A, changed to B.1A (K2P) in 1968. Trials of these almost ad-hock tankers were successful, and a more complete conversion of 11 Victor B.1 and 14 B.1A was undertaken in 1965 and 1966, with the FR.20 on each wing complimented by an FR.17 station under the tail and the permanent installation of a fuel tank in the bomb bay. In practice, it was not safe to refuel three aircraft at the same time; normally either two airplanes refueled from the wing stations or one aircraft would tank off the centerline unit, which had a higher flow rate. These modifications were initially designated BK.1 and BK.1A, but this was changed to K.1 and K.1A in 1968.
Victor K.1A of 57 Squadron on the flight-line at the 1972 RAF Leuchars Airshow. | Photo: Peter Nicholson
The grounding of the Valliants also left a hole in the British reconnaissance fleet, and an existing program to refit a number of B.2 was accelerated. Eight aircraft were hurriedly fitted with the Yellow Aster ground survey radar, and up to 15 cameras could be installed in the bomb bay along with photoflash dispensers. Although not typically carried, fallout sniffers could be added to the wings, allowing the aircraft to monitor nuclear tests. Designated the Victor B(SR).2 (later simply SR.2), the planes were assigned to Number 543 Squadron and proved quite capable, demonstrating the ability for a single SR.2 to map the Mediterranean or the whole of the British Isles in a single sortie. A ninth B.2 was later modified to a less intensive recon fit while still retaining compatibility with the Blue Steel missile.
Victor B(SR).2 XM715 with the bay doors open, showing the fit of cameras being carried. | Photo: UK MOD
During the mid-1960, advances in Soviet defenses rendered the V Bombers vulnerable to interceptors and SAMs, which forced a change in tactics by the RAF. The Victor and Vulcan fleets abandoned the high-altitude approach for low-level penetration, with focus also shifting from gravity bombs to standoff weapons like the Blue Steel. As a result, the planes were repainted from their former anti-flash white over-all to a mottled gray/green tactical camo over white. This same scheme was also applied to the tanker and recon variants. Within a few years of this change in flight profile however, the Victors began to suffer from the same fatigue cracks that had grounded the Valliant bombers before them. Nuclear deterrence then fell to the Vulcans, whos thicker wing proved stronger and more able to survive low-level flight. The Victor B.2s were placed in storage for a time, but were recalled in 1970 and refitted for tanker duty by Hawker Siddeley as original manufacturer Handley Page had been liquidated the previous year. The conversion, designated K.2, removed the bombing gear, strengthened and clipped the wings, and faired over the undernose glazing. The 24 K.2s, which first flew on 1 March 1972, could carry 44,700kg of fuel each. Like the K.1/.1A, the K.2 had three refueling HDU added to the wings and bomb bay.
Victor K.2 (XL161) near Abingdon in September 1979. | Photo: Mike Freer - Touchdown Aviation
The K.2 was the last model or conversion of the Victor. Several variants were proposed through the years. Beside the Phase 2 and Phase 3 (aka HP.104) bomber versions, Handley Page had advanced no fewer than five military or civilian transport models of the Victor, the most radical being the HP.111, powered by four Conway turbofans and carrying 200 troops or 145 passengers in a double-decker fuselage. The HP.114, also known as Phase 6, would have had a redesigned wing to carry up to four of the US-developed GAM-87 air-launched ballistic missiles, but the abandonment of that project killed the Phase 6.
Model of the HP.114 showing the new wing and four Skybolt ALBMs. | Photo: Handley Page
Entering service with the RAF in 1958, the Victors never dropped a bomb in anger, though the type did see service during the Falklands conflict as well as during the 1991 Gulf War in the tanker role. At the height of operations, Victor B.1/.1A and B.2/2RS equipped six squadrons in RAF Bomber Command.
A Victor B.2, it's five-man crew, and the Blue Steel standoff weapon they hoped to never fire. | Photo: UK MOD
RAF doctrine sought to foster a sense of comradery and unity amongst bomber crews, and both flight and ground crews would frequently serve together for up to five years at a time. This was essential, as in a full-scale nuclear exchange each Victor crew would be expected to operate entirely independent of the rest of their squadron mates as well as from high command. Extensive training and qualification trials were assigned to ensure that each plane's crew would be able to reach their assigned targets. During times of heightened international tension, the Victors would be placed on a high state of readiness; if a strike order was issued, planes were expected to be airborne within four minutes. Attack routes were plotted to exploit gaps in the Soviet radar network, though these holes waxed and waned as both sides made advancements in their respective radar and ECM technology.
A Victor's radar/navigator, wearing oxygen mask and life vest, at the visual aiming window. | Photo: IWM
During the 1963-65 Borneo confrontation, detachments of Victors made regular rotation through RAF Tengah in Singapore, acting as a deterrent against Indonesia and giving RAF crews needed training in low-level flight and visual bombing. At the height of the crisis in September 1964, four B.1 were stationed for rapid dispersal, with two of the aircraft loaded with live conventional bombs and held on one-hour alert at any given time. Cooler heads prevailed however, and the alert was terminated at the end of the month.
After the withdrawal of the Victor from nuclear alert in 1968, crews of the tanker and recon variants continued their missions, keeping the rest of the RAF topped off and providing needed intelligence to the Ministry of Defense. During the 1982 Falklands war, Victor tankers provided fuel for RAF and RN aircraft, including a staggering five million liters of fuel passed to the Vulcan bombers participating in each of three Black Buck strikes. Victors also refueled Nimrod and Hercules aircraft on the long flight to RAF Ascension Island, and several aircraft had the visual bombing window at the nose uncovered and used to gather visual reconnaissance of South Georgia island. The last deployment of the Victor was during the 1991 conflict over Iraq, when eight K.2 were deployed to Bahrain to refuel aircraft during Operation Granby. By this point age had caught up with the aircraft, and the last Victor tanker was retired in 1993.
A K.2 tanker in their last paint scheme of hemp over light aircraft gray. | Photo: UK MOD
A total of four Victors have been preserved and are on display in the United Kingdom. None are flightworthy, though two have been maintained in taxiable condition.
Victor B.1A XH648: a B.1A (K.2P) at the Imperial War Museum Duxford, Cambridgeshire. This is the sole B.1 to survive.
XH648 as she appeared in 1997. | Photo: Alan D R Brown
Victor K.2 XH672: Maid Marian, at the Royal Air Force Museum, Cosford, Shropshire, in the National Cold War Exhibition.
Maid Marian in 2016. | Photo: Alan Wilson
Victor K.2 XL231: Lusty Lindy, at the Yorkshire Air Museum, York. The prototype for the B.2 to K.2 conversion; one of two Victors currently in taxiable condition.
Lusty Lindy outdoors in 2012. | Photo: Roland Turner
Victor K.2 XM715: Teasin' Tina/Victor Meldrew, at the British Aviation Heritage Centre, Bruntingthorpe, Leicestershire. The other Victor currently in taxiable condition, XM715 also made the most recent flight of a Victor, being an accidental takeoff and subsequent landing at Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome in 2009.
Teasin' Tina in 2008. | Photo: MaltaGC