The Handley Page Victor was a British jet-powered strategic bomber, developed and produced by the Handley Page Aircraft Company and served during the Cold War. It was the third and final of the V-bombers operated by the Royal Air Force (RAF); the other two V-bombers being the Avro Vulcan and the Vickers Valiant. The Victor had been developed to perform as part of the United Kingdom’s airborne nuclear deterrent. In 1968, the type was retired from the nuclear mission following the discovery of fatigue cracks, which had been exacerbated by the RAF’s adoption of a low-altitude flight profile to avoid interception.
A number of Victors had received modifications to undertake the strategic reconnaissance role, employing a combination of radar, cameras, and other sensors. As the nuclear deterrence mission was given to the Royal Navy’s submarine-launched Polaris missiles in 1969, a large V-bomber fleet was deemed surplus to requirements. As such, many of the surviving Victors were converted into aerial refuelling tankers. During the Falklands War, Victor tankers were notably used in the airborne logistics operation to repeatedly refuel Vulcan bombers on their way to and from the Black Buck raids.
The Victor was the last of the V-bombers to be retired, the last aircraft being removed from service on 15 October 1993. In the refuelling role, the type had been replaced by the Vickers VC10 and the Lockheed Tristar. In the conventional and nuclear strike roles, the Avro Vulcan operated in this capacity until 1982, when it was in turn replaced by the significantly smaller Panavia Tornado.
The design proposed by Handley Page in response to B.35/46 was given the internal designation of HP.80. To achieve the required performance, Handley Page’s aerodynamicist Dr. Gustav Lachmann and his deputy, Godfrey Lee developed a crescent-shaped swept wing for the HP.80; the sweep and chord of the wing decreased in three distinct steps from the root to the tip, to ensure a constant limiting Mach number across the entire wing and consequently a high cruise speed. Early work on the project included tailless aircraft designs, which would have used wing-tip vertical surfaces instead; however as the proposal matured a high-mounted, full tailplane was adopted instead. The profile and shaping of the crescent wing was subject to considerable fine-tuning and alterations throughout the early development stages, particularly to counter unfavourable pitching behaviour in flight.
The HP.80 and Avro’s Type 698 were chosen as the best two of the proposed designs to B.35/46, and orders for two prototypes of each were placed. It was recognised, however, that there were many unknowns associated with both designs, and an order was also placed for Vickers’ design, which became the Valiant. Although not fully meeting the requirements of the specification, the Valiant design posed little risk of failure and could therefore reach service earlier. The HP.80’s crescent wing was tested on a ⅓-scale glider, the HP.87, and a heavily modified Supermarine Attacker, which was given the Handley Page HP.88 designation. The HP.88 crashed on 26 August 1951 after completing only about thirty flights and little useful data was gained during its brief two months of existence. By the time the HP.87 was ready, the HP.80 wing had changed such that the former was no longer representative. At any rate, the design of the HP.80 had sufficiently advanced that the loss of the HP.88 had little effect on the programme.
Two HP.80 prototypes, WB771 and WB775, were built. HP.80 prototype WB771 was broken down at the Handley Page factory at Radlett, Hertfordshire and transported by road to RAF Boscombe Down for its first flight. Bulldozers were used on the route to create new paths around obstacles. The sections of the aircraft were hidden under wooden framing and tarpaulins printed with “GELEYPANDHY / SOUTHAMPTON” to make it appear to be a boat hull in transit. GELEYPANDHY was an anagram of “Handley Pyge” marred by a sign writer’s error. It made its maiden flight on 24 December 1952. The prototypes performed well, however several design failing led to the loss of WB771 on 14 July 1954, when the tailplane detached whilst making a low-level pass over the runway at Cranfield, causing the aircraft to crash with the loss of the crew. Attached to the fin using three bolts, the tailplane was subject to considerably more stress than had been anticipated, the three bolts had failed due to metal fatigue. Additionally, the aircraft were considerably tail heavy, remedied by large ballast weights fitted on the prototypes. Production Victors had a lengthened nose that also served to move the crew escape door further from the engine intakes. The fin was shortened to eliminate the potential for flutter while the tailplane attachment was changed to a stronger four-bolt fixing.