RADLETT: Private company aerodrome
(Sometimes mistaken for being LONDON COLNEY or COLNEY STREET WW1 airfield)
Note: Pictures by the author unless specified.
Manufacturing: Handley Page factory from1929 to 1969/70
Location: Park Street on east side of A5183 (once the A5 trunk road)
Period of operation: 1929, (some say 1930), to 1969/70?
(see Notes for Toucan flights in 1972)
Runways: RADLETT was originally a 154 acre ‘all over’ grass airfield with, in 1933, a maximum run of 1052 metres.
The original hard runways are: 03/21 1383x46 hard
(later extended to 1753x46, then to 1862x46 and later still an extension of 244x30 was added at one end )
15/33 1186x55 hard
(There was also a roughly E/W hard runway of 814x64 but it seems this was disused after WW2?)
SIGNIFICANT FIRST FLIGHTS (Once again I have to thank Ron Smith whose excellent book British Built Aircraft Vol.3 has helped me fill in many gaps). But, obviously, still more work needs to be done.
Type Reg/Serial Date Notes
HP.38 Heyford J9130 12.06.30 The type that entered service with the RAF was the HP.50 Heyford and 124 were built
HP.42 G-AAGX 14.11.1930 For Imperial Airways
HP.52 Hampden K4240 21.06.36 502 built by Handley Page, 770 by English Electric plus 160 built in Canada
HP.53 Hereford ? 01.07.37 The Hereford was a Napier Dagger powered version of the Hampden of which 152 were built by Short & Harland in Belfast. It appears this original prototype had Bristol Pegasus engines
HP.54 Harrow K6933 10.10.36 100 built of this bomber/transport
HP.57 Halifax L7244 25.10.39 For some reason the first flight actually took place at BICESTER in OXFORDSHIRE. It is claimed over 6,000 Halifax were built in twenty-six versions. The principal versions being the HP.57, HP.58, HP.59, HP.61,
HP.63, HP.70 and HP.71
HP.67 Hastings TE580 07.05.46 Also for some (obscure?) reason the first flight took place from WITTERING in NORTHAMPTONSHIRE. 150 were built, two prototypes, 144 for the RAF and four for the RNZAF
HP.68 Hermes I G-AGSS 03.12.45 The first flight ended in a tragic fatal accident
HP.74 Hermes II G-AGUB 02.09.47 The Hermes I and II were tail-wheel types
HP.75 Manx H-0222 25.06.43 Experimental flying-wing design. Why does the HP.75 designation appear way out of sequence?
HP.80 Victor WB771 24.12.52 Here once again, for some equally obscure reason (?) the first prototype Victor B.Mk.1 was transported to BOSCOMBE DOWN in WILTSHIRE for its first flight.
HP.81 Hermes 4 G-AKFP 05.09.48 This was radically changed from the original versions and, much lighter and longer with a tricycle undercarriage 25 were ordered for BOAC.
HP.82 Hermes 5 ? ? Two Hermes 5 were built it seems.
HPR.7 Dart Herald G-APWA 17.12.58 It appears this wasn’t the first ‘Dart Herald’ to fly but attempts to discover ‘the first’ seems clouded in confusion. The very first ‘Herald’ version was piston powered of course and flew from WOODLEY in
BERKSHIRE? So presumably with much imput from the Miles company? Other sources say the first Herald with four Alvis Leonides flew from RADLETT on 25.08.55
HP.137 Jetstream ? 18.08.67 The history of this type is long and complex.
A POINT OF CONJECTURE?
It is sometimes claimed the original Handley Page factory airfield, having moved from CRICKLEWOOD in LONDON, operated from LONDON COLNEY or COLNEY STREET and as this factory expanded and developed it moved to RADLETT. I now think this is probably incorrect? The LONDON COLNEY/COLNEY STREET site being a WW1 airfield close to but quite separate from RADLETT.
A BIT OF HISTORY
After their success in WW1 producing large bombers, the Handley Page company failed to make much impact despite some quite extraordinary and advanced designs during the 1920s and 30s. The Bombay and Heyford bombers were, when regarded today, to have been to some extent a bit of a joke, and the Hampden/Hereford utterly abysmal. However, when you compare the Hampden with the typical German He.111 H.6 operated by the newly formed Luftwaffe, another picture emerges. The Hampden had a maximum speed of 247mph against the 273mph of the HE.111. But, the Hampden had a range of 1,720 miles compared to 1,429 miles. The He.111 had a superior service ceiling, but only byjust over 2,000 feet. The Hampden had a bomb load of 1,814kg and the He.111 2,000kg. Defensive armament was similar, and utterly inadequate in both. As can be seen the much maligned Hampden compares quite favourably to the top German equivalent.
THE FOUR ENGINE BOMBER
When it was realised that only a large four-engine bomber could make enough impact to severely damage Germany, the company came up with the Halifax which, it needs to be remembered, was much superior to the Short Stirling, the first four-engine bomber to enter service with the RAF. Typically they failed to get it right and tinkered about producing twenty-six versions. A few of which were actually very successful. Unfortunately the reputation of the other versions drags the historic inheritance way down compared to the Avro Lancaster. In many ways perhaps a re-run of the Spitfire versus Hurricane whereby the Spitfire remains the chosen type of the ‘Battle of Britain’ although far more Hurricanes took part, and, were highly regarded by their pilots. We must remember that seventy-six RAF bomber squadrons were equipped with the Halifax towards the zenith of the bombing campaign. I have still to discover how this compares to squadrons equipped with Lancasters. Perhaps you know?
HALIFAX BOMBER PRODUCTION
Here again it was only by doing this research that I discovered the truth about the manufacturing of aircraft in the UK. But, as said before I was brought up with Airfix kits so automatically believed the name on the packet indicated who actually built the type. Not so of course and Halifax production is a fine example. Typically there is some dissent about the actual total built but I think it can be agreed it comfortably exceeds 6,000 – 6,135 quoted by one source:
Presumably these figures are more or less correct?
Handley Page = 1,564.
English Electric = 2,145.
Fairey Aviation = 662.
London Aircraft Production Group = 710.
Rootes Securities = 1,070.
This comes to 6,151 built. Another source quotes 6,177. As a Ground Instructor told us when I was learning to fly and making calculations arriving with a similar amount of error or more - “That’s close enough for government work.” Being ex-RAF I now realise he really did know what he was talking about!
IS THE HANDLEY PAGE REPUTATION DESERVED?
For some rather strange reason the Handley Page name still appears highly regarded today but I find it hard to fathom why? The majority of their designs were not very good. Indeed, they often struggled to make good the few designs that did eventually get into production.
THE SBAC AIR SHOW
I was quite surprised to discover that the first post-war SBAC show was held here in September 1946 and 1947, and this time the public were allowed in. It appears the show moved to FARNBOROUGH in 1948. As more than one author/historian has pointed out, these were, in their way, quite remarkable airshows, especially because they featured the first jet aircraft. It is perhaps difficult to imagine today the quite remarkable effect these jets made on the viewing public - with no engine visible and no propellers! And yet, zooming around the sky at speeds nothing they had seen before could possibly attain. Plus, the noise they made – nothing like this had been heard before. Jet noise is of course today considered by most as being utterly unacceptable. In those days jet noise was, for youngsters especially, incredibly thrilling – and the louder the better. Noise equalled power and sheer power impressed us no end.
HANDLEY PAGE GLIDING CLUB
In the 1957 The Aeroplane directory, the 'fleet' was given as: One T.31B two seater and one Tutor (intermediate), one Rhônbussard (advanced). The latter type was, I imagine, quite a rarity in the UK in those days (?). First flown in 1933 in Germany the majority of the more than two hundred built were constructed by Schleicher - at their Wasserkuppe factory I think(?).
In Germany it was regarded as being an intermediate type for competitions and training. Somewhat oddly it seems, the entry gives the German name, when its English name was the Rhön Buzzard.
THE HASTINGS ERA
There are many tales of the HP.67 Hastings four Bristol Hercules engines being notoriously unreliable and the aircraft itself not being nice to fly, and yet it stayed in RAF service from 1948 to 1968. Presumably the early problems were resolved? Perhaps interesting though that no civilian, (typically charter operator), decided to wring out a few more years as they did with the Avro York for example, and, lets face it, some even took on the Avro Tudors! This history makes an interesting comparison, I think, with the development of the HP.81Hermes?
THE 'V' BOMBER ERA
The 1st flight of the Victor ‘V’-bomber occurred on Christmas Eve 1952 and eventually with later versions being converted air-to-air refuelling tankers the type stayed in operation with the RAF until 1993. The Victor was arguably the most aerodynamically advanced V-bomber according to some experts, in sheer performance though surely the Vulcan, (which first flew four months previously), was the supreme “V” bomber? The design also offered several advanced features over the other V-bombers. This said, despite how wonderful the Victor design was, I really don’t think it can disguise the fact that by and large, since WW1, the company failed to produce more than a couple of truly successful designs?
In fact they really didn’t do too well with the Victor, initially at least. The first Victors were badly designed in so many ways and very unreliable. Looked at today, if it wasn't for the pressures of producing a 'deterrent' for the 'Cold War' it seems unlikely the first Victors would have been allowed to enter service.
One of the prototypes fell apart in mid-air on the 14th July 1954. Serious miscalculations were blamed. Pretty obviously Handley Page had some brilliant people, and also some highly questionable employees? I can only imagine how incredibly difficult it can be to try and establish an entire design team of equal ‘flair’ and exceptional capabilities. An impossible ‘ideal’ I suppose in many respects, and exactly the same problem still exists in aviation manufacturing – and quite probably will always remain.
But of course, and in fairness, the Victor along with the Vulcan especially, were radical departures from proven design concepts. They were entering, by and large, into a totally unkown field of aviation endeavour, and consequently it can, I suppose, only be expected that unforeseen glitches would appear. The problem being, and this applies to all three 'V' bombers, that when these glitches did occur, they quite often resulted in the total destruction of the aircraft as they crashed, quite often with the loss of everybody in the crew.
However, when the heavily redesigned and re-engined Victor B.2 came along - it was a game changer - vastly superior. Indeed, it is claimed that at medium fuel loads the Victor K2 tanker could out-climb a fully loaded Mc Donnell Phantom, and in some circumstances out-accelerate in level flight.
THE FIRST PROTOTYPE VICTOR
As it happens, the first prototype Victor, did not make its maiden flight from RADLETT - the airfield was simply too small. It was built at CRICKLEWOOD and transported by road to BOSCOMBE DOWN. Later on, many a tale is told of very senior people in aviation, civil and military, who were astonished that the Victor could use such a small airfield. But it could and did.
In fact the Victor production line was at RADLETT (in "Fred's Shed"), and it is said that a visiting US General was highly impressed with the production lines, but couldn't understand why they were "being built in a barn".
IN PRAISE OF THE VICTOR
In his excellent book Avro 607 Rowland White gives this account of the Victor: “Designed to the same 1940s Air Staff Requirement as the Vulcan, she was the last of the V-bombers to fly. Sir Frederick Handley Page, a giant of the British aviation industry, was stung by the superiority of the Avro Lancaster’s performance over his own wartime four-engined heavy, the Halifax. The company that bore his name didn’t let it happen again. The Handley Page Victor could carry nearly twice the bomb load of the Vulcan and she was faster too – in 1957, test pilots took her through Mach 1, much to the annoyance of the team developing the Vulcan. At the time she was the largest aircraft ever to have broken the sound barrier – and the Observer, sitting in one of the rear-facing crew seats, was the first man to 'break it' travelling backwards.”
“Rivalry between Avro and Handley Page was intense. Crowds at Farnborough were the beneficiaries as the two bombers slugged it out, performing rolls, loops and high-speed Immelman turns – manoeuvres never before seen in aircraft of their great size and weight. Sir Frederick – or HP as he was known – left nothing to chance in competing for the affections of the public and Ministry of Supply. (Note: See my remarks above). He even chose a special colour scheme. The Victor prototype was painted in a striking matt black finish, set off with silver wings and tail. A distinctive red cheatline ran from nose to tail. His futuristic new bomber looked stunning.”
“The Victor was built to slice through the sky at 60,000 feet – twice the height of today’s commercial airliners, (My note: A bit of an exaggeration as heights up to nearly 40,000 feet are common enough), untroubled by the fighters of the day. But when Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane was shot down by a Soviet Sa-2 surface-to-air missile ‘above 68,000 feet’ over Sverdlovsk, Russia, in 1960, it was obvious that altitude alone no longer offered the V-force and security.
The decision to switch to low-level operations was quickly taken, and it was a decision that would have major consequences for the Victor.”
THE RAF AND THE AIR MINISTRY SCREWED UP
They, and the Air Ministry had been advised that low lovel versions had to be designed and tested. Just like the Vickers Valiant the Victor could not withstand the incredible battering very low-level operations inflicted. Only the Vulcan, apparently built on Victorian cast-iron bridge building engineering principles – or so it seems to me – could take it over a lengthy period.
A USEFUL PERPECTIVE
In their excellent book Victor Boys, Tony Blackman and Garry O'Keefe provide this valuable insight: "After the war, Handley Page turned its hand to the production of the Hastings military transport, already somewhat obsolete with its tail-wheel undercarriage at a time when the much more capable nose-wheel-configured Douglas DC4 had been giving wartime service with the USAF for some years. By the time the Hastings had evolved into the Hermes civil airliner for BOAC it was, yet again, behind the times." My note: The Hermes was a nose-wheel version.
"Douglas was by then producing the larger and more capable DC6." My note; And Lockheed the Super Constellation. It seems odd that British manufacturers could produce bombers which could carry twice the bomb-load of American designs, but none of them could design a decent airliner with real sales appeal. The Vickers Viscount being the exception of course, but that was only for short and medium distance routes.
"HP's last civil airliner was the 40-passenger Herald which could not match the Avro 748 or the Fokker F27 which, between them, went on to capture the whole of the 1,000 aircraft DC3 replacement market throughout the world." My note; except in the USA, although Fokker made some sales.
"It was against this somewhat modest background that Handley Page produced, out of the blue, what was undoubtedly one of the most aerodynamically advanced and highest performing four-engine jet aircraft in the world at that time."
They also added: "That the resulting HP proposal would come to fruition was both a remarkable and a colossal achievement, despite causing later bewilderment to one visiting American General who, while praising the later Victor production line at "Fred's Shed" asked why 'they had to be built in a barn'."
I suppose it should be mentioned that many components for Handley Page aircraft were being built at their CRICKLEWOOD factory, although the aerodrome had long been closed. That aerodrome was, at one short period after WW2 the first 'proper' international airport. See CRICKLEWOOD for more info.
A WORD PICTURE OF RADLETT
I came across am interesting description of Handley Page production facilities at RADLETT in British Midland Airways by Captain B G Cramp. This concerned the first turbo-prop airliner acquired by British Midland, the second-hand ex-Sadia Airways Herald G-ASKK. “The Company Directors and Senior Management attended the handing-over ceremony at the Handley Page factory at Radlett. It seemed a strange production line for a civil airliner, if the term production line applies, for the Heralds under construction were being built in between Handley Page Victor V-bombers which themselves were either being built or were being modified or overhauled. It all sounds a ‘bit knockabout’ but perhaps the truth is that a flexible plan was in place to exploitevery square foot of available space?
Handley Page closed down in 1970 but almost incredibly a band of employees, known as the Hertfordshire Pedal Aeronauts stayed on at the site. This group had been enthusiastically supported by Handley Page, and, having been provided with their own building, this enabled them to keep working on the Toucan man-powered aircraft. This had been developed to compete for the £50,000 Kremer prize, awarded to the first man-powered aircraft to complete a figure of eight over a mile in distance.
On the 23rd December 1972, ‘powered’ by crew member Derek May and pilot Brian Bowen, the Toucan flew. Just 70 yards on that first flight although they eventually achieved 700 yards with the later version Toucan II. It was a most remarkable aircraft with a span of 123ft, and when the wings developed enough lift for take-off the tips flexed upwards by 16ft! On that first flight the Toucan became famous for being the first ‘two-seat’ man-powered aircraft in the world!
Note:Even though by then basically a gravel extraction site, the runway layout can still be discerned.
In 2006 it was reported that the last architectural remnants of the Handley Page era were due for demolition.
RobThis comment was written on: 2018-07-04 15:31:54
Always remember peering through the fence as a kid and seeing the occasional Victor
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