Handley Page Victor

The Handley Page Victor was a British jet bomber aircraft produced by the Handley Page Aircraft Company. It was the third and final of the V-bombers which provided Britain's nuclear deterrent. The other two V-bombers were the Avro Vulcan and the Vickers Valiant. Like the other V-bombers, the Victor was originally designed for high-altitude, high-speed penetration of Soviet airspace to deliver a free-fall nuclear weapon. It was intended to fly higher and faster than contemporary fighter aircraft. 

The Victor was the last of the V-bombers to enter service and the last to retire, nine years after the last Vulcan (although the Vulcan survived longer in its original role as a bomber). It saw service in the Falklands War and 1991 Gulf War as an in-flight refuelling tanker. During the Borneo conflict of 1962-66, two B.1A aircraft flew the only offensive mission undertaken by Victor bombers.

Handley Page Victor
Class Aircraft
Type Bomber
Manufacturer Handley Page Limited
Origin United Kingdom - UK (Great Britain)
Country Name Origin Year
United Kingdom - UK (Great Britain) 1952
ManufacturerName Production From Production To Quantity
Handley Page Limited 86 View

The origin of the Victor and the other V bombers is heavily linked with the early British atomic weapons programme and nuclear deterrent policies that developed in the aftermath of the Second World War. The atom bomb programme formally began with Air Staff Operational Requirement OR.1001 issued in August 1946, which anticipated a government decision in January 1947 to authorise research and development work on atomic weapons, the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (McMahon Act) having prohibited exporting atomic knowledge, even to countries that had collaborated on the Manhattan Project. OR.1001 envisaged a weapon not to exceed 24 ft 2 in (7.37 m) in length, 5 ft (1.5 m) in diameter, 10,000 lb (4,500 kg) in weight, and suitable for release from 20,000 ft (6,100 m) to 50,000 ft (15,000 m).

At the same time, the Air Ministry drew up requirements for bombers to replace the existing piston-engined heavy bombers such as the Avro Lancaster and the new Avro Lincoln which equipped RAF Bomber Command. In January 1947, the Ministry of Supply distributed Specification B.35/46 to aviation companies to satisfy Air Staff Operational Requirement OR.229 for "a medium range bomber landplane capable of carrying one 10,000 lb (4,500 kg) bomb to a target 1,500 nautical miles (1,700 mi; 2,800 km) from a base which may be anywhere in the world." A cruising speed of 500 knots (580 mph; 930 km/h) at heights between 35,000 ft (11,000 m) and 50,000 ft (15,000 m) was specified. The maximum weight when fully loaded ought not to exceed 100,000 lb (45,000 kg). The weapons load was to include a 10,000 lb "Special gravity bomb" (i.e. a free-fall nuclear weapon), or over shorter ranges 20,000 lb (9,100 kg) of conventional bombs. No defensive weapons were to be carried, the aircraft relying on its speed and height to avoid opposing fighters.

The similar OR.230 required a "long range bomber" with a 2,000 nautical miles (2,300 mi; 3,700 km) radius of action at a height of 50,000 ft (15,000 m), a cruise speed of 575 mph (925 km/h), and a maximum weight of 200,000 lb (91,000 kg) when fully loaded. Responses to OR.230 were received from Short Brothers, Bristol, and Handley Page; however, the Air Ministry recognised that developing an aircraft to meet these stringent requirements would have been technically demanding and so expensive that the resulting bomber could only be purchased in small numbers. As a result, realising that the majority of likely targets would not require such a long range, a less demanding specification for a medium-range bomber, Air Ministry Specification B.35/46 was issued. This demanded the ability to carry the same 10,000 lb bomb-load to a target 1,500 nmi (1,725 mi, 2,800 km) away at a height of 45,000–50,000 ft (13,700–15,200 m) at a speed of 575 mph.

The Victor was the last of the V bombers to enter service, with deliveries of B.1s to No. 232 Operational Conversion Unit RAF based at RAF Gaydon, Warwickshire before the end of 1957. The first operational bomber squadron, 10 Squadron, formed at RAF Cottesmore in April 1958, with a second squadron, 15 Squadron forming before the end of the year. Four Victors, fitted with Yellow Astor reconnaissance radar, together with a number of passive sensors, were used to equip a secretive unit, the Radar Reconnaissance Flight at RAF Wyton. The Victor bomber force continued to build up, with 57 Squadron forming in March 1959 and 55 Squadron in October 1960. At its height, the Victor was simultaneously operating with six squadrons of RAF Bomber Command.

According to the operational doctrine developed by the RAF, in the circumstance of deploying a large scale nuclear strike, each Victor would have operated entirely independently; the crews would conduct their mission without external guidance and be reliant upon the effectiveness of their individual tactics to reach and successfully attack their assigned target; thus great emphasis was placed on continuous crew training during peacetime. Developing a sense of a crew unity was considered highly important; Victor crews would typically serve together for at least five years, and a similar approach was adopted with ground personnel. In order to maximize the operational lifespan of each aircraft, Victor crews typically flew a single five hour training mission per week. Each crew member was required to qualify for servicing certificates to independently undertake inspection, refuelling and turnaround operations.

In times of high international tension, the V-bombers would be dispersed and have been maintained at a high state of readiness; if the order was given to deploy a nuclear strike, Victors at high readiness would have been airborne in under four minutes from the point the order had been issued. British intelligence had estimated that the Soviet's radar network was capable of detecting the Victor at up to 200 miles away, so to avoid interception, the Victor would follow carefully planned routes to exploit weaknesses in the Soviet detection network. This tactic was employed in conjunction with the Victor's extensive onboard electronic countermeasures (ECM) to increase the chances of evasion. Whilst originally the Victor would have maintained high altitude flight throughout a nuclear strike mission, rapid advances of the Soviet anti-aircraft warfare capabilities (exemplified by the downing of a U2 from 70,000 ft in 1960) led to this tactic being abandoned: a low-level high-speed approach supported by increasingly sophisticated ECMs was adopted in its place.

The improved Victor B.2 started to be delivered in 1961, with the first B.2 Squadron, 139 Squadron forming in February 1962, and a second, 100 Squadron in May 1962. These were the only two bomber squadrons to form on the B.2, as the last 28 Victors on order were cancelled. The prospect of Skybolt ballistic missiles, with which each V-bomber could strike at two separate targets, meant that fewer bombers would be needed, while the government were unhappy with Sir Frederick Handley Page's resistance to their pressure to merge his company with competitors. While Skybolt's development would be terminated, Victor B.2s were retrofitted as carrier aircraft for the Blue Steel standoff nuclear missile. The introduction of standoff weapons and the switch to low-level flight in order to evade radar detection was said to be decisive factors in the successful penetration of enemy territory.

In 1964–1965, a series of detachments of Victor B.1As was deployed to RAF Tengah, Singapore as a deterrent against Indonesia during the Borneo conflict, the detachments fulfilling a strategic deterrent role as part of Far East Air Force, while also giving valuable training in low-level flight and visual bombing. In September 1964, with the confrontation with Indonesia reaching a peak, the detachment of four Victors was prepared for rapid dispersal, with two aircraft loaded with live conventional bombs and held on one-hour readiness, ready to fly operational sorties. However, they were never required to fly combat missions and the high readiness alert finished at the end of the month.

Following the discovery of fatigue cracks, developing due to their low-altitude usage, the B.2R strategic bombers were retired and placed in storage by the end of 1968. The RAF had experienced intense demand upon its existing aerial refuelling tanker fleet, and its existing fleet of Victor B.1 tankers that had been converted earlier were due to be retired in the 1970s, thus it was decided that the stored Victor B.2Rs would be converted to tankers also. Handley Page prepared a modification scheme that would see the Victors fitted with tip tanks, the structure modified to limit further fatigue cracking in the wings, and ejection seats provided for all six crewmembers. The Ministry of Defence delayed signing the order for conversion of the B2s until after Handley Page went into liquidation. The contract for conversion was instead awarded to Hawker Siddeley, who produced a much simpler conversion than that planned by Handley Page, with the wingspan shortened to reduce wing bending stress and hence extend airframe life.

While the Victor was never permanently based with any units stationed overseas, temporary deployments were frequently conducted, often in a ceremonial capacity or to participate in training exercises and competitions. Victor squadrons were dispatched on several extended deployments to the Far East, and short term deployments to Canada were also conducted for training purposes. At one point during the early 1960s, South Africa showed considerable interest in the acquisition of several bomber-configured Victors; in the end, the Victor would not serve with any other operator other than the RAF.

Several of the Victor B.2s had been converted for Strategic Reconnaissance mission following the retirement of the Valiant in this capacity. In service, this type was primarily used in surveillance of the Atlantic and Mediterranean Seas, capable of surveying 400,000 square miles in an eight-hour mission; they were also used to sample the fallout from French nuclear tests conducted in the South Pacific. Originally reconnaissance Victors were equipped for visual reconnaissance; however, it was found to be cheaper to assign Canberra light bombers to this duty and as such the cameras were removed in 1970. Subsequently, radar-based reconnaissance was emphasised in the type's role. The reconnaissance Victors remained in use until 1974 when they followed the standard bombers into the tanker conversion line; a handful of modified Avro Vulcans assumed the maritime radar reconnaissance role in their place.

Two of the V-bombers, the Victor and the Vulcan, played a high-profile role during the 1982 Falklands War. In order to cross the vast distance of the Atlantic Ocean, a single Vulcan required refuelling several times from Victor tankers. A total of three bombing missions were flown against Argentine forces deployed to the Falklands, with approximately 1.1 million gal (5 million L) of fuel consumed in each mission. At the time, these missions held the record for the world's longest-distance bombing raids. The deployment of other assets to the theatre, such as the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod and Lockheed Hercules, required the support of the Victor tanker fleet, which had been temporarily relocated to RAF Ascension Island for the campaign. The Victor also undertook several reconnaissance missions over the South Atlantic. These missions provided valuable intelligence for the retaking of South Georgia by British forces.

Following the invasion of Kuwait by neighbouring Iraq in 1991, a total of eight Victor K.2s were deployed to Bahrain to provide in-flight refuelling support to RAF and other coalition aircraft during the subsequent 1991 Gulf War. RAF strike aircraft such as the Panavia Tornado would frequently make use of the tanker to refuel prior to launching cross-border strikes inside of Iraq. Shortly after the Gulf War, the remaining Victor fleet was quickly retired in 1993, at which point it had been the last of the three V-bombers in operational service; retiring nine years after the last Vulcan, although the Vulcan had survived longer in its original role as a bomber.

Role Strategic bomber, tanker
National origin United Kingdom
Manufacturer Handley Page Limited
Designer Reginald Stafford
First flight 24 December 1952
Introduction April 1958
Retired 1993
Primary user Royal Air Force
Produced 1952-1963
Number built 86


General characteristics

  • Crew: 5
  • Length: 114 ft 11 in (35.05 m)
  • Wingspan: 110 ft (33.53 m)
  • Height: 26 ft 9 in (8.15 m)
  • Wing area: 2,406 ft (223.5 m)
  • Loaded weight: 165,000 lb (75,000 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 185,000 lb (83,900 kg)
  • Powerplant: 4 x Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire A.S.Sa.7 turbojets, 11,050 lbf (49 kN) each

Performance

  • Maximum speed: 650 mph (1,050 km/h)
  • Range: 2,500 mi (4,000 km)
  • Service ceiling 56,000 ft (17,000 m)
  • Thrust/weight: 0.27

Armament

  • up to 35 x 1,000 lb (450 kg) bombs
  • Blue Steel stand-off nuclear missile (B.2RS)
  • 1 Grand Slam bomb or
  • 2 Tallboy bombs

End notes