In writing this feature on Handley-Page HP42 aircraft I am indebted to John Putley, the Learning and Outreach Officer of Gloucestershire Archives, for the article below, a version of which appeared in the Gloucester Citizen of early April 2014.
Today big aircraft are common in Gloucestershire skies but it wasn’t always so and in summer 1932, much excitement was caused when one of the world’s biggest and most advanced airliners landed at Brockworth.
The aircraft in question was the Handley Page H.P.45 G-AAXC Heracles (although it was often called Hercules), one of a class of aircraft operated by Imperial Airways – Britain’s first national airline. Beautifully elegant, yet somehow ungainly looking, the H.P.45 was a large unequal-span biplane, powered by four Bristol Jupiter engines. Built to operate on Imperial Airways’ shorter European routes, the aircraft proved a great success, being the latest word in luxury, design and speed. They could carry 38 passengers in accommodation akin to that of a First Class Pullman train – though the ride was said to be much smoother!
On Saturday 6 August, G-AAXC (which was two days shy of her first birthday) was on a private charter flying from Croydon [pictured above] with a party of 36 drama critics bound for the Malvern Festival to see the British premier of George Bernard Shaw’s latest play “Too good to be true.” Luckily for Gloucestershire aviation enthusiasts however, the nearest suitable landing field was Brockworth (the newly acquired home of the Gloster Aircraft Company) and at around 1.15pm, Heracles touched down on the grass strip.
The critics continued to Malvern by road (what they thought of this isn’t known – but they gave the play a critical mauling!) and in the meantime, Imperial Airways had arranged a joy-ride flight for some civic dignitaries. At the time, there was a national campaign aimed at persuading municipal authorities to build new aerodromes and so civic officials from Gloucester, Cheltenham and Malvern had been invited along for a flight, which passed over Gloucester, Tewkesbury and Cheltenham before returning to Brockworth. After the dignitaries had disembarked, Heracles began making short flights for the general public – who were now gathering in their hundreds. A report of the day in the Gloucester Journal for 13 August 1932, noted that it was an ideal day for flying with little wind and that the aircraft ‘flew as high as 2,000 feet’!
Eventually however the critics returned and G-AAXC departed. She went on to serve Imperial Airways well – in May 1937, she made the company’s 40,000th flight across the English Channel and by June that year, she reached the milestone of 1,000,000 miles of flying, having carried some 80,000 passengers.
In 1939 she was impressed into the RAF’s 271 Squadron and it was with them that she met her end when, in March 1940 at Whitchurch Airport, Bristol, she was blown into her sister G-AAUD Hanno in a gale and both were damaged beyond repair. Since then bigger and faster aircraft have landed in Gloucestershire –notably G-AAXC’s namesake the C-130 Hercules – but perhaps none have been quite so elegant or luxurious!
Not only has Gloucestershire hosted four-propeller driven transport aircraft with the individual and collective name of Hercules, but in 1932 G-AAXD was also returning to its company roots as pioneering aviator Sir Frederick Handley-Page had been born in Cheltenham in 1885.
Constructed at the Handley Page factory in Radlett, Hertfordshire, the HP42 design furthered the company’s reputation for building large bomber and civilian transport aircraft. Eight examples were assembled to an Imperial Airways specification of 1928 which was further divided into what the British national airline referred to as HP42 Eastern and Western.
The four HP 42E were intended for longer flights to India and South Africa while the more powerful HP42W had a shorter range and less baggage capacity but could carry a greater number of passengers on European routes. Also known as HP45s within Handley Page, two of the four Western aircraft – named Hengist and Helena – were eventually converted to HP42 Eastern configuration, seating being reduced from 18 in the forward cabin and 20 behind the wings to 12 (up from six as first built) forward and 12 aft, the remaining room then being available for baggage. Similarly, G-AAUD Hanno was at one point converted from Eastern to Western configuration.
Whether completed in Eastern or Western formats, the Handley Page HP42 was a large unequal-span biplane, all-metal except for the fabric coverings of the wings, tail surfaces and rear fuselage. The wings were braced by a Warren Truss while the biplane tailplane had three vertical fins. The HP42s also broke new ground as the first Imperial Airways aeroplanes with fully enclosed cockpits and each received a name beginning with the letter H.
The H.P42E had four Bristol Jupiter XIF radial engines of 490 bhp (370 kW) while the H.P45 used four supercharged Jupiter XFBMs of 555 hp (414 kW). Both had two engines on the upper wing and one on each side of the fuselage on the lower wing.
Imperial Airways also wanted its airliners to land safely at low speed, which meant that the HP42 had a wing area almost as large as a modern Boeing 767 that weighs more than 10 times as much. However, as Peter Masefield wrote in 1951, “The trouble about a slow aeroplane with a really low wing loading is the way it insists on wallowing about in turbulent air … One of the reasons that seven times as many people fly to Paris to-day, compared with 1931, is that the incidence of airsickness in modern aircraft is only one-hundredth of that in the pre-War types.” Another writer remembered “I had quite often been landed in a ’42’ at Lympne to take on sufficient fuel to complete the flight (from Paris) to London against a headwind — 90 mph was its normal cruising speed.”
Despite this, no lives were lost aboard an HP42 in civilian service (a record thought to be unique for contemporary aircraft) although apart from G-AAXE Hengist – which was lost to fire on the ground at Karachi in 1937 – none of the remaining seven would survive beyond 1940 in RAF 271 Squadron service.
The eight HP42 in general – and Heracles in particular – were immortalised as a 1/144 scale Airfix kit in 1965 and could still be posed alongside 1930s trains on an N gauge layout today. Appropriately, the box artwork shows G-AAXC flying over the Pyramids close to the Imperial Airway’s HP42 base in Cairo.
The first HP42 flight was on 14 November 1930 with Squadron Leader Thomas Harold England at the controls of G-AAGX later to be named Hannibal after the Carthaginian military commander. The certificate of airworthiness was granted in May 1931, the first flight with fare-paying passengers to Paris lifting off from Croydon on 11 June 1931.
On 8 August 1931 however, Hannibal was operating a scheduled passenger flight fromCroydon to Paris when the port lower engine failed. Flying debris from the failed engine struck the propeller of the port upper engine causing it to vibrate so severely that it had to be shut down. A forced landing was made at Five Oak Green, Kent where the aircraft suffered further damage to a wing and another propeller and the tail was ripped off against a tree stump. There were no injuries amongst the 20 passengers and crew and the aircraft was dismantled and taken to Croydon by road for rebuilding.
Having returned to service with Imperial Airways, Hannibal – along with Britain’s other civil aircraft – was impressed into the Royal Air Force with the coming of war in September 1939. The former G-AAGX was then lost over the Gulf of Oman on 1 March 1940 with eight aboard including the First World War ace Group Captain Harold Whistler and Indian politician Sir A.T. Pannirselvam. No trace of the aircraft, it airmail or its occupants has ever been discovered and the cause of the loss remains unknown.
G-AAUC was originally named Hecate after the Greek goddess but was soon renamed Horsa after the legendary conqueror of Britain and brother of Hengist. The aircraft first flew on 11 September 1931 and was impressed into 271 Squadron RAF as AS981. The aircraft burned after a forced landing on uneven ground at Moresby Parks, near Whitehaven, Cumberland on 7 August 1940.
Following on from the Gloucestershire Hercules connection, Horsa later became the name of type of assault glider designed by Airspeed but constructed in and despatched to war from the County. Among the Douglas Dakota aircraft used to tow Airspeed Horsas into the air for the D-Day landings in June 1944 were those of 271 Squadron, which had been an anti-submarine flying boat unit during World War 1 but had reformed at Doncaster in May 1940 equipped with Handley Page Harrows, Bristol Bombays and impressed airliners such as the HP 42s and de Havilland DH91 Albatross.
A number of these airliners then visited the Gloster Aircraft airfield at Brockworth, it is believed to pick up supplies for the British Expeditionary Force in France. Two Handley Page HP42 four engined biplanes can be seen just behind the bicycles while to the right is a Short Scylla single finned biplane and an Armstrong Whitworth Ensign monoplane.
In March 1943 271 Squadron still had its Handley Page Harrows – which were used as flying ambulances – but re-equipped with Dakotas in January 1944 and became part of RAF Transport Command. During Operation Market Garden, 271 Squadron’s Flight Lieutenant David Lord won the Command’s only Victoria Cross of the Second World War while the Distinguished Flying Cross also went to 271 Squadron pilot Jimmy Edwards, later a popular entertainer.
G-AAUD, Handley Page production number 42/3, was named after the Carthaginian explorer Hanno the Navigator, who explored the Atlantic coast of Africa in around 570 BC. Hanno first flew on 19 July 1931 and was later converted to a H.P.42(W) – Hannibal class. The aircraft was impressed into No. 271 Squadron RAF and was destroyed in a gale at Whitchurch, Bristol, when it was blown together with Heracles and damaged beyond repair on 19 March 1940.
G-AAUE, Handley Page production number 42/2, was named after the Roman Emporer Hadrian and first flew on 24 June 1931. It joined 271 Squadron as AS982 at RAF Odiham – later a base for Gloster Javelin jet fighters – but on 6 December 1940, Hadrian – also a name given to a Second World War assault glider – was torn loose from its moorings at DoncasterAirport in a gale, cartwheeled, and ended up inverted on a railway track next to the airport. The aircraft was too badly damaged to be worth repairing.
G-AAXC was named after Heracles, also known as Hercules, who was the son of Zeus and Alcmene in Greek mythology and was noted for his extraordinary strength. Heracles first flew on 8 August 1931 and was impressed into service with the RAF on 3 March 1940. The aircraft was destroyed in a gale on 19 March 1940 at Whitchurch Airport, Bristol, when it was blown together with Hanno and damaged beyond repair.
As mentioned the Western version of the HP42 was powered by four supercharged Bristol Jupiter XFBMs of 555 bhp (414 kW) while the Lockheed C-130 Hercules is powered by four Allison T56-A-7 gas turbines, each developing 4 050 shp and offering a much improved short take off and landing ability. An earlier version of the nine cylinder Bristol Jupiter engine, the 398 bhp IV, powered the 1926 vintage single seat Gloster Gamecock biplane fighter while 23 February 1932 saw the first flight of Gloster’s only four engined aeroplane, the TC33 bomber transport. Designed to carry 30 fully armed troops, this was equipped with four Rolls Royce Kestrel steam cooled engines developing 580 bhp but was still rejected by the Royal Air Force as underpowered. The Douglas Dakota, as flown by 271 Squadron, was fitted with Pratt and Whitney Twin Wasp radial engines, the earliest of which developed 800 bhp.
G-AAXD was named after Horatius, a legendary Roman hero, and first flew on 6 November 1931. On 9 December 1937 Horatius was struck by lightning whilst flying across the Channel from Paris to Croydon and a precautionary landing was made at Lympne where it was found that minor damage had been inflicted on a wing. In September 1938, Horatius suffered further damage to its port undercarriage and lower port wing in a forced landing at Lympne after which the aircraft was repaired and returned to service.
Returning from France on a transport mission on 7 November 1939, the aircraft could not find its destination of Exeter due to bad weather and was forced to make an emergency landing at Tiverton Golf Course. During this, it hit two trees and was destroyed. However, a four bladed wooden propeller from the aircraft was salvaged and is now on display at the Croydon Airport Visitor Centre, situated in the former terminal building of Croydon Airport.
G-AAXE was originally named Hesperides, but was soon renamed after Hengist, brother of Horsa and legendary conqueror of Britain. Hengist first flew on 8 December 1931 and was later converted from a European to an Eastern aircraft before being caught in an airship hangar fire and burned at Karachi ( then in British India) on 31 May 1937, making it the only H.P.42/45 not to survive until the Second World War.
G-AAXF was named after Helena, also known as Helen of Troy, and first flew on 30 December 1931 before being converted to an Eastern aircraft. On 20 January 1932, G-AAXF inaugurated Imperial Airway’s ten day transcontinental mail service from Croydon to Cape Town via Cairo, Khartoum, Juba, Nairobi, Mbeya, Salisbury and Johannesburg. The initial flights carried mail only, but scheduled passenger service was soon added. The cost of the flight from London to Cape Town was £130.
Impressed into RAF service in May 1940, the aircraft was grounded later that year after a heavy landing. Post-accident inspection condemned the airframe due to corrosion, and it was scrapped in 1941, except for the front fuselage section which was used as an office by theRoyal Navy for several years.
For more information on Imperial Airways and in particular an exciting plan to build a replica HP42 click here