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How luxurious air liners were developed from early Handley Page bombing aircraft

A FAMOUS BOMBER OF THE WAR of 1914-18, the Handley Page O/400

A FAMOUS BOMBER OF THE WAR of 1914-18, the Handley Page O/400. This aircraft was a development of the O/100, first produced at the end of 1915. In the O/400 the petrol tanks were removed from behind the engines and placed in the fuselage, and armour plating over the engines was not used. Machines of this type carried out many successful long-distance bombing raids Such raids were not possible before the evolution of the twin-engined Handley Page machines.

THE aeronautical achievements of Handley Page, Ltd, are important links in the story of aviation. The original company founded one of Great Britain’s first aircraft factories. It has been responsible for the slotted wing. The name of Handley Page was associated with the first passenger and freight service to operate between England and the Continent; and during the war of 1914-18 Handley Page designs had a profound effect on strategy.

The company was founded at Barking, Essex, by Frederick Handley Page, on June 17, 1909. Handley Page had been trained as an electrical engineer, but he was attracted to aviation in 1906. He had cooperated with Jose Weiss, the famous French aviation pioneer, and by experiments with gliders he developed many of Weiss’s theories on stability and the principles of bird flight. At the beginning of his association with aeronautics Handley Page believed, with Weiss, that designers must follow the principles of bird night. He believed, too, that inherent stability must be obtained by designing aeroplane wings to resemble those of a bird.

The first aeroplane to be manufactured by the Handley Page works (which were among the first works in Great Britain devoted solely to the manufacture of aircraft) was called the Blue Bird.

Aviation was more theory than practice in 1909. Even the internal combustion engine used in aeroplanes was something of a speculation, and the Handley Page Company carried out most of its experiments with gliders. From these experiments, which were made from a hillock covering a rubbish heap, the Blue Bird was developed. This was a monoplane with wings designed to resemble those of a bird. Later in the same year an experimental biplane was built.

Even at this early period the Handley Page Company was not content with the building of aeroplanes. At the end of 1909 the firm turned its attention to airscrew design and to the manufacture of tractor screws and propellers. The Willows airship, which flew from London to Cardiff in 1910, was fitted with a Handley Page propeller.

Before this success part of the Barking works was destroyed by a gale, but no gale could discourage Handley Page and his designers. Shortly after this calamity a monoplane fitted with a horizontally opposed twin-cylinder engine was produced. This machine was used for exhibition nights, and at the Aero Show at Olympia, London, its curved and swept-back wings and the general beauty of its design were much admired. The aeroplane was not, however, outstandingly successful, and it was abandoned for a new type of monoplane, which brought the company its first big success. This machine was the famous “Yellow Peril”, so named from the colour of the non-rusting composition with which its surface was treated.

The “Yellow Peril” had a wing span of 35 feet and a speed of 55-60 miles an hour. It was fitted with a 50 horsepower Gnome engine enclosed in a cowl. The “Yellow Peril” crashed, but it was reconstructed to become the first machine to fly across London to Brooklands, Surrey.

For the Handley Page Company 1912 was a noteworthy year in many ways. In that year a more powerful monoplane was manufactured. It was fitted with an 80 horse-power Gnome engine, but this machine was eliminated from the military trials of that year by a crash. Yet another accident, at Wembley Park, Middlesex, prevented the Admiralty from adopting a similar aeroplane. This crash was a tragedy for aviation in general and for Handley Page in particular. His chief assistant, A. A. Hardwicke, and the pilot, Lieut. Parke, RN, were killed. Parke was then a very important figure in the aviation world. In 1912 new works were opened at Cricklewood, in northwest London, where they are today. The factory area was some 20,000 square feet, approximately double that at Barking. With the extension of the works came an extension of Handley Page activities, and the firm specialized in the production of Service aircraft. This was a significant move, for the fateful year of 1914 was but two years ahead. The company obtained a Government contract to supply four BE (Bleriot Experimental) Service machines.


AN OUTSTANDING HANDLEY PAGE DESIGN, the V/1500, of which the first successful trial flight took place in May 1918. Biplanes of this type were designed to carry out bombing raids on Berlin from bases in Great Britain, but the signing of the Armistice prevented these raids from taking place. Each of the four landing wheels of these machines was five feet in diameter. No engine cowlings were used, the saving of weight offsetting the absence of streamlining.

Private enterprise was not neglected, however, and two noteworthy designs were produced before war was declared. In 1913 a remarkably stable biplane was manufactured. It was fitted with a 100 horse-power Anzani engine and had a speed of 73 miles an hour. In many ways the design of this machine resembled that of the famous monoplane. The curved and swept-back wings were retained. The span of the machine was 40 feet, and it had an overall length of 27 feet. Three pairs of interplane struts were fitted to either side. The fuselage was set midway between the upper and the lower wings, and a ten-cylinder radial engine drove the airscrew direct.

On its test flight this machine climbed to a height of 3,000 feet at the rate of slightly under 300 feet a minute. It carried two passengers, the pilot and a full load of petrol and oil. With this load the maximum speed was as much as 70 miles an hour.

The last important machine built by the Handley Page Company before the war of 1914-18 was a large biplane fitted with a 200 horse-power Salmson engine. This was designed to fly the North Atlantic, but the war prevented the attempt.

At the beginning of the war the Handley Page biplane which was fitted with the Anzani engine was bought by the Royal Naval Air Service (later to be absorbed in the Royal Air Force).

Armament, One Revolver

This machine was stationed for training and defensive work at Hendon Aerodrome, and the famous curved and swept-back wings nearly brought disaster. During a patrol the aeroplane was mistaken for one of the famous German type, the Taube (which had similarly designed wings), and was riddled with bullets from anti-aircraft guns. The damage was not severe and there were no personal casualties.

In those early days of the war little attention had been given to the armament of aircraft, and this biplane, although intended for defensive work, was equipped only with a Webley revolver carried by the pilot.

The Handley Page Company was to be one of the prime movers in making the aeroplane and the seaplane a heavily armed weapon. At first the authorities were not impressed by the offensive possibilities of the aeroplane. They believed that, if attack from the air were to become a serious factor - and even this was doubted at the outbreak of war, although but a few months were to pass before the first Zeppelin raid on England - it would be usefully carried out only by airships.

The authorities have been strongly criticized for this apparently short-sighted policy, but they had something upon which to base their scepticism. In August 1914 no efficient bomb-releasing mechanism was in use, and the margin of lift for bombs was so limited that an aeroplane’s offensive weapons were of necessity restricted to a few hand grenades, which were carried in the aviator’s pockets, one or two light bombs, and perhaps a rifle; even the old-fashioned carbine was used. Even the machines flown by the Royal Naval Air Service, although more powerful than those of the military wing, often experienced difficulty in taking off when fully loaded.

That the authorities finally accepted the aeroplane as an offensive as well as a defensive weapon is due solely to the work of the aircraft constructors in general and to the Handley Page Company in particular.

In December 1914 the Admiralty - which was in charge of British coast defences - approached the firm for a machine that could carry an effective load of projectiles. Exactly a year passed before any tangible result was shown. In December 1915, after a year’s intensive planning, designing and manufacturing for seven days a week, the twin-engined bomber, O/100, took the air. This was the forerunner of the famous O/400.

The O/100 was a great advance on anything yet produced. As with all Handley Page designs, this new machine had remarkable stability. It was particularly easily controlled and could fly with one engine out of action. A ton of bombs could be carried, and the petrol tanks and part of the fuselage were protected by armour plating.

This machine was one of the most successful bombing types produced by any country during the war; but it did not satisfy the ambition of the company’s designers to produce a perfect long-distance bombing aeroplane. They firmly believed that this ambition could be satisfied only by the design of large aeroplanes, but this view was not wholly acceptable to the authorities until the famous German type, the Gotha, had proved to be so successful. Only then did official opinion agree with that of the Handley Page designers. By the end of 1917 the type number was changed to O/400, and certain modifications were introduced. The armour plating over the Rolls-Royce engines was removed, and the petrol tanks were placed in the fuselage instead of behind the engines.

The persistence of designers had by this time convinced the authorities that the aeroplane had justified itself as a strategical arm, and on April 1, 1918, the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps were combined into an independent air arm, the Royal Air Force. The Handley Page Company supplied many machines to the new arm, and by the end of the war no fewer than six hundred Handley Page aeroplanes had been ordered by the Royal Air Force.

255 “Super Handleys”

Meanwhile, Handley Page designers had been working on a four-engined “'Super Handley”, which was to be the supreme product of their skill. This aeroplane was designed with the specific object of carrying out bombing raids on Berlin from bases in Great Britain. This type, known as the V/1500, was a remarkable machine and an outstanding example of the progress made - at any rate by the Handley Page Company -  during the war years. It had a useful load of 6½ tons, and weighed (when fully loaded) 30,000 lb. It had a total horse-power of 1,400-1,500, a cruising speed of 90 miles an hour, a maximum air speed of 100 miles an hour and an endurance of twelve hours. It was 64 feet long, had a span of 126 feet, and was 23 feet high. Its petrol tank capacity was 1,000 gallons (weighing 3 tons), and it had a petrol consumption of 80-90 gallons an hour.

The V/1500 could carry a crew of six, thirty 250-lb bombs, and some machine-guns. Fully loaded, it could make a flight of 650 miles; with a smaller load it could fly non-stop 1,200 miles.

The greatest secrecy was maintained during the building of the first V/1500; the components were made at Belfast by Harland & Wolff, the well-known shipbuilders and marine engineers. In May 1918 the first successful trial flight took place, but a month later the V/1500 was completely wrecked in a crash. No fewer than 255 of these aeroplanes were ordered, 100 of which were to be supplied by the Handley Page Company, and the remainder by other engineering concerns.

DESIGNED FOR THE INTERNATIONAL SAFE AIRCRAFT COMPETITION held in the United States in 1929, this Handley Page aeroplane was known as the Gugnunc

DESIGNED FOR THE INTERNATIONAL SAFE AIRCRAFT COMPETITION held in the United States in 1929, this Handley Page aeroplane was known as the Gugnunc. It was provided with slots along the whole length of the leading edges of the upper wings, and had flaps on the upper and lower planes. It was able to fly slowly across the aerodrome in the attitude shown here, with the tail skid almost brushing the grass.

When the Armistice was declared in November 1918 three machines were ready for the Berlin raid, which was not, of course, carried out. The Handley Page designers, therefore, were unable to realize their ambition, but the V/1500 proved itself to be an outstanding machine, when it did valuable work on other fronts after the war.

Remarkable stability is inevitably associated with all Handley Page aeroplanes, and the V/1500 was no exception. When the pilot, Clifford Prodger, flew the machine from Belfast to Folkestone, he deliberately left the controls and no mishap occurred. The ailerons, the surfaces of which exceeded the wing area of a normal scout aeroplane, were balanced throughout their length. The failure of both engines on one side hail no effect on stability and imposed no strain on the pilot.

Each of the four landing wheels was 5 feet in diameter, and the undercarriage was unusually strong. The machine was thus able to take off from or land on uneven surfaces - an advantage when war-time aerodromes were often makeshift places. One of the most interesting features of the design was the absence of engine cowling. This meant also an absence of streamlining, but the weight of 500 lb of metal cowling was saved. The engines were more accessible and there was a reduction of size and weight in the radiators. Large numbers of bombers were supplied by the Handley Page Company throughout the war. Some of these machines took part in flights which, although only routine service flights, were the forerunners of peace-time long-distance nights.

Early in 1917, for example, a Handley Page O/400 flew from England to Mudros, a natural harbour in the island of Lemnos and the Aegean base of the British flying services operating in the northern Levant. From Mudros this machine carried out bombing raids on Constantinople and other Turkish and Bulgarian towns.

Beginnings of Civil Aviation

THE Constantinople raid necessitated a flight of 140 miles, much of which was over sea and hostile territory and in bad weather. Bombing raids of such long duration were made possible only by the evolution of the twin-engined Handley Page machines. Before the company had designed such a machine no aeroplane had been able to carry enough fuel for flights as long as these.

When the war was finished, the firm at first devoted its time mainly to civil aviation. It was then that the company was able to benefit from its war-time experiences. The same principles underlying the design of successful bombers were necessary for the design of passenger-carrying air liners, although the load problem was a different one. No commercial freight could be so compact or so concentrated at a similar weight.

From the beginning of its post-war association with civil aviation, the Handley Page company refused to be misled by the demand for speed. The designers believed in large machines with comparatively low speeds for passenger and freight work. It was maintained that high speed, with the saving of a few minutes, or of even half an hour, was no compensation for danger; and in the immediate post-war years it was imperative that the public should appreciate the safety aspect of flying rather than the spectacular. Slow and safe flying would not bring publicity, but no publicity was better than that which would accompany any disaster.


AN IMPERIAL AIRWAYS HP 42 AIR LINER. The first of these aircraft was called Hannibal. They were designed with special consideration for safety and luxury. Safety has always been the aim of the designers of Handley Page aircraft, and has never been sacrificed, in any decree, for speed. These liners weigh, loaded, over thirteen tons and have a top speed of 120 miles an hour.

In May 1919 the name of Handley Page was associated with a new development in aviation. Mr. Handley Page registered Handley Page Transport, Ltd, and, with Holt Thomas’s Aircraft Travel and Transport, Ltd, it shares the distinction of having been Great Britain's first commercial air transport concern. The first machines used by Handley Page Transport were of the O/400 type. Several services between London and the Continent were developed. Soon, however, there was opposition from subsidized foreign competition, and in 1921 Handley Page Transport, Ltd, closed down. This was regarded as a death blow by some of the authorities who were struggling with the growing pains of civil aviation. But a powerful Press campaign roused public opinion and Handley Page services operated again in March 1921, after the company had received a subsidy. They continued until March 1924, when they merged with Imperial Airways.

Side by side with the development of successful commercial machines, the Handley Page Company designed and produced some of the world's most famous bombers, including the Hyderabad Night Bomber, the Heyford Night Bomber and the Harrow Night Bomber.

The Heyford, which has been the standard RAF bomber for several years, is a biplane, but later models are all monoplanes. The Heyford Mk. II has two 600-horse-power Rolls-Royce Kestrel VI engines, mounted below the upper centre section and in the same horizontal plane as the fuselage.

Heyford machines have a loaded weight of 16,750 lb and a range of some 900 miles. In the event of wartime emergency, however, it is possible, as with all bombers, to increase the range by decreasing the military and bomb loads and yet be able to carry sufficient bombs to be effective.

The Heyford carries a crew of four, with the pilot’s cockpit in front of the propellers and behind that of the navigator. The Heyford has a length of 58 feet, a height of 17 ft 6 in, a span of 75 feet and a wing area of 1,470 square feet. There are three machine guns, and bombs are carried in the thickened centre section.

Revolving “Dustbin”

A feature of the Heyford is the “dustbin” or revolving turret. This turret can be lowered through the fuselage to protect “blind spots” which might be attacked from below. The gunner has a full range of fire to the rear and downwards. The later model Heyfords are equipped with rotating turrets in the nose and tail.

The four-engined aircraft of the Heracles and Hannibal classes were among the pioneers of luxury travel in the air. They are biplanes, with a wing span of 130 feet. The lower wing is so arranged that the view from the saloon windows is not obscured. The four engines are mounted on the wings, and vibration in the saloons is thus avoided. Machines of the Heracles and Hannibal types are fitted with Bristol Jupiter engines developing a total of 2,200 horse-power and have maximum speeds of 127 or 120 miles an hour.

Heracles class machines were designed to carry thirty-eight passengers, a captain, first officer, wireless operator and two stewards. Machines of the Hannibal class - which were designed for operating in tropical or semi-tropical conditions - carry sixteen passengers when on Empire air routes, thirty-four passengers at other times, a captain, first, officer, wireless operator, a steward and about 2,400 lb of mail and freight.

No mention has been made in this chapter of what is perhaps the company’s greatest contribution to aeronautics - the development of the slotted wing; but this has been described elsewhere in this work in the chapter “How an Aeroplane Flies”. In almost every country in the world where aviation is of any importance the Handley Page slotted wing is used and acknowledged as successful.

THE HARROW HEAVY BOMBER, one of the modern fighting machines made by Handley Page

THE HARROW HEAVY BOMBER, one of the modern fighting machines made by Handley Page, has two Bristol Pegasus engines. Either of two varieties of this engine may be fitted, the more powerful giving a top speed of 200 miles an hour. The wing span is 88 ft 5 in, the length a little over 82 feet and the height 19 ft 5 in. Camouflage colouring has been adopted in the painting of these bombers.

You can read more on “Short Brothers: From Balloons to Flying Boats” , “Geoffrey de Havilland” and “Handley Page 42” on this website.

Pioneers of Large Aircraft