Tuesday, 19 November 2013

An imperial airliner - soon to fly again?



Back in March 2012 I did a post about a proposed new supersonic airliner that was essentially a biplane, the design having two sets of wings set one above the other.  Other than this link to an historic aircraft design the article mentioned was more along the lines of the type I used to include in the early days of this blog when I posted about anything and everything that interested me.  To give it the more vintage bent that this blog is now known for, I added a little bit of history regarding the fast biplanes and biplane airliners of the 1930s.  One of these was the Handley Page H.P.42.

The H.P.42 was born out of an Imperial Airways (the ancestor of British Airways) specification of 1928, intended to supplement their existing fleet of 3-engined Armstrong Whitworth Argosy airliners (also mentioned in my earlier post).  Handley Page's winning design was for a giant all-metal biplane with four Brisol Jupiter engines - two on the upper wings and two mounted on the lower wings next to the fuselage.  Two variants were produced - the H.P.42E (for the eastern routes to India and Australia) and the H.P.42W (for western routes to Europe).  The former seated up to 24 with extra baggage room for air mail, the latter 38.  Unlike the Argosy the cockpit was also enclosed - a first for a large airliner.  Imperial Airways felt its passengers valued comfort over speed so despite having around 500bhp per engine, the H.P.42's maximum speed was a sedate 120mph and its cruising speed a mere 100mph.  This led to commentators of the time noting that it was "as steady as the Rock of Gibraltar - and about as fast" and had "built-in headwinds"!  Indeed any substantial headwind encountered by an H.P.42 would invariably lower its cruising speed to 90mph, requiring extra refuelling stops particularly on the long-distance routes.

Handley Page H.P.42 G-AAUD Hanno at Semakh, Palestine, October 1931.
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The aircraft's first flight was just over 83 years ago, on the 14th November 1930.  Clearance for commercial operation was given in May 1931 and the first passenger flight was undertaken on the 11th June 1931, from Croydon to Paris.  Eight H.P.42s were ultimately built and each was given a name,  beginning with 'H', from ancient British and Roman history or Greek mythology (can't see BA doing that today, can you?).  Hence there was Hannibal, Hanno, Hadrian, Horsa, Heracles, Horatius, Helena and Hengist.  For the next nine years they would ply the airways between London, Europe and the furthest reaches of the British Empire - suffering absolutely no serious accidents, an unheard of feat for aircraft of the time.  They were involved in only 4 incidents in their civilian lifetimes.  Hannibal had to force land in a field in Kent when its port lower engine failed, sending debris into the port upper engine.  Landing on two engines only, a tree trunk ripped off the tail and one wing and another engine were also damaged, but there were miraculously no serious injuries.  Horatius was struck by lightning in 1937 resulting in minor damage to one wing and also force-landed in Kent in 1938 causing damage to the undercarriage and one wing.  Hengist was destroyed in a hanger fire in Karachi in 1938 but the aircraft was empty and no lives were lost.

source
The remaining aircraft were all pressed into RAF service on the outbreak of the Second World War.  Sadly none of them survived the conflict (although not for the reasons you might think), all of them apart from Helena being lost within one year.  Hannibal disappeared in mysterious circumstances over the Gulf of Oman on the 1st March 1940 - no sign of the aircraft or its passengers/contents has ever been found.  Horsa was burned beyond repair after a forced landing in Cumberland on the 7th August 1940.  Hanno and Heracles were both destroyed in one fell swoop when they were blown together during a gale at Bristol Airport on the 19th March 1940.  Hadrian was similarly wrecked in a gale at Doncaster Airport on the 6th December 1940.  Horatius had already been written off in another forced landing in Devon on the 7th November 1939.  Helena managed to survive until the end of 1940 but after a particularly hard landing an inspection showed irreparable corrosion had set in and it was scrapped in 1941.

Why am I telling you all this, apart from the fact that it is interesting (at least, I think it is and hope you do to)?  Well, last weekend I received a welcome surprise in the form of a comment on that earlier post from a member of Team Merlin, who it seems are actively undertaking to not only create a museum about Imperial Airways but also to build a full-size replica of the massive H.P.42 airliner!  (They're also based in a beautiful aviation-themed pub in deepest Wiltshire, I note).  I couldn't let such an interesting comment get lost in the archives, so here we are.  Wouldn't it be amazing to see one of these behemoths in the air again?  What a remarkable homage it would be to Imperial Airways' H.P42s and those early days of civil aviation.  Can such a (literally) huge undertaking be accomplished?  Your guess is as good as mine, but if a replica can be built of the Vickers Vimy bomber that flew non-stop across the Atlantic in 1919 then anything's possible.  I shall keep an eye out for their PR campaign next year with interest and - who knows? - maybe another eye out for a flying H.P.42 not long after that.

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