The Handley Page H.P.42 probably had one of the shortest and most disastrous service lives of any aircraft in the Royal Air Force’s history. Seven examples were impressed in to government use at the start of World War II with four eventually going in to RAF service a short while later but between September 1939 and November 1940 all would be destroyed in accidents two of which during the same incident less than two weeks after its transfer!
The H.P.42 was designed in the late 1920s to an Imperial Airways specification for an aircraft to operate on the long-range eastern services while the similar H.P.45 was built for flying to European destinations. The H.P.45 designation was used in-house at Handley Page to distinguish the two but for publicity purposes Imperial Airways called the H.P.42 the H.P.42E (“Eastern”) while the H.P.45 was called the H.P.42W (“Western”).
Despite it’s old-world appearance with its large unequal-span biplane wings and tail it was in fact a quite forward thinking design in terms of airliner construction. At a time when wood and canvas was the primary means of skinning an aircraft the H.P.42 was all-metal except for fabric coverings of the wings, tail surfaces and rear fuselage.
Power for the H.P.42 (H.P.42W) came from four Bristol Jupiter XIFs radial engines each producing 490 hp. The H.P.45 (H.P.42E) used four supercharged Jupiter XFBM engines that were rated at 555hp; this was felt necessary to compensate for the ambient heat and humidity in the Far East which has a detrimental effect on aero-engines. The crew compartment was fully enclosed and there were two passenger cabins; one forward and one aft of the main spar connecting the wings. The H.P.42E carried six (later 12) in the forward compartment and an additional twelve in the aft while the H.P.42W could carry 18 forward and 20 aft.
The aircraft’s service life seemed to be coming to an end in 1939 with the official cessation of scheduled services happening on September 1st; the day Germany invaded Poland. With the outbreak of World War II the aircraft was pressed in to service providing transport duties for the British government. In 1940 all the survivors were pressed in to RAF service (some sources say only three aircraft were officially impressed in to service with the RAF but this refers to aircraft that received military serials. All the aircraft flew under RAF control). What followed was a series of catastrophic accidents that saw the small force wiped out. Most served with No.271 Squadron (along with the De Havilland Albatross) while a single example served with No.261 Squadron.
The losses began on November 7th 1939. G-AAXD Horatius was returning from a transport mission to the British Expeditionary Forces in France but became lost trying to find its airport in Exeter due to poor weather. Running low on fuel the crew began looking for a flat piece of land to set down on settling for Tiverton Golf Course. During the forced landing the aircraft hit two trees and was destroyed. One of the aircraft’s four-bladed wooden propellers was salvaged and is now on display at the Croydon Airport Visitor Centre.
On March 1st 1940, G-AAGX Hannibal disappeared over the Gulf of Oman. Among the eight onboard were the First World War fighter ace, Group Captain Harold Whistler, and Indian politician Sir Arogyaswami Thamaraiselvam Pannirselvam. To this day, why the aircraft disappeared remains a mystery and no trace has ever been found (wreckage found during the initial search was proven not to be from the aircraft).
Just over two and a half weeks later on March 19th 1940 two of the aircraft, G-AAUD Hanno and G-AAXC Heracles, were parked at Whitchurch airport. During the night strong gales battered the two large biplanes eventually lifting them up off the ground and pushing them over. Both aircraft were so badly damaged that they were written off.
Two aircraft suffered damage during hard landings. G-AAUC Horsa crashed during a forced landing at Moresby Parks on August 7th 1940. The uneven ground caused the landing gear to collapse damaging the engines which in turn caused an extensive fire that gutted the aircraft. G-AAXF Helena, suffered extensive fatigue damage from a hard landing a short while later and never flew again eventually being scrapped in 1941. The front fuselage was salvaged and put to a novel use; as an office for members of the Royal Navy.
The last example was lost on December 6th 1940 when G-AAUE Hadrian almost repeated the incident at Whitchurch when it tore loose from its moorings while parked at Doncaster Airport in a gale. The immense aircraft cartwheeled spectacularly across the field before stopping inverted on an adjacent railway track.
The H.P.42’s life in the RAF could be described as almost cursed. It wasn’t available in large enough numbers to make a significant contribution on its own to the early transport effort and the intensity of operations it was expected to undertake coupled with the rough or inadequate handling of its new RAF masters ensured the aircraft would be worked to the ground; a situation not unique to this aircraft in World War II.
Powerplant: 4 × Bristol Jupiter XIF 9-cylinder radial engine (490hp each)
Maximum speed: 120mph
Cruise speed: 100mph
Range: 500 miles
Service ceiling: Unknown
Length: 92ft 2in
Height: 27ft 0in
Wing area: 2,989ft²