Handley Page H.P.42 (Military Service)

Handley Page H.P.42

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”).

Handley Page H.P.42 3Despite 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.

HP42

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.

HP42 2

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.


SPECIFICATIONS (H.P.42/42E)

Crew: 4
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
Wingspan: 130ft
Height: 27ft 0in
Wing area: 2,989ft²

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Boulton Paul P.29 Sidestrand & P.75 Overstrand

boulton paul sidestrand overstrand

While perhaps occupying a less prestigious place in history than Supermarine or Avro, Boulton Paul Aircraft Ltd nevertheless helped forge British military aviation. The company’s name, Boulton Paul, has a rich heritage as ironmongers stretching as far back as 1797. Prospering in the Industrial Revolution of Victorian Britain the firm evolved to become a general manufacturer by the start of the 20th century before founding an engineering division in 1905. It would be this engineering division that would lay the foundation for Boulton Paul Aircraft Ltd and this was thanks to the outbreak of World War I.

Despite a somewhat muddled start aircraft were now proving indispensable over the Western Front and the Royal Flying Corps was going through a rapid expansion. In order to meet the demand for its F.E.2b combat aircraft the Royal Aircraft Factory approached Boulton Paul to manufacture 550 airframes and thus Boulton Paul became an aircraft manufacturer albeit building other company’s products. During the course of the war a number of companies sub-contracted Boulton Paul to build their designs and this gave the company’s engineers a wealth of experience to the extent that the company then decided to attempt to design and manufacture aircraft themselves.

P.3 Bobolink (Aviastar.org)

P.3 Bobolink (Aviastar.org)

To help them in this bold endeavour in 1917 they brought in John Dudley North an established engineer who had worked on aircraft designs for the Austin Motor Company. The fruits of this new department could be seen in the company’s first aircraft the P.3 Bobolink, a prototype for a new fighter to replace the Sopwith Camel which the company had intimate knowledge of thanks to a sub-contract to build it from Sopwith. This knowledge was obvious in Boulton Paul’s aircraft as in many ways it resembled the previous Sopwith design. Boulton Paul’s aircraft was rejected in favour of the Sopwith Snipe and it would be only the first of a series of promising but ultimately disappointing attempts to design and build their own aircraft for the newly established Royal Air Force.

With the end of the war Boulton Paul Aircraft Ltd needed to establish itself quickly in the British aviation scene if it was to survive and that was no easy feat. Several of the main manufacturers of aircraft during the war collapsed within two years of the armistice the biggest shock being Sopwith who’s Camel and Snipe had been credited with winning back air superiority over the Western Front. In 1918 the RAF was already looking for a new bomber to replace its wartime Handley Page O-series aircraft and Boulton Paul saw this as an opportunity to show that it was capable of competing with the best.

John Dudley North began work on the P.7 Bourges to meet the RAF’s specification. North adopted the tried and tested design of a large biplane design with a gunner/bomb aimer in the exposed nose of the aircraft and the pilot seated behind. Despite good flying qualities the aircraft was ultimately never acquired by the RAF and after four years of redesigns in an effort to entice interest in the aircraft it was finally dropped in 1924 when the RAF rescinded and revised the original requirement. North tried to redesign the aircraft in to a transatlantic airliner but this failed also.

Boulton Paul P.7 Bourges (Aviastar.org)

Boulton Paul P.7 Bourges (Aviastar.org)

North and Boulton Paul Aircraft Ltd remained undeterred however and produced a series of one-off prototypes building on the Bourges. While none of these were successful the company was continuing to gain experience and Boulton Paul as a whole was getting enough work to keep North’s division open. The company’s efforts had not gone entirely unnoticed however and other companies began to view Boulton Paul as a serious competitor for contracts. Finally in 1924 the Air Ministry issued a specification for a three/four seat medium day bomber to replace their wartime fleet of aircraft. North took all he had learned from his previous prototypes and put that knowledge in to a single design which was given the in-house designation P.29.

The P.29 had an overall similar configuration to his previous designs stretching back to the Bourges but was more bloated in appearance as North designed the aircraft with sweeping lines for increased aerodynamic efficiency. The aircraft was of mixed metal and traditional wood/canvas construction with thin steel skin covering the main frame around the cockpit. Identifying the vulnerability of the wartime bombers to enemy fighters the P.29 was designed to be heavily armed for its day with three gunner positions in total – one in the nose, one behind the pilot and one in the lower half of the fuselage facing backwards. Each gunner was armed with a single manually trainable .303 (7.7mm) Lewis machine gun while the aircraft was designed to carry an offensive load of 1,000lbs of bombs.

Boulton Paul Sidestrand I (airwar.ru)

Boulton Paul Sidestrand (airwar.ru)

Power for the aircraft was to come from a pair of Bristol Jupiter VIIF 9-cylinder air-cooled radial engines. These were geared to produce 460hp each and were mounted in streamlined nacelles on the lower wing. Originally North wanted to power the aircraft with Napier Lion inline engines and the shape of the nacelles retained a look more akin to an inline engine at the rear. The Jupiter was a sound alternative choice by North as the engine was a well-established and proven powerplant. Many aircraft designers in the 1920s remembered the “Dragonfly debacle” – the decision by the Air Ministry in 1918 to standardize the RAF’s aircraft on the ABC Dragonfly engine. The engine was so problematic and repeatedly delayed that many advanced aircraft projects stalled and were then cancelled as a result such as the Avro 533 Manchester bomber and Sopwith’s last fighter design the Snark.

The Air Ministry was suitably impressed with the design on paper to authorise the construction of two prototypes for flight testing in early 1925 with the first prototype, J7938, being completed in March the following year. It fell down to Boulton Paul’s first full-time test pilot, Flight Lieutenant Cecil Arthur Rea, to take the aircraft aloft for the first time. After initial flight testing was completed the company handed the aircraft over to the RAF for service trials at Martlesham Heath. A second prototype, J7939, was under construction at the same time and would be demonstrated at the 1927 Hendon air display under the rather clinical name of “Hendon Display New Type No. 8.” Testing at Martlesham Heath with J7938 revealed that the bomber had quite lively performance for an aircraft of its size but in a time before power assisted controls throwing it around the sky was a laborious affair leaving the pilot quite exhausted if done for extended periods. The RAF pilots also complained that the aircraft suffered from quite severe vibration when running the engines at high power. This was seen as of little importance however since it was not expected to be flown like a fighter and so the RAF turned their interest in to an acquisition. After showing so much promise John North and Boulton Paul finally got one of their aircraft in to frontline service.

The name “Sidestrand” was chosen by the Secretary of State for Air in 1927, Samuel Hoare, in honour of his home town of Sidestrand, Norfolk. The two prototypes therefore became known as Sidestrand Mk.Is but some minor redesign was requested by the RAF to help alleviate the vibration problems following the trials at Martlesham Heath. This resulted in the Sidestrand II the first six of which were powered by the same Jupiter VIIF engines as the prototype before production switched to the Jupiter VIIIF after six airframes were completed. The Jupiter VIIIF equipped versions subsequently adopted the designation Sidestrand III and all six Mk.IIs were upgraded to this standard.


Sidestrand III Specifications

Role: Medium Day Bomber
Maximum speed: 139mph
Range: 520 miles (approx operational range)
Powerplant: 2x Bristol Jupiter VIIIF 9-cylinder air-cooled radial engine (460hp each)
Service ceiling: 20,800ft
Length: 46ft 0in
Wingspan: 71ft 11in
Height: 14ft 9in
Defensive Armament: 3x .303in (7.7 mm) Lewis guns (nose, dorsal and ventral positions)
Offensive Armament: 1,040lbs of bombs


Boulton Paul Sidestrand (Aiwar.ru)

Boulton Paul Sidestrand (Aiwar.ru)

After full service acceptance No.101 Squadron was selected as the first Sidestrand unit replacing their increasingly ageing De Havilland DH.9As. However the RAF’s interest in the type was suddenly waning as it became clear that despite it being a new design it offered performance that was little better than some of the twin engine bombers it was expected to replace and with new types like the Fairey Hendon monoplane under development it was clear the Sidestrand was obsolete technology. In the end only twenty aircraft would be built and No.101 Squadron would be the only frontline unit to equip with the type.

All was not lost for Boulton Paul however. They did at least have their foot in the RAF’s door with an aircraft that sported their logo and realising their concerns they began work on a further improved version in 1932. The Jupiter VIIIFs were dropped in place of far more powerful Bristol Pegasus II.M3 9-cylinder radial engines which each churned out 580hp.

Boulton Paul Overstrand gun turret (historyofwar.org)

Boulton Paul Overstrand gun turret (historyofwar.org)

This increased the aircraft’s speed but this in turn presented another problem as a result of the open cockpit and gun positions. For the forward gunner aiming the .303 Lewis gun was extremely difficult thanks to the increased headwind while the pilot found his face being blasted with air throughout the flight. At about the same time Boulton Paul was experimenting in developing powered gun turrets and they decided to put this in to practice by scabbing a powered gun turret on to the nose of the Sidestrand. It was heavily glazed and offered a greater forward field of vision to the gunner who at the same time felt a little more vulnerable even though he was no safer in the older model. The turret was rotated by pneumatic motors while elevation and depression of the single Lewis gun was achieved by hydraulic rams. The cockpit was also given a glazed canopy and the new Sidestrand Mk.V was considered so different to its predecessor that the RAF decided to rename the aircraft as the Overstrand after another village in Norfolk.

First flying in 1933 the Overstrand could fly faster, higher and carry a heavier bomb load than the Sidestrand III. The first examples were converted from Sidestrand IIIs before production examples entered service again with the RAF’s No.101 Squadron to replace the earlier machines in 1934 (the last Sidestrand IIIs were retired in 1936). Nevertheless despite these advances it was clear that the new aircraft was only a stop gap until the newer monoplanes became ready. An Overstrand II was proposed with a retractable undercarriage and this later became known as the Superstrand but it never left John North’s drawing board. Only 28 Overstrands were eventually built including the original conversions and they served with No.101 Squadron until 1938 when they were replaced by Bristol Blenheims. A number of Overstrands were operated by the newly reformed No.144 Squadron in 1937 to keep the pilots current until a number of Avro Ansons arrived allowing them to return the aircraft to No.101 Squadron.

Boulton Paul Overstrand (commons.wikimedia)

Boulton Paul Overstrand (commons.wikimedia)

After No.101 Squadron relinquished their Overstrands in 1938 the aircraft were divided up amongst gunnery training schools. A number of aircraft also served with the RAF’s Balloon Development Unit designing new barrage balloons. The RAF had little interest in keeping their aircraft in service for any extended period of time and so effectively worked them all to death. In 1941 the last aircraft was withdrawn from a gunnery training school.

Although the Overstrand’s career could be considered unspectacular it does hold two accolades to its name. It was the aircraft that introduced the powered turret to regular RAF service and the experience both the RAF and Boulton Paul gained from it went in to developing more powerful and successful gun turret/aircraft combinations. It was also the last biplane bomber to serve in the RAF thus closing the opening chapter of Bomber Command’s technical history. Only two Overstrands were ever lost in accidents both of which proved fatal but percentage-wise this was a small figure compared to other types then in service.

Boulton Paul Aircraft Ltd would never make a massive impression on British aviation like Avro, Hawker or Supermarine but they did have one final “ace” to produce before they ended their efforts to build their own aircraft. The Boulton Paul Defiant combined their expertise in building aircraft with their growing expertise in gun turret technology. Early success with the RAF over France was overshadowed by a sudden rise in losses as Luftwaffe pilots developed tactics to counter the aircraft. Nevertheless the Defiant helped form an effective early part of the RAF’s nightfighter force and it was thanks largely to the story of Boulton Paul’s forgotten bombers.


Overstrand I Specifications

Crew: 4
Role: Medium Day Bomber
Maximum speed: 148mph
Range: 545 miles (approx operational range)
Powerplant: 2 × Bristol Pegasus II.M3 9 cylinder radial engine (580hp each)
Service ceiling: 21,300ft
Length: 46ft 0in
Wingspan: 72ft 0in
Height: 15ft 6in
Defensive Armament: 3x .303in (7.7 mm) Lewis guns (nose, dorsal and ventral positions)
Offensive Armament: 1,500lbs of bombs

Handley Page HP.15 V/1500

Handley Page HP.15 V1500

Handley Page HP.15 V1500 (wp.scn.ru)

It is difficult for the modern mind so used to aviation being an everyday thing to comprehend just how new the aircraft was even by the end of the First World War; a conflict that advanced flying technology exponentially. Looking at the use of the aircraft as an offensive weapon during the course of the brutal four year conflict shows just how far it had come. From the first occasions of light spotter planes whose crews tossed grenades over the sides to the first bombing raids over London carried out by German Gothas the potential of the bomber was becoming more and more obvious and the need for bigger and better aircraft more pressing.

In Britain one name became synonymous with bomber design during World War One more than any other; Handley Page. While most companies such as Sopwith and the Royal Aircraft Factory rarely built anything over a two-seater single engine design, Handley Page built bigger multi engine aircraft with the sole purpose of putting bombs on the enemy behind the lines. This resulted in the superlative Type O series of bombers – the O/100 and the O/400. At the time of the introduction of the O/100 it was the biggest aircraft ever built in Britain and the second largest aircraft in the world. They had such an impact on the British military flying scene that for many years after the war bombers were called “Handley Pages” even if they were built by another company.

Gotha IV German bomber (commons.wikimedia)

Gotha IV German bomber (commons.wikimedia)

Bombing operations on the Western Front primarily concerned with tactical targets – bridges, troop concentrations, supply facilities – but on May 25th 1917 everything changed. A flight of 23 German Gotha IV bombers attacked targets around Folkestone and Shorncliffe but it was obvious their original target was London itself. Typical London overcast meant that the bombers had to divert to these secondary targets but nevertheless over 100 people were killed. Attacks on the British mainland from the air were nothing new as the country had been on the receiving end of numerous Zeppelin raids but the lumbering air ships had been largely ineffective and their threat nullified by new defences. The Gotha raids however were a new kind of terror being able to bring widescale devastation with shocking effectiveness that both terrified the British people and reenergised the German propaganda machine.

For the British Air Ministry the situation was intolerable. The British had to show they were capable of responding in kind to this new type of German aggression and to do that they needed their own heavy bomber that could fly to Berlin with a respectable bombload. In the subsequent British Air Board 1917 specifications for the next series of aircraft for the Royal Flying Corps a requirement was included for a bomber capable of carrying a 3,000lb bombload from South East England to Berlin.

All eyes were on Handley Page to meet the requirement and they didn’t fail to rise to the challenge. Handley Page knew their Type O was a sound design for the era but could not hope to meet the Air Board’s requirements. If more was needed from the aircraft then they needed more of an aircraft and so they began scaling up the design which was given the in-house designation of HP.15. The design team increased the wingspan from 100ft in the O/400 to 126ft in the new design but retained the same overall configuration with four-bay biplane wings. Strangely, while the aircraft was slightly taller than the O/400 it was in fact marginally shorter but featured a much more substantial crew section which gave the aircraft an almost slab-like appearance from the side. Like the O/400 it was constructed of wood and fabric materials.

Groundcrew standing under the wings of the aircraft give an impression of its size (flyingmachines.ru)

Groundcrew standing under the wings of the aircraft give an impression of its size (flyingmachines.ru)

A bigger aircraft needs more power and very quickly it was becoming clear that no two engines were available that could generate the necessary horsepower. The answer therefore was to double the number of engines to four and in order to not overstress the airframe by placing them further out along the length of the wing Handley Page decided to place the four engines on two mounting brackets located close to the fuselage. This necessitated two of the engines facing forward pulling the aircraft along while the other two engines faced aft in a pusher configuration.

The engine chosen for the aircraft was the 12-cylinder liquid cooled Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII inline-vee unit that on its own developed 375hp; an impressive figure for the time. The liquid cooling of the engine was necessary given the powerplants performance but was something of a cause for concern since liquid cooled engines were more prone to breakdowns and were more susceptible to enemy fire. Another unusual feature of the aircraft was that the forward propeller was two bladed while the aft propeller was four bladed. This was in order to not overly disrupt the airflow to the aft engine. The four Eagle VIIIs combined to give the aircraft an awesome 1500hp and to reflect this fact the number “1500” was included in the type’s service designation – Type V/1500. To put this figure in to perspective the O/400 and the Vickers Vimy bombers had a total power output of 720hp while the Gotha IV that attacked Felixstowe only produced 520hp.

The aircraft also had a much larger crew than previous aircraft although just how many crew remains a source of speculation as various sources claim different figures. Some claim eight crew while others claim only six. Crew positions within the aircraft included pilot, navigator/bombardier and three gunners including the somewhat revolutionary position of tail gunner which became a necessity following combat service with the Type O. It is likely that a second pilot or air mechanic was included in the crew numbers given the relative complexity of the aircraft and it is rumoured that up to three mechanics were included on early flights which may account for why some sources claim the aircraft had a crew of eight. It seems more likely that such a number of mechanics would have been involved in the testing but that this was not a typical crew complement as later flights (as we shall see) flew with a crew of three when the gunners were not needed which means that operationally a crew of six was the norm.

Handley Page V/1500 at Cricklewood (flyingmachines.ru)

Handley Page V/1500 at Cricklewood (flyingmachines.ru)

Construction of the aircraft could not be carried out at Handley Page’s Cricklewood factory due to other commitments such as producing the Type O bombers so a compromise was made. The components for the aircraft were built in Belfast, Ireland by Harland and Wolfe, more famous for building ships than aircraft, and then shipped to Cricklewood for final assembly. The decision to assemble the aircraft at Cricklewood and not in Belfast was possibly made for security reasons and it is likely that the War Office were concerned about pro-German (or at least anti-British) spies operating at the yard in the wake of the Easter Rising. Assembly of the prototype, E4104, was completed at Cricklewood in May 1918 and the aircraft took to the air on May 22nd with testing being carried out shortly after.

Tragedy befell the program when on June 8th 1918 during its 13th flight E4104 crashed with Capt. Vernon E. G. Busby at the controls. While cruising along at 1,000ft all four engines cut out at once and so Busby attempted to turn the aircraft back to the airfield but in doing so stalled the aircraft and it entered an uncontrollable spin. Of the six aboard four were killed in the resulting crash including Busby while a fifth crewman died shortly after from his injuries. The aircraft was completely lost in the crash so an accurate investigation couldn’t be carried out leaving the verdict of fuel starvation as the only possible explanation given the description of what happened from the only survivor.

Despite this setback the successor to the Army’s Royal Flying Corps, the newly established and independent Royal Air Force (RAF), gave production of the aircraft a high priority and demanded 210 machines from Handley Page. Handley Page found it impossible to meet this demand on their own and so much of the work was contracted out to Harland and Wolfe, Beardmore, Graham White and Alliance Aircraft.

The RAF in the meantime went about forming a specialised squadron to operate the aircraft and this came in the guise of No.166 Squadron which formally stood up at RAF Bircham Newton, Norfolk on June 13th 1918. While officially designated as a heavy bomber unit the crews selected to train on the “Super Handley” as it was called were under no illusions about what their real mission was; bomb Berlin. Very quickly No.166, despite having no aircraft yet, was becoming an elite unit due to an extremely intensive training regime. Nearly all the pilots and crews selected for the squadron had previous combat experience mainly on the older Handley Pages and the FE.2b night bombers. The navigators especially had to attend a special course to allow them to learn the art of very long range navigation at night. Finally, in October 1918 the first three assembled Handley Page V/1500s were delivered to RAF Bircham Newton and after nearly four months of training the crews were eager to familiarise themselves with the new aircraft so they could carry out their mission.

As October gave way to November of 1918 that order had yet to come. Despite all the effort to get No.166 Squadron ready and their aircraft delivered the morality of the mission to Berlin was now being called in to question. Peace seemed to be just around the corner following the capitulation of the Austro-Hungarians and the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II in Germany. Using the V/1500 for regular bombing operations over the Western Front was seen as an unacceptable risk to such valuable aircraft and personnel for if they were lost to enemy defences then the Berlin mission could never go ahead.

Handley Page HP.15 V/1500 (RAF Museum)

Handley Page HP.15 V/1500 (RAF Museum)

Finally, on the 8th of November the squadron received its orders. They were to take off from Bircham Newton and fly to Berlin where they would drop their weapons before proceeding on to Allied-occupied Prague. There the aircraft would be re-armed and re-fuelled before taking off back over Germany to bomb Dusseldorf before landing back in the UK. It looked set to be an epic mission. Then just hours before it was due to start an inspection of one of the aircraft showed that all four engines needed replacing despite protests from crews who claimed the mechanic was being overly forceful by insisting the change take place before the mission. With only two aircraft remaining the mission was cancelled. Just two days later the aircraft attempted the mission again but as they literally started to taxi out they were called back with news that an armistice had just been declared and the war was over. The mission to Berlin would never take place.

Post war Britain was nearly bankrupt and advanced aircraft projects were cancelled in a near-orgy of cutbacks as their war was now over. The Versailles Treaty was intended to strip Germany of any war making ability and already there was talk of new arms limitation treaties among the remaining powers to make sure another Great War could never happen. Against such a backdrop few advanced aircraft survived with the RAF having to make do with wartime types for many years after. The promising V/1500 was one such aircraft to survive the cull although it did not come off unscathed. Of the planned 210 airframes only 60 frontline aircraft were manufactured excluding the three prototypes.

While the aircraft may not have carried out its intended mission of bombing the Kaiser’s capital city the V/1500 was about to make its mark on history in other more peaceful ways. Its long range performance was brilliantly demonstrated when one aircraft flew to Karachi in British India (modern day Pakistan) in just under a month making stops at Rome, Malta, Cairo, and Baghdad along the way. The next year another V/1500 attempted to make the first non-stop transatlantic flight taking off from Newfoundland in Canada but running in to mechanical difficulties it was forced down in Nova Scotia. The goal was later achieved by a Vickers Vimy twin engined bomber flown by John Alcock and Arthur Brown. The same aircraft did however later carry out the first airmail run between Canada and the United States.

Handley Page V/1500 (flyingmachines.ru)

Handley Page V/1500 (flyingmachines.ru)

For a time it seemed that the V/1500 would never drop a bomb in anger but the horror of the Great War failed to bring about the anticipated world peace and in May 1919 British forces were again fighting for the Empire in a brief but bloody war with the Kingdom of Afghanistan. The fighting resembled more of what the British and Indian Armies were used to before 1914 and the modern technologies that had arisen from the Western Front seemed out of place in the battles against tribesmen and armed militia. Nevertheless towards the end of May a plan was being devised for an air strike on the Royal Palace of King Amanullah in Kabul. The aircraft chosen for the long range mission was in fact the same aircraft that made the record breaking flight from Britain to India; V/1500 J1936.

The aircraft was armed with four 112lb bombs on bomb racks that had to be sourced from a squadron of B.E.2cs while sixteen 20lb hand thrown bombs were carried in the fuselage to be tossed out over the target. On May 25th 1919 the aircraft took off from Risalpur with Captain Halley at the controls and Lt E. Villiers as observer/bombardier. The V/1500 reached Kabul in three hours and made its attack on the Royal Palace, the King’s forces having almost no defence other than to fire their bolt action rifles in to the air at the plane as it circled overhead making attack after attack.

Inside the palace there was chaos despite the fact that Halley and Villiers’ aim was not exactly precise and most of the bombs missed the main building. The horror of being attacked from the sky sent many of those in the palace rushing in to the streets to escape including many of the women of the King’s harem. Even after the attack was over King Amanullah found it difficult to control the situation and within a few days of the attack he agreed peace terms with the British. It was the first time in history that an aircraft had been the decisive factor in ending a conflict.

Despite these successes the aircraft was extremely complicated to operate and maintain and with no real long range bombing requirement any longer the RAF decided to withdraw it in 1920. The Handley Page HP.15 V/1500 was every bit the spiritual ancestor to the four engined Handley Page Halifax that took the war to the heart of the Third Reich in World War Two. History at large may have forgotten the contribution to aviation this remarkable aircraft has made but in both peace and war it helped lay the foundation for the future.

Crew: 6-8
Role: Heavy Night Bomber
Maximum speed: 99mph
Range: 800 miles (approx operational range)
1,300 miles (ferry range)
Powerplant: 4 × Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII inline vee piston engines (375hp each).
Service ceiling:11,000ft
Length: 64ft 0in
Wingspan: 126ft 0in
Height: 23ft
Defensive Armament: 3/6 .303in (7.7 mm) Lewis guns in nose, dorsal and tail positions
Offensive Armament: 3000lbs of bombs

Gloster Meteor F.8

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The penultimate variant of Britain’s first jet fighter the F.8 (sometimes referred to as the Mark 8 or F.mk.8) variant of the Gloster Meteor was intended to keep the aircraft competent while the new generation of swept wing fighters were under development. In reality the Meteor F.8 was not in the same class as the Soviet Union’s MiG-15 swept wing fighter as was proven in combat during the Korean War. Nevertheless the aircraft in the hands of the Royal Australian Air Force still gave a very good account of itself and was still potent when faced with the piston engined fighters still in service around the world or other straight wing jets such as the Republic F-84 Thunderjet and the Yakovlev Yak-15/17.

553229_761905707263236_8605473380426401875_nThe Meteor F.8 was based on the stretched fuselage two-seat Meteor T.7 trainer fitted with a single cockpit and standard fighter armament. It was powered by a pair of Rolls-Royce Derwent 8 engines that produced 3500lbs of thrust each, more than double what the Meteor Mk.I with its Welland engines produced demonstrating just how far the aircraft and jet technology had come in just 5 years. Stripped out (i.e. guns and ammunition removed as well as non-essential equipment) and the Meteor F.8 could tear through 640mph with relative ease. Fully loaded however and the airspeed tended to hover around the 600mph mark, still impressive when you consider that just three years earlier the fastest propeller driven aircraft were struggling to get beyond 400mph. The two Derwents allowed the aircraft to achieve a thrust-to-weight ratio of 0.45 and this meant it could climb at around 7,000ft a minute to a service ceiling of 43,000ft.

The Meteor’s design benefited from experience gained in the years of World War II in terms of its gun armament. The aircraft was fitted with four Hispano Mk.V cannons, an arrangement that quickly became standard on all British fighters of the period as it offered the best compromise between weight, ammunition capacity and of course hitting power. The weapon could hurl a 20mm shell at 840m/s and achieve a rate of fire of 750rds/min. Mounted close together in the nose meant that the pilot could bring all four guns to bear on a single spot on a target at longer ranges thus increasing their destructive power. The gun did have a somewhat chequered history however and the earlier version of the weapon was prone to jamming. In fact the first two interceptions of V-1 Flying Bombs by earlier versions of the Meteor suffered from jammed guns forcing the pilots to resort to the wingtip method of bringing them down. The Mk.V in the Meteor F.8 had largely resolved the problem but it was still prone to jamming if not properly maintained. During testing of the aircraft it was discovered that when all the ammunition had been expended the aircraft became tail heavy. This resulted in a redesigned tail being fitted to help counteract the problem.

Gloster Meteor F8 rocketsAgain, recent war experience played a part in the air-to-ground configurations with the Meteor often adopting the powerful 60lb Rocket Projectile (RP) that had proven so effective against tanks and ships under the wings of wartime Bristol Beaufighters, De Havilland Mosquitoes and of course the Hawker Typhoon. The Meteor could carry up to sixteen of the weapons under its outboard wings or alternatively eight 5-inch HVAR rockets. Another air-to-ground weapon was the traditional unguided bomb and the Meteor could carry two 1,000lb bombs under its wings.

Initial deliveries of the F.8 to the RAF began in August 1949 and the first frontline squadron converted to the aircraft the following year. Between 1950 and 1955 the aircraft constituted the bulk of RAF Fighter Command’s daytime fighter force but because of its general inferiority to the MiG-15 “Fagot” a number of Canadair built F-86 Sabres were acquired for operations in Germany until newer British fighters appeared such as the Supermarine Swift and Hawker Hunter. The Meteor F.8 was replaced in frontline service in 1957 but the nightfighter and fighter-reconnaissance versions served on until the 1960s.

  • Powerplant: 2x Derwent 8 (3,500lbs thrust each)
  • Max Speed: 592mph
  • Service Ceiling: 43,000ft
  • Length: 44ft 7in (13.59m)
  • Wingspan: 37ft 2in (11.32m)
  • Height: 13 ft 0 in (3.96m)
  • Armament: 4x 20mm Hispano V cannons
    2x1000lb bombs or 16x60lb unguided rockets

See Also

Forgotten Aircraft: Avro Manchester

Avro Manchester 2

A war winning aircraft isn’t just created out of the blue. There are experimental aircraft and even a few lemons first and Avro’s legendary Lancaster was no exception. It seems hard to believe it now given the place in history that the aircraft has secured for itself but the Lanc’s roots can be traced back to a twin-engined loser of an aircraft – the Avro Manchester. A brief glance at the Manchester and one can see that the Manchester and Lancaster are directly related bar of course the obvious exception of two engines in the older aircraft as opposed to four in the Lancaster.

The story of the Manchester (and therefore in a pseudo kind of way the Lancaster) actually begins with Rolls-Royce who in the mid-1930s were developing their Vulture engine. This was an interesting powerplant in that it had twenty four cylinders arranged in an X-formation as opposed to the traditional V. It was essentially two V12 engines mounted together around a single propshaft that drove the propeller. The advantage to such a configuration was obvious; it could deliver twice the power of a single engine but only using a single nacelle to mount it on an aircraft’s wing. The Vulture, on paper at least, offered performance in excess of the bomber engines then available and so in 1936 with a major rearmament program getting under way the Air Ministry issued Specification P13/36 calling for a twin-engined medium bomber powered by Rolls-Royce’s new engine.

Both Avro and Handley-Page fought for the contract. Handley-Page produced the H.P.56 while Avro churned out the Type 679, a mid-wing design with twin vertical stabilisers mounted on the tail. In 1937 Handley-Page dropped out of the running due to disappointing results with their design leaving the Avro 679 to meet the specification without competition. To that end the RAF decided to order 200 Avro 679s straight off the drawing board and this was later increased to 400.

The prototype first flew on the 25th July 1939 and was given the name “Manchester” by the RAF continuing the trend within Bomber Command to name their bombers after Commonwealth cities. The Avro 679 was actually the second Avro aircraft to receive the name with an earlier aircraft the Avro 533 Manchester being a First World War bomber design that never went beyond the prototype stage due to engine troubles – something that would prove a rather ominous tale for the new Avro 679 Manchester.

Avro Manchester 4Testing of the first prototype revealed a number of startling stability problems particularly in the lateral plane. Test pilots also complained that the heavy controls of the aircraft made flying the Manchester a laborious affair often leaving them exhausted by the end of the flight. Furthermore the aircraft had an exceptionally long take-off run when fully loaded and what worried Avro the most was that the prototype lacked its gun turrets meaning the production aircraft would probably have an even longer run. It was not all bad news however. The test crews praised the spacious and logically arranged crew compartment especially when compared to aircraft like the flying suitcase – the Handley Page Hampden.

The second prototype was modified on the assembly line in an effort to cure these problems. They included more powerful controls to ease the burden on the pilot and a wingtip extension to increase lift and therefore shorten the take-off distance. Stability problems persisted however especially when operating at low speeds such as during the crucial landing phase and eventually it became such a concern that Avro took the second prototype back to the factory for the fitting of a third vertical fin which did much to cure the problem only to have it resurface when the turrets were fitted. The nose turret had a nasty habit of inducing an uncontrolled yaw when it was traversed on to a target as a result of the disruption to the aircraft’s slipstream. The rear turret too had unfortunate effects on the slipstream which actually caused vibration in the tail. These problems would be ironed out thanks to aerodynamic modifications and these were then incorporated in to aircraft that were now being assembled by Avro for Bomber Command.

Avro Manchester 5Rolls-Royce too were having to work hard to get their engine up to specification. They had promised Avro and Bomber Command an engine that could produce in excess of over 2,000hp but trials with the first prototype showed that it was actually rated around 1,750hp which went some way to account for the long take-off. The trouble was that the X-arrangement induced excessive wear and tear on the single propshaft. There was simply too many parts working together and in order for it to function properly a complex lubrication system was required. This lubrication system proved extremely problematic and resulted in a number of engines breaking down or overheating.

Nevertheless the RAF was committed to both aircraft and engine and plans were amended for a projected requirement of 1200 aircraft. The first production Manchesters began to reach the RAF in late-1940 and were assigned to No.207 squadron at RAF Waddington. Due to the complexity of the aircraft, experienced Bristol Blenheim, Vickers Wellington and Handley Hampden crews were selected for the aircraft. After around four months working up to operational status the squadron was released for short range operations over France.

The Avro Manchester was to cut its teeth on a relatively important target with regards to the overall war effort; an attack on the German cruiser Admiral Hipper in the French harbour of Brest. Six aircraft were released for the mission and they took off from Waddington on the night of the 24th February 1941 with a bombload of twelve 500lb armour-piercing bombs. Perhaps not expecting an attack the formation approached Brest almost unmolested except for sporadic flak around the target. The six planes released their bombs over the target zone but they failed to strike the Admiral Hipper. In fairness no aircraft in the RAF inventory could have done a better job as the technology necessary for such precision during night time bombing missions was still in its infancy.

Avro Manchester 3No.207 squadron continued to pioneer operations with the Manchester and in doing so continued to suffer from its shortcomings. The Rolls-Royce Vulture engines plagued the aircraft leaving large numbers of aircraft unserviceable. An even more worrying problem was encountered on operations when it was found that the already troublesome lubrication system was vulnerable to enemy fire and the Manchester was extremely difficult to keep airborne on a single engine. The first combat loss actually occurred over the UK when on the 13th March a roaming German fighter stumbled across a Manchester from No.207 squadron just after it had taken off from Waddington. The Vultures also began inflicting casualties when less than a week later the first crash due to engine failure occurred.

By the 13th April 1941 the RAF was so concerned that it grounded the entire Manchester force leaving valuable aircrew on the ground without an aircraft. The grounding was seen as an opportunity to introduce an improved version designated as the Manchester IA. This saw a redesigned tail section with the deletion of the central fin and the extension of the original vertical stabilisers and rudders. The engines were also replaced with Rolls-Royce Vulture IIs which although delivered around a 100hp more (still 150hp off the minimum of what the engine was claimed to be capable of) were still proving unreliable.

A total of seven RAF and two Royal Canadian Air Force frontline squadrons were equipped with the Manchester IA but plans for the production of 1200 aircraft were savagely and understandably cut and in the end just 209 machines were built including the prototypes. By 1941 Bomber Command had decided that their future laid firmly in four engine designs and this spelled the death knell for the Manchester. Avro proposed a four engine version of the Manchester designated Manchester III but this was dropped because it retained the Vulture II engines. Avro then put forward a four engine version powered by the Rolls-Royce Merlin and gave it a new in-house designation in order to separate it from the legacy of the Manchester – this was the first design for what would become the Lancaster.

The last squadron to equip with the Manchester was No.49 squadron at RAF Scampton who flew their first mission over occupied Europe on the night of May 2nd 1942. Within two months the squadron relinquished its Manchesters for Lancasters and the aircraft flew its last sortie against Bremen on the 25th June 1941. In frontline service the Manchester flew a total of 1,269 sorties while it suffered the loss of 123 aircraft – over half the total number built. Of those losses around a third were non-combat attributed mostly to the Vulture engines.

Avro Manchester

In hindsight it is relatively easy to label the Manchester a failure. This ignores two key facts however. The Manchester’s main problem was that it was built around an underperforming engine. It was designed to have a pair of engines that each produced more than 2,000hp and when the engines couldn’t deliver that power it meant that the aircraft would always be an underperformer. Once the stability problems were ironed out the airframe was sound and quite advanced compared to most other medium bombers which showed its potential. Avro and the RAF knew that the engine was the main drawback of the aircraft and tried to re-engine them with Napier Sabre and Bristol Centaurus engines but the reputation of the Manchester stuck and the effort came to nothing.

With the move to four engine bombers equipped with Rolls-Royce Merlin and Bristol Hercules engines the Manchester was doomed to oblivion. Yet without its contribution there would likely be no Lancaster bomber at least not in the way it became. Additionally, another interesting off-shoot of the Rolls-Royce Vulture fiasco was that Handley-Page’s H.P.56, the Manchester’s main rival in the original 1936 requirement, was reworked and became the Handley-Page Halifax which along with the Lancaster waged a successful nocturnal war against Nazi Germany.

  • Crew:7
  • Role:Medium Night Bomber
  • Maximum speed: 265 mph at 17,000 ft
  • Range:1,200 miles
  • Powerplant:2 × Rolls-Royce X24 piston engines. 1,850hp each.
  • Service ceiling:19,200 ft
  • Length:70 ft 0 in
  • Wingspan:90 ft 1 in
  • Height:19 ft 6 in
  • Max Weight:56,000 lbs
  • Defensive Armament:2× .303 in (7.7 mm) in nose and dorsal turrets. 4x .303 (7.7mm) guns in tail turret.
  • Offensive Armament:10,350 lbs of bombs

Gloster Meteor (Reconnaissance Variants)

PR10

Despite the pace at which jet technology progressed in the immediate post-war years the RAF’s first jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor, remained quite a potent aircraft until the dawn of the 1950s when swept wing fighters took centre stage rendering it obsolete. With the vast majority of the world’s fighter aircraft still piston powered or subsonic jets, the Meteor with its relatively high speed and altitude performance was a logical platform for a reconnaissance aircraft to replace the wartime Supermarine Spitfire and De Havilland Mosquito reconnaissance aircraft.

There were several attempts to fit cameras in to the early variants of the Meteor but most of these came to nothing. One of the more promising was the Meteor FR.5 based on the Meteor F.4 but despite a prototype being built it was not pursued because advances in foreign jet technology were about to make the F.4 inadequate. However in 1948 the Meteor F.8 emerged powered by two Derwent 8 engines each producing 3,500lbs of thrust which gave the aircraft sufficient power to comfortably reach speeds in excess of 600mph and it was this airframe that was chosen as the basis for the first reconnaissance Meteor.


Meteor FR.9

Meteor FR9

The Meteor FR.9 was a minimum change approach to the requirement for a reconnaissance Meteor. A new nose section was designed that featured three observation windows (forward, port oblique and starboard oblique) for a single Williamson F24 camera. The F.24 was a proven reconnaissance system having been used operationally in the war by the Spitfires the Meteor was replacing. The camera was most effective in the low altitude role as its 5″ x 5″ format didn’t allow for the production of detailed enough photographs of wide areas as is required with the high altitude role. With only one camera onboard the Meteor’s F24 had to be ground aligned to the relevant window before take-off and this necessitated an extra amount of planning for missions to ensure that when the aircraft overflew the target the correct window was facing the area of interest.

Other than the camera installation the FR.9 was essentially a Meteor F.8 going as far as to retain the fighter’s four Hispano V 20mm cannons (these were sometimes faired over and the ammunition removed to squeeze an extra few miles an hour out of the aircraft). Just how similar the two versions were was highlighted by the Israelis who acquired a handful of second hand FR.9s and removed the camera equipment and windows to make more F.8s. The first of 126 Meteor FR.9s flew on the 22nd March 1950 and deliveries began in July of that year to No.208 Squadron based in Egypt protecting the Suez Canal. Meteor FR.9s primarily served in West Germany however in the low level reconnaissance role before being completely replaced by Supermarine Swifts by 1961.

  • Powerplant: 2x Derwent 8 (3,500lbs thrust each)
  • Max Speed: 592mph
  • Service Ceiling: 43,000ft
  • Length: 44ft 7in (13.59m)
  • Wingspan: 37ft 2in (11.32m)
  • Armament: 4x 20mm Hispano V cannons

Meteor PR.10

meteor_pr10_1a

The next chapter in the story of the reconnaissance Meteors was the high altitude PR.10. Like the FR.9 the PR.10 was based on the Meteor F.8 but differed in two key areas; it was fitted with the longer span wings of the Meteor F.3 while the tail unit was taken from the Meteor F.4. Both of these features were included to improve high altitude performance and stability while the more powerful Meteor F.8’s Derwent 8 engines were retained as was the F.24 camera installation of the Meteor FR.9 making the PR.10 the Frankenstein of the Gloster Meteor family. In an effort to lighten the aircraft as much as possible to gain the maximum altitude the guns were deleted and the aircraft were unpainted save for the national markings and serial numbers (a fully painted MD-80 airliner for example has a staggering 155lbs of paint on it). All these efforts resulted in the PR.10 being able to achieve an altitude in excess of 47,000ft compared to the F.8/FR.9’s service ceiling of 43,000ft.

As the F.24 camera was more suited to low-to-medium level operations the Meteor PR.10 had two F.52 cameras in the rear fuselage for high altitude work. These were positioned in the ventral position to cover large areas below the aircraft and for this purpose produced larger photographs (8.5″x 7″) than the F.24 despite having a similar working mechanism.

Squadron deliveries of the PR.10 began in December 1950 and production totalled 59 airframes. In 1951 the aircraft were first flown in West Germany and during this time the aircraft took part in a number of provocative cross border flights that were only stopped when the Soviets began deploying the MiG-19 “Farmer” to intercept them. Even after this development the Meteor PR.10s continued to fly at the very edge of the border between East and West Germany photographing Warsaw Pact forces on the other side of the Iron Curtain until they were replaced by the superlative Canberra PR.9 in 1961.

  • Powerplant: 2x Derwent 8 (3,500lbs thrust each)
  • Max Speed: 541mph
  • Service Ceiling: 47,000ft
  • Length: 44ft 7in (13.59m)
  • Wingspan: 39ft 11in (12.18m)
  • Armament: None

Armstrong-Whitworth (Gloster) Meteor Night Fighters

NF14

In the immediate post-war period the RAF took very little interest in night fighter development. With the Luftwaffe destroyed and the lack of any credible night bomber threat from Eastern Europe the proven wartime De Havilland Mosquito force remained the RAF’s primary means of night bomber interception. Development of a jet powered night fighter was for the moment delayed until such a time a requirement was deemed necessary and the infantile technology had caught up to compensate for the weight penalty the night fighting equipment imposed.

TU4

Tu-4 “Bull”

Then on August 3rd 1947 military observers in Moscow were stunned to see what appeared to be B-29 Superfortresses taking part in the Aviation Day parade. In reality these were reverse engineered B-29s built as the Tupolev Tu-4 “Bull” and they caused a lot of concern in the west for it showed that the Soviets now had a genuine strategic bomber with very high speed and altitude performance. The west would later discover that the Tu-4 was inferior to the B-29 but nevertheless it allowed the Soviet aviation industry to leap-frog ahead and the technological lessons learned from the Tu-4 would be put in to more advanced designs later (in fact the Tu-16 “Badger” and the mighty Tu-95″ Bear both owe a lot of their fuselage design to the B-29/Tu-4). With the blockade of Berlin a year later and the start of the Cold War a confrontation with the Soviet Union was looking increasingly likely. If that happened the RAF’s Mosquito night fighters would prove inadequate against the Tu-4 and with more powerful jet engines now available it was decided to proceed with development of jet night fighters.

De Havilland Vampire NF.10

De Havilland Vampire NF.10

The RAF was not the first air force to contemplate using jet night fighters. The wartime Luftwaffe tested their advanced Messerschmitt Me 262 in the night fighter role producing the Me 262B-1a/U-1 and these scored a handful of kills against RAF night bombers. In the late 1940s the RAF decided that an interim jet powered night fighter based on the jets already in service should be developed pending the development and introduction of a dedicated new aircraft. The De Havilland company had already produced a jet powered night fighter by mating the radar, equipment and cockpit from the Mosquito to a Vampire airframe. This produced the Vampire NF.10 which was primarily for the export market but with an embargo in place against its main customer, Egypt, the RAF decided to take them on and this became the first operational RAF jet night fighter in 1951. The RAF was not overly impressed by it however and it was seen as a short term solution until a more powerful jet powered Gloster Meteor could be produced in sufficient numbers. This actually put the Vampire NF.10 in the unenviable position of being an interim aircraft until the “interim night fighter”, the Meteor, became available.

Meteor T.7

Meteor T.7

Gloster had begun work on a night fighter version of the Meteor as far back as 1946 when the RAF issued specification F44/46 calling for studies in to future night fighter designs. The natural starting point was the Meteor T.7 trainer as this already had provision for a second crewmember. When the RAF became serious about producing a jet night fighter Gloster decided that they were going to start from scratch with a new design that ultimately lead to the Gloster Javelin all-weather fighter series but the RAF needed a powerful night fighter in the interim and so Armstrong-Whitworth were commissioned to produce the Meteor night fighter. Armstrong-Whitworth had extensive experience building Meteors under a sub-contract with Gloster and so the tooling was largely in place. Gloster handed over their own studies and provided them with an early Meteor T.7 to serve as the prototype.


Meteor NF.11

Meteor NF11

To produce the NF.11 the T.7 was modified with an enlarged and lengthened nose to house the AI.10 radar set. This was the same radar set that had guided De Havilland Mosquitoes against the German Luftwaffe in World War Two and was essentially an American SCR-720 set developed for the Northrop P-61 Black Widow. The radar antenna spun around on its vertical axis through an entire 360 degrees 10 times every second while at the same time it slowly nodded up and down to provide altitude coverage between +50 and -20 degrees. This provided the observer with a 150 degree scan in front of the aircraft which produced a c-shaped image on his screen due to the transmitter switching off when it was pointed back towards the aircraft. In order to fit the motor that drove the scanner assembly a small bump under the nose was required and this became one of the distinguishing features of this variant. This set had a range of almost 10 miles against a bomber sized target when atmospheric conditions were good.

The radar and accompanying equipment in the rear cockpit added almost 3,000lbs to the weight of the aircraft and this required structural and aerodynamic changes to compensate. The wings were modified to feature the longer outer wings of the high altitude PR.10 variant. The original Meteor day fighters had four 20mm cannons in the nose but the fitting of the radar made it almost impossible to retain the guns here and so they were relocated to the wings just passed engines; a major modification as it meant the access doors had to be designed to help take the stress of high speed flight. The NF.11 had four Hispano V 20mm cannons each with 160 rounds of ammunition. One of the last features added to the aircraft was the fitting of a Meteor F.8 tail which was more streamlined than the T.7.

The modified T.7 prototype first flew in 1949 albeit without radar. The first full NF.11 flew on May 31st 1950 and the RAF was suitably impressed to order 200 examples with service entry beginning in 1951. Pilots transitioning from Mosquitoes were pleased with their new mount which offered height and speed advantages over their wartime aircraft. Pilots coming from day fighter Meteor squadrons were not so impressed however. The aircraft was significantly slower with its Derwent 8 engines taking it to just 578mph compared to the Meteor F.8 which topped out at 616mph. It was nevertheless capable for intercepting the Tu-4 which was seen as its main quarry and so the speed criticism was largely irrelevant.

One thing that was retained from the T.7 that was universally loathed by aircrew, groundcrew and enthusiasts alike was the heavily framed canopy. This was an exceptionally heavy component for its purpose that was awkward to handle and restricted the view outside the cockpit. It’s strange that Gloster adopted this design and no doubt newly qualified pilots were amazed at the view the actual fighter version afforded them after qualifying in the trainer.Gloster Meteor Fireflash NF.11 A Meteor NF.11 conducted the first launch of a British air-to-air missile in 1951 when a modified example fired the first Fairey Fireflash missile.

  • Powerplant: 2x Derwent 8 (3,700lbs thrust each)
  • Max Speed: 541mph
  • Service Ceiling: 40,000ft
  • Length: 49ft 7in (15.09m)
  • Wingspan: 39ft 11in (12.18m)
  • Armament: 4x 20mm Hispano V cannons

Meteor NF.12 

Meteor NF12

As the NF.11 was solidifying itself in service work was underway on a more capable version that featured an Anglicised version of the American APQ-43 radar in an even longer nose. Known as the AI.21 in British service this radar featured a 200kW transmitter gave a range of up to as much as 25 miles (40 km) when conditions permitted. It also included various beacon homing modes, as well as an air-to-surface mode for detecting ships. The Mk.21 differed from its APQ-43 forebear in that it was fitted with a British strobe unit and had variable pulse repetition frequency settings.

To help address the balance issues that resulted from this the tail was given a noticeable extension that had an almost crooked appearance. The new radar offered much improved signal processing over the AI.10 installed in the NF.11 but it was never able to supersede the older model and only 97 were built. To help compensate for the marginal weight increase more powerful Derwent 9 engines were fitted that produced a mere 100lbs of extra thrust each. The NF.12 entered service with the RAF in 1953.

  • Powerplant: 2x Derwent 9 (3,800lbs thrust each)
  • Max Speed: 541mph
  • Service Ceiling: 40,000ft
  • Length: 49ft 7in (15.09m)
  • Wingspan: 39ft 11in (12.18m)
  • Armament: 4x 20mm Hispano V cannons

Meteor NF.13 

The Meteor NF.13 also appeared in 1953 and was essentially a tropicalised version of the NF.11 for use by the Middle East Air Force. In the 1950s the RAF still had huge commitments in the region and with the Soviet Union taking more of an interest in supporting Marxist and anti-western uprisings the need for modern jet night fighters became more evident. The NF.13 was produced by the fitting of enlarged intakes for the Derwent 8 engines that helped compensate for the ambient heat in places such as Aden that reduced thrust in jet aircraft. The aircraft were also fitted with a radio compass to help with navigation over large featureless deserts and to improve crew comfort a cold air unit was fitted that blew cool air in to the cockpit. Forty examples of this version were delivered to the MEAF and they would serve in the Suez War in 1956.


Meteor NF.14

Meteor NF14

The Meteor NF.14 was the definitive night fighter variant of the Meteor. Effectively an updated NF.12 the aircraft finally dispensed with the loathed heavily framed canopy inherited from its Meteor T.7 forebear. Instead a “full blown” two piece canopy was developed that afforded the crew a superb view of the outside world. As well as saving a few pounds in weight and being easier to handle the new canopy was intended to help the crew spot their targets at night and observe their tracer fire more effectively to allow them to make corrections if needed. The aircraft retained the Anglicized APQ-43 radar set designated as the AI.21 from the NF.12.

Despite efforts to save weight the aircraft was at the end of its development life and the Derwent 9 engines couldn’t propel it any faster than 576mph under the best of conditions. By the time the NF.14 was making its presence known in frontline squadron service the Soviets were deploying the Tu-16 “Badger” bomber which was almost 70mph faster than the Meteor making interception nearly impossible. This fact served to spur on development of the Javelin and from 1954 the Meteor night fighter squadrons began to disband and re-equip with new types. The first models to go were the NF.11s which were drawn down between 1954 and 1955 followed by the tropicalized NF.13 variant which left frontline service in 1958. Strangely, two Meteor NF.11 squadrons found a new (albeit short) lease of life in the coastal defence role strafing surface vessels. In the remaining years the aircraft had left it primarily served abroad in areas where the threat level was not as sophisticated as in Europe such as the Far East although night fighter Meteors remained in Germany until 1960.

No.60 Squadron was the last Meteor night fighter squadron, disbanding at RAF Seletar, Singapore in 1961. It therefore also holds the accolade of being the last frontline Meteor fighter squadron in RAF service. In 1969 the Biafran government attempted to smuggle two Meteor NF.14s to the African breakaway republic to help in its war against Nigeria but the effort failed when one crashed in to the sea on its delivery flight while the other was impounded at Bissau in Portuguese Guinea.

  • Powerplant: 2x Derwent 8 (3,700lbs thrust each)
  • Max Speed: 576mph
  • Service Ceiling: 40,000ft
  • Length: 49ft 7in (15.09m)
  • Wingspan: 39ft 11in (12.18m)
  • Armament: 4x 20mm Hispano V cannons