Handley Page Aircraft Company
Frederick Handley Page,
born in 1885, grew up in a modest-size town in Gloucestershire, England.
In 1902 he entered college in London and enrolled in a program in
electrical engineering. Graduating in 1906, he swiftly secured a position
as chief engineer with a small electrical manufacturer. He proved so
capable that only a year later, he was offered a position with
Westinghouse, a manufacturer of electrical equipment, in the United
By then, however, he had
begun to learn about aviation. Seized with enthusiasm, he took to carrying
out experiments at his place of employment that had nothing to do with the
task at hand—which soon got him fired. He started working on his own in a
shed, carving wooden propellers for aircraft and building an airplane that
a fellow aviation enthusiast had designed. In June 1909, he turned his
shed into the firm of Handley Page, Ltd. This was Great Britain's first
publicly traded aircraft manufacturing corporation.
Handley-Page built a
succession of biplanes and monoplanes. Then in August 1914, Britain
entered World War I. He approached the Admiralty and offered to provide
planes for the Navy. A senior official took him up on his offer and asked
him to create "a bloody paralyser of an airplane" to hurl back the
Germans. This led to the development of the twin-engine 0/100 bomber,
which first flew late in 1915.
The 0/100 started the
company on its way. Built as a biplane, it led to two larger successors:
the 0/400 and the V/1500. The 0/400 was selected for production in the
United States. The V/1500 was one of the first four-engine aircraft.
Weighing 15 tons when fully loaded, it was built to bomb Berlin. The first
of them entered service late in 1918, but the war ended just before they
began to carry out their raids.
There was little further
demand for bombers after the war, but Handley Page found new opportunities
in carrying passengers. London and Paris were two of Europe's largest
cities and were only about 200 miles (322 kilometres) apart. But the
journey required the inconvenience of a transfer from a train to a boat
for the trip across the English Channel and then a transfer back to a
train to get from the coast to London. Moreover, the war had severely
damaged the railroads in northern France. However, the distance between
these cities was well within the range of the aircraft of the day.
The 0/400 had a fuselage
that was large enough for passengers. Several of them became airliners
with minimal modification, while the new firm of Handley Page Transport,
which opened in 1919, became one of the world's first airlines. The V/1500
was too large for commercial use, but it had attractive design elements.
These went into a modified 0/400, the W.8, which became the company's
standard. In 1924, Handley Page Transport merged with three other carriers
and formed Imperial Airways, Britain's first national airline.
Handley Page also had a
strong commitment to research. His company may well have been the first to
install its own wind tunnel for in-house experiments. He was keenly
interested in air safety, more so because he had lost close friends in
crashes. A serious problem of the day lay in the tendency of airplanes to
go into a spin and often crash, and he looked for ways to counter this.
He decided that a solution
lay in running a slot down the length of the wing from the fuselage to the
wing tip. This in effect divided it into two wings set closely together.
Airflow through the slot would flow evenly over the rear wing to produce
more lift for better control. A German inventor, Gustav Lachmann, had
developed similar ideas on his own, and Handley Page brought him into the
company. Handley-Page received a patent for the invention on October 24,
1919, and slotted wings became a key to the firm's fortunes, as sales of
patent rights earned £750,000 (about $3.6 million at the time) in payments
from other planebuilders. In turn, slotted wings led to the development of
flaps for wings. These extended to give extra lift and also greater drag,
permitting takeoff and landing at relatively low speed. The flaps then
folded into the rear of the wing, for the reduced lift that was
appropriate at high speed during cruising flight.
involved with airliners during the next decade. In 1931, Imperial Airways
began flying the Handley Page Hannibal, a four-engine biplane. It was
built for comfort, with wall-to-wall carpeting and a bar. Stewards served
four-course hot lunches and seven-course dinners, while soundproofing
diminished the roar of the motors. The Hannibal carried up to 40
passengers and remained in service through the 1930s.
Like the 1920s, the first
years of the 1930s were lean years for the company, when few orders came
in. That situation changed in 1935, for with the threat of war in Europe
now looming again, the British government launched a military build-up.
Handley Page contributed a twin-engine monoplane bomber, the Hampden. The
fortunes of war soon would give this plane a key role in saving Britain
from Nazi invasion.
This happened in 1940,
during the Battle of Britain. Nazi air fleets hammered hard at airfields
of the Royal Air Force, slowly weakening it. Had they continued, they
might well have won air superiority, opening the way for a German conquest
of England. However, on August 24 the RAF sent a force of medium bombers,
including Hampdens, to attack Berlin.
The bombers did little
damage, but this raid prompted the Nazis to seek revenge. German leaders
ordered their own bombers to strike the city of London. They killed and
injured a great many people—but they did not continue their attacks on the
RAF itself. This gave the RAF time to recover. It went on to defeat the
Germans in the air, forcing them to abandon their plans for invasion. That
British raid on Berlin was small in its destruction but very large in its
consequences. The Handley Page Hampden played a central role.
By then, the company was
already producing the Halifax, a large four-engine bomber. It was one of
three such aircraft designed and built by Britain, the others being the
Avro Lancaster and the Short Stirling. More than 6,000 Halifaxes came off
the assembly lines, with other planebuilding companies sharing in the
production. At the height of Britain's bomber offensive, the Halifax
comprised 40 percent of the strength of the RAF Bomber Command.
Frederick Handley Page was
knighted in 1942, becoming Sir Frederick. After the war, he again had to
seek new opportunities. For a time he continued to find them in military
orders, for the Cold War with the Soviets soon began, and Britain upheld
its centuries-old policy of maintaining its own offensive force. Sir
Frederick contributed the Victor, a four-engine jet bomber.
Full of years and honours,
he died in 1962. His company could cherish a proud boast—that Handley Page
aircraft had served continually with the RAF since it had been founded in
1918. By 1962, however, the days of his firm were numbered.
The Minister of Defence,
Duncan Sandys, had launched a plan to combine Britain's aircraft companies
into two large corporations. This reflected the growing cost of major
civil and military aircraft programs, which were becoming too expensive
for the relatively small aviation companies of prior decades. However, the
firm of Handley Page elected to remain independent, and it soon felt the
consequences. Business dried up; new orders went to Sandys's big combines.
In 1970 the firm of Handley Page Ltd., still using its name that dated to
1909, filed for bankruptcy. It soon vanished in a corporate collapse.