January 1956: Turbulent times for Handley Page

Changing engine technology and competing manufacturers dealt a blow to an iconic aircraft manufacturer.

Handley Page
The Handley Page Herald could carry 44 passengers or 5 tons of freight

Handley Page is synonymous with the UK’s aviation industry but bad timing and resistance to change would ultimately lead to its downfall in 1970.

Things looked different in the 1950s when the company was plotting its own route around the world of civilian and military aviation, but the cracks appeared in 1955 when it brought a new commercial airliner to the Farnborough Air Show.

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The root of the problem was the four Alvis Leonides Major piston aero engines used on the new Herald, an aircraft that Handley Page thought could challenge the Douglas DC-3.

In January 1956, The Engineer offered its reflections on Farnborough 1955 and looked also at the Twin Pioneer from Scottish Aviation, the company that acquired Handley Page’s final aircraft design and made it viable for years after the collapse of the Hertfordshire firm.

According to The Engineer, the Herald was ‘characteristically a British airliner in appearance’ and was constructed by dividing the airframe into subassemblies. This method, used with the wartime Handley Page aircraft, allowed for the maximum number of employees to work on one aircraft.

“The Herald employs a technique of construction that allows the outer skin panels to carry a great deal of the structural loads; the skin is formed to the required contour and placed in a jig, and a corrugated sheet laid on the inside,” said The Engineer. “In the case of panels with cylindrical or conical curvature the corrugated sheet does not have to be pre-formed.”

Our reporter added that the crests of the corrugations were then joined to the skin by spot welding which at the time was described as ‘an advanced technique of preparing the sheets and inspecting the welds, rendering this process acceptable for primary structure.’

“The curvature is then locked into the panel by placing an inner skin on the corrugated core, drilling through where it rests on the core, and attaching it by blind riveting,” our correspondent added. “These panels have an accurate and stable outer surface and a smooth inner surface which is particularly convenient for tank bays, luggage compartments, and so on. On the wing leading edge the channels in the core are used to conduct hot air for de-icing.”

In one last throw of the dice Handley Page set about developing the Jetstream

The Herald was intended for ‘under-developed airfields’ whilst Scottish Aviation’s short take-off and landing Twin Pioneer could operate in very confined airfields but with the relative economy of a fixed-wing, piston-engined aircraft.

“By making generous use of high-lift devices…it is possible to attain cruising speeds that would be very costly with a helicopter, while not requiring an aerodrome out of all proportion to that which would be needed for regular all-weather helicopter services,” said The Engineer. “The initial cost of the machine reflects the absence of rotor drive and pitch control mechanism, and of heavily loaded aerofoils subject to continuously fluctuating stresses.”

In an example of its performance, it was noted that the Twin Pioneer could carry 16 passengers, or 3000lb of freight and fly 600 miles in five hours on 1150lb of fuel.

Like the Twin Pioneer, the Herald could be configured for passengers in its pressurised cabin or be easily converted to carry freight. Its target airlines were smaller operators who’d previously favoured piston engines before the Vickers Viscount had proven the reliability and economical operation of turboprops. This development prompted Handley Page convert its piston powered prototypes with two Rolls-Royce Dart engines.

This switch was mis-timed and observers noted that Fokker had already opted for turboprops on the F-27 Friendship, an aircraft designed to compete in the same market as the Herald. Handley’s airliner was popular with pilots, but this did not translate into sales for the Herald, which by 1960 was competing also with the Avro 748 in the so-called ‘feeder line’ market.

Handley Page thought it could revive its fortunes in the military market but was thwarted by a caveat from the government that said it had to merge with the British Aircraft Corporation before being considered for military contracts. It didn’t, and in one last throw of the dice set about developing the Jetstream, a turbo-prop commuter aircraft designed for 12 to 18 passengers that was met with success but did not arrive in time to save Handley Page, which went into liquidation in 1970.

The design for the Jetstream was picked up by Scottish Aviation, which – like the British Aircraft Corporation and Hawker Siddeley – merged into British Aerospace in 1977. With a seating capacity of 29, a Jetstream 41 still operates today with UK airline Eastern Airways.