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XH648 in her element. Picture RAF via Vic FlinthamSue's baby - XH648

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Handley-Page Victor's maiden flight, Air-Scene UK looks at the IWM's unique B1A, the last of its type in existence.

Final Flight

Tony Cunnane recalls XH648's final trip

One of the less pleasant things any pilot has to do is take an aircraft on its final flight. I had to do this several times during my last few months on Victor Tankers at Marham as the Mk 1 and Mk 1a aircraft reached the end of their service life. One aircraft was Victor B1A K2P XH648, belonging to 57 Squadron, which I delivered to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford on 2 June 1976, just a few days before work started on the embankment for the new M11 motorway. The aircraft had to be delivered that week because once work started on the M11 the huge temporary embankment to be constructed on the runway undershoot would effectively knock 2,000 feet off the available length and render it unusable for Victors.

My crew comprised: co-pilot Group Captain David Parry-Evans (Station Commander Marham); navigators Wing Commander Alistair Sutherland (OC 57 Squadron) and Flight Lieutenant Thompson; AEO Flight Lieutenant Dave Head.

Victor B1A (K2P) specs by Roger Brooks

Wingspan 110 ft, overall length 114 ft 11 in, maximum height of the tail 28 ft 9 ins. Empty Weight approximately 97,000 lb, or just over 48 tons. Add a full load of fuel, 11,000 gallons and crew to give a maximum all-up weight of 185,000 LB (just over 85 tons).

The engines are four Rolls Royce (Bristol) Sapphire 20701s, each of 11,000 LB thrust. Two electrically driven hydraulic pumps use 28 gallons of hydraulic oil to provide a constant system pressure of 4,000 psi. The main wheels are twin-tyred and are of a 20 ply rating, compared with car tyres of 4 or 6 ply. They have a pressure of 280 psi. (190 p.s.i. in the nose wheels). The electrical system consists of four engine-driven 208 volt AC generators whose output is transformed and rectified to give a dual voltage of 112 volts DC and 28 volts DC. There are other specialised electrical Systems for radio, radar and navigational aids. A variety of radio radar and navigational aids are carried which include VHF/UHF, HF, Internal/External Intercom, ILS, Zero Reader, TACAN, ADF, IFF, GP1Mk4, Doppler, Mk 10 Auto pilot, G4B Compass and H2S NBS (RADAR).

As a bomber it could carry a maximum load of 35 1,000lb bombs but XH648 is fitted with long range tanks in the bomb bay. The Mk 20B refuelling pods have a 50 ft hose and can refuel other aircraft at 150 gallons per minute at 50 psi. The pods hold 145 gallons and are refillable from the aircraft tanks. The small propeller on the front drives a fuel and hydraulic pump to wind the hose in and out and pump the fuel.

A crew of five were carried, two pilots in Mk 3L ejector seats, a navigator-radar, a navigator-plotter and an air-electronics officer in swivel seats facing the rear. In addition, an extra seat was fitted for the crew chief who was carried on flights landing away from base at home and abroad. The two pilots had ejector seats but the means of escape for the rear crew was 'out of the door'.

Duxford is just about 30 nautical miles off the end of Marham's Runway 24. I took off on that runway, made one left hand orbit over Marham to increase speed, and then made a low level fly past over 57 Squadron HQ at 330 kts. Strictly speaking, Victors were limited to a maximum of 250 kts below 10,000 feet to conserve fatigue life but, XH648 also went on display in its service career - here at Waddington in 1964. Picture via Tony Cunnanesince this was the final flight, that did not seem adequate reason for restricting the speed. I did not tell the Station Commander and 57 Squadron Commander that I intended to disregard one of the Group Air Staff Orders so the responsibility was mine alone. In fact turning finals for runway 24, I had to retard the throttles all the way back to about 80% to prevent the very light aircraft accelerating further. As we crossed the runway threshold at Marham I throttled all engines back to flight idle - for watchers on the ground this produced the so-called "whistle" when the aircraft is almost soundless apart from a distinctive whistling noise from the airframe. After passing the Squadron HQ a quick burst of 100% on all four engines produced a mighty roar on the ground. I then gently eased up to 1,000 feet, throttled back to idle again and more or less coasted all the way to Duxford.

We knew that a reception committee would be waiting for us so, for the benefit of photographers, I made a very slow, maximum drag, flypast overhead Duxford with undercarriage down, full flap lowered, airbrakes extended, and bomb doors open. After that it was a normal left hand visual circuit to land and 648's final performance under its own power was over.

Over 26 years later XH648 is, or was when I last looked, still there very close to where I parked it!

Some tlc

Roger Brooks ARAeS (ex-Victor Mk 1 and Mk 2 Tanker Crew Chief 1966-1980) on initial care and maintenance at Duxford

Thirty-five years ago in January 1965, the RAF Tanker Fleet of Valiants, operated by 214 Squadron and 90 Squadron based at RAF Marham and RAF Honington respectively, was virtually grounded overnight due to metal fatigue.

HANDLEY PAGE VICTOR B1A (K2P) XH648 by Roger Brooks

This aircraft was built under contract 6IACFT/11303/CB6(A) to Air Ministry Specification B36/46 It was the twenty-first aircraft of the second production batch of 25 B1s which were ordered in February 1956. They were built at a cost of 244,000 each, less loan items, such as engines, radio, radar and navigational aids and many other items. Its initial flight, lasting forty minutes, was on 27/11/59 with 'Spud' Murphy at the controls. A further five flights were required before '648 was cleared for its delivery on 21 December 1959 to 57 Squadron at RAF Honington.

Initial acceptance checks and the fitting of remaining radio and radar followed, then it was to the flightline for the compass swing and the acceptance air test before joining the 'V' Force. Its service with 57 Squadron was to last just over ten months after which, on 25 October, 1960, it was flown to HP at Radlett for a conversion lasting six months. The work involved the fitting of a large amount of ECM equipment in the front and rear of the aircraft, and also improved radar and radio equipment, changing the engines to Sapphire Mk.20701s and various other modifications to the fuel and electrical systems.

On completion of conversion she was test flown on 26 April 1961 for 90 minutes by Peter Baker. After a further four test flights she was delivered to RAF Cottesmore on 11 May 1961 for 15 Squadron. After undergoing acceptance checks it was back to the flightline to the routine of training, navigation exercises and the inevitable QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) duties for a week at a time. On 16 September 1961 she suffered a flying accident when attending RAF Waddington's 'At Home' air day - after a roller landing the port wing tip struck the runway so the pilot cancelled the demonstration and returned to RAF Cottesmore were a Category 2 repair was identified. In 1962 whilst on the annual air test under the control of Flt Lt Keith Hanscomb there was a problem with the undercarriage and the port wing tip was lost, but the aircraft was landed safely and repaired. During her period of time with 15 Squadron she was to visit the Far East along with XH620, '616 and '588 for duties with 'Exercise Profiteer' during the Confrontation with Indonesia in 1962-63. When not on actual standby duties, training bomb drops wore made on the Song-Song ranges. These detachments, which did not use in-flight refuelling, had to be carried out via the bases in use at that time, such as Akrotiri, Kormaksar, Masirah, Gan and finally Tengah in Singapore.

On return from duty with the Far East Air Force she was to stay with 15 Squadron until 3 April 1964, when she was delivered to 55 Squadron. It was during this period she lost her white colour scheme for camouflage and started to fly in the low-level bombing role. This was not to last very long, as she was again returned to Handley-Page on 15 February 1965 for conversion to a flight refuelling tanker. This modification (MOD 4170) involved the fitting of two Mk 20B refuelling pods under each outer wing with the associated wiring and piping. Most of the ECM equipment was removed, leaving just the fixed fittings which can be seen today. The first flight after conversion was on 15 May 1965 with HP Test Pilot Harry Rayner at the controls, lasting just twenty minutes. She was back at Honington on 19 May 1965 to rejoin 55 Squadron which was in the process of converting from the bomber to the tanker role. A move to Marham followed in the next few days and on 25 May she was to take up a residence that was to last for the next 10 years. At 55 Squadron '648 was joined by a further five two-pointers and pioneered the refuelling procedures that were new to Victor crews.

After a period of conversion training for both air and ground crews, '648 settled along with the others to spend most of its early life assisting in the training of the fighter squadrons in the art of receiving fuel. This was to lead to the start of a series of detachments for both tanker and fighter squadrons to bases in the Mediterranean. The two-point tankers were to serve with 55 Squadron until mid-1967 when the conversion of the Squadron to the three-point tanker version was complete. This left the six two-pointers available for other duties, which ended up with them being divided between the three squadrons and the TTF. XH648 was to stay with 55 Squadron for the next eight years, to be used as a continuation trainer, daylight tanker and often for Lone-Ranger Flights overseas to such places as the Far East and the Mid-West USA.

The aircraft was a B(K)1A when delivered to RAF Honington as a tanker - later it was a B1A K1A(2P) and finally under mod 4400 to B1A(K2P). When 55 Squadron was preparing to convert to the K2 version, she was transferred back to 57 Squadron on 23 June 1975. The last year of her operational life was spent supporting 57's final year as a Mk 1 tanker squadron before she finally retired to Duxford on 2 June 1976, in 57's colours.

Some Flying Statistics for '648:
Total Flying Hours:

15 Squadron 793.40
55 Squadron 3,381.05
57 Squadron 442.25
Handley Page Test & Delivery 13.50
Total 4,631.00
Longest flight 10.00 hours (22 October 1964)
Shortest flight 15 mins (11 May 1961)
Last flight 25 mins (2 June 1976)

Fortunately, the development of the Victor tanker was underway, it being a proposed conversion of the B Mk1, and eventually all the remaining B1 and B1As (a total of twenty-four airframes) were to be converted. As the Valiant fleet dwindled (the tankers ended up being cut up for scrap as being too expensive to re-spar) the RAF was suddenly short of a tanker, the three-point Victor prototype (based on XA918) being still under development, having only first flown on 8 July 1964. To correct the imbalance and provide the RAF with its own small tanker force the decision was taken to convert six B1A Victor bombers to an interim configuration under modification No 4170, the selected aircraft being XH615, '620, '646, '647, '648, and '667. These were returned to Handley Page at Radlett from 55 and 57 Squadrons at RAF Honington.

These six interim aircraft were later followed by ten B(K)1 and fourteen B(K)1A aircraft which were to equip Nos. 55, 57 and 214 Squadrons by the end of 1967, leaving three of the earlier interim tankers to be used by the TTF as conversion trainers (and later 232 OCU). The remaining three were issued one to each squadron - XH648 to 55 Squadron, XH620 to 57 Squadron and XH667 to 214 Squadron. XH648 was also to eventually serve with 57 Squadron. Of all the thirty Victor K1 Tankers to serve with the Tanker Wing at RAF Marham, only XH648 was to survive, having been presented to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford and delivered on 2 June 1976.

The aircraft was maintained in a static display condition from 1977-1991 by a team from the DAS (Duxford Aviation Society) under my leadership consisting of interested volunteers, serving and ex-RAF Technicians. Additional equipment was acquired to return the cockpit to near-operational status. From 1977 until 1990 the aircraft hydraulic services, such as the air brakes, flaps and bomb doors, flying controls including the ailerons, rudder, elevators and lighting systems were maintained in an operational condition and operated to display these aspects of the Victor to the public. In addition the two Mk 20B refuelling pods could be trailed to a display state.

XH648 moves into the SuperhangarAs the aircraft spent the first ten years of its life outside at Duxford with minimum protection from the ravages of the weather, in 1986 it was decided to bring the aircraft under cover in the Superhangar and carry out a detailed inspection, which revealed areas of corrosion and minor structural damage. This was to be the first of three attempts to keep the aircraft undercover to allow essential work to be carried out, but over the next few months we were twice instructed to move her back out onto the airfield and we spent a great deal of time putting her back to gather again, involving replacing access panels and the undercarriage, the relevant jacks having been acquired including one on loan from RAF Marham.

Finally, after some discussions with the Museum Director and with some careful manoeuvring, the aircraft finally came back into the Superhangar for a third attempt to complete the work required on her. Over the next eighteen months the aircraft was rubbed down using power and hand tools, corrosion removed and the relevant treatments applied. The aircraft was then given a high pressure wash to remove all the dust and dirt and allowed to dry before the repaint could start - masking of the relevant cockpit windows and making a detailed record of all the markings before they were rubbed down took a considerable time.

The 1989 repaint in progress.The repaint started on Saturday 23 November 1989. Paint to the relevant specification was supplied by specialist paint suppliers in Cambridge - a synthetic gloss enamel was supplied and was applied using rollers loaned by the Aircraft Finishing Flight at RAF St Athan, these being the type of rollers used on Victors undergoing a repaint after major servicing. This saved considerable time, as there were less safety requirements to be complied with. By Thursday 28 November most of the painting was complete including the top of the tailplane (not an easy place to get to!). The replacement of all the various markings took some considerable time and stencils had to be made for many of them.

With the aircraft paintwork complete in gloss the aircraft was moved outside for a short while. During this period the IWM Conservation Management decided that the aircraft should have been completed in a matt finish and therefore we were requested to spray it with a mixture of matt varnish and white spirit. The paint suppliers didn't recommend it and other museums had problems as a result of applying a similar matt varnish. The preparation of the aircraft surface took a great deal of time and effort, the rubbing down being a tedious process and not at all a pleasant task, even with the use of power tools. Further refurbishment work was carried out with the servicing of the cockpit to bring it up to display standards for the roll-out and presentation to the RAF and ex-HP Test Pilots and Staff who were invited to attend on 1 April 1990.

After the respray in 1990All this work was carried out by the DAS 'V' Force Crew over the previous two years, with various interruptions due to airshows and work on Vulcan XJ824 (which also came under their jurisdiction). This had been quite a considerable task for the team of volunteers whose total strength was just ten (including my wife and daughter who undertook all the masking up and replacement of the markings in rather cold weather - not an easy task sitting on a cold wing painting the roundel).

As I mentioned earlier, various systems were maintained in working order and we wished to continue doing this, as well as the possibility of operating the undercarriages. However, this would have required the assistance of a team from RAF Marham and the supply of refurbished equipment from the undercarriage bay at RAF St Athan. Sadly the Conservation Management stopped us operating any system on the aircraft for safety reasons - the hydraulic system components had not been serviced by a recognised authority for many years and were deemed unsafe (the same went for the electrical services). So it was that '648 became a 'dead' aircraft after being kept alive for fourteen years. Shortly after this decision the paint on the nose began to flake and fall off and this spread to most of the aircraft leaving it looking in a very poor state - a result of chemical reaction between the paint and the matt varnish.

Freshly painted after her 1990 refurbishment

Over this period the museum changed its policy on the way volunteers worked and the way the teams were led. Museum technicians now controlled the refurbishment of individual aircraft, rather than the dedicated teams of old. So '648 passed to a IWM technician and our team moved on to other projects before we left the Museum in late 1992.

XH648 is the only remaining Mk1 Victor and a thus a unique aircraft, one that the IWM should preserve as a reminder of the design and development of aircraft by British aircraft companies such as Handley Page Ltd. Looking after her was an interesting period in my life and I met many interesting people who I would not have otherwise have done so. She deserves to be undercover, next to the Vulcan, and one hopes that the new 'Airspace' exhibition will provide that opportunity.

The future

Gary Parsons looks at the plans for XH648's future

XH648 todayTrue, she's not a pretty sight at present. First impressions are misleading though, for although she looks neglected and weather-beaten, nothing is further from the truth. Although the paintwork is faded and peeling, it's largely a cosmetic problem and structurally she is quite sound. Moreover, XH648 is at the heart of the IWM's plans for the new 'Airspace' hangar, a nineteen-million pound project that will double the floor area of the existing 'Superhangar' and present a history of British aviation through the ages.

Original hand-written ASI correction notes still in place from her last flight!

At the moment she is lovingly tended to by a small team, led by Conservation Officer Dave Upton and volunteer Sue Hopkins. Once a week '648 is opened up and restoration work carried out to the cockpit, which has suffered the extremes of many summers and winters since her systems were last operational. The biggest enemy is water seepage through the canopy seals - they would have been pressurised when in service, but obviously this is not possible any more, so many of them have been plugged with sealant. However, the cockpit is in remarkably original condition, even down to the hand-written notes that Tony Cunnane would have used on that last flight in 1976! It really is a little time capsule, the fifties technology Dave Upton and Sue Hopkins - dedicated team looking after XH648seeming quite primitive when compared to today's multi-functional display space-age cockpits. It is very much Sue's baby - ironic, as she gave birth to her first child in November. "It was a bit difficult moving around in the cockpit at seven months pregnant", she said in a classic case of understatement! When asked if aircraft were a particular interest for her, she replied "Not really - but I couldn't bear to see her just rot away - she needs to be looked after."

Dave, an ex-Vulcan and Victor Airframe Technician, explained that plans for '648's restoration had actually been put on hold temporarily. "It had been planned to move her into Hangar 5 for a complete overhaul, but this would have meant removing the tail, not an easy job on a Victor as the CofG of the tail isn't always where you expect it." Part of this uncertainty is a result of all Victors being different - each one was hand-built by Handley-Page, and consequently panels aren't interchangeable, some even having a different number of rivets between aircraft!

Inside XH648 - a constant battle against time and ageThe plan to use Hangar 5 was abandoned when the Airspace project was announced, as the new 'Super-superhangar' will have its own dedicated 'conservation' area, where the public can see the work as it progresses. The area will be large enough to house the Victor and several other large aircraft at the same time. Work on the new hangar will commence towards the end of next year and is planned to be complete by 2005, when '648 will be moved to the conservation area. The refurbishment of the Victor is expected to take two to three years, and will go as deep as a 'major' would have done during her service - the undercarriage will come off, the engines out and of course a complete re-paint. Dave would dearly love to see her returned to pure B1A status (as would we!) and re-sprayed in her original all-white anti-flash scheme, but a decision has not yet been made.

The cramped nose compartment - not used unless absolutely necessary!So, she'll continue to look a bit bedraggled for another year or two, but she's in safe hands and has a secure future - send your votes in now for that sixties all-white paint scheme!

Thanks to the staff and volunteers of the IWM for their help in compiling this article.


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