Sue'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.
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.
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, since 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!
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.
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.
As 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 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.
All 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.
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.
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.
Gary Parsons looks at the plans for XH648's future
True, 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.
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 seeming 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!
The 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.
Thanks to the staff and volunteers of the IWM for their help in compiling this article.