Radlett Reminiscences



Great to receive this letter from ex-H.P. Inspector Ron Palmer in Australia in May, although “˜getting on” in years we are very grateful to learn of some of his times at the Radlett factory as follows:

Dear Ken, May I thank you sincerely for your letter of 12.05.02, and appreciate your making contact with me. Unfortunately healthwise, I” m afraid age is fast catching up with me and a couple of spinal operations have taken their toll. However, I do realise that it is difficult to locate matters worthy of publishing in the Victor Association Newsletter, so I will rattle my memory and attempt to provide something that maybe you can juggle about a little and publish.

Initially I joined Handley Page Ltd at Radlett, Hertfordshire as an inspector, having previously had experience with aircraft in the Fleet Air Arm and a period attached to the R.A.F. for the purpose of support to the “˜D Day” Invasions and my climb up the ladder eventuated at the level of Petty Officer. At the time of joining Handley Page Ltd, they were engaged in the modifications to some “˜Hastings” aircraft and the manufacture of 25 “˜Canberra” aircraft under licence to English Electric. It was on the latter” s production line to which I was mostly directed.

The major parts of the Canberra aircraft were manufactured at Handley Page Ltd (Cricklewood), transported to Radlett where final assembly, systems installations and tests were carried out. I was personally involved in the general assemblies, Engine Installations, Systems, Flying Controls, Fuel Flow tests, Engine Runs and Cabin Pressure Tests, (qualified for internal presence during tests by Farnborough).

I must digress here to say that, unfortunately we lost one Canberra aircraft. Due to a problem of possible buffeting when the wing tanks were fitted, the aircraft would be flight tested first without the tanks fitted, then later again with the tanks fitted. The fuel tank assembly crew would wait on the apron for the aircraft to land and taxi into position and if initial tests were satisfactory, they would fit the tanks then the pilot would proceed to final flight tests. In this particular instance, the pilot (Dalton-Golding), had the habit of when returning to Radlett, of performing a “˜Barrel Roll” as an indicator to the wing fuel tank crew that the aircraft had cleared initial tests and that they could prepare to position the tanks ready for fitment when he had landed and taxied into position. As witnessed by myself, on return over the Radlett aerodrome, the aircraft started the usual “˜Barrel Roll” but, when it had reached the inverted position, it then pointed nose down and flew straight into the railway lines adjacent to the airfield. Both Pilot and Navigator were killed.

With the exception of the nose assembly which was manufactured at Radlett, the remainder of the main Victor aircraft components were manufactured at Cricklewood and as with the Canberra were transported to Radlett for final assembly, tests, final inspection and dispatch.

At this point, it is well to indicate that the first five Victor aircraft were built in the Test Section, a separate unit at the Radlett aerodrome, for tests and modification purposes. You may be well aware that originally the nose assembly attachment bolts were explosive, with the intention to, in the event of emergency, blow the nose assy clear on parachute support, with the crew inside. Unfortunately tests indicated that with the speed of the aircraft, high air pressure would in certain circumstances, restrict the assy breakaway, and so subsequently ejection seats and a braking drogue chute were fitted. The dropdown nose flaps were also another example of modifications emanating from the Test Section.

Here again I will mention that we lost 2 Victor aircraft – 1) One of the test aircraft, during a high speed test run over the Cranfield aerodrome, met with a fatal accident when the tail assembly broke away from the dorsal fin. The entire crew were killed. 2) A production Victor, whilst on test flight over the west country, lost it” s Pitot Head, affecting flight instruments to the stage when it was necessary for the crew to eject. I spoke to the Pilot (Spud Murphy) later, who suffered a severe neck injury.

In the early stages of the Victor manufacture, I was acting in a similar role to that with the Canberra, but as the first production aircraft reached the end of the production line, I became what could possibly be called the Finals Inspector, carrying out System Tests, Daily Inspections and Prior to Dispatch Line Inspections.

Most of the time it was routine work, but I suppose I could have been accused of being over-cautious. I do know that I was a very conscientious and stringent inspector and this invariably could, and did, lead to arguments. Whatever, I tried to ensure that, when an aircraft flew or left Handley Page Ltd, to my mind, it was sound and flight-worthy.

There were occasions though, when it was necessary to request the removal of such items as tools, parts, material etc; that could have been a danger to flight, but these usually were found and I got them removed. There was one occasion however when the loss of a flight may have been attributed to neglect on my part, but it really wasn” t my fault and as luck would have it, the aircraft did not fly.

This occasion was on a “˜Prior to Flight Inspection” , I had cleared the Plenum Chamber subject to the fitting of the Floor Hatch (The Top Hatch was closed). This I was to check prior to the fitting of the Window Box later, after I had made other inspection checks in another part of the aircraft. Now it so happened that the Floor Hatch was laying on the Plenum Chamber Floor just inside the floor aperture, ready to be pulled into position and locked.

You will not believe this, but some idiot of a Fitter, went back down the production line, took the hatch of another aircraft and fitted it to the aircraft waiting for Flight, thus leaving the original Hatch to float around the Plenum Chamber during Flight Tests. Of course, when I checked, a hatch was fitted perfectly OK, ignorant of the fact that the original was still laying inside.

Fortunately the aircraft did not fly that day due to bad weather and the problem was located on the next Daily Inspection. Whew!! This could have been extremely dangerous with all the electrics housed in the Plenum Chamber, especially if Spud Murphy was to be the Pilot with his “˜Steep Climbs” and “˜Roll off the Top” .

We obviously experienced the usual minor technical problems, but there were two occasions when perhaps my excessive keenness to inspect beyond the immediate area of requirement, may have been warranted. Because of illness affecting the Resident Inspector at the “˜Radlett Test Section” , I was called to assist by carrying out a Daily Inspection on one of the Test aircraft. I was told that this should not take too long and render no problem as this aircraft had had five previous inspections, with no problems located.

But the aircraft had not flown due to inclement weather. As part of my routine check, I climbed up to view into the Port Undercarriage Bay. You can imagine my surprise when I found a fracture some 4ft or more long in the upper member of Rib 212. In this instance, I refused further inspection and rendered the aircraft grounded subject to removal of the Outer Wing Section and Stress Repairs.

The other incident involved a “˜Routine Prior to Dispatch Inspection” during where I found a problem which caused me terrific concern. In this instance and because of the accident that I have previously mentioned regarding one of the Test Section aircraft, I feel I may have saved many lives. As a special precaution on “˜Dispatch Inspections” I was always in the habit of requesting the lowering of the Elevator Power Unit Access Panels. I was inspecting the Port Unit Bay Area when, to my horror I discovered a fracture in the Tailplane Attachment Member at the forward end, some 18 ins long. The Elevator Power Unit was removed and another fracture was found at the aft end. The Starboard Side was then checked, revealing exactly the same problem. Other flying aircraft were also checked and found to have a similar problem but of less severity. The R.A.F. were notified and perhaps you and some of your colleagues will probably recall that all Victor aircraft were grounded subject to removal of the Tailplane and modification. I do know that a Group Captain did report the matter to the public on television.

I was reading Ray Funnell” s article on page 7 of the “˜Victor Association Newsletter Issue 37” and his flights from Radlett. “œGlad to hear that you are still with us Ray” *. I am not sure of aircraft numbers today, but this could have been one that you flew from Radlett and don” t think it would have stood much flying time very much longer. If I recall correctly, the R.A.F. crew were housed in the local Hotel, ready to accept this aircraft.

I would just like to mention one other item which I think is somewhat of a “˜funny” . It was on an occasion when the Duke of Edinburgh visited Handley Page Ltd at Radlett. The hangars were generally cleaned up and at the time we had one flying aircraft and five others on the production line in various states of build. Sudden panic resulted in all panels being fitted to one side of each production aircraft to give the impression they were all flyable or almost so. And of course the Duke was taken up that side of the line. In actual fact there was hardly anything in them and no panels whatsoever were fitted to the other side. Just as well the Duke didn” t walk right round any of them!

On the exit of the final Victor production aircraft, Handley Page Ltd started manufacturing the “˜Herald” aircraft and I saw most of these off the production line, but it was fairly obvious toward the end of that production that the end was fast approaching for the Company and it was at this stage that I sought other employment.

However, it is my belief that the “˜Victor” was the finest aircraft and the most technically advanced aircraft, of it” s time and for many years, and may still be. Handley Page Ltd had many superior designs for the future. It is my opinion that it is an utter disgrace and completely beyond the understanding of the British Aircraft Manufacturing fraternity, as to why the Government of the day refused to permit their future development programme and cancel further orders of the “˜Victor” and similar designs. Certainly, assistance could have been given in the production of the “˜Jetstream” as a stop gap, instead of allowing the design and drawings to be sold to the Americans who have made a complete success of the venture, with hundreds having been sold.

Ken, I thank you for giving me the opportunity to say something and may I wish you every possible success with the Association and attempts at saving something of the “˜Victor” aircraft. I hope that I have given you at least some of my past history to work with and my congratulations to those who contribute to your newsletter. Kindest regards, R.P.

* This was in fact a response from an achivist to some facts attributed to Ray in Issue 36, page 2 – sadly we reported there that Ray Funnell had in fact passed away on Monday 16th July at the age of 67. Ed.

PIC: Early Victors at Radlett, kindly supplied by V.A. member Graeme Rodgers, from his Antipodean article on the Victor & its visits thereto – see issue 38, P.3.

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