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Handley Page Dart Herald

Handley Page Dart Herald

So Close to Perfect

British aviation history, sadly, is full of might-have-beens. The reasons are many, from government blindness to plain, simple mistakes or wrong guesses. The DH106 Comet is probably the most conspicuous tragedy, but the elegant little Herald was no less close to the bullseye. It was no more than a couple of misjudgements away from being a world-beater.

Handley Page already had a distinguished history in producing large, multi-engined aircraft. They were among the first to see the scale of civil aviation's future, introducing the big, comfortable Type W twin in 1919. During WW2, the Halifax bomber had been second only to the mighty Lancaster. It's possible that it was a focus on past successes that obstructed the deserved success of a highly promising design.

By the 1950s, Douglas's venerable DC-3 was into its third decade of service. Passengers wanted greater comfort and less noise. They expected pressurised cabins and the calm, smooth ride that comes from higher altitudes. This was a time when the British Empire was evolving into the Commonwealth, and there was a need for a new medium-haul airliner to take the place of the brilliant, but aging, Dakota.

Handley Page had acquired the aviation assets of the bankrupt Miles Aircraft company in 1947. They'd continued production of the Miles Marathon as the Handley Page (Reading) HPR1 Marathon. The type was notoriously - some pilots have even said dangerously - underpowered. Nevertheless, HP saw merit in the design and used it as the basis of a new airliner. On completion, the new machine bore little resemblance to its ancestor. The twin tails had been replaced with a single fin, while the rectangular, slab-sided fuselage was now a more easily pressurised cylinder. The high wing format was retained, as this allowed the fuselage to sit low to the ground, making cargo handling easier.

Prince Philip boarding his Herald in South America, 1962

The importance placed on the success of the Herald can be judged by the fact that, in 1962, HRH the Duke of Edinburgh joined the sales team for a marketing tour of South America. Already an experienced pilot - he was taught to fly by WW2 ace Peter Townsend - Prince Philip flew BEA's Herald G-APWA on an extended tour to promote interest in the airliner. Alongside him, in the co-pilot's seat, was Peter Middleton (at the left of the above picture), who in 1982 would become the grandfather of the future Duchess of Cambridge.

The aircraft he flew, G-APWA, is one of only four surviving Heralds. It can be seen at the Museum of Berkshire Aviation.

Dubbed the HPR.3 Herald, the new type made its public debut at Farnborough in 1955. Handley Page had spoken extensively with the many DC-3 operators, most of whom had expressed reservations about the reliability and maintenance requirements of jet engines. So the Herald prototype was powered by four Alvis Leonides Major engines, a power unit whose design had begun before the war. While an excellent motor - it would go on to power helicopters like the Westland Whirlwind and twin the Bristol 173 twin - its choice for the Herald was made at a time when the world was looking ever more to jet power. And in Germany, Fokker were about to launch a direct competitor: the F27 Friendship. Physically so similar to the final production Herald that many people find them difficult to distinguish, the Friendship was powered by a pair of Rolls Royce Dart turboprops. Fokker had understood what HP had missed: if you want to make the right decisions, don't solicit the opinions of people who are married to old technology.

Early interest in the Herald cooled rapidly when, just two months after its appearance, the considerably faster Friendship whined onto the market. By now, the turboprop-powered Vickers Viscount was winning orders, and the buyers wanted jets.

Handley Page reacted with commendable speed. Realising that every pre-order for their new airliner had evaporated, they revised the HPR.3 extensively, coming up with the HPR.7 Dart Herald, powered by the same Rolls Royce turboprops used by its German nemesis. The original prototype was converted, and flew for the first time in March 1958, by which time production versions of the Friendship were already being sold. Handley Page had considerable ground to reclaim. But as it turned out, Fokker met exactly the resistance that Handley Page had expected. The conservative civil aviation operators were worried about adopting this relatively unknown technology, and Friendship sales were slow. HP pushed aggressively, undercutting the Fokker's price by nearly £50,000 - that's around £800,000 at today's prices. At last, orders began to flow.

BEA was first to take delivery of Heralds, ordering three for its Scottish Island services. The type proved popular with pilots, being pleasantly mannered in the air, though that enormous tail could make ground- handling somewhat challenging in crosswinds. In response to the Fokker's superior payload, Handley Page extended the Herald's fuselage, but too much ground had been lost. The Friendship was faster, allowing tighter scheduling, and its higher carrying capacity translated into revenue advantages that quickly cancelled out the British competitor's initial price edge. In 1960, the market split further with the entry of the Avro (later Hawker Siddeley) 748. By 1963, only 35 Heralds had been sold, against nearly 250 Friendships.

Handley Page turned to military markets, finding a ready appetite in the RAF for the Herald's outstanding short field performance and robust construction. Short field and unprepared strip tests were carried out at RAF Martlesham Heath and the type performed faultlessly. Designs were laid down for a rear-loading Herald, with a drop-down ramp fitted under a modified tail. But this was the period when the British Government was determined to rationalise and condense the British aviation manufacturers. Peter Thorneycroft, then the Minister of Aviaiton, agreed to sign off on the contract only if Handley Page merged into BAC or Hawker Siddeley. But the offer made to acquire the company was close to derisory, not even half of the value calculated by Frederick Handley Page. The merger failed and the contract was cancelled. Total military orders amounted to just eight Series 400 Heralds sold to the Royal Malaysian Air Force.

Reeling under financial pressures, the company was never to recover fully. Even the sales tour undertaken by Prince Philip in 1962 failed to put this excellent but unfortunate airliner back in the spotlight for worldwide operator. The final blow came when VASP, the Brazilian airline, ordered ten Series 700 Heralds. Work started at the Handley Page factory, and six airframes were approaching completion when VASP's financing failed and the contract was cancelled. The aircraft under construction were scrapped, and production of the Herald was finally ceased in 1968. Handley Page went into voluntary liquidation the following year.

The Herald story is a sad one. But for that initial poor choice of engines, it could well have gained entered the market on equal terms with the Friendship, and that might have carried through as development continued. Had it not run into the intransigence of a 1960s government that was bent on rationalisation, it could have become a first-class military transport. But should we regard it as a failure? Anything but. Those very few Heralds that remain to us today should be seen as memorials to entrepreneurial endeavour; to the can-do spirit of a relatively small company that, for a few short years, kept punching against the weight of state obstruction and capricious fortune.



Dart Herald by numbers
First Flight:25 August 1955
Capacity:56 passengers
Powerplant:2 × Rolls-Royce Dart Mk.527 turboprop of 1,425 kW (1,910hp)
Performance 
Range:2,632km (1,635mi)
Maximum Speed:435km/h (275mph)
Ceiling:8,140mm (26,706ft)
Dimensions 
Length:23.0m (75ft 6in)
Wingspan:28.9m (94ft 10in)
Height:7.32m (24ft 0in)
Weight:11,345kg (24,960mi)
 

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