The world’s safest aircraft?

Airline travel, as enthusiasts know and passengers accept unthinkingly, is the safest means of transportation in the history of mankind. But almost every type of aircraft has met with accidents; even the legendary Boeing 747 was involved in many, especially during its early years.

To find a type that has never been in an accident that resulted in passenger fatalities while in commercial service, one has to search long and hard. One recent standout is the Airbus four-engine A340 family of airliners. There have only been a handful of accidents involving the A340 in airline service, none of which resulted in deaths. The best known is that of the Air France A340–300 that had a runway excursion on landing at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport in August 2005. There were many injuries and the aircraft was destroyed by fire, but thankfully no lives were lost. With the A340 now almost out of airline service that record will probably stand.

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H.P. 42. Courtesy Wikiwand

Unbeknownst to many, though, there was an airplane type that flew for a decade in passenger service during the early (and far riskier) days of air travel almost a hundred years ago, with a perfect safety record. The Handley Page H.P.42/45 airliners never had a fatal accident during service with Imperial Airways (the predecessor of BOAC and British Airways) from 1930 to 1940.

Imperial Airways stretches its wings

Responding to an Imperial Airways specification for a new type of long-range aircraft to service its ‘Empire Routes’, Handley Page submitted two models: the long-range H.P.42E (for Eastern routes); and the H.P.42W (Western) that could carry a greater payload over shorter distances. Internally they were known as the H.P.42 and H.P.45, respectively, but more commonly referred to as the H.P.42 family.

Handley Page had a track record of building long-range aircraft of unorthodox designs, having produced a bomber, towards the end of World War I, capable of reaching Berlin. These were modified for passenger service after the war and a derivative type established a record by flying the first airmail service from Canada to the USA in 1919.

Hannibal and siblings

Rather vaingloriously the aircraft were named after Roman emperors and mythological heroes of yesteryear, all beginning with the letter ‘H’. Hannibal, Horsa, Hanno, Hadrian, Heracles, Horatius, Hengist and Helena were the Airbus A380s of their era. Easily the largest aircraft in service at the time they entered service in 1930, the eight above-named (the first four were H.P.42s, the remainder H.P.45s) were the only examples built.

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Engine configuration of the H.P. 42. Source

Even by the standards of the period the aircraft looked ungainly, almost dinosaur-esque, with two of the Bristol Jupiter nine-cylinder radial engines mounted on the upper-wing and two on the lower-wing. However, the design was practical and innovative. A monocoque aluminum fuselage construction and unique wing with automatic slots (aerodynamic devices similar in operation and purpose to flaps) plus slot-type ailerons are some of the pioneering touches incorporated in the design.

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The interior. Notice the pith helmet on the luggage rack. Source

The aircraft was designed primarily to carry British government officials and senior military officers to the extremes of the Empire, a task they accomplished with aplomb. The fuselage featured two luxurious passenger cabins and a vast space for baggage. Passengers enjoyed amenities such as a bar, cocktail area, a smoking section, and had hot meals served on bone china crockery. The H.P.42s generally flew in daylight for about four hours a day, at a sedate 100 mph (160 kph). They would cruise at a few thousand feet above land, allowing for scenic views out the large windows. Everyone stayed overnight in hotels, where the Captain would host VIP passengers at his table for dinner.

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Interior cutaway diagram. Source

At times the winds were too strong to complete a day’s flying, forcing the aircraft to turn back and return to the departure point! Depending on winds and weather it could take anywhere from four days to a week to reach Cape Town from London. Nevertheless, a steamer took up to 21 days for the same trip, so the aerial journey was still a considerable time-saver.

The first ‘hub & spoke’ operation?

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Hanno in Cairo. Courtesy

Imperial Airways ran a ‘hub’ of sorts in Cairo, with the short-range H.P.42W operating between London and Paris-Le Bourget. Passengers would then take the night train to Brindisi, Italy, where they transferred to a Short S.17 Kent four-engine biplane flying boat to Alexandria (Egypt) with refueling stops in Athens and Crete. At Alexandria they would board a train to Cairo, where a H.P.42E was waiting for them.

From Cairo the routes diverged, one arm proceeding eastbound, via Palmyra (Syria), Baghdad and Basra in Iraq, Bahrain, Sharjah (Trucial Oman) to Gwadar and Karachi (then part of British India). At Karachi passengers would join the excellent Indian train service to cross the subcontinent and proceed eastbound as far as Delhi and Calcutta (Kolkata). Those proceeding even farther could take a mix of trains and airplanes as far as Singapore, where flying boats would connect to Australia.

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Imperial Airways timetable showing the many stops needed due the H.P. 42s short range.

The southbound journey in a H.P.42E would plod down the length of eastern Africa at a stately pace, with multiple stops in Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), North and South Rhodesia (since then renamed Zambia and Zimbabwe, respectively) before eventually reaching Cape Town, a total of 8,359 miles from London.

A safe and reliable service

Imperial Airways’ H.P.42s proved to be reliable workhorses with an enviable safety record. With the advent of the Second World War, the eight aircraft were pressed into service with the Royal Air Force (RAF). Sadly, all were subsequently destroyed in varying circumstances, including one fatal accident in 1940 during a RAF flight in which all eight occupants lost their lives. However, the original plans for the H.P.42 still exist and there have been many efforts, yet unfulfilled, to build a replica.

While it may seem ungainly and eccentric to our modern eyes, the H.P.42 was a robust and well-designed aircraft that reflected the Edwardian Age which spawned the type. The aircraft epitomized the age and mindset that created it — arguably a simpler and less frenetic era than what we have known since.

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A DC-2 next to H.P. 42 at Croydon. Source

As seen in this photograph, compared to all-metal ‘twins’ such as the Douglas DC-2 the H.P.42 was outdated even by the mid-1930s. The Boeing Model 247 first flew in 1933, soon to be followed by the Douglas DC-2 and the Lockheed Electra Model 10. These three twin-engine monoplanes all cruised at twice the speed of the H.P.42s and looked, even to our eyes, far more advanced. Like many aspects of the British Empire, the Handley Page airliners were anachronisms and a technological dead-end.

Yet the type will always have a special place among aviation enthusiasts for its impeccable safety record in airline service, and whimsical appearance.

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An evocative artist’s impression of H.P.42W ‘Hengist’ from a 1958 aviation
book for children. — source RT Collection

This is part of a series on the early propliners and the slow transition to the jet age. It all began with the DC-3 of course, and my columns move through the other Douglas propliners, the Boeing 377, Lockheed’s Electras and the elegant Constellation. The Brabazon Committee which sparked such a wave of innovation in the UK with the Vickers Viscount, the Bristol Britannia and the ill-fated de Havilland Comet. Many other significant aircraft, such as Avro Canada’s innovative but aborted C-102 passenger jet and the Sud-Aviation Caravelle, which led us into the start of the Jet Age have columns too.

A few quirky segues I couldn’t resist: the ‘Double Sunrise’ flights between my two homelands Ceylon and Australia; the wonderful Carvairs and that very British habit of taking your car on holiday. I also had to write a paean to my beloved A380 and all my pilot friends in the Gulf as COVID ended that little dream.

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed the series as much as I have relished writing them. Special thanks to my old friend, mentor, editor and repository of knowledge Roger Thiedeman, for all the encouragement and support throughout this project.

Written by

Suren Ratwatte

I love airplanes. As an airline captain I flew many including the A380 and Boeing 777. But wish I’d had the opportunity to fly some of these old propliners.

I love airplanes. As an airline captain I flew many including the A380 and Boeing 777. But wish I’d had the opportunity to fly some of these old propliners.

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