A Bygone Era:

Flying in the Handley Page HP-42


Flying Aboard The Handley Page HP-42 with Imperial Airways in 1931 to 1939

Flying the airlines in the thirties was a lot more fun than it is now.  It was more leisurely and had more class.

If people had serious money in the 1930s and travelled internationally, they may well have flown on one of these large (130 foot wingspan) Handley Page biplane aircraft, which were the mainstay of British Imperial Airways at the time. They carried 26 passengers in first class only, in three different compartments.  The first class saloon, the bar and cocktail area, and the smoking section.

These machines were ubiquitous, extremely safe (no passenger in a HP-42 was ever killed in 10 years of international and domestic operations from 1930 until 1940), very comfortable in seating, leg room and service, hot meals were served on bone china with silver cutlery, free liquor flowed, overnights were in the very best hotels. There was no rush, no waiting in lines and everyone was well dressed.

Flying along at a few thousand feet, one could see every interesting feature passing below (down to the quality of the washing on the  backyard clothes lines).

What was Imperial Airways?

Imperial Airways was the early British commercial long-range air transport company, operating from 1924 to 1939 and serving parts of Europe but principally the British Empire routes to South Africa, India and the Far East, including Malaya and Hong Kong. There were local partnership companies; Qantas (Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Ltd) in Australia and TEAL (Tasman Empire Airways Ltd) in New Zealand.

Imperial Airways was merged into the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) in 1939, which in turn merged with the British European Airways Corporation in 1974 to form British Airways.

At 95 to 100 mph one also had time to look at the passing panorama. It took four days to a week (depending on headwinds and weather) to fly from London to Cape Town, South Africa by only flying about four hours a day, staying at the best hotels in Europe, Cairo, Khartoum and the Victoria Falls.

All stops to India also made for an interesting choice of destinations.

Designed in 1928 to an Imperial Airways specification, only eight machines were built: four HP42s and four HP45s, and each were given a name beginning with the letter “H”. The HP42s were used on the European routes and was powered by four Bristol Jupiter engines developing 490hp each. The HP45s had the more powerful supercharged engines of 555hp each, which allowed greater passenger capacity but reduced baggage and range.

The first flight was in G-AAGX (later to be named Hannibal) with Squadron Leader Thomas England at the controls. Its certificate of airworthiness was granted in May of 1931, with the first flight with fare-paying passengers (to Paris) just a month later. When they were withdrawn from Imperial Airways at the beginning of WW2 they had recorded almost a decade without any major accidents, although one aircraft was subsequently destroyed whilst in RAF service with the loss of eight lives.

Above: The Handley Page HP-42 “Hannibal” over London. 1932. This aircraft was lost over the Gulf of Oman in March 1940, after its service with Imperial Airways. No trace of the aircraft or its eight occupants was ever found.

Below: A 1930 flying magazine’s view of the new HP-42 airliner, which was regarded as a marvel of its time. Immediately aft of the cockpit was the radio operator’s compartment, then three passenger cabins.  The HP-42 accommodated up to 26 passengers, whilst the HP-45, with more powerful 550 hp engines, could carry 38 but with reduced baggage capacity.

Below Left: An HP-42 crew at an unknown locality. The Captain would almost certainly have flown aircraft in the First World War. Note his cigar!  Right: Imperial Airways advertisement of the day. 

Airframe Histories

Hannibal. The first flight of G-AAGX, Hannibal, was on 14 November 1930. The aircraft was named after Hannibal Barca, the Carthaginian military commander. On 8 August 1931 the aircraft was operating a scheduled passenger flight from Croydon to Paris when the port lower engine failed. Flying debris from the failed engine struck the propeller of the port upper engine causing it to vibrate so severely that it had to be shut down. A forced landing was made at Five Oak Green, Kent where the aircraft suffered further damage to a wing and another propeller and the tail was ripped off against a tree stump. There were no injuries amongst the 20 passengers and crew. The aircraft was dismantled and taken to Croydon by road for rebuild. It was lost over the Gulf of Oman in RAF service on 1 March 1940 with eight aboard including the First World War ace Group Captain Harold Whistler and the Indian politician Sir A. T. Pannirselvam. An early report that wreckage of the aircraft had been located turned out to be incorrect; no trace of the aircraft, the air mail it carried or its occupants has ever been discovered and the cause of its loss remains unknown.

Horsa. G-AAUC was originally named Hecate after the Greek goddess; it was soon renamed Horsa, after the legendary conqueror of Britain and brother of Hengist. The aircraft first flew on 11 September 1931. It was impressed into No. 271 Squadron RAF as AS981. The aircraft burned after a forced landing on uneven ground at Moresby Parks, near Whitehaven, Cumberland, on 7 August 1940.

Hanno. G-AAUD, production number 42/3, was named after the Carthaginian explorer Hanno the Navigator, who explored the Atlantic coast of Africa in approx. 570 BC. Hanno first flew on 19 July 1931 and was later converted to a H.P.42(W) (Hannibal class). The aircraft was impressed into No. 271 Squadron RAF and was destroyed in a gale at Whitchurch Airport, Bristol when it was blown together with Heracles and damaged beyond repair on 19 March 1940. This aircraft was featured in the fifteen minute 1937 Strand Film Company documentary Air Outpost.

Hadrian. G-AAUE, production number 42/2, was named after the Roman emperor Hadrian. Hadrian’s first flight was on 24 June 1931. On the outbreak of the Second World War, Hadrian was impressed into No. 261 Squadron RAF as AS982, at RAF Odiham. On 6 December 1940, Hadrian was torn loose from its moorings at Doncaster Airport in a gale, cartwheeled, and ended up inverted on a railway track next to the airport. The aircraft was too badly damaged to be worth repairing. The aircraft made a brief appearance in the 1936 movie Song of Freedom starring Paul Robeson.

Heracles. G-AAXC was named after Heracles, also known as Hercules, who was the son of Zeus and Alcmene in Greek mythology and was noted for his extraordinary strength. Heracles first flew on 8 August 1931 and was impressed into service with the RAF on 3 March 1940. The aircraft was destroyed in a gale on 19 March 1940 at Whitchurch Airport, Bristol, when it was blown together with Hanno and damaged beyond repair.

Horatius.G-AAXD was named after Horatius, a legendary Roman hero. Horatius first flew on 6 November 1931. On 9 December 1937, Horatius was struck by lightning whilst flying across the Channel from Paris to Croydon. A precautionary landing was made at Lympne where it was found that minor damage had been done to a wing. In September 1938, Horatius suffered damage to its port undercarriage and lower port wing in a forced landing at Lympne. The aircraft was repaired and returned to service. It was impressed into RAF service in the Second World War. Returning from France on a transport mission on 7 November 1939, the aircraft could not find its destination of Exeter due to bad weather and was forced to make an emergency landing at Tiverton Golf Course during which it hit trees and was destroyed. A four-bladed wooden propeller from the aircraft was salvaged and is now on display at the Croydon Airport Visitor Centre, situated in the former terminal building of Croydon Airport.

Hengist. G-AAXE was originally named Hesperides, but was soon renamed after Hengist, brother of Horsa and legendary conqueror of Britain. Hengist first flew on 8 December 1931. It was later converted from a European to an Eastern aircraft. Hengist was caught in an airship hangar fire and burned at Karachi, India on 31 May 1937, making it the only H.P.42/45 not to survive until the Second World War.

Helena. G-AAXF was named after Helena, also known as Helen of Troy. It first flew on 30 December 1931. Like Hengist, it was converted to an Eastern aircraft. Helena was impressed into service with No. 271 Squadron RAF in May 1940 . After a hard landing the aircraft was grounded later that year; post-accident inspection condemned the airframe due to corrosion, and it was scrapped in 1941, except for the front fuselage section which was used as an office by the Royal Navy for several years. Parts of this plane can be seen in the 1933 film The Solitaire Man.


Above: An HP-42 at Khartoum, Sudan, with passengers boarding for the flight south. The eastern route journey generally included stops in Paris, Marseille, Pisa, Taranto, Athens, Sollum, Cairo, Luxor, Assuan, Wadi, Halfa, Atbara, Khartoum, Malarial, Mongolla, Jinja, Kisumu, Tabora, Abercorn, Ndola, Broken Hill, Livingstone, Bulawayo, Pretoria, Johannesburg, Kimberley, Bloemfontein and Cape Town. 

Above. The HP-42 carried up to 26 passengers and there was only one class (first). This is the forward saloon. Airspeed Indicator and Altitude displays are on the aft bulkhead: a feature that was to be repeated in the Concorde, some fifty years later. There was no sleeping accommodation aboard as the flights were only of four or five hours duration each day. 

Historical Videos



Above.  G-AAUD Hanno at Cairo.  Note the baggage handlers and the modest airport building!  Despite the lack of facilities, Cairo was the base for the eastern route (London to Cape Town).

Above:  The HP-42 Flight Deck. There was nothing sophisticated in it, by modern standards.

Left: Royal Visit.  King George VI, centre, and Queen Elizabeth (his wife) on the aircraft steps.  Above: An HP-42 prepares for a night flight from Croyden airfield in the UK. 

Above: Flying the flag at Croydon.

Article compiled by Webmaster.  Sources included Wikipedia, and various ‘chain’ emails of unknown source, which makes acknowledgement difficult.