A day with Handley Page Victor XM715

Darren Harbar spent a day at Bruntingthorpe with the dedicated team that keeps XM715 alive and recounted it in the February 2016 issue of FlyPast 

Not content with acquiring a former RAF Victor tanker, the Walton family and its team of volunteers determined that they would keep it ‘live’. On November 19, 1993, K.2 XM715 Teasin’ Tina touched down on the long runway at the Walton family-run airfield at Bruntingthorpe, Leicestershire, to join the extensive Cold War Jets Collection.

Keeping such a large aircraft active would be far from easy but the Victor was joining a growing fleet of 1950s and 1960s-era warplanes with abundant expertise to tap into. Teasin’ Tina’s pedigree was impressive: it would be a shame not to let future generations experience the power and presence of the last Handley Page bomber type.

Victor XM715 first flew on New Year’s Eve in 1962 from what is now the unrecognisable Handley Page airfield at Radlett, near St Albans. Built as a B.2, it was the fourth of the final batch of Victors and was fitted out to accept the Yellow Sun 2 free-fall nuclear weapon.

After four test flights from Radlett, XM715 was delivered to the RAF on March 3, 1963, joining 100 Squadron at Wittering, near Stamford, in May. It transferred to the management of the Victor Training Flight in April the following year: the unit didn’t actually ‘own’ any aircraft, borrowing machines from the resident squadrons when the need arose.

The ‘Teasin’s Tina’ nose-art alongside the crew door.
The ‘Teasin’s Tina’ nose-art alongside the crew door. Darren Harbar

The B.2 fleet was extensively upgraded and modified. For example, XM715 was converted to every Mk.2 role during its service life: B.2, B.2BS, B.2R, SR.2 and K.2. Modification work was mainly undertaken by Handley Page at Radlett but some was carried out at Wittering by detached working parties and RAF engineers.

Victor XM715 remained on active service at Wittering until July 8, 1964 when it returned to Radlett to take its turn on the retrofit programme. The Ministry of Aviation reduced the refit order and it is likely that XM715 was one of the airframes that fell foul of the ‘number crunch’, and it spent time stored on the pan at Radlett.

Thankfully the requirement for a B.2SR (or SR.2) strategic reconnaissance variant came along, and ‘715’ was converted to the new specification, which allowed for reversion to B.2BS if needed.

In its new guise our subject aircraft was delivered to 543 Squadron at Wyton, then in Huntingdonshire (now in Cambs), on June 23, 1965. Routine non-destructive testing in 1967 revealed fatigue damage in the port wing root which could not be repaired in service, so the Victor was returned to Radlett in December 1967.

The spacious Victor flight deck.
The spacious Victor flight deck. Darren Harbar
The nav radar, nav plotter and air electronics officer share a ‘bench’ in the rear of the cockpit. Famously, the rear crew went to war travelling backwards!
The nav radar, nav plotter and air electronics officer share a ‘bench’ in the rear of the cockpit. Famously, the rear crew went to war travelling backwards! Darren Harbar

Two-war veteran

Along with other Mk.2s held in storage at Radlett, XM715 was earmarked for conversion to K.2 tanker standard. In August 1969 Handley Page went into liquidation and was restructured, only to collapse on February 27, 1970. The K.2 contract switched to Hawker Siddeley at Woodford, near Manchester and, on June 10, XM715 was ferried north with its undercarriage locked down.

Creating K.2s was an in-depth process involving a complete strip and rebuild for the 24 chosen airframes. On April 10, 1975, having become a three-point tanker, XM715 was test flown and handed over to 232 Operational Conversion Unit at Marham, Norfolk, in May. 

In July 1975, what would become the Bruntingthorpe Victor joined 57 Squadron, later transferring to 55 Squadron, both Marham-based units. It was in 1982 that XM715 first entered combat as part of Operation Corporate to reclaim the Falkland Islands following the Argentine invasion. The tanker was in the first wave to arrive at Ascension – and the fifth Victor to land on the island – on April 18.

During operations, ‘715’ was initially involved in supporting reconnaissance missions to South Georgia. The refueller then went on to provide tanking support as part of the now famous ‘Black Buck’ missions. Meanwhile a problem with elevator flutter was detected, necessitating a return to Marham. Quickly back in action, XM715 provided support for Black Buck 7, the final Vulcan mission on June 12.

After hostile hostilities in the South Atlantic ended, our feature aircraft continued to be a regular at Ascension. The Victor fleet supported the air bridge to the Falklands for Hercules and other aircraft supplying the islands.

At Marham, the Victor tanker fleet was consolidated into just one unit, 55 Squadron. But, even as the axe hung over the ageing crescent-winged warriors, there was life in the old aircraft yet.

On December 15, 1990 ten were deployed to Bahrain in the Middle East as part of Operation Granby to support the coalition forces over Kuwait and Iraq. This was when XM715 took on the nose-art Teasin’ Tina. The Victor force carried out 299 missions during Granby, of which Tina flew 38. Having survived two wars in its twilight years of service, XM715 was finally retired, along with 55 Squadron, in 1993.

XM715 deploys its braking ‘chute during a fast taxi run at Bruntingthorpe.
XM715 deploys its braking ‘chute during a fast taxi run at Bruntingthorpe. Darren Harbar

Back to life

In 1993 the Walton family bought XM715 and placed it in the care of determined volunteers. In the early days it was plagued by electrical issues that prevented the jet showing its full potential. But things started to change in 2006 as Terry Stevenson became pivotal to XM715’s welfare. He spent many hours assimilating the type’s Air Publications and servicing vital components and, along with his team, achieved the most difficult engineering challenges and brought XM715 back to life.

The crew chief, under the nose-mounted pitot head, has an umbilical microphone link to the aircrew and co-ordinates the ground crew.
The crew chief, under the nose-mounted pitot head, has an umbilical microphone link to the aircrew and co-ordinates the ground crew. Darren Harbar

Terry is not an ex-Victor tradesman as one may expect: “It all started for me when I followed Vulcan XH558 to Bruntingthorpe. I was invited to become part of an existing team working Sundays on the Vulcan,” he said.

“My background isn’t what you may expect from someone who’s involved in classic aircraft. When I left school I became a coachbuilder and automotive electrician, working on vintage cars – a job I found very enjoyable.

“I was aware Victor XM715 was suffering from a number of electrical problems, which had been caused by damp getting into the systems over the winter months. I spent many, many weeks carrying out repairs, which involved bringing panels back to my home to refurbish them and replacing components where necessary. I’d then take them back up to Bruntingthorpe to refit them.

“Eventually the hard work paid off and the systems on the Victor became more reliable. To prevent the same problems occurring once again, we’ve now fitted both a heater and dehumidifier in the cockpit for the winter months.

“For me, it’s an honour to be in charge of XM715 with David Walton’s continued support. We’ve been fortunate to have built up a very good team of volunteers and together we’re carrying out further restoration of the airframe.

“We have an ongoing plan to carry on with the improvements, and are always looking out for spare Victor parts, if anyone can help. It always surprises us how many parts are out there collecting dust on a shed shelf.”

To save the wheel brakes, the braking parachute is used – but repacking it is a demanding task.
To save the wheel brakes, the braking parachute is used – but repacking it is a demanding task. Darren Harbar

Endless schedule

Terry has an endless rectification and servicing schedule mapped out to keep Tina in a taxiable condition. Foremost are the braking and steering systems, which are hydraulically operated. The team is fortunate to have a number of reserve brake units and wheels, along with spare tyres, which should keep XM715 mobile for some years to come.

The Rolls-Royce Conway turbofans have caused some starting issues as fuel burners in the combustion chambers choke up with lack of regular use and servicing. With that in mind, over the past 18 months the team has been sequentially dropping the engines from their mounts using an over-wing rig.

This has provided access to the upper six burners so that they could be refurbished using filters from Conway 301s from the recently retired RAF VC10 tankers scrapped at Bruntingthorpe. Three of the four engines now start in textbook manner and the fourth is scheduled to be dropped this spring, so XM715 should have four fully serviceable powerplants for the start of the display season in May. 

There are four main AC generators in XM715, of which three are currently serviceable, along with the AAPP (or auxiliary power unit), which afford the Victor plenty of electrical power.

The fuel system is more of a headache, with a multitude of pumps and fuel cells: six in each wing and seven tanks along the length of the upper fuselage. Elements of the tanks and pumps are unserviceable and the team currently avoids using them. Fortunately, the heart of the fuel system is centred on the two massive bomb bay tanks which effectively act as collectors. Each one houses five powerful electrically driven pumps which are all functioning well.

The ‘Teasin’ Tina’ team. Fifth from the left is Terry Stevenson; seventh is pilot Bob Tuxford and, in blue, owner and airfield operator David Walton.
The ‘Teasin’ Tina’ team. Fifth from the left is Terry Stevenson; seventh is pilot Bob Tuxford and, in blue, owner and airfield operator David Walton. Darren Harbar

Meet the team

When it comes to the more visual aspects of keeping XM715 alive, the task of powering it down the runway falls to the capable hands of former Black Buck pilot Sqn Ldr Bob Tuxford AFC – a very influential part of the Victor team who has a real passion for Tina and the support crew.

“I would like to emphasise the role which Terry Stevenson has played over the last 15 years or so,” said Bob. [He] has generously been given a complete free rein by David Walton to manage this valuable Cold War jet. 

“Any praise for the ongoing welfare of the aircraft can be placed squarely on the shoulders of this dedicated and affable character. His enthusiastic approach and application in keeping the jet on the road has been remarkable.

“Although DW will front up and cover major expenses regarding the running cost [eg, fuel] and the occasional important spare part, Terry is not averse to digging into his own pockets to ensure that ’715 is maintained in good running order. Terry’s friendly demeanour rubs off on a happy team of volunteers who spend many Sundays during the year attending to the upkeep of the airframe and engines.

“His sidekick and close friend Brendon Johnston is also a pivotal member of the team as well as fulfilling the important role of crew chief. Brendon acts as my link to the ground crew. In particular, he also briefs and co-ordinates the safety chase team who follow us around the airfield.

“We could not have managed without Brendon’s ground engineering and welding skills which have proved vital; especially the larger repair and rectification jobs that arise from time to time. As a tug driver, Brendon also gives the team great flexibility whenever we, or others at ‘Brunty’, need to shuffle the jets around. 

“I’d like to mention Dave Dacre who, over the last two or three years, has become a valued close assistant to Terry. His engineering knowledge and familiarity with the associated aircraft manufacturers, parts suppliers and aviation museums has been particularly helpful. Amanda, his glamorous wife, is not afraid of getting her hands dirty either and, like Dave, gives support throughout the year.

“Roger Arnold and Roy Lee who provide the muscle for the myriad of jobs that are needed; Frank Dimmock, whose ex-Marham knowledge of the Victor and engines in particular has been irreplaceable. They and the handful of others combine to make the whole support team a pleasure to work with. 

“I’ve been a part of the operation for nearly five years. For much of that time I’ve worked alongside Bob Prothero, who had been the principal operating pilot for several years. Bob was a former V-force captain on Victor bombers and no stranger to the K.1 and K.2 variants. Having retired from taxying [XM715] recently, the path was clear for me to assume that position. 

“Shortly after my arrival at Bruntingthorpe, my former AEO [air electronics officer] and close family friend Mike Beer joined the team. Mike and I were crewed together at the onset of the Falklands campaign, and we have a very relaxed and mutually respectful approach as we work together once more as crewmembers in Tina

We’ve now gone full circle as I’ve managed recently to rope in my old co-pilot Glyn Rees. We now represent three-fifths of my original Black Buck crew from Ascension in 1982! Sadly, both navigators are no longer with us.

“Terry invariably completes the operating crew by riding on the nav’s seat. His specialist knowledge of the modifications and ‘fixes’ incorporated into XM715 interlace ideally with Mike’s systems knowledge and operational experience.”

The braking ’chute repacked and positioned back in its hopper at the base of the rudder.
The braking ’chute repacked and positioned back in its hopper at the base of the rudder. Darren Harbar

Curtain up

Bob added: “We aim to display the aircraft to the public each year on the Cold War Jets open days, held on the May and August Bank Holiday weekends. Basically, each aircraft is allocated a 30-minute slot, which usually involves an element of ground manoeuvring and a fast run down the runway. 

“In Tina’s case, this usually entails a full two-day preparation before the show on the Sunday. After the team has undertaken the full gambit of checks, replenishment and cleaning, the aircraft is given a shakedown. All systems and controls are functionally checked, and following a quick burst down the runway to check the engines at full power, she is left on the runway threshold. 

“On the day of the show, Mike normally fires up the AAPP on stand and Brendon tugs us forward to place us on the runway abeam the crowd line. The Conways are then started and flaps, airbrakes, ram air intakes and powered flying controls are all exercised for the benefit of the amateur photographers alongside. 

“On spooling up, I check the brakes are holding 88% and Glyn applies full power on all four engines to start the fast run. With 80,000lbs of static thrust, it doesn’t take many seconds to accelerate to about 90 or 100 knots. It’s always amusing to witness the plethora of car alarms triggered by the ear-shattering noise and vibration from four Conways at full chat!

“The prevailing wind and surface condition dictate the speed at which I would normally call for the run to be aborted. We prefer to use the tail brake parachute on display days; not only because this reduces the wear on the brakes whilst stopping 70 tonnes of rolling thunder, but also because the massive drag ’chute really shows off the aircraft to best effect. The only bugbear is the 3 or 4 hours it can take to repack it for re-use, and the not insignificant manual task of getting it loaded back into the hopper.”

The future of XM715 is very promising – a testament to the fantastic team effort surrounding her ongoing operation at Bruntingthorpe. David Walton’s vision in securing Tina – and his other Cold War jets – means future generations can enjoy the sight and sound of a war veteran Victor.

 

Many thanks to Mike Beer for his significant contribution to this feature and to all the crew on XM715. www.bruntingthorpeaviation.com

Victor XM715 powers up at its Leicestershire home.
Victor XM715 powers up at its Leicestershire home. Darren Harbar

Victor Mk.2 Variants

B.2: Standard bomber version, capable of carrying free-fall nuclear weapons or conventional bombs.

B.2BS: As B.2 but capable of carrying the Avro Blue Steel nuclear stand-off missile.

B.2R: As B.2 but incorporating extensive upgrades, including Conway 201 engines.

SR.2: B.2 converted for strategic reconnaissance sorties. (Also known as B.2SR.)

K.2: Three-point tanker conversion of B.2. 

Darren Harbar
Darren Harbar

‘Tina’ and Victor

Many coalition force aircraft carried World War Two-inspired nose-art during the 1990-1991 Gulf War. Victor K.2 XM715 was painted as Teasin’ Tina.

As retirement of the Victor tanker fleet loomed in 1993, Victor XM715 adopted another piece of artwork. This was in honour of another Victor, the irascible Victor Meldrew from the BBC TV situation comedy One Foot in the Grave (played by Richard Wilson) which was screened through the 1990s.

During XM715’s delivery flight from Marham to Bruntingthorpe on November 19, 1993, it’s believed the crew turned the allotted call-sign Victor One into Victor Meldrew One!