The incredible history of the Handley Page Hastings

One of the RAF’s most famous transport aircraft made its first flight 75 years ago today...

Before the Lockheed C-130 Hercules or Boeing C-17 Globemaster III, military transport was significantly smaller. Then, in the mid-1940s, the government published Air Staff Specification C.3/44, which specified the need for ‘a new large four engined transport aircraft for the RAF’. The resulting aeroplane would be the biggest military transport aircraft ever designed for service: the Handley Page Hastings.
On May 7, 1946, the Hastings prototype made its inaugural flight from RAF Wittering in Cambridgeshire. Although this first flight revealed some unfavourable qualities of the aeroplane, the promise it showed was unmatched by any of its competitors. Mostly, the characteristics could be adjusted by making some modifications to the tail section of the aircraft.

Perhaps the most significant event in which the Handley Page Halifax operated over the course of its 30 years of service was the Berlin Airlift. As one of the earlier events of the Cold War, tensions were high and at the forefront of the country’s minds. As a result, the allied sectors of Berlin were restricted by Soviet powers, meaning that nothing could enter in or out – including food and energy provisions. The Handley Page Hastings was rushed into service in June 1948 as a way for Allied countries to attempt to meet the demands of the Berlin Airlift. At the forefront of the effort was No. 47 Squadron, whose fleet of Halifax A Mk 9s were quickly replaced by Hastings in order to conduct their first sortie on November 11 1948. The Hastings continued to be deployed across the duration of the operation until the final sortie was conducted on October 9, 1949. This final mission was also conducted in a Handley Page Hastings.

Unlike any previous military transport aeroplanes, the Handley Page Hastings took the design of a civilian transport aeroplane and ran with it in a modernised military fashion. Stowage space for the thousands of tonnes of cargo that it was able to carry was unprecedentedly large; whereas the maximum take off weight of the Douglas C-47 Skytrain (which operated during World War 2 and also in the Berlin Airlift) was 31,000lbs, the maximum take off weight of the Hastings was an enormous 80,000lbs. Assisting in this exceptional difference between maximum take off weights was the four Bristol Hercules 106 14-cylinder air-cooled radial engines. With each engine producing 1,272bhp, this meant that the entire aeroplane was capable of producing over 4,800bhp. Compared to the C-47 Skytrain of comparable role and era, this was an incredible 2,400bhp difference.

Although the Handley Page Hastings retired from service in 1977, its operational history was significant. It was reported that across the entire 32-strong fleet of Hastings that were deployed during the Berlin Airlift, a combined total of 55,000 tons of supplies were transported successfully to the allied-occupied areas of Berlin. Across its production lifespan, 151 Handley Page Hastings were made altogether and beyond use as a transport aircraft, they were used in modified conditions to perform training, weather forecasting and VIP duties.