Frederick Handley Page, born in 1885, grew up in a modest-size town in Gloucestershire, England. In 1902 he entered college in London and enrolled in a program in electrical engineering. Graduating in 1906, he swiftly secured a position as chief engineer with a small electrical manufacturer. He proved so capable that only a year later, he was offered a position with Westinghouse, a manufacturer of electrical equipment, in the United States.
By then, however, he had begun to learn about aviation. Seized with enthusiasm, he took to carrying out experiments at his place of employment that had nothing to do with the task at hand—which soon got him fired. He started working on his own in a shed, carving wooden propellers for aircraft and building an airplane that a fellow aviation enthusiast had designed. In June 1909, he turned his shed into the firm of Handley Page, Ltd. This was Great Britain's first publicly traded aircraft manufacturing corporation.
Handley-Page built a succession of biplanes and monoplanes. Then in August 1914, Britain entered World War I. He approached the Admiralty and offered to provide planes for the Navy. A senior official took him up on his offer and asked him to create "a bloody paralyzer of an airplane" to hurl back the Germans. This led to the development of the twin-engine 0/100 bomber, which first flew late in 1915.
The 0/100 started the company on its way. Built as a biplane, it led to two larger successors: the 0/400 and the V/1500. The 0/400 was selected for production in the United States. The V/1500 was one of the first four-engine aircraft. Weighing 15 tons when fully loaded, it was built to bomb Berlin. The first of them entered service late in 1918, but the war ended just before they began to carry out their raids.
There was little further demand for bombers after the war, but Handley Page found new opportunities in carrying passengers. London and Paris were two of Europe's largest cities and were only about 200 miles (322 kilometers) apart. But the journey required the inconvenience of a transfer from a train to a boat for the trip across the English Channel and then a transfer back to a train to get from the coast to London. Moreover, the war had severely damaged the railroads in northern France. However, the distance between these cities was well within the range of the aircraft of the day.
The 0/400 had a fuselage that was large enough for passengers. Several of them became airliners with minimal modification, while the new firm of Handley Page Transport, which opened in 1919, became one of the world's first airlines. The V/1500 was too large for commercial use, but it had attractive design elements. These went into a modified 0/400, the W.8, which became the company's standard. In 1924, Handley Page Transport merged with three other carriers and formed Imperial Airways, Britain's first national airline.
Handley Page also had a strong commitment to research. His company may well have been the first to install its own wind tunnel for in-house experiments. He was keenly interested in air safety, more so because he had lost close friends in crashes. A serious problem of the day lay in the tendency of airplanes to go into a spin and often crash, and he looked for ways to counter this.
He decided that a solution lay in running a slot down the length of the wing from the fuselage to the wing tip. This in effect divided it into two wings set closely together. Airflow through the slot would flow evenly over the rear wing to produce more lift for better control. A German inventor, Gustav Lachmann, had developed similar ideas on his own, and Handley Page brought him into the company. Handley-Page received a patent for the invention on October 24, 1919, and slotted wings became a key to the firm's fortunes, as sales of patent rights earned £750,000 (about $3.6 million at the time) in payments from other planebuilders. In turn, slotted wings led to the development of flaps for wings. These extended to give extra lift and also greater drag, permitting takeoff and landing at relatively low speed. The flaps then folded into the rear of the wing, for the reduced lift that was appropriate at high speed during cruising flight.
Handley-Page remained involved with airliners during the next decade. In 1931, Imperial Airways began flying the Handley Page Hannibal, a four-engine biplane. It was built for comfort, with wall-to-wall carpeting and a bar. Stewards served four-course hot lunches and seven-course dinners, while soundproofing diminished the roar of the motors. The Hannibal carried up to 40 passengers and remained in service through the 1930s.
Like the 1920s, the first years of the 1930s were lean years for the company, when few orders came in. That situation changed in 1935, for with the threat of war in Europe now looming again, the British government launched a military buildup. Handley Page contributed a twin-engine monoplane bomber, the Hampden. The fortunes of war soon would give this plane a key role in saving Britain from Nazi invasion.
This happened in 1940, during the Battle of Britain. Nazi air fleets hammered hard at airfields of the Royal Air Force, slowly weakening it. Had they continued, they might well have won air superiority, opening the way for a German conquest of England. However, on August 24 the RAF sent a force of medium bombers, including Hampdens, to attack Berlin.
The bombers did little damage, but this raid prompted the Nazis to seek revenge. German leaders ordered their own bombers to strike the city of London. They killed and injured a great many people—but they did not continue their attacks on the RAF itself. This gave the RAF time to recover. It went on to defeat the Germans in the air, forcing them to abandon their plans for invasion. That British raid on Berlin was small in its destruction but very large in its consequences. The Handley Page Hampden played a central role.
By then, the company was already producing the Halifax, a large four-engine bomber. It was one of three such aircraft designed and built by Britain, the others being the Avro Lancaster and the Short Stirling. More than 6,000 Halifaxes came off the assembly lines, with other planebuilding companies sharing in the production. At the height of Britain's bomber offensive, the Halifax comprised 40 percent of the strength of the RAF Bomber Command.
Frederick Handley Page was knighted in 1942, becoming Sir Frederick. After the war, he again had to seek new opportunities. For a time he continued to find them in military orders, for the Cold War with the Soviets soon began, and Britain upheld its centuries-old policy of maintaining its own offensive force. Sir Frederick contributed the Victor, a four-engine jet bomber.
Full of years and honors, he died in 1962.