The English Electric Canberra is a British first-generation jet-powered light bomber manufactured in large numbers through the 1950s. The Canberra could fly at a higher altitude than any other bomber through the 1950s and set a world altitude record of 70,310 ft (21,430 m) in 1957. Due to its ability to evade the early jet interceptors, and its significant performance advancement over contemporary piston-engined bombers, the Canberra was a popular export product and served with many nations.
In addition to being a tactical nuclear strike aircraft, the Canberra proved to be highly adaptable, serving in varied roles such as tactical bombing and photographic and electronic reconnaissance. Canberras served in the Suez Crisis, the Vietnam War, the Falklands War, the Indo-Pakistani Wars, and numerous African conflicts. In several wars, both of the opposing forces had Canberras in their air forces. The Canberra was retired by its first operator, the Royal Air Force (RAF), in June 2006, 57 years after its first flight. Two of the Martin B-57 variant remain in service, performing meteorological work for NASA, as well as providing electronic communication (Battlefield Airborne Communications Node or BACN) testing for deployment to Afghanistan.
The Canberra had its origins in a 1944 Air Ministry requirement for a successor to the de Havilland Mosquito – a high altitude, high-speed bomber with no defensive armament. Several British aircraft manufacturers submitted proposals. Among the companies short-listed to proceed with development studies was English Electric, a well-established industrial manufacturer with very little aircraft design experience, though when a desperate need for bombers arose during the early years of the Second World War, English Electric had built the Handley Page Hampden and later the Handley Page Halifax four-engined bomber under licence.
In 1944, Westland Aircraft‘s technical director and chief designer W. E. W. Petter prepared a design study for a twin-engined fighter bomber, the P.1056, based on two fuselage-mounted Metrovick F.2/4 “Beryl” engines. The authorities doubted its suitability for operations from unprepared fields and at low altitude but could see its potential as a bomber design; numerous manufacturers refused to take on the design. Petter left Westland to join the English Electric company in December 1944, where he was encouraged to develop his design, EE formed its own in-house aircraft design team in the following year.
In June 1945, the design of the aircraft that was to become the Canberra bore many similarities to the eventual design, despite the placement of a single, centrally-mounted turbojet engine; two wing-mounted engines were adopted later that year. On 7 January 1946, the Ministry of Supply placed a contract for the development and production of four English Electric A.1 aircraft. It continued to be known as the English Electric A.1 until it received the name Canberra after the capital of Australia in January 1950 by Sir George Nelson, chairman of English Electric, as Australia was the first export customer for the aircraft.
Although jet powered, the Canberra design philosophy was very much in the Mosquito mould, providing room for a substantial bomb load, fitting two of the most powerful engines available, and wrapping it in the most compact and aerodynamic package possible. Rather than devote space and weight to defensive armament which historically could not overcome purpose-designed fighter aircraft, the Canberra was designed to fly fast and high enough to avoid air-to-air combat entirely.
Prototypes and first flights
The Air Ministry specification B.3/45 had requested the production of four prototypes. English Electric began construction of these in early 1946. All the prototypes were built on jigs. However, due to post-war military reductions, the first aircraft did not fly until 13 May 1949. By the time the first prototype had flown, the Air Ministry had already ordered 132 production aircraft in bomber, reconnaissance, and training variants. The prototype proved vice-free and required only a few modifications. A new glazed nose had to be fitted to accommodate a bomb-aimer because the advanced H2S Mk9 bombing radar was not ready for production, the turbojet engines were upgraded to the more powerful Rolls-Royce Avon R.A.3s, and distinctive teardrop-shaped fuel tanks were fitted under the wingtips.
The resultant aircraft, designated the Canberra B2, first flew on 21 April 1950, piloted by Roland Beamont. Proving to be fairly free of problems, this first flight was almost immediately followed by the manufacturing of production Canberras, entering squadron service with RAF No. 101 Squadron in May 1951. In a testament to the aircraft’s benign handling characteristics, the transition program consisted of only 20 hours in the Gloster Meteor and three hours in the dual-control Canberra trainer.
With a maximum speed of 470 kt (871 km/h), a standard service ceiling of 48,000 ft (14,600 m), and the ability to carry a 3.6-tonne (7,900 lb) payload, the Canberra was an instant success. It was built in 27 versions that equipped 35 RAF squadrons, and was exported to more than 15 countries, including Australia, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Ethiopia, France, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, Peru, Rhodesia, South Africa, Sweden, Venezuela and West Germany.
Photo-reconnaissance and conversion roles
The strategic reconnaissance role within the RAF had been carried out by the de Havilland Mosquito; in 1946 the Air Ministry issued Specification PR.31/46 as a jet-powered replacement for the Mosquito. To meet the requirement, the B2 design was modified by adding a 14-inch (36 cm) bay forward of the wing behind the cockpit to house seven cameras. It also had an additional fuel tank in the forward part of the bomb bay and only needed a two-man crew. The prototype, designated PR3, first flew on 19 March 1950, followed by the first of 35 production aircraft on 31 July 1952. It entered service in December 1952 when No. 540 Squadron RAF began to convert from the Mosquito PR.34. The Canberra PR3 was the first purely photographic aircraft ever designed for the RAF.
To enable crews to convert to flying the Canberra, a trainer version was developed to meet Air Ministry Specification T2/49. The prototype designated T4 first flew on 12 June 1951. It was the same basic design as the B2 apart from the introduction of side-by-side seating for the pilot and the instructor and the replacement of the glazed nose with a solid nose. The first production T4 flew on 20 September 1953 and the variant entered service with No. 231 Operational Conversion Unit RAF in early 1954. As well as the operational conversion unit, all the B2-equipped bomber squadrons received at least one T4 for training.
Introduction: 25 May 1951
Manufacturer: English Electric