Canberra's Golden Year by Gary Parsons
It is hard to believe, but one of the RAF's front-line jet aircraft is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. Ever since 1949 the sky has been graced with the elegant lines of the English Electric Canberra, a design ahead of its time, and during a long service life has been tasked with many differing missions, from a bomber to photo-reconnaissance. Today, there are only a handful left, flying with 39(1 PRU) Squadron from RAF Marham, near King's Lynn. Resident there since October 1993, the squadron complements the two resident Tornado photo-recce units to provide the RAF with a centre of excellence in information gathering.
39(1 PRU) is the all-seeing eye of the air force, the aircraft being equipped with high-tech digital cameras known as 'System III' that can identify small objects at extreme ranges, as the infamous U2 can do for the American forces. Much of the equipment is highly classified, but it is known that there is commonality with the American systems, enabling a high level of co-operation when in theatre. Currently commanded by Wing Commander Steve Howard, the squadron can find itself involved in most trouble-spots around the world, exemplified this year when aircraft were deployed to the Italian base of Gioia del Colle to monitor the situation in the Balkans during the Kosovo crisis. But, only having five operational PR9 and two training T4 aircraft means that resources are always stretched and single aeroplanes are required to fulfil these detachments, placing a high importance on serviceability. The PR9 version is regarded as the 'Rolls-Royce' of the Canberra lineage, having a larger wing and more powerful Avon engines. Such is the power available that take-off is attempted at only ninety percent, so as to not stress the airframe too much! Many a fighter has been humbled by the performance of the PR9, especially at altitude, where it is in its element. Its operational ceiling is officially classified as secret, but is in the region of 60,000 feet. Flown by a crew of two, the PR9 differs from the archetypal Canberra with its 'fighter-type' offset canopy for the pilot and location of the navigator in the nose cone. This is a most unwelcoming place to the uninitiated, just two small windows provide light to the cramped confines in the very front of the aircraft, an array of switchgear and monitors set into the hinged nose confronts the unfortunate soul.
To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the first flight of the Canberra, one of 39(1 PRU) Squadron's T4 training aircraft has been painted in the colours of the prototype VN799 and will be on display throughout the summer at many airshows around the country. VN799 first flew on 13 May 1949 in the capable hands of test pilot Wing Commander Roland Beamont and was painted in a glorious mid-blue, known as 'Petter Blue' after the designer of the aircraft, with the obligatory 'P' for prototype in yellow on the fuselage bounded by a circle, also in yellow. This has been faithfully reproduced on this year's aircraft (WJ874), the only distinct visual difference being the shape of the fin, which was rounded on the original aeroplane. It is fitting that 'VN799' should grace the skies of East Anglia again, as it was on approach to Woodbridge airfield on 18 August 1953 that she was lost in a crash when both engines failed, the aircraft coming to rest in a small clearing in Rendlesham Forest. Fortunately both crew members escaped with minor cuts and bruises, but VN799 was damaged beyond repair.
Nevertheless, the Canberra went from strength to strength, various marks enabling a multitude of tasks to be accomplished and records to be established. In 1953, two feats were achieved, WE163 winning the England to New Zealand Air Race and WH699, nicknamed Aries IV, broke the London to Cape Town record. Four years later, WK163 set a new world altitude record of 70,310 feet, assisted by two Napier Scorpion rocket boosters. Today, forty-two years after this milestone, WK163 still flies, albeit in civilian hands with Classic Aviation Projects from Bruntingthorpe airfield in Leicestershire. As with today's Tornado aircraft, the Canberra has been involved in bombing operations, first in the Malayan Troubles of 1955 and later during the Suez Crisis against Egyptian military targets.
Displaying 'VN799' throughout the summer are pilot Squadron Leader Terry Cairns, a veteran of 7,000 hours on the type and now commanding the training unit of 39(1 PRU) Squadron, and navigator Squadron Leader Brian Cole, who also has over 5,000 hours on Canberras. Together they are by far the most experienced Canberra aircrew, but no-one will admit to the combined ages of aircraft and men! At the end of the year, WJ874/'VN799' will undergo a major service and lose her temporary blue scheme, to reappear in a new black scheme standard for all training aircraft. Current plans for the Canberra fleet with the RAF will see another six or seven years of service until replacement, but don't yet discount another 'VN799' re-appearing in ten years time!