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Last flight of the T4

Gary Parsons witnesses the passing of a RAF classic

Gleaming in the early September sun, it is hard to believe she is fifty-one years old. Resplendent in her all-over blue paint scheme, she sits pristine on the Aircraft Servicing Platform at Marham, sparkling with the enthusiasm of a playful youngster - maybe they haven't told her this is possibly her last flight.

She is the last of her kind, the 'classic' Canberra design, one that has served the RAF well for fifty-four years. The later PR9 may be faster and fly higher, but is a vastly different beast to the T4 and doesn't have those classic lines of the bubble canopy. Canberra WJ874 was ordered as a T4, part of Contract 6/Acft/5786/CB.6(b) on 20 September 1950 and built in stages at the English Electric Company's Preston, Samlesbury and Warton sites. Following initial production test flights, WJ874 was notified as awaiting collection from the manufacturer on 24 December 1954 and issued to the Station Flight at Binbrook on 11 January 1956, where she served for four years until transferred to the Coningsby Station Flight on 1 January 1960. Further RAF moves to places such as Bassingbourn, Kemble and Aldergrove would follow until November 1969, when she was transferred to Admiralty charge and the Naval Air Radio Installation Unit at RNAS Lee-on-Solent.

'874 would spend the next seventeen years in the hands on the Fleet Air Arm, primarily with the Fleet Requirements & Air Direction Unit (FRADU) at RNAS Yeovilton. She returned to RAF charge on 7 April 1986, being allocated to 231 OCU at Wyton, where she served coded as 'BM' until the unit disbanded in April 1993. A short spell with 360 Squadron at Wyton followed until that unit disbanded too in October 1994, when WJ874 then transferred to 39 (1 PRU) Squadron at Marham, coded 'AS'.

In April 1999 WJ874 was chosen to represent the first prototype for the impending 50th Anniversary celebrations on 13 May 1999 at BAe, Warton. She was flown to Flight Refuelling at Hurn for repainting in the overall blue scheme, including the serial 'VN799', that was carried by the prototype in 1949. WJ874 continued to masquerade as 'VN799' throughout the 1999 summer display season, and won the Sword for the best UK participant at the RIAT show at Fairford.

Since then she has continued to serve on 39(1 PRU) Squadron, still painted in the overall blue scheme as 'VN799', with bouts of storage at Shawbury as the Canberra T4 fleet was rotated. So, six years after her starring role, she sits on Marham's acres of concrete on 1 September 2005, awaiting a crew for the last time. Pilot for this last official flight is Squadron Leader Terry Cairns RAF, a veteran of forty-one years service who has exceeded a total of 8,000 flying hours. He claims to be the world's oldest serving combat pilot at the grand old age of sixty, and is one of the few Canberra pilots who can actually claim to be older than the aircraft they fly! Terry knows WJ874 well, as he flew her in that halcyon summer of '99, when the trophy at RIAT was won against much younger and athletic competition. Maybe it was the fact that despite her age, WJ874 had relatively few hours accrued throughout her service career - today, 1 September 2005, will see her 5,740th hour in the air, spread over those fifty-one years. In comparison, her PR9 sisters have been worked much harder, all of them having exceeded 9,000 hours in a shorter service career.

Cranberry sauce

So, if she is still healthy, why is she being retired? Her PR9 sisters will still continue to work for another year, so why can't she soldier on with them? As the retirement date for the PR9 has been confirmed as 31 July 2006, it is now less than a year away, and the last annual currency check of the pilots has been completed. As the T4's role was simply one of pilot training and currency check, the squadron simply needs her no longer, and every effort must be put into keeping the four remaining PR9s airworthy. Keeping a fifty-six year old design operational is becoming an ever-increasing burden for the hard-pressed groundcrew of 39(1 PRU) Squadron. It is not unknown for museum aircraft to have parts swopped for unserviceable items that cannot be repaired. Also, Rolls-Royce ceased supporting the Avon Mk 1 engine that the T4 ultilises, providing additional problems in engine management if the T4 was to continue through 2006 - WJ874 has the last two serviceable engines the RAF possesses, assembled from several donor engines from the rest of the previously retired fleet.

Accompanying Terry is the Air Officer Commanding No 3 Group, Air Vice-Marshal Andy White CB BTech RAF, who will be sitting in the co-pilot seat. This will be his first flight in a Canberra, and his last chance on the type. The navigator is the Officer Commanding 39 (1 Photo Reconnaissance Unit) Squadron, Wing Commander Clive Mitchell RAF - maybe the high-profile aircrew gives WJ874 an uneasy feeling in her hydraulics, as it's unusual for an AVM to be along for the ride.

Her two Avons start first time from the cartridges, thick black smoke hanging in the air for a few seconds, like a condemned man taking his last draw on a cigarette. She moves down the taxiway at a leisurely pace, enabling the assembled press pack to scamper to the edge of the runway to see her rotate one last time. Taking off at 14:30, WJ874 will visit each of the airfields that were home to the RAF Canberra Operational Conversion Unit (training squadron) or the aircraft's manufacture during the type's service - these include Bassingbourn at 14:38, Wyton at 14:42, Cottesmore at 14:48, Salmesbury at 15:11 and BAe Warton at 15:15, returning to land at Marham around 15:45. The entire route will be flown at approximately 3,000 ft.

At Salmesbury and Warton English Electric built a total of 925 Canberras in the UK, of which 773 were delivered to the RAF. In all 1,347 Canberras were produced, many constructed by the Americans for their B-57 medium bomber requirement. It was one of the most successful British post-war designs in terms of overseas sales, with nations such as India and Peru operating the type until recently. Designed in 1944 by W E W Petter at English Electric as a replacement for the Mosquito bomber, the prototype VN799 first flew on 13 May 1949. It had a top speed of 450 knots (Mach 0.8) with a service ceiling of 45,000 ft. In its first ten years of service the Canberra broke nineteen flight records and three altitude records. It was the first aircraft to fly across the Atlantic in both directions in one day, and fly from the UK to Australia in under twenty-four hours.

While WJ874 is airborne, it's an opportunity to speak with aircrew and groundcrew of 39 Squadron. Squadron Leader Garry Winwright, a navigator, said "The Canberra has served the RAF well for more than fifty years. During that time it has served in many operational theatres. The fact that we are still involved in operations right up until the aircraft's out of service date next year illustrates its tremendous operational utility.

"I think I speak for everybody serving on 39 Squadron, as well as those who have served on the Squadron in the past, when I say that we will all miss the Canberra when the aircraft finally goes out of service next year."
The fondness the aircrew hold for the Canberra is quite evident. The Squadron's newest pilot, Flt Lt Ernie Taylor, an ex-Harrier pilot, explained: "It's a fantastic aeroplane to fly - there's nothing like it!" He, like many others, hopes that the retirement date for the PR9 is extended again. "When I joined in early 2004, I was told the absolute final date for retirement of the PR9 was 31 March 2006 - as you know, this has been extended to July due to operational commitments." There isn't any particular constraint on the date except finance - it's a well-known fact the PR9 is being withdrawn for budgetary reasons rather than redundant capability. "There's certain things we can do that the U-2 can't", added Ernie - "We have a much more flexible flight profile than the U-2, which can only fly straight and level at high altitude. We often go where it can't if the weather's not with it." It is acknowledged that the RAF, and also NATO, will lose capability when the PR9 is withdrawn - satellites aren't always in the right place at the right time, and UAV technology hasn't yet replaced the eyes and mind in the cockpit. Let's hope that a future theatre commander doesn't utter the words "If only we had a Canberra" when lives are at stake.

Soon it's 15:45 and the press pack assembles by the ATC caravan at the threshold to runway 24. We're hopeful that Terry will beat up the airfield, but as he's hopeful of continuing his service career for another year the approach is gentle and steady. WJ874's wheels touch down for the 12,396th time, but Terry increases power and '874 takes to the air once more. A gentle circuit (well, the AVM is on board) and the 12,397th landing is the last in WJ874's service career. The high number of landing compared to hours flown highlights her training role and many years of circuit bashing - of the 12,397 landings, just 4,364 have used the brakes.

She taxies back to the spot she started, and the engines shut down. Interviews with the crew are held, but it's WJ874 that really is the star of the day. Her next destination is unknown, but it will be in the hands of the Defence Sales Agency, an ignominious end for such an important type for the RAF. Could not a place at Hendon or Cosford be found? Better still, an enlightened attitude from the MoD towards flying historic airframes - an enlarged BBMF, or RAF Heritage Flight using PFI initiatives? One could imagine WJ874 serving her country for many more years at airshows throughout Europe.

No, sold she must be - let's hope that the need for a minor service doesn't put off potential buyers who could keep her airborne. The worst outcome would be recovery for scrap - no, she's too beautiful for that, surely?

With thanks to the Marham CCO and his staff


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