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The end of an era?

Mick Freer reports on the last RAF flights of the Canberra

My love affair with the English Electric Canberra dates back to the days when I was still at school - I would sit watching Canberras in the circuit at nearby Royal Radar Establishment (RRE), Pershore in Worcestershire. During the summer holidays, I would cycle to the airfield, prop my bicycle against the Ministry of Defence security post and sit and watch the flying. The Police were very tolerant of me and left me alone, provided I didn't take photographs. Back in those days, the RRE operated a large fleet of aircraft (many of which were Canberras) engaged in radar research work. Most were heavily modified, some fitted with long nose cones, others with various other bumps and bulges. My earliest records of a Canberra include WH735 and WT327, both operating from Pershore way back in 1959. At that time, I couldn't have imagined that forty-seven years later I would witness the last three RAF Canberras retire from service.

So it was, that on 31 July 2006, the last three Canberra PR9s, operated by 39 (1 PRU) Squadron, were flown from their home base at RAF Marham to Kemble airfield in Gloucestershire. The first aircraft to arrive over the airfield was XH134, Flt Lt Ronnie Fairbrother and Sqn Ldr Gary Winright at the controls, who delighted those present with several low, fast runs. This was then joined by XH135, Flt Lt Ernie Taylor and Sqn Ldr Kim Smith doing the honours, and finally, XH131, flown by Sqn Ldr Dave Piper and Wing Commander Clive Mitchell (the boss of 39(1 PRU) Squadron), who performed a rather sedate circuit before all three finally landed.

The handover to their new civilian owners had been co-ordinated by Falcon Aviation, two of the airframes (XH131 and '135) having been purchased by Nigel Spurr of Ground Equipment Supplies, who in conjunction with Delta Jets at Kemble, will investigate the continued civilian operations of these jets. The other airframe (XH134) is reportedly destined for Switzerland, though will operate from Kemble in the forseeable future.

Designed by E. W. 'Teddy' Petter, the prototype English Electric Canberra (VN799) first flew on 13 May 1949. 101 Squadron was the first RAF unit to receive the Canberra and it went on to become the first jet bomber squadron to fly wartime operations against Malayan terrorists. Short Brothers of Belfast were responsible for the design and construction of twenty-three Canberra PR9s between 1958 and 1962. The new design featured enlarged wingspan with extended chord, an off-set canopy and more powerful Rolls-Royce Avon 206 engines.

The prototype Canberra PR9 was, in fact, a much modified PR7 variant (WH793) with the construction being undertaken by Napier Ltd. The first Short Brothers-built PR9 was XH129, which first flew on 27 July 1959, but it crashed before reaching Royal Air Force service. The first aircraft reached 58 Squadron at RAF Wyton during February 1960.

Kemble's new inmates

To witness the historic final chapter in the long history of this much loved aircraft were several people with a long working relationship with it. Among those present to say a final farewell were some of my old friends from the Royal Radar Establishment (Ron Henry, Ron Blisset, Brian Kedward and Alan Wintle), all of whom had spent most, if not all, of their working lives with Canberras. Of special mention is 93 year-old Alan Wintle, who witnessed the prototype fly at Farnborough and went on to work on the very first production Canberras at the Royal Radar Establishment Defford in Worcestershire during 1951, even before the type had been introduced into squadron service.

Also present was Alan's son, Roger, who, along with Arthur Perks and Ron Blisset, own English Electric Canberra B(I)8 WT333 at Bruntingthorpe. This project is very much a labour of love and has seen what started off as an engineless hulk transformed into a pristine, taxiing example of this famous design.

So what is the future of this now famous trio residing in the heart of Gloucestershire? XH131 and XH135 are being held in external storage, but an air of intrigue surrounds XH134, which was very quickly towed into Kemble Aviation's hangar. Rumours suggest it will undertake contract work (aerial survey, etc.) and even be loaned back to the Royal Air Force. Time will tell.

Two future dates to put in your dairy are 27 August, when Canberra WT333 will be taxied at Bruntingthorpe and 10 September when Delta Jets celebrate its 10th anniversary at Kemble and some, if not all, of the Canberra PR9s will be on view. The end of an era? Maybe just not yet.

The Author wishes to thank Glen Moreman and all at Delta Jets for the facility provided on 31 July.


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