English Electric Canberra
High-Altitude Medium Bomber / Reconnaissance Aircraft
The record-setting English Electra Canberra progressed much as a medium-to-high altitude bomber - so much so that the U.S. ordered it as the B-57.
Authored By: Dan Alex | Last Edited:
The English Electric Canberra was a strike-minded, jet-powered medium bomber platform that made up Britain's critical bomber/reconnaissance squadrons of the 1950s and 1960s. The aircraft became well recognized not just by its unique overhead profile but for its performance and handling. It was widely exported to various UK-aligned forces around the world and saw considerable operational service into the 2000s. Largely out of service today (2014), some flyable forms still exist and others make up indoor museum exhibits or outdoor showpieces. The Canberra impressed American officials enough to order it as the locally-produced Martin B-57 (detailed elsewhere on this site).
In the latter war years of World War 2 (1939-1944), the British Air Ministry was already on the lookout for the eventual replacement for its classic, two-man, twin-engined de Havilland "Mosquito". The Mosquito was an outright success - known as the "Wooden Wonder" for its heavy use of wood in its construction - and served in the fast bomber role with distinction since its introduction in 1941. It became a classic British participant of World War 2 and saw production reach 7,781 units from 1940 to 1950. Such was the success of the line that it was further expanded to include dedicated night-fighter, photo-reconnaissance, and maritime strike types in short order. A requirement for a new high-speed bomber was arranged during 1944.
The English Electric concern held a long-running history in industry prior to aircraft building. It participated in the grand manufacturing phase of the Allies in World War 2 when it built Handley Page Hampden and Halifax bombers for the war effort. The company evolved its internal abilities by arranging an engineering team in 1945 to which the company's new design -attributed to William E.W. Petter - interested the Air Ministry for their outstanding B.3/45 requirement.
English Electric engineers devised a conventional and clean aircraft. Its crew would number three to spread the workload about and the cockpit was mounted well forward in the design. A largely tubular fuselage was used with mid-mounted mainplanes at the fuselage sides. The fuselage tapered at rear in the usual way and was capped by a single vertical tail fin. The horizontal planes were low-set along the tail section sides. The wheeled undercarriage was fully retractable and of a tricycle arrangement using two main legs and a nose leg. Engines were held away from the fuselage in streamlined cylindrical nacelles integrated into the design lines of the wing units, aspirating at the leading edge and exhausting at the trailing edge. The main wing assemblies were straight in their general design and not swept back. They also tapered while nearing the clipped tip edges to give the aircraft a very noticeable and defined planform.
Physical work on bringing the new large aircraft to life began in 1946 - well after World War 2 has ended in September of 1945. The massive military drawdown that followed the conflict meant that progress on the English Electric design would be slow and a first flight was therefore not recorded until May 13th, 1949 and, from this, the product proved itself a very sound aircraft with little in the way of changes required to finalize the design. Engines were upgraded for more power, fuel tanks added under the wingtips for improved range, and a glazed over nosecone introduced to replace the delayed H2S Mk.9 bombing system originally intended. The aircraft received the name of "Canberra" in 1950 to honor the Australian capital - the Australians having committed to purchase of the aircraft still in development.
Such was the success of the test and evaluation phase that the Canberra was placed into serial production quickly. First units were formed with No. 101 Squadron in May of 1951, beginning the long and illustrious career of this fine British bomber development. It eventually stocked no fewer than 61 RAF squadrons with procurement reaching 782 units. Australia operated 58 Canberras through six squadrons of its own. Other operators became Chile, Ecuador, Ethiopia, France, India, New Zealand, Peru, South Africa, Sweden, Venezuela, West Germany, and Zimbabwe (Rhodesia). The United States took on two forms for its development of the locally-produced, though largely similar, Martin B-57 Canberra variant. By the numbers alone, and coupled with excellent performance, the Canberra became a Cold War success story.
In practice, the Canberra proved a fast mount for its size, able to clock a maximum speed of 580 miles per hour. This quality allowed it to outrun the early jets that would be charged with intercepting her. With such speed, no defensive armament was required in the way of complicated rear-facing turrets or cannon. Combat radius measured 810 miles with a ferry range of 3,380 miles giving the aircraft a sound reach. Rate-of-climb was 3,400 feet per second. Power was from the Rolls-Royce Avon family of turbojet engines and developed upwards of 7,400lsb of thrust each depending on variant.
As a bomber design, the Canberra originally supported ordnance through an internal bomb bay. Only later marks introduced underwing hardpoints, a 4 x cannon ventral gunpack, and support for rocket pods. Missiles were eventually added to the capabilities as technology allowed. Special Canberra marks were also cleared for the carrying and dropping of nuclear payloads. When carrying the gunpack, the Canberra featured 4 x 20mm Hispano Mk.V cannons and each gun afforded 500 rounds of ammunition. Some forms included 2 x 7.62mm machine gun pods in place of the cannons. With its internal and external hauling capabilities, the Canberra eventually featured an ordnance-carrying load possibility of 8,000lbs.
Structurally, the Canberra featured a nose-to-tail length of 19.9 meters with a wingspan of 19.5 meters and height of 4.7 meters. Empty weight was 9,820kg with a Maximum Take-Off Weight nearing 24,950kg. Its crew numbered three and including the pilot, a bombardier, and navigator seated within the fuselage and aft of the pilot's position.
Canberra variants eventually proved numerous. Initial non-Canberra-named aircraft were designated simply as "A.1"by English Electric and numbered four examples. These then saw their name changed to Canberra B.Mk 1 and were followed by 418 examples of the initial B.Mk 2 production model. The PR.Mk.3 became a dedicated photo-reconnaissance mount with lengthened fuselage, camera equipment, a crew of two, and service entry in 1953. Three-man dual-control trainer versions appeared as the T.Mk 4. Trainers for New Zealand were the T.Mk 13 and came from a single new-build model and a converted T.Mk 4 product. A four-man air-intercept trainer platform emerged as the T.Mk 11 and built as nine converted B.Mk.2 models. The T.Mk 17 was used in training Airborne Early Warning (AEW) personnel. The T.Mk 17A was its upgraded model.
The B.Mk 5 was a one-off development for an improved Canberra form. Wet wings were introduced and the Rolls-Royce Avon R.A.7 turbojet of 7,490lbs thrust powered the type. This model influenced the upcoming B.Mk.6 production models with lengthened fuselage and this mark was both retained locally and exported to foreign customers. The mark spawned the long-nose ELINT (ELectronic INTelligence) B.Mk.6(RC) variant used as a Radio Countermeasures platform. Four of this mark were built. The B(I).Mk.8 was a bridge model based on the B.Mk.6 production mark and intended as an interdictor attack frame. It fitted an optional four-cannon ventral gunpack and added underwing hardpoints for external munitions support while retaining its internal bomb bay capabilities and a new fighter-style tear-drop canopy was fitted over the cockpit - which was now offset to portside. Twenty-two of the type were produced. The PR.Mk 7 became an improved, longer-range photo-reconnaissance variant based on the B.Mk 6 bomber form, fitted the requisite camera equipment, and installed more powerful Rolls-Royce Avon 109 series turbojets. 74 of this mark were completed.
The B(I).Mk.8 was another advanced strike form and based on the B.Mk.6 model. A revised canopy fitting improved vision out-of-the-cockpit as did an all-new forward fuselage section redesign. The navigator was relocated from behind the pilot to ahead of his position for improved service. Support for the four-cannon ventral gunpack was standard as were the underwing hardpoints. 72 were manufactured. New Zealand and South African exports were B(I).Mk 12.
The PR.Mk.9 was another of the photo-reconnaissance marks complete with camera equipment. It was given a lengthened fuselage and wider wingspan as well as the Rolls-Royce Avon 206 series engines of 10,030lbs thrust each for improved performance. 23 were produced.
The B.Mk 15 was a streamlined Canberra when the British commitment in the Far East began. These were B.Mk 6 bomber models with strengthened underwing hardpoints managing up to 1,000lbs of stores each and capable of supporting air-launched rockets or conventional drop bombs. The aircraft were also given an updated avionics package and could be used in the photo-reconnaissance role thanks to the standardized installation of camera equipment. 39 B.Mk 6 airframes were upgraded to the new standard. Some 19 airframes were similarly converted as the B.Mk 16 and shipped for service as deterrent units in West Germany.
As with other far-reaching jet programs of the Cold War, it was inevitable that the Canberra series also retired action, expiring airframes for the remote-controlled target drone role. This begat the U.Mk 10 designation and numbered 18 conversions from B.Mk 2 production models. The Royal Navy followed suit and added the U.Mk 14 (D14) designation. Six conversions followed. The TT.Mk 18 began a Royal Navy target tug based on the B.Mk 2 bomber models and 22 conversions were seen.
Many Canberra forms were converted as one-off models for various customers and others simply for testing purposes. Canberras were eventually superseded by the more modern Vickers Valiant of 1955 in RAF service for these aircraft carried greater ordnance loads than previously possible and at much longer ranges. The Canberra was relegated to a direct attack role from this point forwards which led to the introduction of the ventral gunpack and support for rocket-launching on later production models. Reconnaissance ventures ultimately extended the service life of the aircraft for a time longer.
Australian, British, and New Zealand Canberras saw combat service in the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) while Australian mounts saw further service in the Vietnam War (1955-1975). Australian versions were then replaced by the General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark swing-wing fighter-bomber. Both the Indian Air Force and Pakistani Air Force used the Canberra during the Indo-Pak Wars (1965, 1971, 1999). Canberras made up a large contingent of Indian bomber groups during the conflicts, though the aircraft line eventually given up for good in 2007.
British use of the Canberra included the Suez Crisis (1956) and the aircraft was nearly fielded in secrecy during the Falklands War (1982) against Argentina. Interestingly, Argentina was an operator by way of its purchase of ten ex-RAF Canberra platforms back in 1967. Operational service led Canberras (in their reconnaissance forms) to serve in the Bosnian War (1992-1995). Royal Air Force use of Canberras ended relatively recently in 2006.
During its time aloft, the Canberra was also the subject of several notable flight records including the first jet-powered, non-stop transatlantic flight (1951) and world altitude records in 1953 (63,668 feet), 1955 (65,889 feet), and 1957 (70,310 feet).