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The Canberra has by far the longest career of any post war military aircraft, the first example flying in 1949, and was not retired from RAF service until 2006. Conceived as a light bomber relying on speed and altitude for protection in the tradition of the De Haviland Mosquito it was an immediate success, and like the Mosquito it proved remarkably amenable to modification to other roles.
The Canberra was designed by W.E.W. Petter to meet Air Ministry specification B3/45 which called for an aircraft capable of carrying the same bomb load as the Mosquito, (4000 lb’s), a range of 800 miles with a ceiling in excess of 30,000 ft. The resulting aircraft was of simple, yet innovative design with it’s three crew members accomodated in a pressure cabin located in the extreme nose. Almost all the aircraft systems were of WW2 technology with the exception of a tail warning radar known as “Orange Putter”. Infact compared to the American B47 six jet bomber which first flew two years earlier, the Canberra appeared overly conservative. Yet the Americans were to build 400 examples of the Canberra themselves, many of which were to remain in service for twenty five years, long after the last examples of the B47 were discarded. The secret of the Canberra’s success was a combination of low wing loading and lashings of excess power which gave the Canberra astonishing manouverability at low level and an altitude performance which no other contemporary aircraft could match. In addition to which the airframe was extremely rugged and low maintainence.
Upon entering service the Canberra set several world records, it was the first jet aeroplane to fly the Atlantic non stop, the first double crossing of the Atlantic and held the world altitude record on three occasions, finishing with a record of 70,319 ft. All told the Canberra held twenty point to point world records and five unofficial records. The ability of the Canberra to fly high for long distances led to its use in the first overflights of the Soviet Union carried out by the RAF on the behalf of the Pentagon.
Operational Requirement OR.302 resulted in specification B.122 for a low level intruder version of the Canberra. The resulting aircraft had an entirely new cockpit and fuselage ahead of section 12 with a fighter type canopy offset to port. A Boulton Paul ventral gun pack incorporating four 20mm cannon was fitted into the rear bomb bay whilst retaining the capacity to carry a clutch of three 1000lb bombs. There was also the ability to carry a 1000lb bomb or matra pod under each wing. The Canberra B(I)8 was to serve with four RAF squadrons in Germany.
The Canberra was a huge export success, the biggest customer proving to be the USAF which ordered over 400 examples to be built by Martin as the B57. As mentioned previously the B57 remained in service for twenty five years, infact serving in Vietnam alongside Canberra’s flown by the Royal Australian Air Force. During July 2006 39 Squadron disbanded, and its Canberra PR9’s retired. So ending a remarkable fifty five year operational career unmatched by any other aircraft.