By Willie Bodenstein

The English Electric Canberra's long career of service in the USAF (United States Air Force) started in 1950 at the start of the outbreak of the Korean War.

The USAF then operated the piston engine Douglas A-26 Invader in the interdiction role. The Invader that by then had almost reached the end of its service life had no all-weather capability and the USAF soon realised that it was not suitable for operation in the harsh terrain of the Korean peninsula. During September 1950 it issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a jet powered all weather bomber.

The RFP called for an aircraft with secondary reconnaissance role with a top speed of 630 mph (1,020 km/h) and a range of 1,150 miles (1,850 km). Because of the urgency of the requirement projects based on existing aircraft and contrary to normal USAF policy, foreign aircraft would be considered. Subsequently RFP's for the English Canberra and the Canadian Canuck were issued. The Canberra then was not yet in Royal Air Force (RAF) service.

Of the five proposals received three were rejected outright, two because their designs were considered to be outdated and the third, the Canuck, because it did not meet the range requirements and was considered to small. The fourth competitor was the Martin XB-51 that was much faster than that any of the three rejected outright. Although the Martin also had limited range and endurance and a small weapons bay it however had development potential and remained in the running. The fifth competitor was the English Electric Canberra.

The Canberra arrived in America on 21 September for evaluation. Flown by Roland Beamont it was the first nonstop unrefuelled flight across the Atlantic by a jet aircraft. Five days later it was engaged in a fly-off with XB-1 and was declared the clear winner and the contract for manufacturing it under licence was awarded to the Glenn L Martin Company. Construction was not without problems, the English tolerances did not suit American manufacturing techniques and redesigning of components delayed the first flight of the Martin B-57 as it was designated entering service with the USAF in 1954 where it became the first jet bomber to drop bombs during combat.

The Canberra underwent a metamorphous. The original Rolls-Royce Avon's were replaced by the more powerful Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire engines, the canopy was changed and the crew reduced from three to two. Wingtips tanks were added and the original WW II era clamshell bomb bay doors were replaced with modern low drag rotating doors. The Martin Company produced a total of 403 in various unique variants of the erstwhile Canberra.

Three airworthy high altitude reconnaissance WB-57F's were allocated to NASA and based at Johnson Space Centre, Ellington Field in Houston, Texas. Two were placed into service. Able to fly as high as 70,000 and fitted with the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node system (BACN) they were ideal platforms for high altitude research and as communication platforms were extensively deployed on missions during the Afghanistan War. The third NASA 927, was placed into long turn storage at Davis Monthan AFB where it stood for forty years, patiently waiting to be called up for duty.

N927 started life as a B-57B Martin built Canberra and served with the 13th Bomber Squadron in the USAF. She was one of several B57's that during 1964 were converted to B57-Fs and served as weather reconnaissance aircraft until she was finally retired. In 1974 she was moved to the Boneyard for long term storage or possible scrapping to be broken up after all her re-useable parts were scavenged. In 2011 the need for another B-57 F was identified and she was moved to Colorado by road where she was refurbished and in August 2013 her call was answered and she again entered service.

Costing countless millions of US dollars per year to operate and to be kept in airworthy condition the sixty year old now earns her keep as part of the NASA fleet being sub-contracted to various US Government departments and Institutions for amongst others task high altitude research. She was displayed during EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2014 where she drew large crowds as visitors flocked to admire the grand old lady with the incredible long wings.

Classic Aircraft

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