English Electric Canberra: Britain's First Active Service Jet Bomber

In 1944, a company by the name of English Electric responded to a request from the British Air Ministry who made it known that they were looking for a successor to the de Havilland Mosquito. Essentially there was a need for an aircraft that could give new meaning to "high" and "fast"! meaning something with advanced high-altitude bombing capability, and an aircraft that could achieve a high cruise speed. It was clear that jet performance was the technology to embrace. Propeller aircraft were still finding quite astonishing achievements, but as the sun set on the turbulent era of the 1940's, a new dawn was coming... the dawn of the jet era.

AvBuyer  |  06th February 2024
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    One of the last flying Canberra. It is a  highly modified air

    Initial design sticking points was not only engine choice, but where to mount them. Once settled on a two engine concept, ideas progressed from a wing root installation to a mid-wing fixture, this followed a number of technical evaluations that identified there were gains to be found with centre of gravity calculations, not to mention some weight savings overall, with the engines located in what became the final position. 

    The maintenance teams of the future would surely have wanted to thank the designers due to the improved accessibility for engine servicing and troubleshooting, however some pilots might have preferred powerplants further inboard due to the increased asymmetric flight behaviour in the event of single engine operation (i.e. losing an engine in flight thereby relying on the other engine to provide sufficient thrust. The further outboard the provision of single engine performance was delivered, the more the pilot had to deal with yaw control issues). 

    Another design point that almost certainly caused some debate was whether to provide any defensive armament to the aircraft. By not having it, aircraft performance could be optimized to such an extent the aircraft probably wouldn't even engage with the slower / lower fighters of the time. Although some later models did include armament modification, the designer’s initial approach for the best form of defence was simply; stay out of reach! 

    By early 1946, English Electric could demonstrate (on paper) their design theory and could sufficiently forecast their proposed figures in aircraft performance and payload capability, so an initial order was placed for four aircraft. Work hastily got underway but several speedbumps in production disrupted the schedule. Following the welcomed end of WWII, many cutbacks in funding were inevitable throughout multiple industries, of which several third party suppliers caused English Electric to have to modify and tweak their original drawings. 

    “Bee” at the controls!

    However, despite a few setbacks, British determination and perseverance carried the production team through far enough to roll an aircraft out the door and see it take flight. This prototype, the "English Electric A.1" took to the sky on May 13th 1949 (Friday the 13th no less!) under the control of Wing Commander Roland "Bee" Beamont; a highly decorated fighter pilot of the Royal Air Force and a highly skilled test pilot both during and post WWII. Indeed, he achieved much recognition when he exceeded Mach 1 and later Mach 2 (in level flight) in another astonishing aircraft; the English Electric Lightning. 

    The prototypes that followed the first aircraft all performed well, each encompassing a few changes in development thanks to Beamont's thorough flight testing. The engines were finalised as Rolls-Royce axial flow Avon engines, each producing some 6,500 lbs of thrust. The aircraft handling was reported to be superb. Indeed, Beamont displayed the aircraft at the 1949 Farnborough air show to an applauding crowd and highly impressed watching industry. With no air brakes fitted, Beamont showed his party trick of cycling the bomb bay doors to slow the aircraft down during the display. 

    English Electric went on to receive firm orders for 132 aircraft and by the time 1951 appeared on the calendar, Baumont was at the controls again to sign off the first production aircraft for delivery to the RAF (101 Squadron). The aircraft had also now been officially named the ‘Canberra’ during a ceremony at Biggin Hill and named after Australia's capital city following their order which made them the first overseas customer. 

    As the Korean War unfolded and once more conflict required air superiority, production of the Canberra needed to respond to an increase in orders, so agreed ‘under licence’ production via Avro, Handley Page and Short Brothers was approved, and to further meet an order of over 400 aircraft to the United States Air Force, US manufacturer Martin was appointed to build what become known as the B-57. The Royal Australian Air Force also commissioned an Australian built airframe. When all overseas production numbers were totalled, along with the collective UK production force, over 1,350 Canberra's had been built. 

      Britain's first active service jet bomber… had firmly arrived! ”

    Whilst the aircraft was designed as a high altitude bomber (with a payload of some 8,000 lbs), thanks to its high service ceiling and high speed, which for many years was unmatched by any other aircraft, it also found success in the role of photo reconnaissance and a number of aircraft were converted for this role until replaced by the Lockheed U-2. 

    The aircraft was eventually withdrawn from RAF service as recently as 2006! Three Canberra’s built by Martin are still in service today and are operated by NASA for meteorological and high altitude research missions. 

    Setting the record 

    The Canberra achieved not just many milestone moments in its military service history, but also in the world of aviation in general. Early in the year 1951, the aircraft crossed the great pond (Atlantic) in a record breaking 4 hrs and 18 min (Aldergrove, Northern Ireland to Gander, Newfoundland). The year after, Beamont himself must have left something in the office for having made one westbound Atlantic crossing he turned right back around and headed back east again, this being the first 'double Atlantic' crossing ever recorded. Beaumont and his prototype Canberra clocked a return time of just 10 hours 3 minutes, getting him back to base still in time for tea. Not a bad day out in anyone’s book! 

    In 1953 the Canberra convincingly demonstrated its abilities once more by winning the London to Christchurch Air Race; the clock stopped in 23 hours 51 minutes. A record that still holds today! But it wasn’t just speed that was turning heads, it was altitude too, for in 1957, with the help of some rocket engines installed, the aircraft set a new altitude record (beating its own previous record) reaching a staggering 70,310 ft! Bear in mind this is only 1957! yet here were pilots regularly flying over 60,000 ft; high enough to observe the actual curvature of the earth. Incredible! 

    Over half a century of service 

    The game changing English Electric Canberra was the RAF’s first jet powered bomber. Here was an aircraft that set one record after another and was well known for its exceptional handling qualities. 

    The Canberra certainly withstood the test of time given it’s long and far-reaching military service record which spanned over half a century! and indeed it’s an aircraft that should certainly be considered as iconic and something that it’s designers, engineering teams and its chief test pilot should feel did them proud.

    English Electric Canberra

    Wingspan: 19.5 m
    MGW: 22,680 kg
    Powerplant: Rolls Royce Avon, 6,500 lbs of thrust each (original spec)
    VNE: 570 mph
    Cruise speed: 440 mph
    Service ceiling: 48,000 ft (standard production)

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