Written 1998

Canberra B2/B6
G-BVWCJohn Dibbs      


Over the past five years the Airshow scene has started to change with more and more privately owned jets being operated on the circuit.  In the past the Military have provided the majority of the jet attractions at our much loved airshows.  However, with less and less Military involvement the day of the private 'military' jet has arrived.  The 'military' jet has become more accessible to the private owner and with the new Civil Aviation Authority regulations their operation is well regulated and disciplined.  Indeed, in many cases the amount of tender loving care they get would be gratefully accepted by their owners' loved ones.

But why has the private jet become so fashionable?  Yes, they are relatively affordable, even if at times expensive to run, but that does not fully answer the question.  One reason offered is that there is a large proportion of the airshow public that has worked on, or flown, these new 'classics'.  These people want to reminisce, discuss past adventures and to some extent relive the 'good old days'.

One such nostalgic jet is the English Electric Canberra, the heaviest ex-military combat aircraft on the British Civil Register.  It is a graceful jet that is dripping with history; it is big and has been operational in a good number of the world's airforces for almost 50 years.  No wonder so many people feel an affection for the aircraft.  When speaking with people at airshows you find many have travelled for miles, even from other countries, to see a 'cult' Canberra fly.  Although the RAF still operate a small number of Canberras there is only one regularly flying Canberra in this country.


WK163  (back to top)

Classic Aviation Projects Limited, operating from the former USAF base at Bruntingthorpe in Leicestershire, was the brain-child of aviation enthusiasts Peter and Frances Gill.  They bought three Canberras from the MOD at auction.  Initially, Canberra XH568 (a B6, G-BVIC) was bought in July 1993, closely followed by WK163 (a B2/B6 hybrid, G-BVWC) and WT333 (initially, a B(1)8 but now a B6 MOD).  This article discusses WK163 (at present the only one of the three on flying insurance) a very famous Canberra that for 43 years has been making its own history; it is a unique aircraft in that it is the only 'absolute' recorder breaker in flying condition anywhere in the world.  Built by A.V. Roe at Woodford in 1954, as a 'B2' variant, it was commissioned on 28 January 1955 before being passed to Armstrong Siddeley at Bitteswell for Sapphire SA7 trials.  It soon became the Napier Double Scorpion Rocket Motor Flying Test Bed (this is the colour scheme that the aircraft presently sports).  During these trials, on 28 August 1957, the aircraft broke the world altitude record by flying at 70 310 feet.  The pilot on the day was Mike Randrup and his flight observer was Walter Shirley.

WK163 continued its test career at Bristol Siddeley Filton developing a 'short-life' Viper variant engine.  In 1958, at Pershore, the aircraft was converted to a B2/B6 hybrid, with B6 wings and engines.  It was also fitted with a hybrid nose to be used for radar research.  In July 1976 WK163 was the first Radar Research Flying Unit (RRFU) Canberra to be flown to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Bedford, Thurleigh.  This is where my association with the aircraft began, albeit not until January 1993.  During its time at RAE (later renamed DRA) Bedford the aircraft was involved with many trials, developing advanced systems for the military front-line aircraft.  In its lifetime the aircraft has only flown just over 2600 hours - very few hours for a Canberra.


AN IDEAL TEST MACHINE  (back to top)

The success of the Canberra as a Research aircraft over the years was a testament to the original design.  It had all the important qualities needed of a test aircraft.  It was very large and could carrying vast amounts of test equipment about its fuselage.  It also had an enormous bomb bay capable of carrying more test equipment that could be fitted and removed quickly; it could also be opened in flight if the tests required it.  But perhaps the biggest test advantage of the aircraft was its very extensive flight envelope: it could fly at 110 knots without flap or at 450 knots; it could fly at 50 feet or 60 000 feet (something a Tornado would be proud to do) and all of this while flying for five hours with ease.  This gave it the ability to be used for present-day fast-jet research but with the advantage that it could carry the normal fast-jet crew (a pilot and a navigator) as well as a scientist to perform the research experiments.

The cockpit was simple and the aircraft was a delight to fly even if the fuel system needed some getting used to! - there was no automatic transfer of fuel and the pilot needed to keep a close eye on this to ensure the correct 'balance'.  It was possible to use all the fuel out of the forward tanks which would cause the aircraft to sit on its tail if landed in that condition.  The aircraft did have one vice - asymmetrics.  'Engine out' the aircraft can be a real handful and even a killer.  The test world tried to minimize the danger by operating the aircraft faster than the minimum speeds during take-off and landing and also by rarely flying at the maximum take-off weight.  This allowed for a thrust reduction on take-off should an engine fail at the critical moment and controllability be in doubt.  Using these precautions the aircraft was without doubt one of the most successful research platforms.  Even today there are few, if any, aircraft that are so well suited to the test world with such a large flight envelope.


THE LAST FEW YEARS  (back to top)

Thankfully, such a unique machine has not suffered the same fate as have so many historic aircraft - being turned into scrap.  When the Defence Research Agency (DRA) site at Bedford closed for flying in March 1994, the aircraft was moved to DRA Farnborough to be stripped of its internal research equipment.  After it was bought by Classic Aviation Projects Limited they spent 14 weeks making it airworthy to fly again.  It was put on the Civil Register, with registration G-BVWC, on 2 December 1994, before being delivered to its new home at Bruntingthorpe in January 1995.  At Bruntingthorpe only essential maintenance was carried out on the aircraft with XH568 being flown on the airshow scene.  However, by December 1996 WK163 was almost ready to be ferried to RAF Wyton near Huntingdon to be brought fully up to flying condition.  This was duly done on 7 March 1997.  Once at Wyton the aircraft was painstakingly restored to its former glory as a World Altitude Record Holder; a thorough maintenance overhaul was completed under CAA regulations and approvals.  The Tornado trials nose was removed and a standard bomber, clear perspex, nose was fitted in its place (not an easy job, 148 nuts and bolts and countless rivets hold the nose in place).  To conclude the restoration the aircraft was painted in the original silver colour scheme, complete with a red scorpion on the nose.  After many, many hours of work, and the help of several manufacturers and companies the aircraft was completed in time for its first airshow of the season at Duxford on 4 June 1997.  Unfortunately, the season has not brought as many airshows as the Team would have liked.  The aircraft is now back at Bruntingthorpe ready for next year's display season.


THE DISPLAY  (back to top)

The Canberra is the jet equivalent of the Grumman Avenger.  It is big, it can be noisy, it can be fast, but it can also be quiet and slow - but it is never out of sight!  The cartridge starting system adds smoke and noise to the start of the display along with the sound of two Avon engines producing 7400 pounds of thrust each.  Once airborne the display is a combination of high-speed and slow-speed manoeuvres, to show off the aircraft's best qualities - speed and agility.  It has a very impressive turning circle, which combined with its large size (64 feet span, 65 feet 6 inches long and 15 feet 7 inches high) and enormous power, gives a tight close display with lots of good profile shots.  In fact, the aircraft is so powerful and 'slippery' that the power has to be constantly varied to stop the aircraft 'running away' from you.  The stick forces throughout are predictably high and because of the large weight of the aircraft the inertia has to be carefully managed, particularly when the nose is pointing earthwards, to prevent a dangerous situation from developing.  Although the aircraft is not fully aerobatic it comes close; indeed, there are rumours that while in Service the Canberra has even been barrel rolled!!  The bomb bay can be opened in flight to give that picture with a difference (it is also an ideal place to put a sponsor's message!!).  Because of the aircraft's impressive speed range it can also fly formation with the majority of Airshow aircraft and looks great in formation with other 'classic' jets (two Hunters for example).  Add all of these qualities to the growing 'cult' nature of the Canberra and you have the complete airshow act.


THE TEAM  (back to top)

It should be emphasized that this has been a project completed not by wealthy people but by a group of enthusiasts that have a love of Canberras and a desire to keep them flying.  Many of the Team work for free and are the same people that worked on the aircraft when it was at DRA Bedford - that is the sort of following the Canberra commands.  The engineers, all ex-RAF or ex-RAE/DRA, have many years' experience on the Canberra; they are led by ex-Chief Tech Roger Joy (39 & 100 Sqns) and included engine fitters - Chris Cowden (RAE) and Ian Slater (100 Sqn), armourer - Mark Burdett (RAF & RAE), airframes - Stewart Ross (13 & 39 Sqns) and avionics - Peter Gill as well as many others that give their help and support.  The flying Team includes: pilots - myself (DRA), Dave Piper (100 Sqn & 360 Sqn) and Andy Rake (100 Sqn) and not to forget the navigators - Tony 'Dusty' Miller (31, 360, 13, 39, 51, 231 Operational Conversion Unit, 1 Photo Recce Unit (PRU), RAE/DRA), Matt Farley-Wood (1 PRU & 100 Sqn) and Ken Delve (39 Sqn).


TOO GOOD TO LOSE  (back to top)

In common with other historic projects the Canberra Team are in need of support and money.  This support may come in the form of sponsorship or donations or merely by event organizers booking the aircraft for their airshows.  If you wish to help, contact Stewart Ross, Operations Manager, on 01487 830781 or mobile 0831 634426.  Lets hope this classic jet continues to thrill us in the future.  Who knows, maybe for another 43 years!