After we’d had a good look around inside the three hangars we decided to take a look outside. This was one of the first aircraft we came across. It has particular significance for me as it was the first jet aircraft I ever flew in. At the time I was a bit disappointed. By then (around 1969 I think) the English Electric Canberra seemed to me to be really old – about 17 years old (the same age as I was) and I’d been hoping to fly in one of the more modern jets (in retrospect I realize that, other than the Harrier, there weren’t any more modern British jets. I guess it was more that I wanted to fly in a fighter aircraft than a, to me, old bomber). I didn’t realize until much later just what a remarkable aircraft the Canberra is (I say ‘is’ because as you’ll read below NASA still flies two of them).

According to the Museum’s website (which also provides technical specifications):

Courtesy of the National Museum of the United States Air Force

During the Korean War, the U.S. Air Force wanted a jet-powered tactical bomber replacement for the piston-powered Douglas A-26/B-26 Invader. In order to expedite the process, the Air Force placed an order with English Electric for the British “Canberra.” But due to the fact that plane production for RAF took precedence, the Air Force then contracted with the Martin Company to build the Canberra under license making the this one of the few foreign aircraft designs adopted for operational use by the United States. Two Canberras were purchased from English Electric for Martin for evaluation. Martin made several modifications to the British design and replaced the Rolls Royce Avon engines with more powerful Wright J-65 turbojets.

The B-57A made its first flight in July, 1953 and by the time production ended in 1959, 403 of all versions were built. It adapted readily to various roles including testing the unusual Low Altitude Bombing System (LABS), or “toss bombing,” for nuclear weapons. Despite its initial World War II technology, B-57’s served with distinction with the USAF for more than three decades. Planned to be retired in the late 1950’s, a series of crises keep the Canberra in the Air Force inventory, including service throughout the Vietnam War, up to 1983.

While only eight B-57A bombers were made, the Museum’s Canberra is one of 67 photo reconnaissance RB-57A versions built with cameras installed aft of the bomb bay. After the RB-57A was replaced in the USAF by 1958, several planes were converted to EB-57A versions with electronic countermeasure equipment to act as aggressors against North American Air Defense Command radar detection sites to train the air defense units to detect electronic warfare threats. Most of the RB-57A’s transferred to Air National Guard units and were used for photographic surveys of the United States until 1971.

Two WB-57F’s still fly today with NASA for weather and environmental study nearly 60 years after the plane first flew. The plane was chosen for its high-altitude and all-weather capabilities, ability to fly day and night, and its 2,500 mile range.

Taken with a Sony RX-100 M3.

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