Cold War

English Electric Canberra – The Jet Age Icon

The English Electric Canberra, a groundbreaking high-altitude bomber developed by English Electric Company during the post-WWII era, left an indelible mark on aviation history.

This twin-engine, first-generation jet-powered aircraft played a pivotal role in several theatres of operation and has influenced the design of future combat aircraft. We delve into the comprehensive narrative of the Canberra’s history, design, and legacy.


The English Electric Company

The English Electric Company Limited was a British industrial manufacturer established during the early 20th century.

Founded in 1918, the company initially produced electrical equipment like alternators, electric motors, switchgear, and transformers.

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Over the years, it expanded its portfolio to include various types of electrical and electronic equipment for domestic and industrial use.

In the years following the Second World War, English Electric extended its reach into the defence and aerospace sectors, emerging as one of the primary British manufacturers of aircraft, guided weapons, radar equipment, and nuclear reactors.

English Electric were known for making appliances before branching out into aerospace.
English Electric was known for making appliances before branching out into aerospace.

One of its most well-known aircraft, the English Electric Canberra, was a first-generation jet-powered medium bomber and remained in service with the Royal Air Force (RAF) from the early 1950s to the late 1960s.

Another significant contribution to the aviation sector was the English Electric Lightning, a supersonic fighter aircraft that was the only all-British Mach 2 fighter aircraft.

In the late 1950s, the company ventured into the field of mainframe computers and produced the English Electric DEUCE—among the earliest commercially available digital computers.

A Lightning equipped with a Firestreak
EE also built the incredible Lightning

The English Electric Company underwent a series of mergers and acquisitions, one of which led to the creation of the General Electric Company (GEC) in the 1960s, a multinational conglomerate involved in consumer and defence electronics, and telecommunications.

English Electric’s aviation assets were eventually merged into the newly formed British Aircraft Corporation (BAC), which later became part of BAE Systems.

The company’s forte in the aeronautical sector began with the Canberra, which remains one of its most celebrated creations.

Design and Development

The English Electric Canberra was an iconic aircraft that reshaped post-World War II aviation.

Developed as a high-altitude, high-speed medium bomber, the Canberra not only represented a significant technological leap but also set the benchmark for future aircraft designs. This article aims to delve into the design and development of this noteworthy aircraft.

The roots of the Canberra can be traced back to the late 1940s.

The Air Ministry issued a specification, Air Ministry Specification B.3/45, for a high-altitude, high-speed bomber capable of carrying a significant bomb load to replace the ageing de Havilland Mosquito. English Electric took on this challenge, led by aircraft designer W.E.W. ‘Teddy’ Petter.

The prototype Canberra.
The prototype Canberra.

Petter’s design philosophy centered on the ‘perfection of simplicity’ and this was reflected in the Canberra’s design.

The aircraft featured a sleek, mid-wing layout with a circular cross-section fuselage and a distinctive T-tail design. The aircraft was designed to be powered by two Rolls-Royce Avon turbojet engines, housed in nacelles under the wings, to provide the necessary thrust for its high-speed, high-altitude performance.

The development process of the Canberra was largely smooth, in part due to the decision to use tried-and-tested systems and components where possible. The prototype Canberra, initially named the English Electric A.1, took its maiden flight on May 13, 1949, piloted by Roland Beamont.

The test flight proved successful, with the Canberra demonstrating excellent handling characteristics and performance.

During testing, the Canberra set several records, including reaching an altitude of 63,668 feet in 1951, a testament to its impressive high-altitude capabilities.

One of the defining features of the Canberra was its lack of defensive armament. The aircraft’s high-altitude and high-speed capabilities were seen as sufficient for evading enemy fighters, making traditional gun turrets unnecessary. This also allowed for a reduction in weight and a streamlined fuselage.

The prototype American B.57.
The prototype American B.57.

The Canberra featured a large, versatile bomb bay that could carry up to 8,000 lbs of conventional bombs, or for some variants, specialised photographic equipment for reconnaissance missions.

The Canberra B(I).8 variant even featured an internal rotating bomb bay, allowing for rapid salvo delivery of bombs.

The aircraft could accommodate a crew of three: a pilot, a navigator/bomb aimer, and a radio operator situated in the rear fuselage.

The design and development of the English Electric Canberra represented a quantum leap in the aviation industry.

RAF and USAF Operational Use

This aircraft served two of the world’s most powerful air forces – the Royal Air Force (RAF) of the United Kingdom and the United States Air Force (USAF).

The Canberra B.2, the primary variant, significantly enhanced the RAF’s bombing capabilities with its high-altitude, high-speed performance.

The aircraft saw extensive action during the Suez Crisis in 1956, where RAF Canberras conducted bombing missions against Egyptian airfields and other strategic targets. The aircraft’s capability to operate at high altitudes kept them largely safe from anti-aircraft fire, resulting in no losses during the operation.

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The Canberra also played a pivotal role during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) and subsequent Indonesian Confrontation (1963-1966), where it was used for bombing and photo-reconnaissance missions.

There were several photo recon versions of the Canberra. This one is PR.9.
There were several photo recon versions of the Canberra. This one is PR.9.

RAF Canberras were also used for nuclear weapon testing during Operation Grapple between 1956 and 1958.

A Canberra B.6 was used as a ‘sniffer’ aircraft, tasked with collecting air samples during the nuclear detonations to measure yield and other data.

The USAF procured the B-57 as an interim replacement for the ageing Douglas B-26 Invader during the Korean War.

Though the aircraft did not arrive in time for this conflict, it saw extensive service in the Vietnam War.

During the Vietnam War, the B-57 served in several roles, including interdiction bombing, close air support, night intruder and psychological warfare, while also dropping leaflets over North Vietnam.

The B-57G variant was notably used as a night interdiction bomber, equipped with state-of-the-art low-light TV and forward-looking infrared sensors to detect targets in darkness.

The B-57 also served in various other roles within the USAF and other agencies.

A B-57G.
A B-57G.


The Canberra B.2, the first major production variant, was the backbone of the RAF’s bomber fleet. It was designed to carry a bomb load of up to 6,000 pounds and was powered by two Rolls-Royce Avon RA.3 turbojets.

The B.2 variant served as the foundation for most subsequent models, with modifications and enhancements building upon its original blueprint.

The Canberra B.6 variant followed the B.2 and featured a slightly longer fuselage and uprated Avon 109 engines for improved performance.

A key alteration was the increased fuel capacity, which expanded the B.6’s operational range, making it a more versatile and effective strategic bomber.

Recognising the Canberra’s potential for reconnaissance missions, English Electric created the PR.3 and PR.7 variants.

America also used the B-57 for photo reconnaissance.
America also used the B-57 for photo reconnaissance.

These aircraft were fitted with various cameras and photographic equipment in the bomb bay. The fuselage’s length was increased, enabling longer flight duration and greater operational reach.

The PR variants became the RAF’s primary photo-reconnaissance aircraft during the 1950s and 1960s.

The Canberra B(I).8 was a significant transformation from its predecessors.

It was equipped with an internal bomb bay capable of rotating to allow a rapid salvo delivery of bombs. The fighter-style cockpit for the pilot was offset to the left, with the navigator seated to the right and slightly below the pilot.

The B.15 and B.16 were modified B.6 variants designed for tactical strike, fitted with underwing pylons to carry additional bombs or rockets and enhanced electronic countermeasures.

The Canberra T.4 was a dual-control training variant, which provided invaluable training for pilots transitioning to jet-powered flight.

A Canberra TT18 landing at RNAS Yeovilton. Photo credit - Rob Schleiffert CC BY-SA 2.0.
A Canberra TT18 landing at RNAS Yeovilton. Photo credit – Rob Schleiffert CC BY-SA 2.0.

The T.17, on the other hand, was a specialized electronic warfare variant, equipped with sophisticated electronic jamming equipment to disrupt enemy radar and communications.

Perhaps the most well-known variant outside the UK was the American B-57 Canberra.

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Manufactured by the Glenn L. Martin Company under a licensing agreement, the B-57 was a significant redesign with a larger fuselage, tandem seating, more powerful engines, and wing-mounted pods for additional fuel or weapons.

It served in various roles, including night intruder, tactical bomber, and electronic warfare.

A squadron of RAF Canberra.
A squadron of RAF Canberra.

The various Canberra variants, each fine-tuned to meet different mission requirements, truly underscore the aircraft’s versatility.

From bombing and ground attack to reconnaissance and electronic warfare, the Canberra could be configured to execute an array of roles with precision and efficacy.

Beyond its military applications, the Canberra has found an extended lease of life with NASA. NASA’s high-altitude WB-57F Canberras are used for high-altitude atmospheric research and satellite calibration missions.

NASA still use the Canberra today.
NASA still use the Canberra today.

The aircraft’s capability to reach high altitudes, coupled with its stability and endurance, makes it ideal for these roles. As of the mid-2020s, these are the only Canberras still flying.


The English Electric Canberra, with its distinctive silhouette, holds a special place in aviation history. As a high-altitude, high-speed bomber, it represented a quantum leap in technology when it was introduced.

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The Canberra’s longevity, versatility, and wide range of applications – from combat to reconnaissance to scientific research – is a testament to its groundbreaking design and capabilities.

Even as technology continues to evolve, the Canberra’s influence in aviation history remains an enduring legacy.

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  • Crew: 3
  • Length: 65 ft 6 in (19.96 m)
  • Wingspan: 64 ft 0 in (19.51 m)
  • Height: 15 ft 8 in (4.78 m)
  • Empty weight: 21,650 lb (9,820 kg)
  • Gross weight: 46,000 lb (20,865 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 55,000 lb (24,948 kg)
  • Powerplant: 2 × Rolls-Royce R.A.7 Avon Mk.109 turbojet engines, 7,400 lbf (33 kN) thrust each
  • Maximum speed: 580 mph (930 km/h, 500 kn) at 40,000 ft (12,192 m)
  • Combat range: 810 mi (1,300 km, 700 nmi)
  • Service ceiling: 48,000 ft (15,000 m)
  • Rate of climb: 3,400 ft/min (17 m/s)