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The Canberras

The Canberra was originally designed to replace the world's last wooden combat aircraft, the DeHavil Mosquito Bomber. In March of 1945, the RAF drew up the specs for a jet replacement for the famous light bomber. The Mosquitos had done well enough during the war, but the advent of the jet engine clearly rendered them obsolescent. Besides, the design had posed certain difficulties. Not least was the tendency of the plywood bomber to come unglued - literally! - in tropical bases. This happened to the men, of course, but when it happened to the machines, changes clearly were in order.

There was no immediate response to the RAF specification. By March of 1945, it was evident that a new design could not be put into production by the end of the war, so attention focused on current production.

The immediate post-war years involved little urgency in aircraft design and production. Aircraft manufacturers began acquiring a lean and hungry look. Among the leanest and hungriest was the English Electric Company, which had existed for years by producing other companies' types. In fact, it hadn't designed an aircraft itself since the 1920s. Nonetheless, with contracts terribly scarce in the post-war years, English Electric decided to try for the replacement of the Mosquito, and on 13 May 1949 , the first flight of their design, the " Canberra ," took place. In design, it was heavily indebted to the first British Jet fighter, the DeHaviland Comet. In part, though, it was very much the child of the MOSQUITO bomber it was intended to replace. First, it was light, fast and highly maneuverable - the classic MOSQUITO characteristics. Second, it had good range for a medium bomber. Third, it could take off and land in a remarkably short field. It could, in fact, climb on one engine.

All in all, it was a well-designed aircraft, and met with much-deserved commercial success. Within months, four firms were involved in Canberra production, and many of the commonwealth air forces were expressing an interest. Here it must be pointed out that the timing was perfect. The first Canberra flew at the end of the Berlin Blockade, and operational production ( 8 October 1950 ) was just after the outbreak of the Korean War. When the big aircraft orders of the Korean conflict were placed, there were already factories tooled up to produce the Canberra .

It was Korea that brought the Canberra to the USAF. The war had caught the Air Force preparing for a strategic nuclear exchange, and not really oriented toward tactical support, especially night interdiction. The primary aircraft for such a mission was the old B-26, a World War II veteran, clearly not up to another war. Besides, they were long out of production, and the inventory was being seriously depleted. A new aircraft for the night interdiction mission would have to be found.

With the war already in progress, there was no time to produce one from scratch. An existing aircraft would have to be used for the job.

The problem was that there were no night interdiction aircraft then in production or even at the prototype stage. The Air Force assembled everything that might be converted to the role, and surveyed the field:

The North American AJI "Savage" was already in use with the Navy as an early strategic nuclear bomber, but it was still in prop-driven aircraft. STOL characteristics were excellent, of course - had to be for the Navy - but the type seemed to be about at the end of its design potential with the improved A2J1, and it was still too vulnerable to ground fire and carried too small a bomb load. It lacked both armament and armor, and adding them could only have been at the expense of the already limited bomb load.

The North American B-45 "Tornado" was already in service with TAC. Indeed, it was the oldest design in the competition, having first flown in March 1947. It was, basically, a jet version of a World War II medium bomber, and lacked maneuverability at low altitudes. It was used as a reconnaissance aircraft in Korea , and took casualties so high that it never employed there as a bomber.

The Martin XB-51, formerly the A-45 (the Air Force had dropped the A-series designations) was the only competitor not already in production. The investigating Air Force officers were favorably impressed by much of the XB-51, but it required the longest runway of any of the planes considered, and it didn't have the range of endurance that the Air Force asked of the night bomber.

That left the English Electric Canberra, and long before the official fly-off in February 1951, it was evident that the Canberra would be the Air Force's choice. Its range, speed, bomb load and handling characteristics clearly suited it for the night interdiction role.

There were still difficulties, though. The Air Force wanted several (actually several dozen) changes, and adoption of an English design meant British measurement parts and virtually a separate supply system for Canberra units. Further, all the English factories were tied up with British and Commonwealth contracts.

Ultimately what the United States bought was two Canberras and permission to manufacture them in the United States . The American contract went to Martin, whose SB-51 had been runner-up in the competition. What they produced--the B-57-was more a new design based on the Canberra than anything else.

First, it had been changed to American-measurement parts. Other changes of a technical nature had been made to suit the plane for American mass production. Then changes were made to satisfy the Air Force. The wheels changed, and the Rolls-Royce Avon Saphire engines of the original were exchanged for Buick J-56s. Armament was added, where the British Canberras had always relied on their speed for their protection.

Naturally, few planes are produced without further modification, and the B-57 was no exception. There were 5 production types, lettered A through F. The "A" model was closest to the British original, and a dream to handle as pilots recalled later on. The "B" model was much the same with a new speed braking system and a new cockpit and canopy design. (The American two men in tandem cockpit is the easiest quick way of telling American Canberras from the three-man crews in the British ones.) The "C" model was a trainer, with dual controls. The "E" model was given target-towing equipment, and used for general utility work. The RB-57D was the forerunner to the U-2 at high altitude reconnaissance. Two other series (G & F) would be created be rebuilding of the existing aircraft into high-altitude high-speed reconnaissance aircraft (RB-57F) and electronics-packed night interdiction (B-57G). Sooner or later, the men of the 117th would fly and service most of them.

In time, though, the production of the B-57 was just plain awkward. By the time Martin had series-production B-57s coming off the assembly lines, the Korean War was over. By the time the whole fleet had been produced, the Air Force was again facing reductions in strength. Both the need for medium bombers and the budget to support them had decreased. On the other hand, a different mission clearly needed additional support. Photoreconnaissance was a possible mission for Canaberras from the beginning - it had been a requirement in the initial selection that the medium bomber chosen have some capacity for such a roll - but the need was clearly increasing with Russian nuclear capability. A need was developed for aircraft to survey bomb damage in the United States in the event of a nuclear exchange.

This being a strictly wartime and strictly local function, there was no point in budgeting such units from the limited resources of the regular Air Force. They could be performed just as well by members of the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve. This was where the 117th came into the picture. It was clearly due to be reequipped. It was located at a base unlikely to be priority target for a Russian first strike, and it was located more or less centrally for reconnaissance over a large part of the central United States. Soon a decision was reached: B-57s from demobilized Bomb Squadrons would be reworked in RB-57s and assigned to various Guard and Reserve units, among them the 117th Fighter-Interceptor, soon to be renamed the 117th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron.