Damien Burke was at Marham to welcome home the last operational Canberras of the RAF
September last year saw the last RAF flight of the Canberra T4; another step in the advancing retirement plans of the faithful Canberra force was made on 23 June 2006 when two PR9s returned from their last ever overseas deployment.
First flown in 1949, the Canberra entered service with the RAF in 1951, and the PR9 has been a valuable asset since 1958. Few types can match the Canberra's fifty-five years of constant service, and it looks increasingly like the Canberra will have a successor... but certainly not a replacement.
Arriving over Marham in an impressively tight (and low!) formation with a pair of Tornados alongside, Canberras XH131 and XH135 certainly came home in style. With the RAF understandably tight-lipped on what they'd been up to, both aircraft wore temporary grey schemes over their usual hemp colour scheme, and looked well-worn. In striking contrast, the only other remaining PR9 - XH134 - wore its normal hemp scheme with striking artwork covering the entire fin. Made up of the winged bomb of 39 Squadron plus the squadron badges of other operators of the type, it is a stylish and understated piece of work - much like the aircraft itself.
2005 and 2006 have not been good years for those of us enthused about British aviation - it seems the Canberra and 39 Squadron are just the latest in a long line of retiring types or disbanding squadrons. So, occasions such as this last return from operational flying are always bittersweet. There is always some levity - the eternal battle between TV crews and still photographers usually raises a grin - and Marham did not disappoint here. Particularly memorable was a Canberra navigator's response to the question "Will you miss flying the Canberra?"... "God no!" comes the emphatic response, as the shocked interviewer realises that a guy stuck in a little cramped space in the nose for the last three hours is probably only too happy to be standing in the sun for a bit!
The crews returning the aircraft to Blighty for the last time were pilots Flight Lieutenants Ronnie Fairbrother and Mike Leckey and navigators Squadron Leader Winny Winwright and Flight Lieutenant Colin "Deep Fat" Fryer. Posing for group photos after three hours in the saddle, it was remarkable how long they lasted before the exclamation "Bored now!" rang out across the tarmac.
The aircrew and engineers on 39 are fond of their charges, but realistic about the retirement. Yes, they could go on and serve for some time yet, but life is getting harder and harder for the old girls with spares ever more difficult to source. Some Squadron personnel will retire along with the PR9s (notably the RAF's oldest pilot - Squadron Leader Terry Cairns, bailing out early at mere 61 years of age); others will move on to desk jobs, and a few to other squadrons and aircraft types. 39 Squadron (1 PRU) will disband and fly their final sortie on 28 July, with the Squadron standard to be laid up in St. Clement Danes Church on the Strand. Before then the public will have their last chance to say goodbye to the type at the Waddington and RIAT airshows, where one is expected to take part in the flying display with another on static display. This display is to include some of the reconnaissance equipment that was classified up until just a few days ago.
As I walk away from the three remaining Canberras of 39 Squadron, I wonder if, back in 1949, English Electric had any idea what a bargain they were about to sell to the RAF... and why, forty-eight years after the PR9 entered service, we haven't managed to produce anything that can do the same job!