Although the piston-engined Avro Lincoln heavy bomber had only entered RAAF service in 1946, by late 1948 it was already obvious this aircraft would quickly become obsolete. Investigations into a more modern replacement were therefore begun, resulting in the order of 48 English Electric Canberra jet bombers in 1950.
Like the Lincoln, the Government Aircraft Factory (GAF) would build the Canberra under licence in Australia. Additionally, the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) would build its Rolls-Royce Avon engines in Australia. The Australian Canberra was based on the British B.2 version but with provision for increased internal fuel capacity in a redesigned wing leading edge, a revised radio suite and a reduction in crew from three to two – pilot and navigator/bomb aimer. The first 27 aircraft were powered by two 6,500 lb thrust Avon Mk. Is and the remainder by 7,500 lb thrust Avon Mk. 109s.
The Australian-built aircraft was designated simply the Canberra Mk 20 (not B 20 as is usually reported) and the serial numbers A84-201 to 248 were applied. Before Australian production of the Canberra got underway, two British-built Canberra B 2s were ordered so as to provide training and familiarisation but not for use as pattern aircraft. The first of these (A84-307) arrived in Australia in August 1951 and the second (A84-125) in May 1952. After testing, both aircraft went to No 82 Wing at RAAF Base Amberley. A84-125 was actually the third Canberra to arrive in Australia, having been preceded by RAF B 2 WD942 in March 1952. Although allocated the RAAF serial A84-2, it was never formally taken on RAAF charge and was returned to Britain five years later. A84-3 was allocated to another RAF B 2 in Australia but not used, while the same applied to A84-1, which remained in the UK and on RAF strength. Two other British-built Canberras did join the RAAF, T 4 trainers A84-501 and 502, which were delivered in 1956.
The first GAF-built Canberra Mk 20 (A84-201) flew in May 1953 and entered service with No 82 Wing in December of the same year. No 2 Squadron was the first to receive the Canberra, followed by No 6 Squadron in 1955 and No 1 Squadron in 1958. The 48th and last Canberra Mk 20 was delivered in September 1958. Five aircraft (A84-201 and 203-206) were converted to dual control Mk 21 trainers in 1958-59.
RAAF Canberras achieved some national fame in 1953 when A84-201 and 202 participated in that year's England to New Zealand Air Race, the latter finishing a close second outright to a RAF Canberra. Long-distance flights were a feature of early RAAF Canberra operations, including goodwill trips to the USA.
Canberras from No 2 Squadron became the first Australian jet bombers to perform a combat sortie in September 1958 when an attack against guerillas in Northern Malaya was carried out, the first of many such excursions. Nine years later, the squadron was sent to Vietnam as part of Australia's large commitment to the Vietnam War, remaining there until June 1971, and in the meantime achieving an enviable record flying what was by then regarded by many as an obsolete bomber. Operating as part of the US Air Force's 35th Tactical Fighter Wing, No 2 Squadron's Canberras flew just six per cent of the Wing's sorties but inflicted 16 per cent of the damage. Overall, 11,963 sorties were flown in Vietnam, 76,389 bombs dropped and two aircraft lost.
By the time it returned to Australia, No 2 Squadron was the last RAAF operational Canberra unit, Nos 1 and 6 Squadrons having temporarily converted to F-4E Phantoms while they waited for the much-delayed F-111s to arrive. No 2 Squadron continued flying Canberras well past their planned retirement date, until 1982, in the meantime completing many cartographic surveys in Australia and overseas (notably Indonesia), the Canberras equipped with survey cameras.
The Canberra's distinguished RAAF career officially ended on 30 June 1982 when No 2 Squadron flew four aircraft over Brisbane and surrounding areas in a farewell fly-past.
TECHNICAL DATA: English Electric/GAF Canberra Mk 20/Mk 21
Two 2948 kg (6500 lb) thrust Rolls-Royce/CAC Avon Mk I or 3400 kg (7500 lb) thrust Avon Mk 109 turbojets.
Wing span 19.50 m (64 ft 0 in); length 19.96 m (65 ft 6 in); height 4.75 m (15 ft 7 in).
Empty 11 521 kg (25 400 lb); loaded 22 680 kg (50 000 lb).
(Avon 109s) Max speed 933 km/h (504 kt); normal cruise 703 km/h (380 kt); initial climb 1280 m (4200 ft)/min; operational ceiling 45,000 ft (13 716 m); radius of action (2040 kg bomb load) 2060 km (984 nm); max ferry range 5841 km (3154nm).
Max bomb load 3629 kg (8000 lb); typical Vietnam load six 340 kg (750 lb) bombs, four in bomb bay and one under each wingtip.
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