Military Aviation

Here’s why the Canberra PR 9 had been the best reconnaissance aircraft during early operations in Enduring and Iraqi Freedom

Boasting a range of nearly 2000 nautical miles, the aircraft was unique, as no other reconnaissance platform could carry four different and complementary imaging systems at the same time as high as 50,000 ft for up to five hours.

A first generation British jet-powered medium bomber, the English Electric Canberra was designed by W. E. W. ‘Teddy’ Petter. It could fly at a higher altitude than any other bomber throughout the 1950’s and set a world’s altitude record of 70,310 ft (21,430 m) in 1957.

After numerous post-war political and economic delays, the initial A.1. prototype (VN499) flew on May 13, 1949 by which time the Ministry had actually pre-ordered 132 production aircraft in various configurations.  The aircraft continued on as the A.1 until it was eventually renamed Canberra in 1950 by the then English Electric Managing Director Sir George Nelson (Australia was the first export customer).

The Canberra was the RAF’s first ever jet bomber and proved to be Britain’s most durable and long-lasting frontline type, with a handful of reconnaissance PR 9s still soldiering on during Operations Herrick (Operation Herrick was the codename under which all British operations in the War in Afghanistan were conducted from 2002 to the end of combat operations in 2014. It consisted of the British contribution to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and support to the American-led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF)) and Telic (Operation Telic was the codename under which all of the UK’s military operations in Iraq were conducted between the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom on Mar. 19, 2003 and the withdrawal of the last remaining British forces on May 22, 2011) 57 years after the prototype’s first flight.

Why was the PR 9 required over Afghanistan and Iraq?

As told by Andrew Brookes in his book RAF Canberra Units of the Cold War, boasting a range of nearly 2000 nautical miles, the aircraft was unique, as no other reconnaissance platform could carry four different and complementary imaging systems (the electro-optical sensor or EOS, the F95 low-level cameras with 4- or 12-in lenses and 70 mm film, the Zeiss RMK survey camera and the KA-93 panoramic camera that provided wide-angle coverage from the horizon to the vertical on both sides of the flightpath using a 24-in focal length lens) at the same time as high as 50,000 ft for up to five hours.

No 39 Sqn completed 150 missions during the 2003 Iraqi conflict, flying twice daily from its base at Azraq, in Jordan. ‘Our initial tasking,’ recalled one aircrew member, ‘was in the western Iraqi desert, Scud hunting. We flew three missions a day, each nine hours solid, looking at 17 “areas of interest”. We data linked most of our imagery and the photo interpreters scanned for Scuds, but none were found’. Such was the quality of the wet film imagery gathered by the unit, a photograph taken from 47,000 ft over Basra showed skid marks from a bus crashed on a bombed bridge.

It was a similar story 12 months earlier when the squadron made an unpublicised excursion — Operation Ramson — to Mombasa to look for terrorist threats in Somalia. From an offshore position in international airspace, the PR 9’s sensors provided good coverage of Mogadishu and other coastal regions. That deployment took place from March to May 2002. These were Britain’s contribution to the defeat of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, during which No 39 Sqn flew out of Seeb, in Oman, from October 2001 to January 2002.

Terry Cairns flew the PR 9 for much of the time between 1985 and 2006, and he recalls that ‘the pressure-breathing kit was in use during my time in Iraq and Afghanistan’. It was said that the PR 9s ranged as far north as Kabul, ending up landing back on fumes on the Seeb taxiway. It was a great tale, although in Terry Cairns’ words ‘one nutter loitered at altitude over Seeb just to see how long he could stay airborne — and this with the bar open! Our average sortie length was 4 hrs 30 min. We certainly did not use the secondary runway because there wasn’t one. The taxiway could be used in an emergency if the main runway was blocked’. During this deployment on one sortie over Afghanistan a PR 9 was even fired upon by a surface-to-air missile, although with its exceptional rate of climb the aircraft was able to out-manoeuvre the weapon. Despite its age in fact, the PR 9 still climbed faster than anything else in the RAF until Typhoon arrived.

While flying from Basra over southern Iraq between Aug. 4 and Sep. 16 2003, taking imagery for survey maps of British forces’ area of responsibility, the PR 9s produced 6368 prints, together with 239 photo-mosaics and more than 600 maps while looking for illegal border crossings, oil smugglers and escaping terrorists. Panoramic reconnaissance and survey mapping represented 70 per cent of the PR 9s’ tasking during Telic. Despite the aircrafts’ heavy workload, in early November 2003 two PR 9s departed for the Falkland Islands and a new survey task. No 39 (1 PRU) Sqn was the busiest unit at Marham for two years, and 70 per cent of its output was still wet film.

Simon Baldwin believes that there was such a generation gap in capability between the PR 9 and what went before ‘we shouldn’t have called it a Canberra. I was air attaché in Washington during Gulf War I, and the PR 9s brought great imagery back, which was shown to Gen Colin Powell. “Why can’t we do this?” was his response. “Why do I have to get this from the RAF?”‘ The PR 9 could take panoramic photographs at the same time as employing its EOS [electro-optical sensor] — the U-2 could not do that’.

The final PR 9 flight landed at Kemble on Jul. 31, 2006. The total annual cost of operating No 39 Sqn at the end was very close to £15 million, but money was never going to be found to overcome the pressure bulkhead fatigue issue, and the fact that the ejection seats were becoming increasingly difficult to certify. The last T 4 having been retired on Sep. 1, 2005, the RAF could not keep relying on ‘old and bold’ PR 9 aircrew either.

A total of 782 Canberras had seen RAF service over 55 years, and the PR 9 had served the nation well, but now it was time to move on.

RAF Canberra Units of the Cold War is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: Crown Copyright

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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