Record-breaking English Electric Canberra to be returned to flight

The team that returned Vulcan XH558 to flight is to return another iconic all-British jet to the airshow circuit

One of Britain’s most important jet-age aircraft is to be returned to flight. English Electric Canberra WK163 spent most of her life playing a central role in the development of advanced propulsion technologies followed by a period with the Royal RADAR Establishment, at the heart of British scientific and engineering innovation. In 1957, she shot into the headlines around the world when a prototype Napier Double Scorpion rocket motor fired her to 70,310 ft and a new world altitude record.

“WK163 was a celebrity even amongst the research aircraft,” said one senior engineer who worked on world-leading secret research programmes at the Ministry of Aviation. “She flew to the edge of space. It was an astonishing achievement.”

Since her final flight in 2007, this famous aircraft, with ‘holder of the world altitude record’ proudly written on her nose, has faced an uncertain future. Now she is to be restored and returned to the airshow circuit with the aim of helping to celebrate the centenary of the RAF in 2018. The restoration will be undertaken by Vulcan to the Sky Trust, the award-winning charity responsible for the restoration and operation of Vulcan XH558.

“WK163 embodies so much that is remarkable about British courage and innovation in the Jet Age; qualities that she can continue to inspire in us all,” states Dr. Robert Pleming, who led the team that returned XH558 to flight and is now chief executive of Vulcan to the Sky Trust. “I am thrilled to announce that the Trust plans to restore and fly WK163 for the British public, as we did with Vulcan XH558, with an education programme around her to inspire new generations of engineers and aviators.”

Entering service in 1951, the Canberra was the RAF’s first jet bomber, the answer to a 1944 Air Ministry requirement for a high-speed, high-altitude aircraft to replace the de Havilland Mosquito. It was the first aircraft to be powered by the new Rolls-Royce Avon, the company’s first axial flow jet turbine, a configuration that greatly improved fuel efficiency and is still at the heart of jet engine design to this day. This pioneering engine allowed a Canberra to become the first jet to cross the Atlantic without refuelling (in 1951), and gave the de Havilland Comet sufficient range to inaugurate the world’s first no-stop transatlantic jet airliner service in 1958.

The all-British Canberra was so effective that they were operated by at least 17 nations including France, Germany, Australia and the USA. Demand outstripped production capacity at English Electric (later to make the astonishing Lightning, building on Canberra and Avon experience), so many Canberras were constructed by other companies under licence. WK163 was built in 1954 by Avro at Woodford, at the same facility that built Vulcan XH558.

The Americans admired the Canberra so much that they also built a significant number. They can fly so high for so long that NASA still uses three US-built Canberras for satellite development. Sadly, today, there are only five Canberras known to be flying in the world, including the three highly modified, US-built aircraft at NASA. Only two of these are English Electric Canberras and currently, none are flying in Europe.

How will this be achieved?

WK163 has already been surveyed by both Vulcan to the Sky Trust and independent specialists, all of whom agree that a return to flight is possible. Along with the aircraft, the Trust has acquired a considerable stock of spares, critically with the provenance necessary to allow them to be used in a flying aircraft. This includes six engines and a complete set of documentation and RAF maintenance procedures.

The first stage will be to remove the wings and transport WK163 by road to the Trust’s engineering facility at Hangar 3, Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield, where the restoration will take place in a dedicated area behind XH558. We intend to celebrate the beginning of this project as the aircraft travels from Coventry to Doncaster and are launching a fundraising campaign today to make this first phase possible. Readers can find out how to take part and how to become part of this remarkable story at www.vulcantothesky.org.

Once at Hangar 3, the Inspection and Project Scoping Phase will begin with a detailed strip-down, examination and testing to determine exactly what is needed to return WK163 to flight. This is expected to take the remainder of the summer and will lead to an in-depth understanding of the condition of the aircraft, an inventory of the spare parts, their condition and documentation, and discussions with the many specialist suppliers whose help will be invaluable.

Following the Inspection Phase, a timed and costed plan will be designed for every activity required to return this important aircraft to British airshows in time for the RAF centenary. With a comprehensive plan in place, the Trust hopes to begin the restoration early in 2017.

For any questions arising which require design decisions, such as materials substitution, Cranfield Aerospace has agreed to act as design authority. Cranfield has a global reputation in heritage aviation engineering and was the technical specialist for Vulcan XH558’s challenging wing modification, which released two more years of flight. Several Cranfield specialists worked on WK163 when she was with the Royal Aircraft Establishment, so already have significant relevant expertise.

See, Follow and Take Part

Visitors to pre-booked tours and events at Hangar 3 will be able to see the work underway. A number of events throughout the project will provide opportunities for those supporting the return-to-flight to see the aircraft in different stages of the analysis and restoration and to discuss progress with the team.

“This is a great opportunity for enthusiasts to see another fascinating example of British aviation engineering completely disassembled, to explore the technology and learn how she works, and to follow the restoration in fascinating detail,” suggests Vulcan to the Sky Trust engineering director Andrew Edmondson. “Our team is passionate about sharing the excitement of these very special aircraft, so as well as the Experience visits to see Vulcan XH558 and Canberra WK163, we are looking forward to meeting fellow enthusiasts at dedicated events.”

Supporters of this exciting programme can also follow progress through social media, on Facebook at Vulcan XH558 (soon to change to Vulcan to the Sky Trust) and by signing-up for the free Vulcan to the Sky Trust newsletter from www.vulcantothesky.org. To help fund the acquisition and transportation of Canberra WK163, readers are being offered a range of ways to take part and to get close to both aircraft, with more details at www.vulcantothesky.org.

Why Vulcan to the Sky Trust?

UK vintage aviation is at a turning point. Post-Shoreham, it is absolutely clear that further safeguards are required. There is already a rigorous safety framework in-place to ensure that aircraft are appropriately maintained; it is essential that every operator complies with this and with any further tightening of operational requirements. The corollary of this is that the level of technical, safety and operational expertise required to operate vintage aircraft, especially jets, will take a big step up. Even finding the required  insurance in the UK – already a significant cost for operating a vintage jet at airshows – will become more difficult, and potentially impossible for those who do not have rigorous, and clearly auditable, safety systems.

“Many UK operators will not wish to invest in the resources or the expertise required, leading to aircraft being grounded or sold abroad to operate under less demanding safety regimes,” states Robert Pleming. “Having successfully restored, maintained and operated the heaviest and most complex heritage aircraft on the display circuit, Vulcan to the Sky Trust is independently recognised as a global leader in keeping heritage jets flying reliably and safely.”

Engineering director Andrew Edmondson adds that he and his team are already supporting other heritage jet owners with technical expertise and services. He sees this as a growing business area, supporting the continuation of heritage jet displays in the UK with all profits helping to fund the Trust’s technical and education activities.

Several of the Trust’s key people already have significant experience with Canberras, Avon engines and even with this specific aircraft during her time in technical research, but this isn’t seen as critical. “In a tightly-controlled engineering environment, the key is to understand and respect the processes,” explains Edmondson.


Quote from James Hamilton-Paterson
Author of Empire of the Clouds: When Britain's Aircraft Ruled the World

“Some of us can still remember the 1950s as the decade in which a Canberra seemed to break a speed or altitude record practically every other week, and it is indeed heartening that the Vulcan to the Sky Trust has bought WK163. This was the very aircraft in which Mike Randrup broke the world altitude record at 70,310 feet (21,431 m) in August 1957. The Trust has pledged to restore this historic British aircraft to full airworthiness in time for the RAF’s Centenary in 2018, making it the only flying Canberra in the UK. By that time this highly successful type will have been flying in various forms and liveries around the world for almost seventy years, having given sterling service in sundry wars, and as recently as in Afghanistan. The Trust is once again doing the nation proud, this time by ensuring that a Canberra returns to the skies above the country that gave it birth.

About WK163

English Electric Canberra B Mk 6

Military registration WK163, civil registration G-CTTS

Built in 1954 by Avro at Woodford

Acquired by Classic Flight in 1994 and then by Vulcan to the Sky Trust in 2016.

Last flew in 2007

Length 65 ft 6 in (19.96 m), Wingspan 64 ft 0 in (19.51 m)

Powered by two Rolls-Royce Avon R.A.7 Mk.109 turbojets each providing 7,400 lbf (36 kN)

Maximum speed 580 mph (Mach 0.88) at 40,000 ft (12,000 m) in standard Canberra specification

Read the exciting story of how pilot Mike Randrup flew around ‘cofin corner’ to smash the world altitude record: http://www.thisdayinaviation.com/28-august-1957/

Join our Facebook community: www.facebook.com/VulcanXH558
Sign-up for the Trust’s free electronic newsletter at www.vulcantothesky.org

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