End of an era for RAF as last English Electric PR9 Canberra bows out after 55 years

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By Craig Hoyle at RAF Waddington

Too costly to operate, the 55-year-old workhorse retires from active service

The UK Royal Air Force has retired its last English Electric Canberra PR9 photographic reconnaissance aircraft from active service after 55 years of operations.

An exhibition detailing the Canberra’s activities since its first flight in May 1949 and air force service entry in 1951 was held at the Waddington air show in Lincolnshire late last month, with one of the service’s three remaining aircraft also having participated in the flying display.

© Craig Hoyle / Flight International  

The Canberra will make its farewells at this week's Royal International Air Tattoo and at RAF Marham on 28 July

The RAF’s other two Canberra PR9s returned to their main operating base at RAF Marham in Norfolk on 26 June after conducting their final operational missions collecting imagery over Afghanistan. “It is time for the Canberra to go,” says Wg Cdr Clive Mitchell, officer commanding the RAF’s 39 Sqn, which is also to be disbanded late this month.

“The aircraft had become expensive and difficult to support,” he says, adding: “It’s an economic reality.” The Canberra will also be displayed at this week’s Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire before participating in a farewell flypast at Marham on 28 July.

The UK is meanwhile nearing the declaration of in-service status for a new intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance asset, with its airborne Stand-Off Radar system to achieve this milestone between next November and March 2007. Once fully operational in 2009, the battlefield surveillance system will comprise five Sentinel R1s – modified Bombardier Global Express business jets – and eight ground exploitation stations.

The Sentinel will not replace the Canberra in the photographic reconnaissance role, but the aircraft’s dual-mode sensor will be used to provide synthetic-aperture radar imagery and ground moving-target indication data to the UK armed forces.