Canberra F3

The English Electric Canberra F3 is a fighter version of the classic British bomber. One huge air-search radar and two massive Red Dean missiles and a 10+ hour endurance made this a winner.


In the late 1950s there was a train of thought amongst those in the Air Ministry that any attack by bombers would lack any fighter escort because of the huge ranges the bombers would have to travel. No fighter could possibly match the range of a TU-95 or a B-36. This prompted the development of stand off missiles which allowed the bombers to fire their weapons far from the target. This meant that missiles would be the main target for British defences. This was a serious problem since missiles were smaller and faster than the bombers that carried them. All agreed that it was better to destroy the bombers before they launched their missiles and that required a fighter with emphasis on endurance over speed.

The Air Ministry issued a requirement in May 1957 for an aircraft that could intercept a target 1,000 miles from its base and was capable of all-weather independent interception with Red Dean air-to-air missiles. For the latter it had to to have its own radar powerful air intercept radar. English Electric proposed a variant of its Canberra bomber modified with a radar in the nose and air-to-air missiles on wingtip and underwing pylons. Because the tooling to build the new fighter was already in place the Air Ministry awarded the contract to English Electric.


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Canberra F3 nose

The first prototype was built from converting an existing Canberra bomber. The bomb bay was deleted and replaced by additional fuel tanks that allowed the aircraft to meet the demanding specifications laid down by the Air Ministry. The large 'White Light' radar did cause some centre-of-gravity issues but this was resolved by moving the new fuel tanks in the former bomb bay further back. Because the new aircraft weighed more than the bomber variants more powerful Rolls-Royce Avon turbojets were fitted and the aircraft had a level speed of 637mph.

First flight took place on October 31st 1960 and the trials program proved relatively trouble free until testing of the then sophisticated weapon systems began. The 'White Light' was wrought with troubles particularly during the targeting stage for the Red Dean. It would take two years for all the bugs to be worked out, efforts being seriously curtailed when the prototype was involved in a wheels-up belly landing that damaged the array.

Into ServiceEdit

After the formation of an Operational Training Unit at RAF Leeming, No.19 Squadron based at RAF Leuchars was declared operational on the type on March 1st 1961. They made their first successful intercept (a Soviet TU-16) on March 18th. By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis nine home-based RAF squadrons fielded the aircraft along with two in Singapore and two in Hong Kong.

Pilots praised the aircraft for its ability to fly as high as any potential target (save for the U-2 spy plane) and loiter for a long time. Despite the extra weight its handling was not too dissimilar to the original bomber. Nevertheless
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Canberra F3

operational usage had revealed several shortcomings. Firstly, not all the problems with the radar had been completely eliminated and work continued on improving it well into the aircraft's career. Secondly many aircrew felt that two missiles were not enough therefore pylons were fitted underneath the wings to carry a pair of Firestreak infra-red air-to-air missiles. These were later replaced by Red Top.

Notable incidentsEdit

There's no doubt that the RAF was pleased with its new aircraft. In the March 1963 issue of Airman, the RAF's official magazine an article declared that "...with the Canberra fighter operating from bases in Scotland and Northern Ireland the RAF can effectively close down the airspace between Britain, Iceland and Greenland to any bomber or maritime patrol aircraft". How true this statement actually was is uncertain but surely the potential was there.

On June 16th 1963 an RAF Canberra F.3 from No.77 Squadron successfully intercepted a dummy Blue Danube

Canberra F3

missile fired from a Victor over the Woomera range in Australia. The test proved a double edged sword in that it proved the Canberra/Red Dean combination worked in the right conditions but reinforced the belief that Blue Danube was an obsolete weapon.

On November 12th 1965 a Canberra of No.19 squadron intercepted a TU-95 flying near Scotland. The pilots observed some unusual aerials protruding from beneath the fuselage and tried to close in to take some pictures. The inexperienced pilot misjudged his approach and the vertical stabiliser clipped the TU-95 but both aircraft managed to return to their bases safely.


On February 3rd 1969 a Canberra F.3 out of Singapore broke up in mid-air. The entire force was grounded pending an investigation. The cause was traced to a support spar in the wings which had suffered from fatigue due to the extreme temperatures it operated in coupled with the mounting of missiles on the wings. It seems that English Electric did not adequately reinforce the wings of the bomber variant when they were transitioned over to a fighter role. The problem mainly concerned the aircraft operating in the Far East Air Force so home based operations continued as normal while the problem was rectified.


The end was already in sight for the Canberra F.3 by 1969. The US Navy was testing the F-111B which offered similar range with supersonic speed and far more capable missiles. If the US based these aircraft in pro-US Iceland then they could threaten the Canberra's claim to dominating the North Sea. Therefore a replacement was sought eventually resulting in the Hawker Harlot, a design similar to the Soviet TU-126. The last Canberra F.3 sorties were flown in 1976 although some would continue in support of weapon testing until 1981.

See AlsoEdit

- Canberra AEW.1

- Hawker Harlot

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