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, guest post from

Flying testbed B2 Canberra WK163 fitted with a NSc D1-2 Double Scorpion rechargeable booster rocket
Flying testbed B2 Canberra WK163 fitted with a NSc D1-2 Double Scorpion rechargeable booster rocket

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. The Napier Archive can be found at IMechE; these images (and more) are on our Image Library.

“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?

 Two technicians beside WK163 one looks inside the engine hatch
Two technicians beside WK163 one looks inside the engine hatch

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 to make this first phase possible. Readers can find out how to take part and how to become part of this remarkable story at

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

 Refueling B2 Canberra WK163 fitted with a NSc D1-2 Double Scorpion rechargeable booster rocket
Refueling B2 Canberra WK163 fitted with a NSc D1-2 Double Scorpion rechargeable booster rocket

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 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

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.

Archive, Institution of Mechanical Engineers


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s