English Electric Canberra WK163 is one of Britain’s most important Cold War jet-age aircraft. She 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.
Built by AV Roe at Woodford, Cheshire in 1954, the same facility that built Vulcan XH558, Canberra B.2 WK163 was taken on charge on 28 January 1955, but immediately transferred to Armstrong Siddeley Motors Ltd at Bitteswell, Leicestershire for Viper engine trails.
The aircraft flew a total of 39.5hrs on Viper development work during the eleven months it spent with Armstrong Siddeley. On 2 December it was transferred to Napier and Sons at Luton Airport becoming a test airframe for the new Double Scorpion rocket motor. A rocket was fitted into the aircraft’s bomb bay and WK163 flew again after modifications on 20 May 1956. The rocket gave the aircraft a tremendous climb speed and the ability to fly at high altitude — where the thin air usually prevented jets from operating successfully.
A normal Canberra can operate up to around 49,000 ft, but WK163 was no normal Canberra and with her mounted Double Scorpion liquid-fuelled rocket motor, could climb quickly, and steeply to heights of 70,310 ft (13.3 miles). On 28 August 1957, Mike Randrup, with Walter Shirley acting as flight observer, flew WK163 to that very height and in doing so acquired the world altitude record for Great Britain.
At very high altitudes, there is an ever-reducing margin between an aircraft’s stalling speed in the thin air and the speed at which supersonic shock waves start to form on the wings and fuselage generating significant drag. There is an altitude above which an aircraft is not capable of stable flight; aerodynamicists call this extreme part of an aircraft’s operating envelope the ‘Coffin Corner’. They had calculated that Randrup needed to keep the Canberra within a 15-knot (about 17 mph) range of airspeed, which dictated its maximum altitude. Go beyond this and he would have risked WK163 stalling. To celebrate this remarkable achievement, a red scorpion was painted proudly on WK163’s nose.
Whilst at Napier the aircraft also test flew air sampling equipment that was to be used in conjunction with the Operation Grapple nuclear tests of 1958. The following year the Scorpion programme was cancelled and WK163 was passed to RAF Pershore in Worcestershire on 30 April, where it was used for Infra-red line scan development.
Whilst at Pershore, WK163 was converted to a Hybrid B.2/B.6 specification. The fueselage remained unchanged, but standard B.6 mainplanes and engines were fitted. A Hybrid Mk B.2 nose with bulkhead connectors was “mated” with the fuselage that now had Mk B.6 mainplanes, completing it’s conversion to a hybrid B.2/6 in 1968. Canberra WK163 was the first aircraft converted to this configuration and was the basis of all future conversions.
WK163 was used for a variety of radar trials work but by May 1972 the original B.2 nose (serial no. 6663) had been removed and a standard B.6 nose (serial no. 71399) from Canberra XH568 was fitted.
The aircraft continued to fly from Pershore until 1 July 1976 when it became the first Canberra to relocate to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) Bedford.
Extensive modification work was carried out on the airframe in the late 1980s to prepare for reconnaissance research and development role. This installation was based on the Tornado GR.1A Infra-red reconnaissance system for which WK163 had carried out the original trials programme. The aircraft was fitted with three primary sensors, two sideways looking infrared sensors (SLIRS) and a Tornado infrared line scan sensor (TIRLS).
The aircraft was ferried to the Defence Research Agency (DRA) Farnborough in March 1994 and was stripped of all internal research equipment. Later that year WK163 was declared surplus and acquired by Classic Aviation Projects Ltd at Bruntingthorpe, Leicestershire.
WK163’s red, white and blue ‘Raspberry Ripple’ colour scheme was shed in favour of the silver markings it wore during its altitude record flight and the aircraft was returned to its original B.2 configuration. It made its airshow debut in 1997. Operated initially from Bruntingthorpe and Duxford the aircraft later spent a period based at RAF Wyton before arriving at Coventry on March 23, 2000 to join the Classic Flight fleet.
It was then operated jointly by the Classic Flight and Classic Aviation Projects and was painted to represent an aircraft belonging to 617 Sqn. WK163 suffered an engine failure in 2007 and a worldwide search began to find a replacement Rolls-Royce Avon 109 with the correct paperwork to allow a return to airworthiness. The search was to continue into 2012, when an Avon was found in the United States. It was a huge disappointment when, on the engine’s arrival in Coventry, it was found to have been damaged beyond repair during transit. Fortunately, the seller was in possession of further Avon engines which, on inspection in the USA, were deemed usable.
WK163 later went up for sale, and was subsequently purchase by the Vulcan to the Sky Trust in 2016. The engines found in the US and the remaining stock of Canberra spares already held will allow the Vulcan to the Sky Trust to prepare the aircraft for a full restoration to flight.
Whilst initial restoration plan timings were pushed back due to unforeseen circumstances, in November 2020, the Vulcan to the Sky Trust purchased Canberra WT327. WT327 underwent a radical change to its appearance in 1969 when the B(I)8 nose was removed to be replaced by a B.2 nose from WK135. This was later replaced with the original nose (serial no. 6663) from WK163 which incorporated a Laser Ranger and Marked Target Seeker system (LRMTS). Realising WT327 still had WK163’s original nose, the decision to purchase and ease restoration time and cost was an easy decision.
Vulcan to the Sky Trust remains committed to restoring the record breaking and historically important Canberra WK163 to airworthy condition. In unity with Vulcan XH558, we aspire to utilise both aircraft as powerful sources of inspiration for individuals of all ages, fostering a passion for aviation and engineering within the hearts and minds of both the young and old. By harnessing the awe-inspiring legacy of these aircraft, we strive to cultivate a bright future, where the next generation of engineers can soar to new heights and bring their innovative ideas to life.