A brief history of English Electric Canberra WK163

The Vulcan to the Sky Trust secured this iconic aircraft in 2016 and it is in storage at Doncaster while research continues into the technical and funding challenges that will need to be conquered in order for a restoration project to commence.

The ambition is to return WK163 to an airworthy condition.

Find out about why this is such an important aircraft. 

Photographed in the mid-90s when WK163 was repainted to look like she did when capturing the World Altitude Record in 1957. A stunning image caught by John Dibbs on film stock, now transferred to digital. 


Built by AV Roe at Woodford in 1954 as part of a contract for 100 B2 Canberra aircraft, WK163 was taken on charge with controller (aircraft) on 28th January 1955. The same day the aircraft was transferred to Armstrong Siddeley Motors Ltd at Bitteswell, Leicestershire, for Viper engine trials. WK163 flew a total of 39 hours and 30 minutes on Viper development during its eleven months with ASM.

On the 2nd of Dec 1955, the aircraft was transferred to D. Napier and Sons Ltd at Luton, Bedfordshire, becoming the Scorpion Rocket Motor test airframe. WK163 first flew after modification on the 20th May 1956 and whilst undertaking these trials, the aircraft obtained the world record for aircraft altitude at 70,310ft on the 28th August 1957.

Mike Randrup with Walter Shirley acting as flight observer piloted the aircraft for the record attempt. Whilst at Napier, the aircraft also test flew air sampling equipment that was to be used in conjunction with the Grapple nuclear tests of 1958.

WK163 powering up 'to the edge of space' with the help of rocket boosters. Courtesy of Napier Power Heritage Trust. 


After the cancellation of the Scorpion program WK163 was passed to the Royal Research Establishment at RAF Pershore, Worcestershire, on the 30th April 1959 and was originally used for Infra-red line scan development. Whilst at Pershore in April 1966, WK163 was converted to Mk B6 specification being fitted with Canberra MK B6 mainplanes and engines. It was used in this guise for various radar research work. Then during April 1972 the B2 nose was removed and replaced with a standard B6 nose from Canberra XH568. When research flying finished at RAF Pershore, WK163 became the first Canberra to relocate to RAE Bedford on the 1st July 1976. Along with Boscombe Down, this was a centre for advanced research in many areas of aeronautics.

Extensive installation work was carried out on the airframe in the late eighties to prepare for its reconnaissance research and development role. This installation was based on the Tornado GR1A Infra-red reconnaissance system for which WK163 carried out the original trials program. The research was carried out on behalf of the Defence Research Agency (DRA) Malvern.

The installation in the aircraft consisted of three primary sensors, two sideways looking infrared sensors (SLIRS) and a Tornado infrared line scan sensor (TIRLS). Other equipment included forward-looking infra-red/thermal image common module (FLIR/TICM) and forward-looking super VHS camera and recorder, along with two vertical looking airborne cameras. A data link transmitter was also fitted along with its associated electrics and aerials.

WK163 in 'raspberry ripple' colour scheme whilst on display at Farnborough in 1991. Image courtesy of Mick Freer.

Arriving at DRA Farnborough in March 1994 the aircraft was then stripped of all internal research equipment. The aircraft was purchased the same year by a private organisation and registered with the UK CAA as G-BVWC. After restoration work to bring the airframe back to Mk B6 standard, the aircraft made its debut on the UK air show circuit in 1997. 

Operated initially from Bruntingthorpe and Duxford, the aircraft later spent a period based at RAF Wyton before arriving at Coventry in March 2000 to join the Classic Flight fleet.

WK163 whilst operating in 2006 with Classic Flight. Image courtesy of Air Atlantique.

At this time, WK163 was painted in the black and grey colour scheme she still wears today, designed to represent a 617 Squadron aircraft. It was thought to have better contrast for visibility in its role as a dsiplay aircraft.   

The aircraft suffered an engine failure in 2007 and since then, a worldwide search has at last identified sufficient engines with the correct paperwork to enable a full restoration to be considered possible.

WK163 was moved to Doncaster Sheffield Airport in 2016 to join XH558. Watch the move here

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Special thanks to Dave Jackson, Classic Flight and Warbirds Resource for their assistance in compiling this information.