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Changing technology – part II

We continue our discussion of the RAF first service jets, looking at developments of the Vampire, and the commissioning of the Canberra.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: And welcome back. We’re going to continue our discussion about technological change in the early Cold War period. And we’re standing in front of the Vampire. Now, this was developed into the Venom. That de Havilland aircraft, was it really very much different or a major advance between the Vampire and the Venom?
ROSS MAHONEY: The Venom’s essentially a logical development of the Vampire, slightly larger, more capable, the better fighter bomber. But actually, that’s the logical end to the development. The key reason is centrifugal-type engines that had equipped the Vampire, the Meteor, and of course the Venom are replaced by axial flow engines, which will then equip designs such as the Hawker Hunter. And at the same time, de Havilland have developed an aircraft called the Sea Vixen. So the Venom is the natural conclusion. It’s essentially the end of the line for that type of– and it’s more to do with the engine than anything else. British engine design moves on.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: But there are some aircraft– and one I’m thinking of particular is right behind us, which is the Canberra, that had a very long life and was developed over a number of years. Now, the Canberra was the RAF’s first jet bomber. But the Americans were very keen on it and licenced it as the Martin B-57. So what made that design such a winner that it continued flying into the first decade of the 21st century?
ROSS MAHONEY: The Canberra is essentially the jet engine version of the Mosquito. It’s a versatile aircraft. It’s designed as a bomber, eventually becomes and interdictor. It eventually becomes a photo reconnaissance aircraft in British service, which is what it finally retires as from the Royal Air Force in the mid-2000s. So it has a 50-year-plus lifespan, which is quite rare amongst aircraft. There aren’t many other aircraft that are doing that. A bit like the Mosquito, it has fighter-like performance. So one of the major advantages that it has over Soviet air defences is the fact that it can fly higher and faster than many of the aircraft that are going to try and shoot it down, so that its major advantage.
It’s also a very, very capable aircraft in the interdictor role, which is why the Americans buy it – it’s tested against American aircraft. It does better in the tests, so the Americans, yeah, license-build it. And it’s also used by NASA. So it’s a very, very capable airframe that is progressively upgraded over its initial service life into the different variants. So again, it’s the Mosquito for the jet age.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: OK, Ross. Thank you very much for that. You touched on the advantage that the Canberra had over the Soviet fighters with a very high service ceiling. How long did that advantage last through the 1950s?
ROSS MAHONEY: The first thing that’s worth saying is obviously the Canberra operates at different heights, so the interdictors operate at medium and low level. But in terms of Soviet air defences, one of the things, of course, is towards the late 1950s and into the early 1960s, the Americans are conducting overflights with U-2s and so forth. The Soviets realise that their airspace is vulnerable and they start to develop heavily integrated surface-to-air missile defence networks. Now, of course, this all comes to fruition in the early 1960s when Gary Power’s U-2 is shot down. So there is a process. There is a to-ing and fro-ing between attacker and defender.
Works both ways, whereby the Soviets develop their air defence network and try and defend from aircraft that can essentially early on enter their air space with little worry. That eventually changes. We see similar changes in terms of operations with the V force when the V force loses its strategic nuclear role and they go to more low-level operations, because they become vulnerable. It’s a major challenge for aircraft in what’s referred to as the missile age, and something both sides have to compete with.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: But even given that the Canberra still has another 50 years of service life?
ROSS MAHONEY: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it doesn’t retire until the mid-2000s. Its photo reconnaissance variants, which is the last to see service with the Royal Air Force, are still performing excellent work. And one of the reasons it’s kept in service is because of its flight characteristics, its capabilities, and its ability to be run in the way that it does.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Thank you very much, Ross. Well, that gives you a real contrast on how some of the technologies which were developed out of the Second World War and into the early 1950s can either be effectively a dead-end or be the basis of an aircraft which has a 50-year service life. Thank you very much. We’ll sign off here.

The questions we looked to address here were:

  1. The Vampire was developed into the Venom: was that the end of its development potential?

  2. The Canberra was a very successful bomber – sold to the USAF as the B-57. What made the aircraft such a winner?

  3. Against Soviet air defences, what advantages did the Canberra have in the early Cold War period?

Our starting points – the questions above – largely deal with fighter developments, and then the first jet bomber for the RAF.

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From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War

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