A Brief History of the B-57 CanberraThe inception of the B-57 dates back to 1944, when World War II brought English Electric Company Ltd back into the business of designing airplanes. The company had gotten out of the design business in 1926, but with the dawn of the jet engine, the company decided to answer a proposal sent out by the Ministry of Aircraft Production. The first test flight of the B-57 Canberra was May of 1949.
The United States Air Force first got interested in the Canberra, as well as many other aircraft, in 1950 when it was looking for a replacement for the aging Douglas B-26 Invader. The Air Force was to make its final selection for the replacement aircraft after a final demonstration in February of 1951. The B-57 was flown in by the Royal Air Force for the demonstration, making the flight across the Atlantic in four hours and forty minutes, setting an unofficial record time for the crossing in either direction. This was also the first unrefuelled Atlantic crossing by any jet-powered aircraft. Coming into the demonstration flight with such fan-fare, the Canberra easily stole the show, and won the contract.
Throughout the lifespan of the B-57, there were several variations of the aircraft, ranging from an "A" model to an "F" model. The B-57 also had two prefixes, an "R" designating it a reconnaissance plane, and a "W" designation for weather. A total of 21 "F" models were constructed by modifying existing B-57s. However, only the fuselage, landing gear, and horizontal tail were kept from the original aircraft.
The primary user of the WB-57F was the 58th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron at Kirtland AFB, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who received their first aircraft in 1964. These Canberras were deployed throughout the world where there was suspected atmospheric testing of nuclear devices to sample the upper atmosphere for nuclear debris.
Due to a poor material selection, the long wings of the WB-57Fs started showing stress corrosion cracks after a few short years of service. It was decided to replace the wing spar and ribs with a different type of aluminum, but it was not financially feasible to replace the entire fleet, and nine planes were sent to storage. Shortly thereafter, the 58th WRS deactivated their remaining planes in 1974, ending a long era of the Canberras military service.
However, shortly before this in 1968, NASA had contracted with the Air Force to operate an RB-57F, which flew many research missions as part of the Earth Resources Technology Satellite program. In 1972, the Air Force thought the expense was too high, and transferred the plane to NASA. This aircraft was re-numbered NASA 925. This plane operated until 1982, when it was retired. It currently resides in the Pima Air Museum in Tucson, Arizona.
When the 58th WRS high altitude program was cut in 1974, they also transferred NASA 926 to Houston. While this plane was out of service for some time due to budget considerations, it is still flying missions today, operating out of Ellington Field in Houston, Texas. More recently, NASA acquired another WB-57F, numbered NASA 928.
In 2013, the 50th anniversary year of the WB-57F model aircraft, NASA added a third aircraft to the fleet with the first flight of the former AF 63-13295 in more than 41 years. Now known as NASA 927, the aircraft had been in long-term storage in the "boneyard" at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona before completing two years of regeneration to flight status. NASA 927 holds the aircraft record for the longest time in extended storage before being returned to flying status.
NASA 926, NASA 927, and NASA 928 are the only three WB-57s still flying in the world today.