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February 25, 2018
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Canberra, the Aircraft for Bombing and Spying

By Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd) Published: September 2017

Canberra_Anil Chopra 1
Canberras in the Congo:
(Clockwise from left top) An IAF Canberra flyies over kolweizi in Congo; A mixed aircraft formation of UN forces in Congo; An IAF Canberra being prepared for an Op mission; Mission Completed: IAF contingent before leaving for India; An IAF Canberra with a Guard at the Leopoldvile airfield in Congo

New Delhi. The English Electric Canberra has been the workhorse of the Indian Air Force (IAF) and 1st September 2017 marked 60 years of its induction in the Indian Air Force (IAF) . The first English Electric Canberra prototype flew in May 1949 and was inducted into the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1951. The aircraft was a successor to the de Havilland Mosquito.

The requirement then was for a high-altitude jet-bomber with higher speed. Canberra also became the first jet aircraft to make a nonstop transatlantic flight. In 1957, it was selected by IAF to equip its bomber and strategic reconnaissance fleet. The same year, Canberra established the world altitude record of 70,310 ft.

A total of 1,352 aircraft in 27 versions were finally built and operated by 15 countries. They were used primarily for tactical bombing, photographic and spying through electronic reconnaissance roles. It was operationally used in the Suez crisis, the Vietnam War, Falklands war, and Indo-Pak wars.

Aircraft Design Features

The broad wing-chord, low aspect-ratio and relatively lightly-loaded un-swept wings gave the Canberra its exceptional handling characteristics at high altitudes and manoeuvrability at low altitude. It handled much like a fighter, and as such had great agility for a bomber. Powered by two Rolls Royce engines, it had a maximum speed of 470 knots (870 kmph), a service ceiling of 48,000 ft, and the ability to carry 8,000 lb (3,600 Kg) payload.

The Canberra was a great war machine of its time.

The range, speed, altitude capability and payload also made it an outstanding Photo Reconnaissance (PR) platform. IAF’s PR.57s had autopilot, radio altimeters and improved navigation kit. The PR.57/67 could carry up-to 7 cameras in various arrangements. The United States Air Force (USAF) replaced the obsolete B-26 Invader with Canberra, license building 403 of them designated as the B-57.

Three B-57 variants still remain in service in USA, performing meteorological work for NASA.

IAF’s War Horse

Indian Air Attaché to the United Kingdom Gp Capt (later Air Chief Marshal and Chief of Air Staff) Hrushikesh Moolgavkar had flown the Canberra as early as 1954 as part of an evaluation team led by Air Commodore P C Lal (Later Air Chief Marshal and Air Chief).

Canberra_Anil Chopra2
(Clockwise from left top) Wg Cdr RS Bengal being conferred with MVC by President VV Giri, 1972; Benegal’s famous photograph of the tracks made by furiously manoeuvring Pak Patten Tanks in the sands of Longewala; Wg Cdr JM (Jaggi) Nath with his crew atop his PR Canberra; A Canberra aircraft on its final perch at the IAF Museum in Palam, New Delhi; An aerial view of Dhaka, taken by an IAF Canberra during the Bangladesh Liberation War

Gp Capt Kapil Bhargava, then a Flt Lt and a trainee at ETPS (Experimental Test Pilots’ School), UK, flew a Canberra T.4 trainer several times as part of his training. In January 1957 India ordered 54 B(I)58 bombers, eight PR57 photo-reconnaissance aircraft, and six T4 training aircraft. An additional 42 were ordered in next four years. They replaced the B-24 Liberators of IAF and were seen as a preference over the much cheaper Soviet origin Ilyushin IL-28.

No. 5 Squadron (Tuskers) at Agra was the first Canberra squadron formed on September 1, 1957. This was followed by No. 6 Squadron.

The only unit to operate PR (Photo (Reconnaissance) Canberras in the IAF was the newly raised 106 Flight (Later Squadron) which was formed with 5 Canberra PR.57s in 1957. IAF procured a total of 107 aircraft which included the Photo Recce PR 57/67 and Bomber variants B(I)58 and 66.

No. 35 squadron was raised in Pune in August 1958 and it became the fourth unit to operate this aircraft. The Squadron was re-equipped with modified Canberra B(I) 58 for dedicated EW role and moved to Bareilly in 1978.

No. 16 Squadron was the fifth Canberra unit.

Canberra was easy to operate and carried a crew of two, the pilot and navigator. The plane could easily cruise at 50,000 ft and could bomb targets with its electronic bomb site. The IAF Canberras mostly operated from Pune, Agra, Bareilly and Gorakhpur bases. Only the RAF and USAF exceeded the IAF in numbers of Canberras operated.

Mapping India

In addition to gathering intelligence and information, Canberras PR.57s/PR.67s were deployed to map India from coast to coast and across the land, and the information was shared with the civilian authorities for geological surveys.

The only other dedicated strategic PR squadron was 102 Squadron with MiG-25s, which flew at three times the speed of sound and could not be chased by any hostile missile or aircraft.

IAF’s Canberras in Operations
Six Canberras of No. 5 Squadron were flown 6,000 km away to participate in UN mission in Belgian Congo in 1961. This was the first ever Indian fighter-bomber contingent to take part in UN operations. The Canberras took part in all major operations including the liberation of Goa in 1961, the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak wars, 1987 Op Pawan in Sri Lanka, 1988 Op Cactus in Maldives and the 1999 Kargil war.

On December 18, 1961, Canberras of No 16 and No. 35 Squadrons bombed the Dabolim airport forcing Portuguese forces to surrender. IAF used the aircraft for photo-recce missions in Ladakh in 1962 Sino-India war.

Both sides used the Canberras in the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971.

The famous Canberra raid and destruction of the sole major radar at Badin in Sind in Pakistan in 1965 blanked the entire sector for Pakistani forces. Another Canberra raid was launched to destroy a significant part of PAF Canberra fleet at Peshawar but due to poor visibility the raid was not successful.

During the 1971 war, IAF Canberras flew a strategic mission against the Karachi Harbour Oil Storage tanks which burnt for days, and helping the Indian Navy in their missile boat attack on the harbour. On May 21, 1999, prior to the commencement of the Kargil air war, IAF Canberra PR57s did photographic missions near the Line of Control (LoC). One aircraft was hit by a Stinger IR missile that made a hole in the starboard engine, but the very rugged Canberra successfully returned to base using the other engine.


Wg Cdr Jag Mohan (Jaggi) Nath, former CO of 106 Sqn, was one of the most decorated IAF officers with Maha Vir Chakra (MVC) and bar in 1962 and 1965 conflicts, respectively.

Padamnabha Gautam was the youngest of the three brothers who joined IAF. Commissioned in 1953. Flt. Lt. Gautam was part of No. 5 Squadron ‘Tuskers’, when the six Canberra planes of the unit moved to Congo in October 1961 for the UN Mission. On December 5, they were tasked to attack airfields at Jadotville and Kolwezi. Gautam destroyed the Fouga aircraft which had been harassing the UN ground forces. He also shot up three Katangese planes parked on the airfield and neutralised the airport installations around them.

In the 1965 War while commanding the Jet Bomber Conversion Unit (JBCU), eight Canberras led by Gautam attacked the PAF Canberra fleet at Peshawar. A lone Starfighter of PAF tried to intercept the retreating bomber force and launched a missile at Gautam’s aircraft which exploded next to the aircraft but without damage. All eight Canberras landed safely at Agra.

Gautam undertook six more missions for close support and reconnaissance deep into enemy territory and was awarded MVC. In 1971, Gautam was commanding officer of No. 16 Squadron (Black Cobras), located at Gorakhpur. His unit was tasked to strike airfields at Tezgaon, Kurmutola, Jessore and Chittagong in East Pakistan with occasional missions into West Pakistan. Gautam divided the unit into two groups – one each for East and West. Gautam led attacks on Mianwali airfield.

He was awarded Bar to MVC. Unfortunately, he died in a MiG-21 accident due to engine flameout on November 25,1972 while taking off from Lohegaon Air Force Base at Pune.

Wg Cdr RS Benegal was commanding the 106 Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron during the 1971 Indo-Pak war. He flew many Photo Reconnaissance missions deep into enemy territory, unarmed and unescorted, and brought images that contributed to crucial Op planning.

Immediately after the Indo-Pak war broke out in December 1971, the Squadron was tasked to fly missions to strategic Karakoram highway running from Kashgar in China to Khunjerab pass and Gilgit in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). This route was being used to transfer military hardware to Pakistan. A PAF Mirage III had tried to intercept the Canberra over Gilgit. A high speed low level exit saved the aircraft.

A large contingent of T-59 tanks of the Pakistan Army had crossed the international border into India and was advancing towards the now legendary Longewala in the Rajasthan sector. Benegal was tasked to fly a PR Canberra into Pakistan to photograph all enemy tank reinforcements. The Hunters provided air cover in the battle area and escorted the PR mission. The iconic photographs showing numerous tank tracks crisscrossing the desert sand near Longewala, are part of the folklore.

On December 10, 1971, he flew a grueling long mission to Gwadar bay to recce incoming Iranian Oil tankers.

The Squadron also carried out PR missions for the Tangail para drop, and the Cox’s Bazaar airfield and Chittagong Harbour in the then East Pakistan for the Indian Navy. (It may be recalled that this paradrop of some 550 soldiers by helicopters and a chance precision hit on the conference table of the Governor General by an IAF ……. helped in securing surrender of more than 93,000 Pakistani soldiers there. The surrender ended the war and led to the creation of Bangladesh as an independent nation).

Benegal was awarded MVC. No 106 Squadron received 1 Maha Vir Chakra, 4 Vir Chakras and 4 Vayu Sena Medals, during the war.

During the 1965 Indo-Pak War, Canberras of 35 Squadron based at Halwara flew 69 operational missions against Kasur and Sargodha. Wg Cdr KK Badhwar won a Vir Chakra for the Karachi raid. The Squadron earned five Vir Chakras among many other awards.

The Canberra fleet has indeed flown some of the most daring unescorted missions deep into enemy territory day and night. The IAF has been very proud of the services rendered by this War Horse.

After 50 years of glorious service, IAF bid adieu to the Great War horse on May 11, 2007 at the Agra air base.




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