39 (1 PRU) Squadron - RAF Marham

During the final ten months of Canberra operations by 39 (1 PRU) Sqn at RAF Marham, On-Target was fortunate to visit the Sqn on a number of occasions to capture activity as it headed towards disbandment and the retirement of the much loved Canberra from Royal Air Force service.

The Sqn’s final three operational PR.9s - XH131, XH134 & XH135 - were fully accessible, although during this period PR.9 XH168 was scrapped at Marham and XH169 was withdrawn from use, for eventual preservation as Marham’s third gate guard. The Sqn’s T.4, WJ874, was also withdrawn from use and sold to a civilian operator. WJ874 was painted overall blue in 1999 and marked as 'VN799', the first Canberra prototype, to commemorate the design’s 50th anniversary.

The design of the Canberra began in 1944 and was introduced to the RAF as its first jet bomber in 1951, replacing such types as the Avro Lincoln and Washington (the Boeing B-29 Superfortress), and it went on to fill numerous front line and secondary requirements with many operators, both at home and overseas. 773 Canberras were built, serving with 63 RAF & RN Sqns on 26 different Stations.

There is no denying the Canberra has a great heritage, having served the RAF for 60% of its history in every conceivable role - from a low altitude fighter bomber to a high altitude reconnaissance platform. The aircraft is also a record breaker, having held the record for the first double crossing of the Atlantic in 1952, several altitude records (70,310 feet 28th August 1957) as well as winning the New Zealand air race in October 1953.

The main RAF Canberra period drew to a close from 1970 when many aircraft were converted to perform secondary roles with 100 and 360 Sqns. These roles included radar calibration, unmanned target drones, target towing, electronic countermeasures, electronic warfare training and a considerable number of airframes used on a wide variety of trials work. It is, however, in the photographic reconnaissance role that the Canberra has secured its place in aviation history, flying in support of NATO Cold War operations along with deployments to undertake surveying and mapping of countries such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda and the Horn of Africa.


Above: This picture illustrates the power of the KA-93 Lens carried by the PR.9, with Parliaments 'Big Ben' photographed from 120 miles away, just off the southern tip of the Isle of Wight.
Courtesy 39 (1 PRU) Squadron.

The prototype PR.9 flew for the first time on 8th July 1955. 39 Sqn was equipped with PR Canberras from July 1958, receiving its first PR.9 version in October 1962, which it flew until May 1982 when the Sqn disbanded at Wyton. The Sqn reformed at the same Station in July 1992 as 39 (1 PRU) Sqn, again with Canberra PR.9s and moved to its final home, at Marham on 1st December 1993.

Additionally, the aircraft has been used in a survey role over Kenya, Zimbabwe, Germany, Denmark, Norway and the United Kingdom where the civilian community also benefited from the Canberra supporting various police investigations. Even with the end in sight for these charismatic aircraft, the Canberra continued to provided valuable high quality imagery on a daily basis, spending its last deployment, of five months, operating dangerous sorties over Afghanistan from Seeb in Oman. Flights were flown into Kandahar where the aircraft were refuelled and maintained as necessary. On one sortie over Afghanistan a PR.9 was fired upon by a surface to air missile, although with its exceptional rate of climb the aircraft was able to out manoeuvre the missile.

The Sqn experienced a busy 13 years whilst at Marham, however, with airframe hours exceeding 9000 hours and in one case around 10,000 hours there was a need for extensive refurbishment and upgrading; but with support contracts for the Avon engines and Martin Baker ejection seats coming to an end, and with the forward fuselages close to reaching the limit of their pressurisation cycles the costs involved would have been prohibitive.

On 23rd June 2006, a pair of PR.9s returned to Marham, marking the aircraft's final ever deployment; this also marked the end of operational service for the Canberra, the first variant of which performed its maiden flight in 1949.

The final leg of the return journey was flown from Bari with the two Canberras met by a pair of Marham Tornado Wing GR.4s over Spalding before performing a series of flypasts over Marham. The last two PR.9 crews to perform operational flights were Sqn Ldr Mike Leckey, Flt Lt Colin Fryer, Flt Lt Ronnie Fairbrother & Sqn Ldr Gary Winwright.

To mark the retirement of the Canberra, XH134 was painted in a special scheme for a small number of air show appearances prior to the Sqn’s disbandment. The tail carried a large 39 Sqn winged bomb and 13, 39 and 58 Sqn markings; all past operators of the PR.9 - the display pilot, Sqn Ldr Terry Cairns, was credited at the time as being the oldest military pilot still to be flying operationally, at the age of 61, and had been flying the Canberra since the early 1970s.

An era almost unmatched in Royal Air Force history came to end on 28th July 2006 when the Canberra was retired after over 55 years of valuable service with the RAF. At the same time 39 (1 PRU) Sqn disbanded, with the photographic role being taken over by the Tornado GR.4 and the Raptor pod.

39 Sqn re-activated during March 2007 and comprises five flights:

  1. A & C Flight - these will be formed from the existing No.1115 Flight operating the MQ-1 Predator.
  2. B & D Flight - operates the newly purchased MQ-9 Reaper UAVs.
  3. E Flight will continue to maintain technicians on the USAF MQ-1s based at Creech AFB, Nevada.

The Sqn is reportedly to return to its home base at RAF Waddington in 2011-12.

The On Target Aviation Group offers sincere gratitude to W/O Ian Brown and Chief Technician Steve Brown for their warm hospitality during the visits to 39 (1 PRU) Sqn. Many thanks also to the RAF Marham Community Relations Office.


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© On Target Aviation 2008