The English Electric Canberra is a classic Cold War bomber. Its service with the United Kingdom and a host of other countries began less than five years after World War II, and it stuck around until 2006 with the Royal Air Force, while India flew them until 2007.
But less well-known is the American version of the Canberra, the Martin B-57, which has had the distinction of supporting combat troops almost 40 years after it was retired.
Here’s the scoop on this plane. According to aviation historian Joe Baugher, the Korean War showed the United States that it would need a replacement for the A-26/B-26 Invader in the role of a night intruder.
The Air Force looked at the North American B-45 and A2J Savage, both of which were already in service, but found them wanting. Then, the Air Force looked abroad, and considered the CF-100 from Canada before deciding to license-build the English Electric Canberra.
What won them over was endurance: The Canberra could hang around a target 780 miles away for over two hours. The B-57 could carry up to 7,300 pounds of bombs, could mount eight .50-caliber machine guns or four 20mm cannon, and had a top speed of 597 miles per hour, according to MilitaryFactory.com.
The Air Force liked that long reach, and eventually 403 B-57s were built. The plane served as a bomber in the Vietnam War and some were modified to carry laser-guided 500-pound bombs and called the B-57G under a program called Tropic Moon III. One of the B-57Gs was even equipped with a M61 Vulcan and 4,000 rounds (which is a lot of BRRRRRT!). However, the United States soon realized that the Canberra’s true calling was as a high-altitude reconnaissance bird.
The definitive reconnaissance version, the RB-57F, could reach an altitude of 65,000 feet. This gave it a very high perch that many fighters in the 1960s could not reach. Even one of today’s best interceptors, the Su-27 Flanker, can only reach a little over 62,000 feet, according to MilitaryFactory.com. Some of the RB-57Fs later were designated WB-57Fs to reflect their use as weather reconnaissance planes.
The Air Force retired the B-57s in 1974. However, a number of the WB-57F planes found their way to NASA, where they were used for research. This included monitoring for signs of nuclear tests.
At least two of the NASA birds, though, are reported to have served over Afghanistan in the War on Terror. Spyflight reported one of the NASA birds flew sorties from Kandahar in 2008, officially as a “geological survey” for Afghanistan. Wired.com reported in 2012 that two NASA planes have alternated flying out of Kandahar to help relay data, alongside modified RQ-4 Global Hawk drones and versions of the Bombardier business jet known as the E-11A.
This means that nearly four decades after officially retiring from service, these B-57s have been serving in wartime – while under NASA’s flag. Not bad for a plane that first took flight in 1949!