Friday, 13 May 1949: At Warton Aerodrome, Lancashire, Chief Test Pilot Roland Prosper Beamont, C.B.E., D..S.O and Bar, D.F.C. and Bar, made the first test flight of the English Electric A.1 prototype, VN799, a very high altitude light bomber powered by two turbojet engines.
VN799 was the first of four prototypes. Three were equipped with Rolls-Royce
The newly completed airplane had been rolled out 2 May, and over the next several days underwent a series of static and taxi tests. The prototype was painted overall “plate blue.”
“Bee” Beamont flew the prototype for approximately one-half hour. Other than a problem in yaw, which would be corrected with minor modifications to the vertical fin and rudder over the next several test flights, the aircraft performed very well. Months earlier, the bomber had been ordered into production “off the drawing board.”
British bombers have traditionally been named for cities. Canberra, capitol of Australia, was selected as the new airplane’s name in January 1950.
The English Electric B. Mk. I was a twin engine mid-wing bomber, operated by a pilot and navigator/bombardier. The Mk. I was 63 feet, 11 inches (19.482 meters) long, with a wing span of 66 feet, 3 inches (20.193 meters), and overall height of 15 feet, 6.9 inches. (4.747 meters). The wing used a symmetrical airfoil and had 2° angle of incidence. The inner wing had 2° dihedral, and the outer wing, 4° 21′. The total wing area was 960 square feet (89.2 square meters). The tailplane had a span of 27 feet, 4.9 inches (8.354 meters) with 1° angle of incidence and 10° dihedral. Total area of the stabilizer and elevators was 171.1 square feet (15.90 square meters).
VN799 was powered by two pre-production Rolls-Royce Avon R.A.2 engines. The Avon R.A.2 was a single-spool, axial flow turbojet with a 12-stage compressor section and single-stage turbine. It was rated at 6,000 pounds of thrust (26.69 kilonewtons). It weighed 2,400 pounds (1,089 kilograms). VN799 was the first British airplane built with an axial-flow turbojet engine.
VN799, flown by Flight Lieutenant Harry Maule with Scientific Officer I Mike Burgan, crashed at Sutton Heath, near RAF Woodbridge, 18 August 1953. The engines stopped due to fuel exhaustion while testing automatic landing systems. Maule and Burgan suffered minor injuries, but the airplane was destroyed. At the time of the crash, the prototype Canberra had flown a total of 1,540 hours, 40 minutes.
Interestingly, in October 1946, a 34-passenger civil transport variant of the Canberra was proposed, with an enlarged 10-foot-diameter fuselage.
The Canberra was produced in bomber, intruder, photo reconnaissance, electronic countermeasures and trainer variants by English Electric, Handley Page, A.V. Roe and Short and Harland. In the United States, a licensed version, the B-57A Canberra, was built by the Glenn L. Martin Company. The various versions were operated by nearly 20 nations. The Canberra was the United Kingdom’s only jet-powered bomber for four years. The last one in RAF service, a Canberra PR.9, made its final flight on 28 July 2008.
23 March 1948: During a 45-minute flight over Hatfield, Hertfordshire, England, the de Havilland Aircraft Company chief test pilot, Group Captain John Cunningham, D.S.O., flew a modified DH.100 Vampire F.1 fighter to a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Altitude of 18,119 meters (59,446 feet).¹ Cunningham broke the record set nearly ten years earlier by Colonel Mario Pezzi in a Caproni Ca.161 biplane.² (See This Day in Aviation, 22 October 1938)
The de Havilland DH.100 Vampire F.1 flown by Cunningham was the fifth production aircraft, TG/278. It was built by the English Electric Company at Preston, Lancashire, with final assembly at Samlesbury Aerodrome, and made its first flight in August 1945. It was intended as a prototype photo reconnaissance airplane. The cockpit was heated and pressurized for high altitude, and a metal canopy installed.
The photo reconnaissance project was dropped and TG/278 became a test bed for the de Havilland Engine Company Ghost 2 turbojet (Halford H.2), which produced 4,400 pounds of thrust (19.57 kilonewtons) at 10,000 r.p.m. The Vampire could take the Ghost engine to altitudes beyond the reach of the Avro Lancaster/Ghost test bed already in use. The airplane’s wing tips were each extended 4 feet (1.219 meters) to increase lift.
The aircraft was stripped of paint to reduce weight. Smaller batteries were used and placed in normal ballast locations. Special instrumentation and recording cine cameras were installed in the gun compartment, and ten cylinders of compressed air for breathing replaced the Vampire’s radio equipment. At takeoff, the Vampire carried 202 gallons (765 liters) of fuel, 40 gallons less than maximum, sufficient for only one hour of flight. The takeoff weight of TG/278 was 8,400 pounds (3,810 kilograms).
John Cunningham had previously flown TG/278 to a world record 799.644 kilometers per hour (496.876 miles per hour) over a 100 kilometer course at Lympne Airport, 31 August 1947.³
TG/278 continued as a test aircraft until it was damaged by an engine fire in October 1950. It was used as an instructional airframe at RAF Halton.
A standard Vampire F.1 was 9.370 meters (30 feet, 8.9 inches) long with a wingspan of 12.192 meters (40 feet, 0 inches) and overall height of 2.700 meters (8 feet, 10.3 inches). The fighter had an empty weight of 6,380 pounds (2,894 kilograms) and gross weight of 8,587 pounds (3,895 kilograms).
The basic Vampire F.1 was powered by a de Havilland-built Halford H.1B Goblin turbojet engine. This engine used a single-stage centrifugal-flow compressor and single-stage axial-flow turbine. It had a straight-through configuration rather than the reverse-flow of the Whittle turbojet from which it was derived. It produced 2,460 pounds of thrust (10.94 kilonewtons) at 9,500 r.p.m., and 3,000 pounds (13.34 kilonewtons) at 10,500 r.p.m. The Goblin weighed approximately 1,300 pounds (590 kilograms).
It had a maximum speed of 540 miles per hour (869 kilometers per hour), a service ceiling of 41,000 feet (12,497 meters) and range of 730 miles (1,175 kilometers).
The Vampire F.1 was armed with four 20 mm Hispano autocannon in the nose, with 150 rounds of ammunition per gun.
Group Captain John Cunningham C.B.E., D.S.O. and Two Bars, D.F.C. and Bar, A.E., D.L., F.R.Ae.S, was born 1917 and educated at Croydon. In 1935 he became an apprentice at De Havilland’s and also joined the Auxiliary Air Force, where he trained as a pilot. He was commissioned as a Pilot Officer, 7 May 1936, and was promoted to Flying Officer, 5 December 1937. Cunningham was called to active duty in August 1939, just before World War II began, and promoted to Flight Lieutenant, 12 March 1940.
While flying with No. 604 Squadron, Cunningham was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, 28 January 1941. He was appointed Acting Squadron Leader, Auxiliary Air Force, and was decorated with the Distinguished Service Order, 29 April 1941. The Gazette reported,
“This officer has continued to display the highest devotion to duty in night fighting operations. One night in April, 1941, he destroyed two enemy bombers during a single patrol and a week later destroyed three enemy raiders during three different patrols. Squadron Leader Cunningham has now destroyed at least ten enemy aircraft and damaged a number of others. His courage and skill are an inspiration to all.”
—The London Gazette, 29 April 1941, Page 2445 at Column 1.
Acting Squadron Leader Cunningham’s promotion to Squadron Leader (Temporary) became official 10 June 1941. The King approved the award of a Bar to his Distinguished Flying Cross, 19 September 1941. Squadron Leader Cunningham took command of No. 604 Squadron 1 August 1946.
On 3 March 1944 Wing Commander Cunningham received a second Bar to his Distinguished Service Order. According to The Gazette,
“Within a recent period Wing Commander Cunningham has destroyed three more hostile aircraft and his last success on the night of 2nd January, 1944, brings his total victories to 20, all with the exception of one being obtained at night. He is a magnificent leader, whose exceptional ability and wide knowledge of every aspect of night flying has contributed in large measure to the high standard of operational efficiency of his squadron which has destroyed a very large number of enemy aircraft. His iron determination and unswerving devotion to duty have set an example beyond praise.”
—The London Gazette, 3 March 1944, Page 1059 at Column 1.
Promoted to Group Captain 3 July 1944, Cunningham was the highest scoring Royal Air Force night fighter pilot of World War II, credited with shooting down 20 enemy airplanes. He was responsible for the myth that eating carrots would improve night vision.
In addition to the medals awarded by the United Kingdom, he also held the United States Silver Star, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Order of the patriotic War (1st Class).
Following the War, John Cunningham returned to de Havilland as a test pilot. After the death of Geoffrey Raoul de Havilland, Jr., in 1946, Cunningham became the de Havilland’s chief test pilot. He remained with the firm through a series of mergers, finally retiring in 1980.
Cunningham was appointed an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) in 1951, and promoted to Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (C.B.E.) in 1963. He relinquished his Auxiliary Air Force commission 1 August 1967.
Group Captain John Cunningham C.B.E., D.S.O. and Two Bars, D.F.C. and Bar, A.E., D.L., died 21 July 2002 at the age of 84 years.
¹ FAI Record File Number 9844
² FAI Record File Number 11713: 17,083 meters (56,047 feet)
28 August 1957: Michael Randrup, Chief Test Pilot of D. Napier and Son, Ltd., and Walter Shirley, Deputy Chief Engineer, fly this Royal Air Force/English Electric Canberra B Mk.2, WK163, to an altitude of 21,430 meters (70,308 feet) over southern England. This set a new Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for altitude.¹
The Canberra was being used to test Napier’s Double Scorpion NSc D1-2 rocket engine, which was used to drive the airplane far beyond its normal service ceiling of 48,000 feet (14,630 meters).
After taking off from Luton, Bedfordshire, at 5:26 p.m., Mike Randrup used the Canberra’s two 6,500-pounds-thrust (28.91 kilonewtons) Rolls-Royce Avon RA.3 Mk. 101 turbojet engines to climb to 44,000 feet (13,411 meters), where he throttled the engines back to cruising r.p.m. and then ignited the Double Scorpion. The Canberra climbed at a very steep angle until reaching the peak altitude.
At this high altitude, there is an extremely narrow margin between the airplane’s stall speed and it’s critical Mach number—the point at which supersonic shock waves start to form on the wings and fuselage. On an Airspeed Limitations Chart, this area is known as “Coffin Corner.” Aerodynamicists had calculated that Randrup needed to keep the Canberra within a 15-knot range of airspeed.
Though the Canberra’s cockpit was pressurized, both Mike Randrup and Walter Shirley wore pressure suits in case of emergency.
WK163 landed back at Luton at 6:12 p.m.
In 1958, the Royal Aero Club of Great Britain awarded the Britannia Trophy to Randrup and Shirley.
The English Electric Canberra B.2 was the first production variant of a twin-engine, turbojet powered light bomber. The bomber was operated by a pilot, navigator and bombardier. It was designed to operate at very high altitudes. The Canberra B.2 was 65 feet, 6 inches (19.964 meters) long with a wingspan of 64 feet, 0 inches (19.507 meters) and height of 15 feet, 7 inches (4.750 meters). The wing used a symmetrical airfoil and had 2° angle of incidence. The inner wing had 2° dihedral, and the outer wing, 4° 21′. The total wing area was 960 square feet (89.2 square meters). The variable-incidence tail plane ad 10° dihedral. The airplane’s maximum takeoff weight was 46,000 pounds ( kilograms).
The Canberra B.2 was powered by two Rolls-Royce Avon RA.3 Mk. 101 engines. The RA.3 was a single-spool axial-flow turbojet with a 12-stage compressor section and single-stage turbine. It was rated at 6,500-pounds-thrust (28.91 kilonewtons).
The B.2 had a maximum speed of 450 knots (518 miles per hour/833 kilometers per hour). It was restricted to a maximum 0.75 Mach from Sea Level to 15,000 feet (4,572 meters), and 0.79 Mach from 15,000 to 25,000 feet (7.620 meters). Above that altitude the speed was not restricted, but pilots were warned that they could expect compressibility effects at 0.82 Mach or higher.
The Canberra was produced in bomber, intruder, photo reconnaissance, electronic countermeasures and trainer variants by English Electric, Handley Page, A.V. Roe, and Short Brothers and Harland. In the United States, a licensed version, the B-57A Canberra, was built by the Glenn L. Martin Company. The various versions were operated by nearly 20 nations. The Canberra was the United Kingdom’s only jet-powered bomber for four years. The last one in RAF service, a Canberra PR.9, made its final flight on 28 July 2006.
WK163 was built under license by A.V. Roe at Woodford, Cheshire, in 1954, and accepted by the Royal Air Force 28 January 1955. Having spent its entire career as a research test bed, WK163 was declared surplus in 1994 and sold at auction to Classic Air Projects Ltd. It was assigned civil registration G-BVWC.
G-BVWC last flew in 2007. As of December 2016, the record-setting Canberra was undergoing a full restoration at Robin Hood Airport, near Doncaster, South Yorkshire.
Michael Randrup was born in Moscow, Imperial Russia, 20 April 1913. He was one of four children of Søren Revsgaard Randrup and Alexandra Pyatkova Randrup. He held Danish citizenship through his father, who had emigrated to Russia in 1899. Following the Russian revolution, the Randrup family relocated to England.
Michael was educated at The King’s School in Canterbury, Kent. He became interested in aviation in his early teens, and took his first flight as a passenger aboard an Avro 504K biplane. He began flight lessons at Bekesbourne Aerodrome in 1935, and soloed in June 1936. Randrup applied to join the Royal Air Force but was turned down because of his Danish citizenship. He then went to the Automobile Engineering College in Chelsea, West London, to study aeronautical engineering.
Randrup graduated in 1939, and along with a cousin, Ivan Christian Randrup, formed a small air charter company, AllFlights Ltd., at Heston Aerodrome, west of London. They operated a de Havilland DH.85 Leopard Moth, de Havilland DH.90 Dragonfly, and a Heston Type I Phoenix II (G-AEYX). The Phoenix was impressed into service by the R.A.F., 5 March 1940.
World War II bought their fledgling company to a close. (Ivan Randrup briefly flew for B.O.A.C. before going on to the Air Transport Auxiliary. First Officer Randrup died 29 January 1941.)
After Denmark fell to Nazi Germany in April 1940, Michael Randrup was accepted by the R.A.F. He received a commission as a Pilot Officer on probation, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, 4 September 1940. One year later he was promoted to Flying Officer.
On completion of his military flight training, Pilot Officer Randrup was sent to a flying instructors school. For the next two years, he served as a military flight instructor in England and Southern Rhodesia. In 1942, Flying Officer Randrup was transferred from Training Command to Fighter Command and on 6 October, was assigned to No. 234 Squadron, then stationed at RAF Perranporth, flying the Supermarine Spitfire Vc. A number of Danish pilots had been assigned to No. 234. On 1 January 1943, Randrup was seconded to Air Service Training, Ltd., at Hamble, just southeast of Southampton, where he flight-tested new-production, repaired and overhauled Spitfire fighters.
In 1944, Randrup was assigned as a test pilot at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. Among other assignments, he flight-tested a captured Heinkel He 177 A-5/R-6 twin-engine heavy bomber. In 1945, Randrup was appointed Officer Commanding, Engine Research and Development Flight. By the end of the war, he had been promoted to the rank of Squadron Leader.
Following the war, Randrup went to work for D. Napier and Son Ltd. In 1946, he became the company’s Chief Test Pilot. The following year, he became a naturalized subject of the United Kingdom and the British Empire.
From 1966 until 1973, Randrup served as manager for the British Aircraft Corporation in Saudi Arabia. BAC provided aircraft and missiles to the Royal Saudi Air Force.
Michael Randrup was twice married, first to Florence May Dryden, and then to Betty Perry. They would have two children.
Michael Randrup died in February 1984 at the age of 70 years.
Walter Shirley was educated at the Blackpool Grammar School, a private boarding school in Blackpool, Lancashire, and St. Catherine’s College, University of Cambridge.
Shirley was employed as a scientific officer at RAE Farnborough from 1942 to 1946. It was while there that he first flew as a flight test engineer with Squadron Leader Randrup. Shirley was sent to an R.A.F. flight school for pilot training. In 1946, he was assigned to rocket engine development.
Shirley joined Napier in 1947, working on turbine engines. In 1952, he was appointed Chief Technician. In 1956, Shirley was made the Chief Development Engineer for the Scorpion engine. He later became the company’s Deputy Chief Engineer.