Raised from the boneyard after four decades and patched together with parts from different aircraft, a Martin Canberra is prepared to make history.
It’s always a treat for aviation buffs to learn that a historic airplane has been restored to its former glory for public flight or at least exhibition. But seldom do we hear of an aircraft being resurrected from more than four decades’ retirement to go back to work. That’s what has happened to a Martin WB-57F Canberra, which was “unmothballed” and sent to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
First flying in 1949, the English Electric Canberra was a pioneering jet bomber that was good enough to be built under license by Martin from 1953, resulting in almost as many American-built variants as the British produced. They included the RB-57F, a high-altitude photoreconnaissance plane with triple-spar wings 122 feet in span, as well as tail surfaces and engines of equally exaggerated size, giving it a maximum speed of 546 mph and a ceiling of 70,000 feet. The Fort Worth division of General Dynamics built or converted 21 of those aircraft to serve the U.S. Air Force from June 1963. As other spy planes rendered the type obsolescent, in June 1968 it was redesignated as the WB-57F “weather plane” for operation by three squadrons of the 9th Weather Reconnaissance Wing.
Two WB-57Fs have long been engaged in research activities for NASA. But the most recent addition to its fleet resembles a Frankenstein monster, patched together after leaving the grave…or rather, the “Boneyard,” to use the unofficial moniker for the final resting place of retired aircraft preserved at Arizona’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. NASA resurrected WB-57F serial no. 63-13295 in 2011, after more than 41 years of dormancy, a record for a plane stored there to be made flyable again. The Canberra, which entered service as B-57B 53-3918, had been rebuilt by General Dynamics in 1964, with its Wright J65 turbojet engines replaced by big Pratt & Whitney TF33 turbofans. In 2011 it was taken out of retirement and transported to Centennial Airport, Colo., for restoration—and more.
Kevin Lesenski, deputy manager of the WB-57 project office, explained that 63-13295 was rebuilt using components that had been cannibalized from two sister planes. “Air Force no. 13290 was also at the Boneyard, and was trucked out of Davis-Monthan to a facility on the south side of Denver,” he said. “We did a lot of restoration practice on 13290, which was already severely picked over. It was, for example, sort of our pathfinder on how to separate the wings from the fuselage. The other WB-57F, 63-13293, had been lying out in the open outside of the Warner-Robins museum in Georgia, and was not in good shape. We used components of that to practice reassembly of the wing.”
While the basic airframe is at least from the same airplane type, more grafting took place under the skin.”The wings were 80 percent rebuilt,” Lesenski explained. “But all the wiring and plumbing had to be redone. The wiring, hydraulics, everything got touched.”He added: “Serviceable engines were installed, and the aircraft was reequipped from available NASA stores. Upgrades included modified main landing gear using F-15 tires, wheels and brakes, and F-16 ejection seats. In 1968 the plane used McDonnell Escapac ejection seats, but you can’t get those anymore. The mounting rails proved to be compatible with the same Aces II ejection seats as the F-16, and proved to work just as well.
“The landing gear was modified years ago with a redesigned and rebuilt piston axle, which enabled an increase in the gross weight by 14 percent—from 63,000 to 72,000 pounds. The aircraft can carry up to 8,800 pounds of sensors, instrumentation and a full load of fuel—whatever the mission requires. For the main undercarriage we used the same wheels, tires, brakes and anti-skid as the F-15E. The nose wheel uses the same tires as the A-4. Those carrier plane tires are a bit heavier than we’re used to, but they worked out fine, and A-4s are still used all over the world, so we can replace them easily. This may not be a restoration in the strictest meaning of the word, but we will be able to keep it flying because there will be components for decades.”
After about three years of restoration work, the Canberra—now bearing the NASA tail number 972NA—flew again in the summer of 2013, but some additional testing was still needed before it joined its two sisters in NASA’s high-altitude research program, operating from Ellington Field.
“In September 2013 we were redoing things we felt needed doing,” Lesenski explained in 2014. “It has been flying some science and research missions this summer, to provide imagery for rocket launches off the Florida coast.”
“The original autopilot was made by Bill Lear, the MC-1. But we commissioned a new autopilot, built from scratch. It was good enough for the limited missions we were flying, so we flew it. The autopilot is now undergoing final flight testing, and the plane’s ability to carry out all missions assigned it is a couple of weeks away.”
Since then, the rebuilt Canberra passed its last tests and is fully operational. Like its predecessors, WB-57F 927NA will be performing atmospheric and earth science, ground mapping, cosmic dust collection, rocket launch support and test-bed operations at altitudes of up to 62,000 feet for government agencies, academic institutions and commercial customers. This restoration project is poised to make more history, many years into the future.
This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Aviation History Magazine. Subscribe today!