Air Force Station Agra: The Indian Air Force (IAF) today phased out the Canberra B-57 bomber after fifty years of glorious service. The phasing out ceremony, held at Air Force Station Agra, was presided over by the new chief of air staff, Air Chief Marshal FH Major and involved a fly past by the legendary bombers, followed by the handing over of 'form 700' to the chief by the squadron commander, Wg Cdr Mathur.
Designed in 1944, the Canberra has had an unrivalled history in the world of military aviation. During its lifetime the Canberra equipped over sixty RAF squadrons and was license built both in Australia and the USA. The American version was called the B-57 and some 400 odd of these were eventually built.
Other than these three countries, it was also operated by seventeen air forces around the world. At home, the IAF's No.5 squadron was the first one to be equipped with these aircraft in May 1957 with two more squadrons, Nos. 16 and 35, becoming operational on the type by 1959.
The Canberra's were mostly based at Agra and remained the IAFs only bomber till the late seventies.
With the IAF, the Belgian Congo was the first theatre of operations for the bomber and on October 9th 1961, the aircraft was inducted as part of the United Nations force called in to restore order in the Katanga region. The task was given to the No. 5 squadron, which deployed 6 aircraft under the command of Wg Cdr A Suares. The Canberra's were a major contributor towards the UN aim of establishing peace in the Congo.
At home it went into action for the first time on 18th December 1961 when 16 Squadron and 35 Squadron were tasked to carry out reconnaissance and bombing of the Dabolim airfield in Goa. Two days later Goa had been liberated from the Portuguese.
During the 1962 conflict with China, the Canberras stood down and did not fly any combat sorties. They did carry out recce sorties in the Aksai Chin and the eastern sectors however.
During the 1965 conflict with Pakistan, the Canberra's mettle was really tested for the first time. Numerous high level bombing missions were successfully flown during the course of the short war. In recognition of their valour many Canberra crew were awarded Maha Vir Chakras, Vir Chakras and other gallantry awards.
The battle scenario changed dramatically for the Canberra after the 1965 war, with the entry of more effective radars and high performance fighters with night combat capability. These almost spelt doom for the sub-sonic bomber. Innovative development of tactics, like flying close to the ground, showed that the bomber still had useful life left in it, however.
Within hours of Pakistan's pre-emptive strike in 1971, the Canberra spearheaded a strong counter-attack on a number of Pakistani targets. The highlight of the 1971 operations was the bombing attack carried over the oil refinery complex at Karachi, which left it ablaze for nearly a week. Canberra squadrons were richly rewarded with four MVCs, a dozen VCs and many other gallantry awards and distinguished service awards in recognition of their contribution during the 1971 war.
Post-1971, the Canberra found new roles for itself, thanks mainly to its superb aerodynamic design, high system reliability and good maintainability. It became the IAF's "Wild Weasel" and played important roles related to electronic warfare, maritime strike and target towing. It continued to play an important role in photo recce missions.
The Kargil conflict was the last time it saw active combat duty when it flew in to bring evidence of enemy intrusions in the area. Despite taking a missile hit, a Canberra bomber managed to land back safely at a nearby base, a true testimony to the legendary bomber's reliability, and also to the courage and commitment of the crew that manned it.
Having served the nation for 50 years, the legendary aircraft has now been bid adieu by the Indian Air Force.