Flight Line

Recollections and reflections — a seasoned reporter’s view of aviation history

Commemorative Canberras playing the prototype a decade apart: WT478 (top) in 1989, WJ874 in 1999. The different colours are clearly evident, but which was closest to the truth? DENIS J. CALVERT

No aircraft has completely achieved the aim of being ‘all things to all men’, but the English Electric Canberra has come closer than most. Equipping at one time or another some 40 RAF squadrons and exported to 14 overseas air arms, perhaps the crowning achievement was its adoption by the US Air Force as the Martin B-57. This is not the place to retell the Canberra’s story or to relive its greatest moments. My quest here is to resolve an altogether smaller — and surely less significant — point of detail.

The prototype Canberra, VN799, resplendent in an overall blue colour scheme, made its first flight from Warton on 13 May 1949. This, the ‘real’ VN799, crashed on 18 August 1953 at Sutton Heath, near RAF Woodbridge, following engine failure. Since then there have been three further Canberras — all of them serving RAF aircraft — painted blue and marked up to represent VN799, with all signs of their true identity removed. The first two were No 231 Operational Conversion Unit T4s WT478 and WJ877, primary and spare aircraft respectively, repainted to take pride of place at RAF Wyton’s celebrations in May 1989 to mark the 40th anniversary of the first flight. The third was another T4, No 39 Squadron’s WJ874, that was so marked in 1999, this time for the type’s 50th anniversary. The VN799 ‘lookalikes’ were reasonably convincing in themselves but, had they been seen together, the fact that they sported very different colours would have been obvious to the blindest of bats.

It is a fair bet that few if any of the photographers who recorded VN799’s first flight in 1949 had colour film in their cameras. Even if they had, early colour films were far from accurate in their rendition of colour. Worse, the film stock used would likely have degraded over the years, making the images yet more unreliable for paint matching. As a result, the two teams carrying out the repaints some 10 years apart came to very different conclusions as to the exact shade of blue applied by English Electric in 1949. Certain contemporary references had it that the shade used was ‘Petter blue’, so named after Edward ‘Teddy’ Petter, English Electric’s chief engineer and head of the team that created the Canberra. That said, ‘Petter blue’ is not a British Standard colour, so this is of little help. The colour on WT478 and WJ877 can best be described as a bright, medium blue.

WJ874, following extensive research by British Aerospace to establish the correct colour, was repainted during 1999 in an altogether darker blue/grey which is very close to PRU blue.

My personal feeling is that the first, brighter blue was more accurate and closer to the description of VN799’s ‘cerulean blue’ finish in the pages of a contemporary issue of Flight. It may also be relevant that English Electric was also in the business of building diesel locomotives for British Railways. Its most famous design was the ‘Deltic’ (diesel electric) of 1955, the prototype of which, now preserved in the National Railway Museum at Shildon, was painted in a house colour often referred to as ‘English Electric powder blue’. My belief is that this was the shade applied to Canberra VN799 some six years earlier. Unless, that is, anyone knows better.

Letters, please, via the editor.

“ The two teams carrying out the repaints some 10 years apart came to very different conclusions as to the exact shade of blue ”