To the surprise of the American industry, Martin received a letter contract March 24, 1951, for the first 250 Canberras, to be delivered in the year beginning in November 1952. But the difficulties in producing the foreign aircraft and engines were greater than expected. Not until July 20, 1953, when the Korean War was about over, was Martin’s first B-57A Canberra flown by O. E. Tibbs from Middle River factory in Maryland.
The power plants were two J65-BW-5 Sapphires, a British engine built under license first by Buick and then by Wright. The short, wide wings had an aspect ratio of only 4.27, the pilot had a clear bubble canopy, and the second crew member sat behind him within the fuselage. Added to the original design was the rotary bomb bay door Martin introduced on the XB-51, and eight .50-caliber guns with 300 rpg in the wings. Wing-tip 320-gallon drop tanks extended the range.
Eight B-57As accepted by December 1953, were for test work and not for tactical units. They were followed by 67 RB-57As completed from January to October 1954 with black paint and cameras, but no guns. They served the 363rd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing and the 10th and 66th TRWs based in Germany until replaced by the RF-84F in 1958.
A new tandem double-canopy distinguished the B-57B, first flown June 24, 1954, and the eight .50-caliber guns in the first 90 were replaced by four 20-mm M-39s with 200 rpg. Four under wing pylons for 750-pound bombs or rocket pods were added, while the bomb bay held 5,240 pounds of bombs or a Mk 7 nuclear weapon. The night intruder mission specialty required the original black paint.
By September 1956, 202 B-57Bs and 38 B-57Cs with dual controls had been built to replace the B-26s of four TAC bomb wings: the 345th and 463rd in the United States, the 3rd in Japan, and the 38th in France.
Similar to the B-57B, 68 B-57Es were the only USAF types built as target tugs, and could be changed to combat configurations. Some were later changed to unarmed EB-57E and RB-57E versions.
The Air Force desire for a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft resulted in a June 21, 1954 contract for the unarmed single-seat RB-57D. Powered by J57 engines, the RB-57D had more fuel, four cameras, and a 106-foot wingspan. Combat ceiling was up to 59,700 feet. The first of 20 RB-57Ds was flown November 3, 1955, deliveries including an RB-57D-1 with APG-56 side-looking radar, and six RB-57D-2s with an ECM operator and equipment.
SAC’s new 4080th Light Strategic Reconnaissance Wing began receiving the RB-57D on May 30, 1956, and the Lockheed U-2 on June 11, 1957. On December 11, 1956, three RB-57Ds made a daylight overflight of Vladivostok that led to a vigorous Soviet protest. President Eisenhower decided that such flights seemed too aggressive when made by the USAF, and turned overflight missions to the CIA and its own U-2s.
Martin completed 403 Canberras by March 1957 with the last RB-57D and B-57E aircraft. The Canberra TAC bomb wings’ mission changed in 1957 from night intrusion to nuclear bombing, so the black paint was scraped off and a LABS (Low-altitude Bombing System) was installed. The Canberra began retirement from TAC bomber service in 1958, and SAC retired its reconnaissance Canberras in April 1960.
Two RB-57As loaned the Chinese on Taiwan began spy flights over mainland China on December 6, 1957, but F-6 (Chinese MiG-19) fighters soon shot one down. They were replaced by three RB-57Ds and on October 7, 1959, near Peking, one became the first American-built aircraft downed by a Soviet-made SA-2 missile. Pakistan received 22 B-57Bs and 3 B-57Cs in June 1959 that fought in the September 1965 Kashmir war, a dispute continued for the rest of the century.
Another non-combat modification was the WB-57F weather aircraft, rebuilt from 21 older models by General Dynamics at Fort Worth, with two TF-33-P-11A turbofans, and two J60 auxiliary jets could be added below the 122-foot wing. The first was originally designated RB-57F when first flown on June 23, 1963, and 21 of these two-seaters were delivered by March 1967. Combat altitude was 63,200 feet and combat radius was 1474 miles. Their work included gathering air samples from nuclear tests before retirement from Air Force service in June 1974.
Just as an American version of a British design was the first Army plane to bomb enemy soldiers in 1918, the first USAF jet bombers to hit enemy troops were also of British design. Only two Canberra squadrons, the 8th and 13th, of the 3rd Bomb Wing remained active when war in Vietnam revived the need for light bombers, and in April 1964 they moved 47 aircraft to Clark Field in the Philippines.
The first Canberras actually in Vietnam were two RB-57Es provided for the “Patricia Lynn” reconnaissance missions begun May 2, 1963, and, with three additional planes, continued until August 1971 by the 460th TRW. On August 5, 1964, the day after the Tonkin Bay incident, 20 B-57Bs were sent from Clark Field to Bien Hoa, near Saigon. They seemed to be positioned as a threat, for only a few road reconnaissance flights were made, but a November 1 mortar attack destroyed five and damaged 15 of the 20 bombers present, and caused 76 American casualties.
President Johnson decided to commit the USAF to direct intervention, and on February 19, 1965, 24 B-57Bs made the first heavy attack on a Viet Cong base. The Rolling Thunder bombing campaign against North Vietnam began March 2 with an attack including by 20 B-57s
Strong AAA fire was dangerous enough, but the worse experience was destruction of ten B-57s on May 16, by runway explosions at Bien Hoa. Canberra missions were moved to Da Nang in June. Vietnam Air Force pilots had begun training at Clark Field in May 1964, and four B-57s were provided them in August 1965. That program was ended in April 1966, after discouraging accidents. Of 96 Canberras deployed in Southeast Asia by 1968, only 32 survived.
The Canberras shifted to their original planned role of night intrusion, but target location provided quite difficult. To solve this problem, 16 aircraft were returned to Martin for conversion to the B-57G. The nose was reshaped to house APQ-139 radar, a low-light-level television, and laser range finder, with an infrared detection system under the left wing. No wing guns, but four laser-guided 500-pound Mk-82 bombs, four 750-pound M-117A-1 bombs and 3,950 pounds of canister ordinance were available. A downward firing 20-mm M61A turret was added to the B-57G below.
The first B-57G was delivered to TAC on May 22, 1970, and 11 arrived in Thailand with the 13th Bomb Squadron in September. They operated against trucks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail until 1972, when the aircraft returned to the United States for a Kansas ANG squadron until retiring in 1974.
Despite withdrawal from combat units, the Canberra continued in many utility roles, especially in weather investigations. Two Defense System Evaluation squadrons (DSES) were established, using modified EB-57s to simulate enemy attempts to penetrate our airspace.