On 30th January, the quiet surroundings of Bruntingthorpe were replaced with the roar of jet engines as one of the airfield’s most colourful residents celebrated a huge milestone. Jamie Ewan was among the gathered guests as resident English Electric Canberra WT333 – better known as ‘Treble Three’ – celebrated 60 years to the very day of ‘her’ first flight.
As English Electric’s chief production test pilot lined up WT333 on the runway at the aviation giant’s Samlesbury airfield on that January day in 1956, not many could have guessed that the same machine would still be around more than a half century later – let alone recognise it. In fact, one wonders if anyone could have imagined that the same jet (which was almost identical to those ahead of it in the production run and indeed those behind) would still be capable of singing the Canberra’s song. Despite knowing where, when and who, not much more is known about that first flight, however, one thing that is is that ‘Treble Three’ would have been at at the lightest weight possible given the size of the runway at Samlesbury – something that isn’t an issue at Bruntingthorpe with a near two-mile one!
The story of how ‘Treble Three’ ended up at the Leicestershire airfield has been regaled numerous times – one of trials with the likes of the Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment and the Royal Radar Establishment Flight, periods of languishing in storage, a mammoth trip Down Under, umpteen paint jobs, around 1,400 hours of flight and over 1,050 landings. Unbelievably, the story includes a low-level dash by a crew to catch the TV broadcast of the Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon and even a nose job. Alas, 60 years on from that very first flight, the jet is now the heart and soul of the small band of volunteers that make up the Canberra WT333 Operating Team. With such a significant anniversary, the team planned a small event to mark it in the best way possible – a fast taxi run.
In the weeks leading up to the event, the group’s working parties spent many an hour – sometimes at the mercy of Mother Nature – keeping ‘Treble Three’ in working order. As Stephen Reglar, the Team’s Adjutant pointed out “Treble Three now qualifies for her bus pass and she is entitled to have the odd need for special attention!”. Tasks included a number of anti-det runs, the application of a specially commissioned anniversary logo designed by Spencer Trickett of Skytoons Aviation art on the tail and replacing the Radar Research Flying Unit badges also on the tail. A small snag with one of the jet’s Rolls Royce Avons was also rectified.
On the day itself, the team were on hand long before the invited guests started to arrive including members of a family whose name is synonymous with the Canberra – Beamont. Wing Commander Roland Prosper ‘Bee’ Beamont CBE, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar, will always be remembered as the man behind the first flight of the prototype Canberra (serial VN779) on May 13, 1949 – something his daughter Carol remembers to this day. Other guests included a number of ex-aircrew who had flown WT333 and a couple of ex-RAE technicians and design staff who had worked on the jet.
With preparations starting under the dark grey skies that most of Leicestershire woke up to, the aircraft’s raspberry ripple scheme was soon shining in the bright sunlight that broke through – that shine the evidence of many hours of polishing. While the the last of the panels were fastened and the odd screw was given the last turn, many of the guests gathered around the jet on the pan and took a moment to look on at the classic lines of Teddy Petter’s first generation jet bomber. No matter what angle you look at the Canberra from there is always something that catches your eye, be it the huge dihedral of the horizontal stabiliser, the relatively protrusion free yet largely round fuselage, even the gentle wing sweep or in WT333’s case her nose. Once the the green light was given, the jet was towed out to the runway under the very watchful eyes of her ‘wing walkers’. As Stephen said, “It was a touching moment when the sixty year old lady’s raspberry ripple scheme gleamed under the rays of sunshine as she came onto the runway.” Following the jet down the taxiway and onto the runway it was very poignant to see a member of the team pat the starboard wing tank in similar fashion to that of a jockey would his stead before ‘the big race’.
With the jet parked into wind and the ground crew in position, it was time for WT333’s party piece – the visually and audibly impressive cartridge start. Before long, the silence was soon pierced by a shrieking whoosh as the port engine suddenly spat out a trident of black cartridge smoke. After a couple of seconds, the deep roaring boom of the first Rolls Royce Avon winding up filled the air as a sea of heat haze rose into it. Repeated with the starboard engine, Crew Chief Clive Davies was on hand to help Alastair Walton and George Walton – ‘Bee’s’ Grandson and Great Grandson – climb aboard with the day’s taxi pilot, Dennis Brooks, for the run from the ‘back office’.
Following a similar pattern to the excellent Cold War Jets days held at on the very same runway, WT333 was pirouetting around the runway in no time giving the gathered crowd a good chance to see the team’s pride and joy in all of her glory. It was somewhat fitting that, once lined up for the fast taxi, WT333’s nose was pointing straight towards Lutterworth while being accompanied by a symphony of jet noise – the very place Frank Whittle spent many years developing the jet engine. In fact, Bruntingthorpe was used extensively by the ‘the father of the jet engine’ during the development work, which without, the very jet being celebrated would quite probably have never existed!
Sat there on the runway as Dennis went through the last of his checks, it was strange to think that this very machine had done the exact same thing 60 years ago to that very day. And yes, for just under 40 of those the aircraft was under the care of the various research and trials establishments, but for over two decades it has been sheer determination, effort, hard work and dedication that has kept WT333 alive – a testament to those few who have done it. With checks done and a last thumbs up, ‘Treble Three’ began to roar as Dennis powered up and got both Avons talking – each capable of producing 7,400lbs/thrust – and let the brakes off. To say the machine leapt off the line is a huge understatement and fighting a rather gusty crosswind, it was incredible to see the jet suddenly rear up on the main wheels for just few seconds and show off a huge amount of ‘topside’ as the nose pointed into the sky – an emotional moment for the ‘Bee’s’ family knowing he was the man to do it first 66 years ago. Dropping the front wheel back down onto terra firma, the jet was suddenly quiet as Dennis ‘chopped’ the power and rolled out. He later went on to say that the machine had run “faultlessly” and that the “the nose wheel lift-off was unintentional!”. It may have been short run but WT333 certainly done it in style – not bad for an old one.
Backtracking to her awaiting crowd, many of those gathered couldn’t have failed to notice another British aviation icon being towed towards the runway – English Electric Lightning F.6 XR728/JS of the Lightning Preservation Group (LPG). Making it a truly English Electric affair, the LPG carried out both a static run (including lighting both ‘burners) and a brief fast taxi in the capable hands of John Ward. It is always a pleasure to see this once guardian of the UK’s skies come to life and roar again unlike many of their stablemates that have sadly been reduced to mere memories and nostalgic pictures. Incredibly, the Lighting and the Canberra were both the brainchild of W.E.W ‘Teddy’ Petter and Roland Beamont flew both prototypes for the first time as well as going on to fly the initial test programmes for each. Amazingly, the very same man flew both WT333 and XR728 during their very first flights from the same runway albeit it eleven years apart – the late, famed test pilot Desmond de Villiers. As both ‘Treble Three’ and XR728 sat next to one another for a photoshoot with both crews and ‘Bee’s’ family, it was quite clear to see the radical departures from the tried and tested designs of the time that the Lightning used.
By the time both jets were towed back to their respective homes and the guests ushered towards the airfields original control tower for a delightful buffet, the day had become chillingly cold and as Stephen later pointed out “it was somewhat reminiscent of a certain January day at Samlesbury!”. Inside the tower – and after everyone had warmed up – both Alastair and George were presented with their ‘Certificates of Carriage’ and given the cartridge case from each engine. Bee’s daughter was also presented with a rather fitting framed print depicting the very occasion everyone was there for before cutting the cake.
Who knows, maybe we will see the 70th anniversary in 2026 – let’s face it, if anything can, a Canberra can. 60 years to the very day… Happy Birthday WT333!