39 (1 PRU) Squadron / Canberra
by Howard Heeley,
Down To Earth Promotions
The beginning of the end of Royal Air Force's Canberra operations took place on Friday June 23, 2006, with the return from operational duties in the Middle East of two Canberra PR.9s from 39 (1 Photo Reconnaissance Unit) Squadron [ 39 (1 PRU) Sqn ].
The two aircraft XH135 and XH131 returned to their home base at RAF Marham, Norfolk following a three hour flight from Italy. The two Canberra PR9s were met by a pair of Tornado GR.4s from the Marham Wing, with the four aircraft formation over flying the base, before the Canberra PR.9s peeled away. XH135 landed first at 1330 hours, closely followed by XH131.
The aircrews were met by the Chief of Staff [COS] Operations at Headquarters Strike Command High Wycombe, Air Vice Marshal [AVM] Chris Harper CBE MA FCMI RAF; the RAF Marham Station Commander, Group Captain [Gp Capt] Greg Bagwell; and Squadron Commander 39 (1 PRU) Sqn, Wing Commander [Wg Cdr] Clive Mitchell.
Also present were Squadron air and ground crew, families, the press, a selection of aviation journalists / enthusiasts and former Canberra personnel. Watching with interest was a 39 (1 PRU) Sqn pilot, Squadron Leader [Sqn Ldr] Terry Cairns, who at sixty one  years old is the oldest serving operational pilot in the RAF. Throughout his career Sqn Ldr Cairns has flown many variants of the Canberra.
The aircraft taxied to the Squadron dispersal where the aircrews disembarked, completed post-flight checks and were welcomed back 'home' by the assembled RAF personnel. The aircrews making this final operational sortie were: on XH135 - Sqn Ldr 'Winny' Winwright - [Navigator]; Flt Lt Ronnie Fairbrother - [Pilot] and on XH131 - Flt Lt Colin Fryer - [Navigator]; and Flt Lt Mick Leckey - [Pilot]. The two Tornados over flew the dispersal as a tribute to the returning Canberras and crew.
Over the years much has been written about the Canberra, the first jet bomber to enter service in the RAF. The first aircraft entered operational squadron service in 1951 with 101 Squadron at RAF Binbrook, Lincs. Twenty three  Canberra PR.9s were built under licence by Short Brothers, Belfast, from 1958 to 1962 and the first operational PR.9 sortie was flown by a 58 Squadron aircraft in April 1960.
39 Squadron's links with the Canberra began on July 1, 1958 whilst based in Malta, when they were equipped with ten Canberra PR.3s and one T.4 trainer. Operating various marks of the Canberra since then, they equipped with the PR.9 variant in October 1962. This version of the Canberra flew with a crew of two and incorporated improvements in aircraft performance, navigation equipment and cameras. The Squadron completed worldwide detachments undertaking aerial surveys and reconnaissance operations.
As technology changed the Squadron's role evolved to low-level tactical reconnaissance in support of NATO. On October 1, 1970 they returned to RAF Wyton, Cambs. Survey detachments continued around the world and other tasks they flew included medium and high level vertical and oblique photography, night photography and shipping photography.
39 Squadron disbanded in May 1982 and some Canberra PR.9s were moved to No 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (1 PRU). This unit continued the aerial surveys and other specialist photographic duties. In 1992 changing international events saw the need to expand and the Squadron reform as No 39 (1 PRU) Sqn
In its photographic reconnaissance role 39 (1 PRU) Sqn and its Canberra PR.9's have actively supported operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda and the Horn of Africa. In addition they have completed survey sorties in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Germany, Denmark, Norway and the UK.
The event of June 23, 2006 at RAF Marham continued with the aircrews coming out onto the Squadron dispersal to meet the assembled press and enthusiasts. This provided a good photo opportunity alongside three Squadron aircraft, including XH134 resplendent in special commemorative markings.
My visit to RAF Marham ended at 1445 hours, but as I left the base people were still out gathering their pictures of these last three Canberra aircraft that have such a proud and illustrious service career. When this article was prepared the Canberra PR.9s were each on Ministry of Defence tender waiting for people to bid for them.
June 23, 2006 may have marked the end of 39 (1 PRU) Squadron operations and their Canberra PR.9s returning from their last overseas detachment, but several additional events were planned before flying the type totally stops, the Canberra retires and 39 (1PRU) Squadron disbands. This included:
Soon after it should be known who might be operating or exhibiting the aircraft in the future.
Thanks to Sqn Ldr Rem Merrick and the team in the Community Relations Office at RAF Marham; and to Wg Cdr Mitchell and the members from 39 (1 PRU) Squadron for their time and assistance in helping with the preparation of this article.
All photograph copyright / credits: Howard Heeley - Down To Earth Promotions