The Canberra was the first U.S. jet bomber to drop bombs during combat. Its retirement in 1983 ended the era of the tactical bomber that had its beginning with the World War I De Havilland DH-4. The three remaining flightworthy WB-57Fs are technically assigned to the NASA Johnson Space Center, next to Ellington Field in Houston, as high-altitude scientific research aircraft, but are also used for testing and communications in the U.S. and Afghanistan.
The B-57A was not considered combat-ready by the Air Force and the aircraft were used solely for testing and development. One of the aircraft was given to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which fitted it with a new nose radome and used it to track hurricanes. The aircraft was placed into limited production. Particularly contentious were the cockpit arrangement and the lack of guns, the Canberra having been designed as a high-speed, high altitude bomber rather than for close air support. The definitive B-57B introduced a new tandem cockpit with a bubble canopy, the engines were now started with a pyrotechnic cartridge, the airbrakes were moved from the wings to the sides of the fuselage for increased effectiveness, the controls were now boosted, four hardpoints were fitted under the wings, and the aircraft was given gun armament in the form of eight 0.50 in (12.7 mm) Browning machine guns in the wings, later replaced by four 20 mm M39 cannons. The first B-57B flew on 18 June 1954. The aircraft initially suffered from the same engine malfunctions as the RB-57As and several were lost in high-speed low-level operations due to a faulty tailplane actuator which caused the aircraft to dive into the ground. The Air Force considered the B-57B inadequate for the night intruder role and Martin put all aircraft through an extensive avionics upgrade. Regardless, by the end of 1957, the USAF tactical squadrons were being re-equipped with supersonic North American F-100 Super Sabres. The complete retirement was delayed, however, by the start of the Vietnam War.
Although intended as a bomber and never before deployed by the USAF to a combat zone, the first B-57s to be deployed to South Vietnam were not operated in an offensive role. The need for additional reconnaissance assets, especially those capable of operating at night, led to the deployment of two RB-57E aircraft on 15 April 1963. Under project Patricia Lynn these aircraft provided infrared coverage using their Reconofax VI cameras. Later in August 1965, a single RB-57F would be deployed to Udon, RTAB in an attempt to gather information about North Vietnamese SAM sites, first under project Greek God and then under project Mad King. In December another RB-57F would be deployed for this purpose, under project Sky Wave. Neither project garnered useful results and they were terminated in October 1965 and February 1966 respectively.
The deployment of actual combat capable B-57Bs from 8th and 13th Bomb Squadrons to Bien Hoa Air Base in August 1964 began with two aircraft lost and one damaged in collisions on arrival. An additional five aircraft were destroyed with another 15 damaged by a Viet Cong mortar attack in November of the same year. Low level sorties designated as training flights were conducted with the hope of it having a psychological effect. As a result the first combat mission was only flown on 19 February 1965. The first excursion into North Vietnam took place on 2 March as part of Operation Rolling Thunder. The aircraft typically carried nine 500 lb (227 kg) bombs in the bomb bay and four 750 lb (340 kg) bombs under the wings. In April, Canberras began flying night intruder missions supported by USAF's Fairchild C-123 Provider or Lockheed C-130 Hercules flare ships and USN's EF-10B Skyknight electronic warfare aircraft.
U.S. B-57 Canberras were primarily used for dive bombing and strafing, with the early models mounting eight .50 caliber machine guns, four per wing. Later models mounted four 20mm cannons, two per wing, for strafing. These weapons combined with their bomb loads, and four hours of flight time made them excellent ground support aircraft, as well as exceptional truck killers along the Ho Chi Minh trail. Deployed along the notorious "trail" for much of their eight years in Vietnam, Canberras participated in truck hunting campaigns during operations Barrel Roll, Steel Tiger, and Tiger Hound, gaining reputations with their "Centurion Club" which consisted of Canberra crews which attained 100 truck kills.
On 16 May 1965, an armed B-57B exploded on the runway at Biên Hòa, setting off a chain reaction that destroyed 10 other Canberras, 11 Douglas A-1 Skyraiders, and one Vought F-8 Crusader. Due to combat attrition, in October 1966, B-57Bs were transferred to Phan Rang where they supported operations in the Iron Triangle along with Australian Canberra B.20s. The aircraft also continued to fly night interdiction missions against the Ho Chi Minh trail. Of the 94 B-57Bs deployed to Southeast Asia, 51 were lost in combat and seven other Canberras were lost to other causes. Only nine were still flying by 1969.
B-57s returned to Southeast Asia in the form of the Tropic Moon III B-57G, deployed to Thailand during the fall of 1970. Intended as a night intruder to help combat movement along the Ho Chi Minh trail, these aircraft were equipped with a variety of new sensors and other equipment, and were capable of dropping laser guided munitions. The relative kill rates per sortie during Operation Commando Hunt V between the B-57G and the AC-130A/E showed that the former was not as suited to the role of trucker hunter. An attempt to combine both led to one B-57G being modified to house a special bomb bay installation of one Emerson TAT-161 turret with a single M61 20mm cannon as a gunship under project Pave Gat. After delays in testing at Eglin AFB, Florida, due to competition for mission time from the Tropic Moon III B-57Gs, Pave Gat tests proved "that the B-57G could hit stationary or moving targets with its 20mm gun, day or night. Loaded with 4,000 rounds of ammunition, the Pave Gat B-57G could hit as many as 20 targets, three times as many as the bomb-carrying B-57G. The Pave Gat aircraft could avoid antiaircraft fire by firing from offset positions, while the bomb carrier had to pass directly over the target." Deployment to SEA was resisted, however, by the Seventh and Thirteenth Air Forces and others as the decision had been made in August 1971 to return the B-57G squadron to the U.S. in early 1972, leaving insufficient evaluation time. Project Pave Gat was terminated 21 December 1971. The B-57G was removed from Thailand in May 1972. Plans remained for the continuation of the B-57G program but post-conflict spending cuts forced the abandonment of these plans.
Main article: Operation Shed LightFor a short period South Vietnamese Air Force personnel operated four B-57B aircraft. The VNAF never officially took control of the aircraft, and, after accidents and other problems, including apparent claims by VNAF pilots that the B-57 was beyond their physical capabilities, the program was terminated in April 1966, and the aircraft were returned to their original USAF units.
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