Last mission for RAF's spy in the sky

PUBLISHED: 18:03 23 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:05 22 October 2010

Aviation history was made today when two aircraft with their origins in an earlier age flew into RAF Marham after completing their final mission on active service.

Aviation history was made today when two aircraft with their origins in an earlier age flew into RAF Marham after completing their final mission on active service.

The two 45-year-old Canberras, flying almost wingtip to wingtip, were escorted into the air base for the last few miles of their journey as they arrived back from secret reconnaissance operations in Afghanistan.

Their crews - pilots Flt Lt Ronnie Fairbrother and Mike Leckey and navigators Sqn Ldr Winny Winwright and Flt Lt Colin Fryer - were applauded by RAF staff as they walked into the debriefing room.

They had just completed a three-hour flight from Italy on the last leg of their journey after a four-month tour in the troubled Far East.

Later, Sqn Ldr Winwright said: “It's always nice to get back to your home station and to arrive like this, with the Tornados on our wing, was very special.

“This aeroplane has been brilliant but I do believe that its time has now come. I certainly won't be sorry to see the back of it - where I go to work in the nose is not a great environment to work in.

“It has had its day and now it is time for the Canberra to retire gracefully.”

Watching the arrival home was Sqn Ldr Terry Cairns, at 61 the oldest operational pilot in the RAF who has served for 35 years on Canberras, who said: “We've all got to come to the end of our working day.

“I shall be retiring along with the aircraft, which seems right to me. It means I won't be standing on the golf course watching other guys fly over in a Canberra!

“I've been lucky in that I've had a job that I really loved doing. I've had a wonderful time and I wouldn't mind doing it all again.”

There were mixed feelings about the low-key homecoming which marked the beginning of the end for 39 (1 PRU) Squadron, which is to be disbanded at the end of July.

Its spy-in-the-sky role - PRU stands for Photographic Reconnaissance Unit - has become obsolete because of advanced satellite technology and modern equipment now available for aircraft like the Tornado.

The squadron's Officer Commanding, Wing Cdr Clive Mitchell, said: “I'm immensely proud to be the final Canberra squadron commander, although there is obviously a mixture of emotions that go along with that.

“Predominant amongst those is that it's good to get all my guys home safely from their last ops detachment. That is always the most important thing.”

One of the first to greet the crew as they stepped from their aircraft was Air Vice Marshal Chris Harper, Chief of Staff (Operations) at Strike Command.

He said later: “This is the end of a very significant era after some 55 years of service with the Royal Air Force. It's absolutely stunning.

“We shall be sad to see it go and sad to see the end of its incredible capability which has always kept pace with technological advance, despite the age of the aircraft itself.”

The Canberra Squadron is now preparing for disbandment by taking part in the RAF Waddington air show on July 1-2 and the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford on July 15-17.

The last flight of the Canberras will be on July 28, when the squadron is formally disbanded at RAF Marham and its Standard will be laid up in St Clement Danes Church in London's Strand on July 30.

During the last 12 years the Canberra - which first flew in 1949 - has operated in its current form in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda and Iraq as well as Afghanistan.

About 120 staff are affected by the disbandment, with some - like Sqn Ldr Cairns - retiring and others, including aircrew, being transferred to posts in other squadrons.

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