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On 28 August 1957, the flight crew of an English Electric Canberra jet bomber climbed into their waiting aircraft, WK163, at a base in Luton, taxied onto the runway, and soared into the summer skies.

The Canberra had already enjoyed more than half a decade in the Royal Air Force (RAF), but this aircraft was different: it wasn’t operated by the RAF, but by the Royal Radar Establishment (RRE). This was an age of experimentation and technological great-leaps-forward, and the resilient and reliable Canberra was proving to be an excellent aircraft for such tests. In the last few years, Canberras operated by the RRE, and powered by ever-more efficient jet engines, had soared higher than any aircraft on Earth – as high as 65,889ft (20km).

WK163 had one special feature. Instead of the Rolls-Royce Olympus engines that had helped earlier Canberras climb to record height, this had something even more powerful – rockets. WK163 had been fitted with an experimental new powerplant, the Napier Double Scorpion, which was housed in the aircraft’s bomb bay. The idea was that the rocket’s extra thrust could help keep the aircraft aloft in the thin air found more than 60,000ft (20km) above the Earth’s surface, or even higher.

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