When the RAF needed to go supersonic to meet the threat of Soviet long distance bombers, it did it in style. The English Electric Lightning looked like nothing else, reached Mach 2 in level flight and for half a century could climb faster than any other plane in the world.
When it entered service in 1960, the Lightning was a real advance – more of a weapon system than just a plane; designed with a full understanding of aerodynamics; capable of twice the speed of sound; and, yes, climbing to 60,000ft in three minutes. What’s the story?
Before we answer that, this is what 60,000 ft in three minutes looks like, courtesy of the BBC’s resident astrophysicist Prof Brian Cox. To do this, take-off, then accelerate, to 450 knots. Then, afterburners on, stick back and up you go, at more than 20,000 feet per minute, and reaching Mach 0.87 by 13,000 feet. Certainly the fastest climbing aircraft in its time, and now outclassed only by the Eurofighter Typhoon. So worthy of attention, I think you agree.
By the end of WW2, the RAF had begun to move into the jet age, with the de Havilland Vampire and then the later Venom leading the way. Designed as successors to the wartime Hawker Typhoon, they retained de Havilland’s trademark composite construction, albeit with more metal than their forebears. Speed was no more than 600mph.
By the early 1950s, second generation jets such as the Gloster Javelin which was described as the ‘first all-weather interceptor’ and Hawker Hunter had superseded the early de Havillands in turn. The Hunter in particular was a graceful looking aircraft, and in 1953 one set a jet speed record of 727mph – faster than any piston aircraft, but soon behind the likes of the North American F-86 and F-100 Sabre. Eventually, nearly 2,000 Hunters served the air forces of Britain and 21 other states from Abu Dhabi to Zimbabwe, with the last ones serving in to the mid-1990s.
The RAF also had jet bombers, and one in particular was highlighting a problem. The English Electric Canberra, which first flew in 1949, had been designed to replace the de Havilland Mosquito, and was a truly outstanding aircraft. And the problem was, if English Electric could design and build a bomber that could reach 600 mph and 60,000ft – well above the ceilings of the Hunters – so could the Soviets. As an aside the Canberra served for half a century in the RAF, and NASA still use them. Yes, really.
So clearly the RAF needed to move forward again, and take its fighters through the sound barrier. As early as 1947, Edward Petter of Westland Aircraft had persuaded the MoD to commission a prototype jet capable of Mach 1.5 (approx 1,150mph) at 50,000ft. By 1948 the distinctive (unique?) layout of two jets stacked one above the other rather side by side was in place, along with a wing swept back at 40 degrees. In January 1949, the MoD assigned the project to English Electric, for detailed design, and for the completion of wind tunnel models and a full size mock-up, after Petter had moved there.
English Electric may have seemed an unlikely choice for the development of a cutting edge jet. Its primary business was equipment for mining, electric railways, power station transformers and steam turbines, as well as domestic electrical appliances. However, the company had operated a ‘shadow’ factory during the war, building Handley-Page Hampdens and, later, Halifax bombers and then the de Havilland Vampire jet, and this opened the door to post war aircraft development and production.
Development proceeded, at English Electric’s aviation headquarters at a former RAF base at Warton, near Preston, in Lancashire – the site is now one of BAe Systems key locations, and jets right up to the Eurofighter Typhoon have been developed and tested there. By 1949, a design featuring the stacked engines and wings swept back by 40 degrees was under development – recognisably a Lightning, but not the finished article yet.
There were doubts and disagreements with the MoD however, and they used another project, which emerged as the Shorts SB5, to test alternatives to the English Electric’s designs. The SB5 was not intended to compete – but to challenge the aerodynamic features that EE proposed. This it did, and confirmed EE’s design, by now with a 60 degree swept wing and tailplane below the level of the wing, as the way ahead.
So development continued, and in 1953, the final prototypes flew, albeit not called Lightning until 1956. In August 1954, flown by celebrity test pilot Roland Beamont, Lightning P1A serial WG760 exceed the speed of sound in level flight on just its third flight – the Lightning was now the fastest British aircraft, and had gained a reputation for speed it has never lost. The wing had now been tweaked, with a kink in the previously smooth leading edge – similar to how the Avro Vulcan’s wing evolved. And in 1958 EE’s aircraft business was consolidated, at Government behest, with Vickers-Armstrong and Bristol as the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC).
The Lightning P1A was limited to MACH 1.5 – the real speed came with the P1B, which had extensively reworked aerodynamics on the fuselage, the distinctive inlet cone and further work at the tail. The engines were still Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire jets, with no afterburner – the desired Rolls Royce Avons were running late. Even so, the P1B flew at Mach 2 in November 1958.
Another threat to the Lightning was the 1957 UK government white paper which proposed a future of missile based defence, and a focus on just one new all new purpose jet, BAC’s TSR2. This led to a cull of other designs and projects, and inadvertently to the development of the Hawker Harrier, still the world’s only successful VSTOL aircraft. The Lightning escaped the cull, as its speed made it attractive to the RAF whilst TSR2 was completed. Here, a Lightning acts as a camera plane for a TSR2 testflight – which is as far as the TSR2 got, of course.
Testing continued right up to the start of squadron service; not all test flights were successful, however. Actually, this shot was taken by photographer Jim Meads, and dates from 1962, when test pilot George Aird had an afterburner problem and ended up in a greenhouse near Hatfield, just north of London.
Finally, in May 1960, the production Lightning F1 joined 74 Squadron RAF at Coltishall, Norfolk, an RAF station from 1938 to 2006. The F1 was the first Lightning fighter version, but the RAF preferred the term Interceptor, given its role of intercepting Soviet bombers en route to the RAF’s V Force bases, in order to give the Vulcans, Victors and Valiants time to scramble and head east on their hellish missions.
As built, the F1 finally had the Rolls Royce Avon jets that EE had been waiting for, which were capable of 11,250 lbf of thrust, and with afterburners (or reheat) fitted, 14,430 lbf. But afterburners could not disguise the Lightning’s biggest weakness – its limited range, caused by the lack of space for fuel tanks. The thin, swept wing and fuselage packed with two jets one of top of the other left very little room for fuel, and the range of early Lightnings was as little as 20 minutes at full power – so RAF interceptors had to be based close to the V bombers!
There were various attempts over the year to boost fuel capacity, with belly tanks, tanks on pylons over the wings and eventually inflight refuelling from converted Victor bombers, but the basic problem was never solved – range was sacrificed for speed and agility.
The Lightning quickly progressed through a number of versions, notably the F3 which was the first to officially be capable of Mach 2 (at 36,000ft), courtesy of the more powerful Avon 310. Stability becomes an issue at high speed, of course, and the tail fin on the Lightning became larger and more vertical to manage this. The F3 also carried missiles rather than cannons, to cement the claim that it wasn’t a plane, but a weapons system.
Putting the engines above each other allowed for a slim aerodynamic fuselage, but was a maintenance nightmare – one engine came out from above, one from below. Balance was good, allowing flight on just one engine; and, taxiing on just one engine, a Lightning could reach 80 mph, but an explosion in one almost always took out the other.
Amazingly, being the front line of defence didn’t stop 74 Squadron being the official RAF Fighter Command aerobatic team in 1961, known as the Tigers, leading to sights like this over the airfields of Britain; in 1962, 56 squadron’s Lightnings took over, as the Firebirds. There was also the Royal Navy team, in Blackburn Buccaneers, and the RAF’s Black Arrows in Hunters. Now we have ‘just’ the Red Arrows.
For most, the definitive Lightning was the F6 of 1965, with a much larger ventral fuel tank, with twin ventral fins, and tanks on wing mounted pylons. Cannon armament was back along with a larger, more efficient wing with kinked and cambered leading edges. Length was 55ft (17m), and the wingspan 34ft (11m), and the plane weighed around 12 tons unladen. With reheat , thrust was up to 16,360lbf, was range was just 850 miles.
Overall, over 300 Lightnings were built – sources differ on the exact numbers, and many were improved from F1 to F3 and F6 specification. All were built at Warton, and both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait bought them for home defence. There were also trainer versions, known as T4 and T5 with the pilots sitting side by side, rather than the more normal in line arrangement.
The Lightning brought out the creative in the RAF’s plane styling, with many colourful schemes over the years. Originally presented in plain aluminium, with just squadron markings and RAF roundels, designs became more flamboyant, with bright tails, larger emblems and eventually, as here, bright striping along the fuselage.
And the performance? That was always drama, right to the end. The Lightning really could get to 60,000ft in well under three minutes, higher and then faster than any comparable jet, and achieve Mach 2 in level flight. The real ceiling is still an RAF secret, but there are credible reports of a Lightning at 87,300ft and of another intercepting a U2 above 88,000ft during an exercise – and the pilots commented positively on the Lightning’s stability and controllability at high altitude.
Interception of Soviet bombers was the Lightning’s key role, in Britain and Germany, as the V force was replaced by the Royal Navy’s Polaris submarines. Lightnings were based all along the east coast, from Coltishall in Norfolk, through Binbrook in Lincolnshire, Leconfield in Yorkshire and Middleton St George in Durham to Leuchars in eastern Scotland – five bases and ten squadrons in 300 miles. There, they waited on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA), ready to be airborne in two minutes and race at supersonic speeds to intercept Soviet bombers probing NATO’s defences over the North Sea.
Today, the Lightnings may have gone, but QRA remains. Last year, two Typhoons were scrambled to intercept an Air France jet that wasn’t responding to air traffic control and set off the car alarms of Leeds as they broke the sound barrier over Yorkshire in the dead of night.
As the RAF drily put it, “It is normal for Quick Reaction Alert Typhoons to be given Authority to break the sound barrier over land when scrambled” – but the Lightning did it first, and for twenty five years, they were NATO’s front line in the air.
Only once did a Lightning have to act in anger, when, in 1972, an RAF Harrier pilot ejected over West Germany as his plane malfunctioned. Instead of crashing as he expected, the Harrier carried on heading east, and a Lightning was scrambled to intercept and destroy it before it reached the intra-German border.
The Lightning left RAF service in 1988, when 11 Squadron disbanded at RAF Binbrook, north east of Lincoln. Its nominal replacement was the Panavia Tornado, with variable geometry wings, and now itself fading from service and worth remembering. Many Lightnings remain on display around Britain, and elsewhere.
Lighnings still have an enthusiastic following, thirty years later. This bloke was so keen, he put a Lightning in his garden.
And alongside the Canberra and Lightning, English Electric had another great new product in the mid-1950s – the mighty Deltic 3,300hp diesel locomotive, the most powerful locomotive in the world at the time. I think a Curbivore might be spoilt for choice!