English Electric Lightning
Few British aircraft have inspired such love and devotion as the English Electric Lightning. This famous supersonic fighter aircraft was designed in the 1950s, at a time of urgent need for faster interceptors. It was a long-lived servant of the RAF during the Cold War and was also operated by the Royal Saudi Air Force and Kuwait Air Force. Only 337 examples were built, but its legacy lives on in the relatively large number of survivors, a few of which are kept in ground running condition.
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Remembering the early days with the legendary English Electric fighter
On November 25, 1958 the English Electric P.1B, XA847, became the first British aircraft to fly at Mach 2. The pilot, ex BAC chief test pilot Roland Beamont recalled, in the January 1983 issue of Aeroplane Monthly, this and earlier flights carried out by him during the Lightning’s development
FlyPast associate editor Jamie Ewan caught up with the Lightning Preservation Group during its eagerly anticipated, ear-shattering, ground shaking return to the UK event calendar
The English Electric Lightning was an interceptor that looked the part and was capable of supersonic flight. Advanced technology when it first entered service, its unique design nevertheless cried out for further development from the start. The reality was that the UK Government only ever saw it as a stop-gap aircraft and so it was largely starved of substantial funding.
Once in service, it was almost constantly earmarked for ‘imminent withdrawal’ and the modest developments that were approved were generally insufficient. Entering squadron service in 1960, it remained an integral part of the UK’s permanent air defence force for nearly 28 years.
Development of the Iconic British Aircraft
The Lightning was a radical aircraft from the outset. Born of a 1947 Ministry of Supply study, English Electric designed the P1 with twin, vertically mounted engines. The first official P1A flight, with WG760, was on August 4, 1954 in the hands of Chief Test Pilot Roland Beamont. A few days later, it became the first British aircraft to break the sound barrier on only its third test flight – Beamont unaware he had done so until back on the ground. The jet was capable of travelling at supersonic speed, with a maximum speed of 1,500 mph.
Two more P1As (including a ground test airframe) were produced, but transforming the P1 from a research aircraft into an operational fighter was a significant challenge. Three P1Bs followed, then a further 20 P1B ‘pre-production’ aircraft used for avionics, weapons and airframe development work. During this period many proposed improvements for later Lightning variants were identified but few ever reached the front line due to lack of political will and funding.
From the first production batch of 19 F.1s, early airframes were used for acceptance trials and others delivered to the Air Fighting Development Squadron (AFDS) at RAF Coltishall, Norfolk. Soon relocating to Middleton St George, Co Durham, the AFDS aircraft were used for pre-service entry tactical development and the ‘Lightning Conversion Squadron’ until the formation of 226 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) on June 1, 1963. The early selection criteria for Lightning pilots required 1,000-plus hours’ experience.
Royal Air Force Lightning Force build-up
The English Electric Lightning F.1 entered service with 74 Squadron in June 1960 at RAF Coltishall. Armament comprised two nose-mounted 30mm ADEN cannon and two Firestreak missiles. The jets’ Avon 200 engines had staged reheat, with four-position nozzle control in the reheat range.
At first the type’s serviceability was poor. A number of problems briefly grounded the aircraft on several occasions but those early teething troubles were gradually overcome. A lack of spares also contributed to poor serviceability, as did largely inadequate trade instruction for the ground crews as the RAF struggled to modernise its post National Service training system. It led some to say the Lightning came into service long before the RAF was ready for it.
At the 1961 Paris Air Show, 74 Squadron flew a nine-ship formation, becoming Fighter Command’s aerobatic team in 1962: the aircraft flown by the ‘Tigers’ were adorned with black spines and tail fins.
Most of these early production English Electric Lightning aircraft were later passed to 226 OCU. From XM169 onwards, aircraft were built as F.1As with new UHF radios, an optional refuelling probe and the Avon 210R engine with four-stage reheat settings.
At RAF Wattisham, Suffolk, 56 Squadron received its first Lightning F.1A in December 1960. It pioneered the Lightning’s use of air-to-air refuelling capability, demonstrating it by deploying two aircraft non-stop to Akrotiri, Cyprus, on July 23, 1962 supported by Valiant tankers.
The following year, 56 Sqn, as ‘The Firebirds’, took over as Fighter Command’s aerobatic team, adorning its aircraft with bright red spines, tail fins and the unit’s Phoenix badge.
The RAF’s third Lightning Squadron, No.111, also at Wattisham, received its first F.1A in March 1961. Its jets were soon adorned with black and yellow spines and tails. Flamboyant aircraft markings were a hallmark of all Lightning units until an Air Council instruction in 1965 to tone them down.
All Lightning flying used single-seat aircraft until the arrival of the dual-control T.4. First flown in April 1959, the design saw the airframe forward of the wing replaced by a side-by-side cockpit arrangement and the necessary deletion of the 30mm cannon left it reliant on the Firestreak missiles.
Pilots generally liked the T.4’s positive handling characteristics compared to the F.1 and F.1A. Deliveries commenced in June 1962, with 20 T.4s supplied to the OCU and a single aircraft for operational squadrons.
Later to become RAF Germany’s Lightning force, the ‘Leconfield Wing’ took on new Lightning F.2s. No.19 Squadron formed at the base in the East Rising of Yorkshire on December 17, 1962, followed by 92 Squadron in April 1963.
Improvements on the F.2 included a fully variable reheat on its Avon 210R engines, a liquid oxygen system (replacing the gaseous one) and improved cockpit instrumentation. No.19 Squadron moved to RAF Gütersloh in West Germany in September 1965, and was joined by 92 Squadron in early 1968 after its brief period at Geilenkirchen.
The prototype F.3, the first of the ‘second generation’ of Lightnings, was a rebuilt early pre-production airframe, XG310, which first flew in March 1962. Its new, much larger, square tail fin was a significant contrast to the old ‘witch’s hat’ style tail. The new Avon 301R engines were another major improvement. These were difficult to surge and had fully variable afterburner control.
The F.3 was popular among pilots as an aerobatic mount but, with the nose-mounted cannon removed, its sole armament was just two of the newer and more capable ‘Red Top’ missiles. The loss of the cannon was soon recognised as a significant mistake. Meanwhile a new trainer, the T.5, appeared, essentially a two-seat F.3. The first production aircraft flew for the first time on July 17, 1964.
Between 1966 and 1973, surplus Lightning F.1 and F.1As, were allocated to ‘Target Facilities Flights’ (TFFs) formed at Binbrook, Leuchars and Wattisham. These helped overcome the lack of targets for high-speed interception training.
As Wing Commander (Ret’d) John Ward, a pilot with more than 2,000 hours on the Lightning, later explained: “Odd things would occasionally come out of the blue. A few lucky guys got to fly intercepts against Concorde but the lack of high-speed targets was always a training problem.
“The squadrons always had this battle of achieving realistic training and meeting monthly targets. Gradually, through a lot of mixing [and] squadron exchanges with other aircraft, the training evolved and we tried to use the capabilities of the Lightning to our advantage – supersonic if we could and at higher altitudes where we had the advantage.
Seventy F.3s were produced, some subsequently rebuilt as F.6s, which could be fitted with underwing pylons and four unguided rockets. They quickly replaced the F.1 and F.1A squadrons and enabled the formation of 23 Squadron in August 1964. However, the F.3 still did not address the Lightning’s short endurance.
The ultimate Lightning for the RAF was the F.6. Doubling the original fuel tank capacity with a much larger ventral fuel tank and using Avon 301 engines, it had a front section configured once again to contain two 30mm ADEN cannon and retained Red Top missiles. Early F.6s were sometimes known as ‘Mk.3As’ or ‘interim F.6s’, lacking cannon until they were retrofitted. Total production for the RAF was 61 airframes – including those converted from F.3s.
The marked performance improvements of the F.6 prompted the RAF to upgrade most of the surviving F.2s – then in use with 19 and 92 Squadrons in Royal Air Force Germany – and from 1967 they were rotated through English Electric’s facility at Warton, Lancashire, for conversion.
The updated aircraft gained the large ventral fuel tank, cambered wings, square tail fin and modified engines (re-designated Avon 211Rs) and retained their nose cannon and Firestreak missile armament. The missiles could be dispensed with and replaced by a ventral gun pack to provide four ADEN cannon if required.
The combination of good handling characteristics, increased total usable internal fuel (3,250L), improved engines and nose-mounted cannon led many pilots that flew the F.2A to regard it as the most capable Lightning version in RAF service.
On relinquishing its Gloster Javelins in October 1965, 5 Squadron reformed and moved to Binbrook – its first Lightnings, interim F.6s, arriving in December. No.23 Squadron received its first F.6s in May 1967. The previous month 11 Squadron had formed at RAF Leuchars, becoming the third F.6 unit. It took 74 Squadron’s place after it had moved to Tengah, in Singapore, during May 1967, becoming the sole fighter unit for the Far East Air Force.
The Tigers of 74 Sqn travelled widely in Asia, including deployments to Australia, supported by Victors, for exercises with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). On August 25, 1971 the squadron disbanded and most of its Lightnings flew to Akrotiri to join 56 Squadron.
No.29 Squadron, the final Lightning unit, also formed in May 1967. It moved to Wattisham, soon receiving F.3s from 23 and 74 Squadrons. Lightning F.6 XS938 was the last RAF example off the production line. It was flown from Warton to Leuchars to join 23 Squadron on August 28, 1967.
Lightning quick reaction alert operations
The 1960s saw the Lightning pre-eminent in protecting the UK Air Defence Region (UKADR). The quick reaction alert fighter force, also known as the ‘Interceptor Alert Force’ for a while, were ready to be launched 24 hours a day against unidentified aircraft approaching the UKADR.
Divided into Northern and Southern Sectors, aircraft from RAF Leuchars were responsible for ‘Northern Q’ with ‘Southern Q’ shared between Binbrook and Wattisham. Two aircraft were located in specially constructed ‘Q-Sheds’ close to the end of the runway at each of these stations. These had enough space for the two Lightnings and associated equipment together with spartan living accommodation for the air and ground crews at readiness.
From the Sector Control, instructions reached the Q-Sheds via wall-mounted loudspeakers, giving crews warning and launch orders. In the cockpit they received more details of their target. Usually one aircraft launched, airborne in just a few minutes. The other usually acted as spare.
Victor tankers were a crucial part of Lightning QRA operations, necessary to keep them aloft for any significant length of time. Guided onto the approaching aircraft by controllers, if visually identified as Soviet, QRA aircraft would generally ‘shadow and shepherd’ them. This involved either guiding them away from UK airspace or shadowing their transit, sometimes for up to five or six hours.
Two ‘Battle Flight’ Lightnings were kept on alert at RAF Gütersloh, just 68 miles (109km) from the East German border. They were responsible for policing the 30 mile-wide (48km) ‘Air Defence Identification Zone’ running along the Inner German Border and forbidden to virtually all air traffic. The Lightnings were on a five-minute alert, but often airborne within three.
Their wartime role in Germany was to operate, mainly at low level, to intercept Warsaw Pact aircraft using pre-designated ‘Low-Level Search Patterns’ for their combat air patrols.
Lightning Akrotiri ‘Battle Flight’
In April 1967, 56 Squadron moved to RAF Akrotiri, the UK’s strategically located airfield in the eastern Mediterranean, maintaining an armed Battle Flight.
John Ward, then 56 Squadron’s Weapons Instructor, recounted: “Lightning tactics were slow to develop. When we moved to Cyprus the work and environment there were completely different from the UK.
“We sat down with the radar controllers and developed a whole raft of new tactics for using the aeroplane to counter the low-level fighter-bomber threat that was more pertinent at Akrotiri. This was a much more complex threat scenario than back in the UK, though we later took some of those ideas back with us.”
The June 1967 ‘Six Day War’ between Israel and its Arab neighbours, and its aftermath, saw considerable tension and air activity within 56 Squadron’s area of responsibility. “We kept two Lightnings on Battle Flight ready for immediate take-off,” revealed John. “They were perfect for that, able to be airborne in around two minutes.
“We normally launched one aircraft to investigate a contact, with the second ready if needed. Two additional Lightnings were earmarked and could be quickly readied for action if required. The Soviets almost immediately began airlifting new equipment to the Egyptians and there were an awful lot of resupply missions flown from Russia, across the Mediterranean, using AN-12s, and we shadowed them passing through Cypriot airspace.”
In November 1967 heavy fighting between the Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities raised fears of Turkish invasion. Both the Turkish and Greek air forces put aircraft over Cyprus to demonstrate ‘support’ for their respective communities and undertake reconnaissance missions.
The British Government’s response was proactive. Three Shackletons patrolled, especially at night, to detect any approaching naval invasion force while 56 Squadron had a busy time too, as John explained: “We were sometimes scrambling Lightnings five or six times a day, intercepting a wide range of Greek and Turkish aircraft including F-84s and RF-84s. Again the Lightning was the perfect airplane for that activity; it could get up and go.
“Squadron morale was incredibly high. The troops did amazing things. When we landed from a scramble the aircraft would be turned around and ready to go again in a matter of five or six minutes. It was an incredibly slick operation. I take my hat off to the guys working out there. They loved it, too, and thought it was brilliant to operate at such intensity.”
He added: “In the usual run of operations, when we scrambled it was to intercept reconnaissance variants of the Tupolev Tu-16 Badger. These were a mix of mostly Egyptian and Soviet marked aircraft. We had handheld cameras and would photograph anything interesting – radar blisters, aerials – just get what we could.
“We also intercepted significant numbers of US Navy EA-3B Skywarriors carrying out their own intelligence gathering missions in the eastern Mediterranean.”
The most dramatic interception for John came on May 26, 1969. His partner on Battle Flight was Roy Sommerville, who was scrambled to investigate a contact southwest Akrotiri. Listening in on the radio, John was suddenly ordered to scramble himself. The radar contact was not one Badger but two. Sommerville had intercepted one at high level, but as it turned away it revealed to the radar a second flying much lower, directly beneath the high-level aircraft and still on course for Akrotiri.
Rapidly airborne, John checked in on the radar controller’s frequency and was vectored towards the rapidly closing Badger. Quickly sighting it, he was soon just a few feet off its wing as it turned eastwards, just a mile or two short of the base. Instructed to order the Soviet aircraft to land, for 15 minutes John attempted to persuade it to do so using all the internationally recognised signals, all of which were resolutely ignored.
He finally had to break off contact, low on fuel, and return to Akrotiri. The F.3’s lack of guns meant he was unable to fire the warning shots he felt would have ensured compliance, leaving him feeling let down, unable to complete the task because he didn’t have the right tools for the job.
Lightning force contraction
When the Jaguar replaced the RAF’s Phantoms in the ground attack role, they were re-roled for air defence work, instigating the start of the rundown of Lightning squadrons. At its peak around 1968-70, the Lightning force had been some 150 aircraft, in nine squadrons. By 1977 it was down to 35 aircraft and two squadrons, which remained nearly constant until final withdrawal in 1987-88.
The first Lightning unit to disband was 226 OCU at RAF Coltishall on September 30, 1974. Its job was subsequently fulfilled by the Lightning Training Flight (LTF) at Binbrook in 1975, which trained aircrew for nearly 12 more years.
No.111 Squadron at Wattisham disbanded on the same day as 226 OCU, followed by 29 Squadron on December 31. Many of its relatively low-hour F.3 airframes were simply scrapped at Wattisham. No.23 Squadron at Leuchars retired its Lightnings on October 31 the following year and 56 Squadron, which had moved back to Suffolk from Akrotiri in 1975, followed on June 28, 1976.
In Germany, 19 Squadron swapped its Lightnings for Phantoms on December 31 as did 92 Squadron three months later, moving to RAF Wildenrath in the process.
This left just the LTF, 5 and 11 Squadrons at RAF Binbrook, the latter having moved there in 1972. The station remained the last redoubt of Lightning operations until the squadrons’ disbandment in April 1987, on December 31, 1987 and on June 30, 1988 respectively.
Although the Lightning clearly had limitations, its 28-year operational career was not that of a stop-gap fighter. John summed up its capabilities RAF service: “The F.3 was a great aeroplane but because of its very limited fuel, and lack of guns, was not that versatile. I thought the F.6 was the aircraft to use if you were serious about doing a worthwhile job.
“Over the years it was maligned for a number of reasons, but the Lightning did a job nothing else could do. On occasions I socialise with some Typhoon pilots, who often tell me how wonderful it is – how you can pull the gear up on take-off and climb vertically – to which my usually private thoughts are that I was doing that before they were born.
“At the end of the day, I have never yet found a Lightning pilot that didn’t love it.”
By Dr Kevin Wright