If you take two Rolls Royce Avon turbojets and arrange them one on top of the other, cover them in metal, bolt a seat to the front of them, attach stubby little wings on the sides and glue a fuel tank to the bottom, you would have an English Electric Lightning. It was the UK's only home-made supersonic interceptor, and from 1960 until 1988 it was poised to throw back the Russian bear; specifically, the TU-95 Bear, Russia's equivalent of the B-52.

The aircraft was hideously ugly - it resembled a pregnant Mig 21 with infant wings - but extremely popular with the public, mainly due to its phenomenal performance, performance which is still impressive today, all the more so for an aircraft so old. The Lightning was the first jet interceptor aircraft to achieve supercruise, the ability to fly through the sound barrier and sustain supersonic speed without reheat. Furthermore, the mid-60s F3 variant had a higher rate of climb than an F-15E Eagle of two decades hence.

This single-minded obsession with speed was sated, however, by reducing everything that was unrelated to acceleration. (The Lightning was designed simply to take off, climb to 60,000ft, fly at Mach 2 towards Soviet bombers, launch its missiles, and... ditch in the sea, probably, as there would have been no airbases to return to by then.) The avionics suite was basic, limited by the space available in the truncated nosecone, whilst the weapons loadout consisted of twin 30mm cannon and just two (2) 'Firestreak' infra-red missiles.

The worst problem of all, however, was a lack of fuel. In theory the aircraft had a not particularly impressive range of 800 miles, but after an emergency takeoff and climb to altitude this was reduced still further. To rectify this, later versions of the Lightning were equipped with an enlarged belly and unique overwing fuel tanks; the extra weight of the fuelled tanks meant that, at takeoff, they were left empty, only being filled once in the air.

If that wasn't enough, there were no defensive countermeasures at all, although pilots took to stuffing chaff into the airbrakes.

The Lightning sold abroad to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia - unlike the Hawker Hunter, it was too complex and expensive for other Commonwealth countries - although it was only in Saudi service that it saw action, and then in a ground attack role. Like many NATO military aircraft from the 1960s to the 1980s, it rode out its service without ever fighting the enemy it was designed to fight.

Historically, the aircraft was designed from 1947 to 1952, it first flew in 1954 (as the 'P1'), and after many modifications it entered service in 1960 (as the 'F1', with two 14,430lb Avon 200Rs - training versions were designated with a 'T'). The Lightning was continually updated until 1965, eventually culminating in the F6, which was powered by a pair of 16,360lb Avon 301s. Top speed remained 1,500mph, Mach 2.2, whilst the rate of climb rose from 30,000ft per minute to over 50,000ftpm.

The Lightning left RAF service in 1988 to make way for the Tornado; an ailing English Electric was merged with GEC (now the equally-ailing Marconi) in 1968. 345 Lightnings were built; a few are still flying, in South Africa.

There are three interesting bits of trivia. Firstly, the cover of Suede's 'Sci-fi Lullabies' has a photograph of a battered Lightning used for target practice. Secondly, as the Lightning was designed to fly at high altitude and engage in long range missile dogfights, early versions were not covered in camouflage paint; instead, they were daubed with colourful squadron insignia, or just left metallic silver. And thirdly, the fighter pilot cockpits in the 'Wing Commander' film were actually Lightning nosecones bought from a scrapyard and redressed.


Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.