v1.0.1 / 01 jul 04 / greg goebel / public domain
* During the 1950s, the British English Electric (later BAC) firm developed Britain's first (and in a sense last) operational Mach 2 fighter. A powerful and impressive aircraft that was restricted by limited endurance and armament, it went into service as an "interim solution" in the early 1960s, only to finally be retired from first-line roles in 1988. This document provides a history and description of the Lightning.
* Although the performance increases of jet-powered aircraft introduced towards the end of World War II were breathtaking, there were those at the time who believed that much faster performance was possible. As far back as 1943, the British Ministry of Aircraft Production had issued a specification designated "E.24/43" for a supersonic experimental aircraft that would be able to achieve 1,600 KPH (1,000 MPH). Miles Aircraft came up with a concept designated the "M.52" and received a contract to build the machine.
With the end of the war risk-taking was less acceptable, and the M.52 project was cancelled in early 1946. In its place, a team at Vickers under the well-known Barnes Wallis was to build remote-control models, basically what would now be regarded as experimental unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), to explore supersonic flight. That was not in itself a bad idea, since in more recent decades UAVs have often been successfully used to evaluate unconventional aircraft configurations at low cost, but Vickers fumbled the program. The American rocket-powered Bell X-1 was the first aircraft to officially break the sound barrier in level flight, on 14 October 1947.
Britain had lost a chance to be at the leading edge in supersonic flight studies, but the matter wasn't dropped either. Beginning in 1946, a design team at English Electric (EE) under W.E.W. "Teddy" Petter began design studies for a supersonic fighter, leading to award of a Ministry of Supply (MoS) contract in 1947 under specification "ER.103" for a design study on an experimental aircraft that could achieve Mach 1.2.
The MoS liked the EE concepts, and in early 1949 awarded the company a contract under specification "F.23/49" for two flying prototypes and one ground-test prototype of the "P.1". The P.1 was defined as a supersonic research aircraft, though the design had provisions for armament and a radar gunsight. It incorporate advanced and unusual design features, such as twin jets mounted one above the other to reduce aircraft frontal area; and strongly swept wings, with the wingtips at a right angle to the fuselage, giving a wing configuration somewhat like that of a delta wing with the rear inner corner cut out. The aircraft featured an elliptical intake in the nose.
The design was much more technologically aggressive than that of other early supersonic fighters, such as the US North American F-100 Super Sabre or the Soviet Mikoyan MiG-19. Petter, one of Britain's most prominent aircraft designers, may have been influenced by German concepts generated late during the war.
* Although the MoS was enthusiastic about the P.1, the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), Britain's experimental aircraft organization, found fault with it. The RAE awarded a contract to Short Brothers to build a piloted demonstrator aircraft, the Shorts "SB.5", to prove their points. Although the SB.5 was along the lines of a subscale P.1, officially it had nothing to do with the EE project.
The SB.5 performed its initial flight on 2 December 1952, with Tom Brooke-Smith at the controls. It featured a Rolls-Royce Derwent centrifugal-flow turbojet engine, with a maximum thrust of 75.7 kN (7,720 kgp / 3,500 lbf), and fixed tricycle landing gear. The wings were designed to allow the sweep to be modified by ground crew. The demonstrator also evaluated different tail configurations, including a "tee" style tail arrangement, with a triangular horizontal tailplane mounted on top of the tailfin, and a tail arrangement with the horizontal tailplanes mounted low on the rear of the fuselage.
The RAE wanted to demonstrate the superiority of the tee arrangement over the more conventional low-mounted horizontal tailplanes of the P.1. As it turned out, when the low-mounted tailplane was first flown on the SB.5 in 1954 it was demonstrably the better idea, but the P.1 was almost ready to fly by that time and the EE design team had apparently never taken the tee tail concept seriously. The only result was that the SB.5 confirmed what Petter and his design team had believed all along anyway. The SB.5 ended up in the Royal Air Force (RAF) Museum at Cosford.
* The first P.1 performed its initial flight from Boscombe Down on 4 August 1954, with the famed test pilot Roland "Bea" Beaumont at the controls. Beaumont had flown the SB.5 beforehand to familiarize himself with the peculiarities of the design. The second flying P.1 prototype performed its initial flight on 18 July 1955. Both prototypes were powered by two Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire Sa.5 nonafterburning axial flow turbojet engines. Even with the nonafterburning engines, the prototypes were able to easily exceed the Mach 1.2 specification.
Although the P.1 was officially a research aircraft, it had been designed to be close to an operational fighter configuration. Performance was so outstanding that the decision was quickly made to proceed on an operational version that would be capable of Mach 2. In fact, the second P.1 prototype featured items such as a bulged belly tank and fit of twin Aden Mark 4 30 millimeter revolver-type cannon, bringing it closer to operational specification.
Orders were placed for three "P.1B" prototypes for a production interceptor. The P.1 was retroactively designated the "P.1A". The P.1B was to feature twin Rolls-Royce Avon afterburning engines; a larger tailfin; airborne intercept (AI) radar in a cone in the inlet, which was changed from elliptical to circular; a spine containing fuel for an engine starter system; a raised cockpit; and armament of twin Aden cannon in the upper nose, plus a pack under the cockpit that could either support two De Havilland Blue Jay (later Firestreak) heat-seeking air to air missiles (AAMs) or 44 Microcell unguided 5 centimeter (2 inch) rockets. The unguided rocket pack was in two sections that hinged outward to deploy along each side of the fuselage.
Since the test programs of the earlier British Supermarine Swift and Hawker Hunter jet fighters had been delayed because too few prototypes had been built, the initial order for three P.1Bs was followed by an order in February 1954 for a "development batch" of 20 more machines for test and evaluation.
The initial P.1B prototype performed its first flight on 4 April 1957, again with Beaumont at the controls. He and Jimmy Dell were the primary test pilots for the development program. This initial machine did not have a ventral tank, though it appears both the other two P.1Bs in the first batch did. The first P.1B was later refitted with the ventral tank, and was also used to test a forward tailfin extension that was not adopted for production. On 25 November 1958, a P.1B fitted with early afterburning Avons exceeded Mach 2.
The development program was leisurely, not marked by any sense of urgency, partly because the aircraft was seen as so advanced that there was no real need to rush it into service.
* Ironically, at the same time the P.1B was making its initial flight, British Defense Minster Duncan Sandys (pronounced "Sands") released his infamous "White Paper" that stated that the day of manned combat aircraft was over and that guided missiles were the way of the future. Sandys has been bitterly attacked by British aviation enthusiasts ever since.
Somewhat in his defense, Sandys was not completely alone in his views, since the same point of view was also in fashion to an extent in both the US and the Soviet Union. Much was expected of the missile technologies available in the late 1950s. In fact, the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) did generally overshadow the manned bomber in the strategic nuclear strike role within the next decade, but otherwise operational experience in the 1960s would show that guided missiles needed a lot of work before they became the wonder weapons they were thought to be. Manned combat aircraft remained the rule for the rest of the century. Robot aircraft are indeed beginning to seriously intrude on the domain of the manned combat aircraft, but even now nobody is suggesting that robots will completely replace pilots any time soon. The main effect of the White Paper was to cause the cancellation of a number of promising British aircraft projects.
Work on the P.1B was too advanced to cancel, and in fact the White Paper had the somewhat contrary effect of confirming the program as an interim solution until the missile wonder weapons were available. That was the good news. The bad news was that implementation of several useful refinements to the type would be delayed for a long time, and in fact several basically simple and useful upgrades would never be implemented at all. The conventional wisdom was that the type would be out of service by 1964, so there was no reason to spend time and money on pointless frills.
The first of the development batch machines made its initial flight on 3 April 1958, with the rest following over the next year and a half. In October 1958, Sir Dermont Boyle, chief of air staff, gave the type the designation of "Lightning", in preference to the stuffier name of "Excalibur". Fifty full production machines had already been ordered in November 1956, and the first full production "Lightning Fighter Mark 1 (F.1)" made its initial flight on 3 November 1959.
The RAF received its first Lightnings in December 1959, in the form of three development batch P.1Bs to be used for operational workup. Incidentally, some or all of the P.1Bs were apparently retroactively redesignated "Lightning F.1s" at some time, but if so this is a minor semantic issue. The actual configuration of the development batch machines not only seems to have varied from machine to machine, but in the configuration of individual machines over time. The development batch aircraft are all referred to as "P.1Bs" in this document.
RAF Number 74 Squadron at Coltishall was the first full service unit, with the pilots acquiring familiarization with the type during late 1960 and the squadron declared operational in 1961. Number 74 Squadron, the "Tigers", had a distinguished service history from both World Wars. The P.1As and P.1Bs went on to have productive careers as test and evaluation aircraft. At least one of the P.1As survives, on display at the RAF Museum at Cosford, in the company of the Short SB.5 and a P.1B.
* The Lightning was one of the most distinctive combat aircraft to ever reach full operational service. It had a very vague resemblance to some Soviet fighter designs, but its "cutout delta" wing and over-under engine arrangement made it clearly different from any other major first-line combat jet fighter ever built. Some found it sleek and futuristic, others angular and strange, but all agreed that it was an unusual machine.
The Lightning was of all-metal construction, mostly aircraft aluminum with some steel and small amounts of titanium. The wings featured ailerons on the ends and flaps inside the cutouts, as had been demonstrated on the P.1A. The P.1A had leading-edge flaps, but these were not fitted to production Lightnings; in addition, the P.1A's flaps had been split, while production aircraft had one-piece flaps with fuel storage. Most of the fuel storage was in the wings, backed up by fuel in the ventral tank. The ventral tank could be jettisoned in flight. Each wing featured a small sawcut about three-quarters of the way down its leading edge, intended to provide improved aileron response and prevent separation of airflow from the wingtips.
The tailfin was fixed and had a rudder, while the tailplanes were all-moving slabs. There was a single dorsal fin under the ventral tank to improve yaw stability. There were also twin hydraulically-operated airbrakes, one on each side of the upper fuselage forward of the tailfin.
All the landing gear assemblies had single wheels. The nose gear retracted forward; in the P.1A it had pivoted 90 degrees during retraction, but this was not done on production machines. The main gear, which had a small forward slant when extended, retracted outward from a hinge point in the wings, the tires pivoting 60 degrees during retraction. The main gear wheels were narrow in order to fit into the wing, and burst tires were a common problem; the main tires had to be replaced after no more than seven landings.
The nosewheel was not steerable, with the pilot turning the machine on the ground using differential braking. The nosewheel could caster 30 degrees to each side, with an alignment system ensured the nosewheel was pointed straight ahead on landings. A nosewheel steering system had been developed, but would never be adopted on any production Lightning.
* The F.1 was fitted with two Avon 201 (RA.24R) engines, featuring an afterburner with four thrust settings, providing 50.06 kN (5,103 kgp / 11,250 lbf) max dry thrust and 64.2 kN (6,545 kgp / 14,430 lbf) afterburning thrust each. Some F.1s, possibly only development batch P.1Bs, apparently at least initially had the earlier Avon 200R engine, with the same thrust but a simple on-off afterburner.
The engines were arranged top and bottom and were staggered, with the inlet of the bottom engine towards the front of the wingroot and the inlet of the top engine towards the rear of the wingroot, to ensure an absolutely minimal cross section. The powerplant arrangement not only reduced drag but made engine-out handling relatively straightforward. However, it also meant that the two engines had to have exhaust pipes pipes of different lengths, and the close proximity of the engines tended to ensure that a catastrophic failure of one would knock out the other. Access to the engines was good, through large hatches on the top and bottom of the fuselage. The top engine was pulled out through the top hatch after the exhaust pipe was pulled out the tail, while the bottom engine was dropped out the bottom hatch.
The engines were started by a Plessey isopropyl nitrate (AVPIN) system. Isopropyl nitrate is a nasty, toxic, corrosive substance that can burn without oxygen. Fumes drifting into the cockpit could be a hazard, and spills would strip paint off the fuselage. A total of 13.6 liters (3.6 US gallons / 3 Imperial gallons) of isopropyl nitrate was stored in the fuselage spine, enough for six starts. The AVPIN system was troublesome but regarded as better than reliance on ground-starter systems, which might be hard to come by when Lightnings operated from remote airfields. In another decade, the turbine auxiliary power unit (APU) would provide a much better solution to the problem.
The pilot sat under a clamshell canopy that hinged on the rear. Cockpit field of view was good by the standards of the time, and the cockpit was pressurized and climate-conditioned. He sat on a Martin Baker Mark BS4.C Mark 2 ejection seat, capable of operating down to zero altitude but with a minimum speed of 167 KPH (104 MPH / 90 KT).
The Lightning's Ferranti AI.23 AIRPASS radar and fire-control system allowed it to perform tail-chase intercepts day or night, and in foul weather. The radar was in the intake bullet, which was mounted by two struts, top and bottom, to the inlet, with the lower strut accommodating a gun camera. Other Lightning avionics included a TACAN beacon-navigation system as the primary navigation aid, backed up with an instrument landing system (ILS). A VHF radio was fitted initially, as well as an identification friend or foe (IFF) system. Not too unusually for the time, the Lightning had no defensive countermeasures systems; it never would have any.
Armament consisted of twin Aden Mark 4 30 millimeter revolver-type cannon, firing from the top of the nose and with 130 rounds per gun, and two de Havilland Firestreak heat-seeking AAMs mounted on stub pylons on the lower fuselage below the cockpit. The Firestreaks could be swapped out for the pack of 44 unguided rockets or another pair of Aden cannon. However, as noted the idea that guided missiles were the way of the future was in fashion at the time, and the Firestreaks were the usual weapon. The Aden cannon in the top of the nose were actually not often fired as they blinded the pilot. In fact, the gun ports were usually faired over in the field to reduce drag, except for Lightnings serving with RAF Germany, where the type was assigned a secondary ground-attack role.
Incidentally, EE performed work on integrating the Hughes Genie AAM, a large weapon that made up for its lack of guidance by using a nuclear warhead, with a Lightning carrying one such missile semi-recessed under the forward fuselage. Nothing came of this exercise.
* Pilots were excited by the Lightning. It was a far more powerful machine than the Hunter, being very fast, with a snappy rate of roll due to its short span and well-thought-out aileron scheme, and a terrific zoom climb in full afterburner. A Lightning had no great trouble performing a dash to 18.3 kilometers (60,000 feet), and one may have unofficially reached 23.8 kilometers (78,000 feet), at which point it was no doubt flying about as well as a brick and with flamed-out engines. Lightnings actually intercepted high-flying US Air Force Lockheed U-2 spy aircraft operating out of Wethersfield, irritating USAF brass, and late in its career a Lightning would even outclimb a McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle. To be sure, this particular Lightning had been stripped down for the exercise, but even factoring in handicapping it was still an impressive achievement.
The Lightning was awe-inspiring in public flight displays because of its snap, power, and sheer thunderous noise, and several RAF Lightning display teams would be formed during its time in service. The best-known was the "Firebirds" team of Number 56 Squadron, which flew red-trimmed Lightnings for a year or so in the early 1960s. Lightnings performed the flypast for Winston Churchill's funeral in 1965, and in the next year, 1966, twelve Lightnings put on a hell of performance at the Paris Air Show.
There was the issue that such a powerful aircraft was something of a handful, with such unpleasant features as a high stall speed and a fast landing speed. It featured a drag chute to reduce the landing roll. Apparently the Lightning was sometimes known as the "Frightening", and it is a fact that only experienced pilots were assigned to fly the type, and then only after thorough qualification. That in itself enhanced the elite status of a posting to a Lightning squadron. Once mastered, however, the Lightning was a very rewarding ride. The accident rate was surprisingly low. The lion's share of the accidents were due to engine fires, which were a nagging weakness of the Lightning, not landing or other handling accidents.
The F.1 had significant weaknesses. One of the worst was an inadequate fuel supply and minimal endurance, a problem that would plague the Lightning through its entire life in spite of all attempts to fix it. For a time, Number 74 Squadron's F.1s were forced to fly without the ventral fuel pack while a bug was worked out, reducing them to (as was once said of another aircraft) "fighters for defense over the airfield beacon".
Another problem was that the Lightning's relative sophistication, in comparison with the austere Hunter, led to serious maintenance headaches. It was also not all that well designed for serviceability, and at first the aircraft's availability rate was very poor. Incidentally, endurance and maintainability were also often problems with contemporary sophisticated Mach 2 interceptors of other nations. Interestingly, the AIRPASS radar apparently was fairly reliable and worked well, it seems because it was a solid but not "bleeding edge" design.
* Only 19 F.1s were built, not counting a single static-test aircraft, before production moved on to the "F.1A", a minor revision that added a UHF radio, with longer range and a radio-compass capability; and featured an external wiring conduit running along the lower fuselage on each side, instead of wiring runs inside the engine bay as featured on the F.1; an improved windscreen rain-dispersal arrangement; and a detachable flight refueling probe under the left wing, near the wingroot. The probe tip was just forward of the cockpit, allowing the pilot to keep an eye on the refueling hose basket, and a light was fitted at the base of the probe to provide illumination at night and in foul weather.
Initial service deliveries of the F.1A were in early 1961. By this time, the Lightning had become the "British Aircraft Corporation (BAC)" Lightning, as English Electric had been absorbed by the BAC organization on 12 January 1960.
* Production of a further refined Lightning, what would become the "F.2", had been authorized in 1958, and the first of 44 production Lightning F.2s performed its initial flight on 11 July 1961. Two of these 44 machines were actually upgraded to other variants before their first flight. The F.2 featured a standby DC electric generator; a liquid oxygen breathing system, replacing the previous gaseous oxygen system; a new "OR.946" integrated flight control system, linking navigation systems to an automatic flight control system and featuring a substantially revised cockpit layout; and Avon 210R engines with a slightly improved afterburner control scheme.
The F.2 was externally all but identical to the F.1A, except for a small intake right on the center of the spine to provide cooling air for the DC generator. Initial service deliveries of the F.2 were in 1962. The F.2 would generally be regarded as the most pleasant Lightning variant to fly, as the match between the engines and the inlet was optimum.
* Improvement of the AIRPASS radar to AI.23B standard, which permitted collision course intercepts instead of tailchase intercepts, and of the Firestreak to the Red Top AAM led to the "Lightning F.3". The prototype, which was a modified P.1B, performed its initial flight on 16 July 1962.
The Red Top had originally been designated the Firestreak 4. The two missiles were clearly similar, but the Red Top had a rounded seeker nose while the Firestreak had a conical nose, and the Red Top's flight surfaces were considerably modified, though the overall arrangement remained the same. The Red Top featured greater range, speed, and resistance to countermeasures. Its improved seeker also featured a limited "all aspect" capability, though only against a target flying at high speeds and warmed up by air friction. The Red Tops were required for collision-course intercepts, since the older Firestreak AAMs could only be used "tailpipe" shots. In practice, most F.3s still carried the Firestreak for a time, since the Red Top's reliability initially left something to be desired. The Aden cannon were deleted from the F.3.
Rolls-Royce Avon 301 (RB.146) engines were fitted, with 58.86 kN (6,000 kgp / 13,220 lbf) max dry thrust and 72.77 kN (7,420 kgp / 16,360 lbf) afterburning thrust each. Not only were the new engines more powerful, they were also much more tolerant of airflow and throttle changes, allowing pilots to fly the machine with much less worry over engine handling. The F.3 was also fitted with a square-topped tailfin, with area increased by 15% to compensate for yaw instability caused by the carriage of AAMs.
The F.3 was supposed to be the "definitive" Lightning; in reality, it wasn't that much of an advance over the F.2. BAC proposed a wide range of other refinements for the F.3, but the RAF was taking a minimal attitude towards Lightning improvements since it was still regarded as an interim type. The RAF even refused to buy a completely automatic intercept system that had been developed by Ferranti, Elliot, and BAC, despite the fact that the system had been fully engineered at a cost of 1.4 million pounds and trialed in one of the P.1Bs. It would have turned the Lightning into something like a "manned missile" and greatly simplified intercepts.
This was not a mere nicety, either, since if an F.3 missed its target on its first pass it almost never had enough fuel to make a second attempt without topping off from a tanker, which would give an intruder plenty of time to get to its target and then depart. In addition, although the F.3 had strengthened wings to carry jettisonable overwing ferry tanks with a capacity of 1,182 liters (312 US gallons / 260 Imperial gallons), which like the automatic intercept system had been fully developed and qualified, the RAF didn't show any inclination to buy the tanks for the moment.
Ironically, by this time the idea that manned aircraft were going to be replaced by missiles in the short term was beginning to seem much less a certainty, and RAF officers who felt the service needed to obtain improved manned aircraft had stuck their heads cautiously out of their holes and were lobbying to that end. However, the result was that the Lightning was confronted with rivalry from various schemes for wonderful new manned aircraft, particularly the Hawker P.1154 Mach 2 vertical takeoff fighter. The P.1154 fell foul of interservice squabbling between the RAF and the Royal Navy, and was probably too ambitious anyway. Many of the other schemes for British advanced manned aircraft concocted at the time didn't work out either; those that did would take much longer to get out the door than expected; and the 1960s are largely remembered by British military aviation enthusiasts as a nightmare time. As it turned out, the Lightning would be further proof, if any were needed, that "there is nothing so permanent as a temporary solution."
The F.3 entered service in 1964 and 70 production aircraft were built in all, not counting the modified P.1B that served as the prototype and a single F.2 that was upgraded to F.3 standard before its first flight. The F.3 equipped a total of four RAF squadrons. The older F.1 and F.1A were generally out of frontline service by the mid-1960s, though they continued in training and other secondary roles for a decade longer, many of them fitted with radar enhancement devices to act as radar targets. In some roles these aircraft were stripped of nonessential kit, making them real "hot rods" to fly. The F.2 and F.3 had longer lives in first-line service, as is discussed later.
* The F.3 really did little to address the endurance issue, and so in 1963 BAC began work on an "F.3A" or "F.3 Extended Range Aircraft (ERA)", the primary feature being a much larger and longer ventral tank that gave the aircraft something of a "pregnant" appearance. The tank could be removed on the ground, but not jettisoned in flight. The larger ventral tank had actually been prototyped on P.1Bs several years earlier. It featured twin dorsal fins instead of the single dorsal fin of earlier Lightning variants.
The F.3A also featured a new wing that featured a leading-edge camber and a "kinked" outer wing panels with slightly increased sweep, providing better low-speed handling. The kinked wing had actually been demonstrated on a P.1A in 1957. The F.3A retained the Avon 301 engines.
Initial flight was on 17 April 1964. There doesn't appear to have been a specific F.3A prototype, though an F.2 was fitted with the kinked wings on a trials basis. A total of 16 "F.3As" was built. There were 14 upgrades to F.3A specification as well, including 12 F.3s that hadn't been delivered to the RAF yet; an F.2 that was upgraded before its first flight; and the single F.2 that had been previously upgraded to an F.3.
* Production then switched to a further improved variant that could actually use the overwing tanks and featured a few other minor improvements in avionics kit. This version was known as the "F.6", with initial flight on 16 June 1965, with Jimmy Dell at the controls.
39 production F.6 Lightnings were built. There doesn't seem to have been any specific prototype as the F.6 was basically a simple production change of the F.3A. The F.3As accordingly were given the redesignation of "Interim F.6", though all but one of the 16 F.3As built were later upgraded to full F.6 specification. Seven F.3s were also upgraded to F.6 specification before their entry into RAF service.
The F.6 suffered from the "weight creep" that often afflicts aircraft over
their evolution, with an empty weight 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) greater
than that of a F.3 and 1,045 kilograms (2,300 pounds) more than that of a
F.1. This affected its handling somewhat, and of course full afterburner had
to be used on takeoff.
ENGLISH ELECTRIC (BAC) LIGHTNING F.6:
_____________________ _________________ _______________________
spec metric english
_____________________ _________________ _______________________
wingspan 10.61 meters 34 feet 10 inches
wing area 42.6 sq_meters 458.5 sq_feet
length 16.84 meters 55 feet 3 inches
height 5.97 meters 19 feet 7 inches
empty weight 12,719 kilograms 28,040 pounds
MTO weight 18,915 kilograms 41,700 pounds
max speed at altitude 2,415 KPH 1,500 MPH / 1,305 KT
service ceiling 18,290 meters 60,000 feet
range (internal fuel) 1,287 kilometers 800 MI / 695 NMI
_____________________ _________________ _______________________
There were also no significant changes in avionics and the Avon 210s were retained. The upgrade was surprisingly cheap, and since the F.2A was cleaner and lighter than the F.6 RAF pilots found it one of the most agreeable Lightning variants to fly. In an unaggressive high-altitude flight, they could get two hours of endurance out an F.2A, which no other Lightning variant could touch.
* Since the Lightning was such a "hot" machine, a two-seat conversion trainer seemed like a good idea from the outset, with work beginning in 1957. Initial flight of the first two-seater, then known as the "P.11", was on 6 May 1959. It had a side-by-side cockpit and lacked the twin Aden cannon in the nose. This particular aircraft was lost in an accident on 1 October 1959, the first Lightning to suffer such a fate, but a second prototype performed its first flight on 21 October.
Deliveries of the first production trainers, which were designated "T.4", was in 1962. A total of 20 were built, not counting the two prototypes. The T.4 was generally comparable to the F.1A except for the two-seat cockpit, which widened the forward fuselage by 29 centimeters (11.5 inches), and the lack of nose guns. Except for that, it was fully combat capable, with AIRPASS radar and Firestreak capability, and the Firestreaks could in principle be swapped for a pack of two Aden cannon or 44 unguided rockets. The crew sat on Martin Baker BS4.B Mark 2 ejection seats.
* The F.3 also led to a similar side-by-side trainer, the "Lightning T.5", with Avon 301 engines and the square-topped fin. The first two production T.4s were converted to serve as prototypes for the T.5. The initial T.5 prototype performed its maiden flight on 29 March 1962, though it was later lost in an accident, and the second prototype didn't fly until 17 July 1964. As with the T.4, the T.5 was combat-capable. 22 production T.5s were obtained by the RAF, with initial deliveries on 20 April 1965.
Crews apparently gave the trainer versions of the Lightning the nickname of "Tub" because of the wide cockpit. Sources seem a bit fuzzy on how they were regarded. Apparently they were lighter on the stick than the single seaters, but it seems they were not generally liked, partially because they were used for sweatshop training courses that turned them into something like an instrument of torture. One cynic suggested: "The best thing that could happen to the T Mark 5 would be if someone flew it into the simulator."
Both the T.4 and T.5 remained in service through most of the Lightning's life. The T.4 was useful for training pilots for the F.2A, since the F.2A's improvements didn't include new avionics and the older kit of the T.4 was a better match than that of the T.5.
* Initially, RAF Lightnings were assigned for point defense of high-priority targets in the UK, such as V-bomber bases. They didn't have the range to do much else. Interceptions of Soviet intruders over the North Sea on "quick reaction alerts (QRAs)" had to wait for the F.1A with inflight refueling, with the Lightnings kept originally kept in the air by Vickers Valiant tankers. The abrupt grounding of the Valiant in 1964 was a great inconvenience, but gradually the Handley Page Victor took up the slack. Apparently the US Air Force helped out in the interim, using Boeing KC-135s with the boom fitted with a probe-and-drogue refueling adapter.
The pilots sat in a ready room at base to wait for an alert, and when an alert came they got their Lightnings into the air as fast as possible, accompanied by a tanker. They would escort Soviet aircraft, usually Tu-95 Bears, Tu-16 Badgers, or Il-38 Mays. Sometimes the Soviets would press their luck, trying to intrude on a naval exercise or whatever, and there would be a tense confrontation, but usually the encounters were friendly. Long ocean-patrol flights tend to be boring and the Soviet crews would smile, wave, and hold up bottles or pinups. One Lightning pilot escorting a Bear lost track of his tanker and couldn't raise it on radio. He was preparing to divert to Iceland, when one of the aircrew on the Tu-95 radioed the British pilot with range and bearing to the tanker, ending the conversation with: "English Electric MiG, bon voyage!"
Two Lightning squadrons were deployed to Germany in 1965, where they were assigned the low-level intercept role. They often escorted intruders that had strayed across the border from the East, sometimes because they had got lost but sometimes because they were probing NATO defenses. RAF Germany Lightnings destroyed the only aircraft ever shot down by a Lightning in anything but target practice. A RAF Harrier pilot's mount began to misbehave and the pilot punched out, but the fickle aircraft then decided to keep right on flying East towards the border. It was destroyed in order to avoid an incident.
Number 56 squadron deployed to RAF Akrotiri on Cyprus in 1967, returning to the UK in 1975. Number 74 squadron deployed to RAF Tengah, Singapore, also in 1967, to return and disband in 1971. Of course, Lightnings paid visits to a large number countries as far away as Iran.
* By 1969, the Lightning equipped nine first-line squadrons, with five of those squadrons in the UK, and the notion that the type was an "interim" aircraft finally faded out completely. The RAF accepted that the type was going to be around for a while and implemented some upgrades. A runway arresting hook was developed and fitted to most Lightning survivors; the hook was spring-loaded and had to be reloaded by the ground crew.
More significantly, in a tacit acknowledgement that the idea of all-missile armament was a mistake, beginning in 1970 F.6s were retrofitted with cannon in a new mounting scheme. The ventral tank had three sections, and the forward section could be swapped out with two Aden cannon with 120 rounds per gun for a fractional loss in fuel capacity. This gave the F.6 backup in case the missiles failed to destroy their target, and also allowed engagement of targets from within minimum missile range. Only a few F.2As received this modification.
* Up to the 1970s, Lightnings almost always flew in natural metal finish, though with a fair variety of markings and trim colors such as red-checkered tails and so on -- in fact such a variety that in 1966 the killjoy brass established stricter guidelines for what decorations were and were not permissible. In 1972, RAF Germany Lightning squadrons established a camouflage scheme for their aircraft, with a single-tone dark green on top and natural metal on the bottom. This color scheme was used because Lightnings were used for low-level intercepts in Germany, and a natural metal finish made them much too visible to a high-flying intruder against the generally green German countryside.
A few years later, UK Lightning squadrons adopted a two-tone gray-dark green camouflage pattern on top, with natural metal finish or light gray on the underside. In 1981, UK Lightnings began to be painted in various natty "air defense" gray schemes, such as gray on top and lighter gray on the belly.
* The Lightning did poorly in export sales. In December 1965, as part of a large package deal, Saudi Arabia ordered 34 single-seat and six two-seat Lightnings. The single-seaters were to be "F.53s", which were basically F.6s, featuring the long ventral tank and the kinked wings, but which were more capable.
BAC had tried to promote a multirole version of the F.3 to the RAF as the "F.3B", which would have added strike and reconnaissance capabilities, but the RAF wasn't interested, apparently because at the time RAF doctrine was focused on single-role aircraft. Some authors believe that had the multirole Lightning been more aggressively promoted, it could have led to export sales of the type rivalling those of the wildly popular Hunter.
The Saudis certainly liked the idea, though they had also been impressed with a low-level run performed by Jimmy Dell over the middle of Ridyadh, conducted at the request Prince Sultan, the Defense Minister. Dell had kept the machine under Mach 1 but local papers still reported miscarriages and dogs going mad. The Saudi Air Force's chief test pilot, a Lieutenant Hamdam, also took a trip to the UK, where he pushed an F.2 through Mach 2.1 on his first solo flight in the type. He was suitably impressed.
In any case, the multirole F.53s could be fitted with a single pylon under each wing to carry unguided rocket pods or bombs of up to 450 kilogram (1,000 pound) size, and the overwing pylons were also reinforced to allow carriage of external stores as well. Exactly what external stores Saudi F.53s actually carried is unclear, but the available options were impressive and surprising.
Each underwing pylon could carry either one or (using a side-by-side adapter) two 450 kilogram (1,000 pound) general purpose bombs, or one or two French Matra Type 155 rocket pods, each carrying 18 SNEB 68 millimeter (2.68 inch) unguided rockets. Of course, the top pylon could carry a standard ferry tank or a rocket pod, but it could even carry a parachute-retarded 450 kilogram bomb, tossed up from the wing pylon using an explosive cartridge ejector mechanism. An even more surprising stores arrangement for the upper pylon featured an adapter that could carry two Matra JL100 pods, which contained an 18-round SNEB rocket launcher in front and a 227 liter (50 Imperial gallon / 60 US gallon) fuel tank in back. This gave the F.53 such formidable warload configurations as eight rocket launchers, with a total of 144 rockets.
The weapons pack for the Red Tops could also be swapped out with the Microcell unguided rocket pack or a reconnaissance pack. Day and night reconnaissance packs were developed. The day reconnaissance pack featured five Vinten 70 millimeter film cameras. The night reconnaissance pack featured cameras and an infrared linescanner, backed up by photoflash flares carried on the wing pylons. The cameras in the reconnaissance pack rotated out for use and then were rotated back for storage. It is unclear if the Saudis obtained both types of reconnaissance pack, and very unclear if they obtained the Microcell rocket pack.
The F.53, like the F.6, could accommodate two 30 millimeter Aden cannon in the front of the ventral tank, and in fact this feature was developed for the F.53 and then retrofitted to the F.6. With the unguided rocket pack, unguided rocket pods on the wings, and the twin Aden cannon, the F.53 had a fair punch in the strike role. The T.55s were even more unique, being basically a trainer version of the F.6. Some authors claim the RAF missed a bet by not taking any interest in such a variant, as it would have made an excellent basis for a very capable multirole aircraft.
* The Saudis were in a hurry to get their Lightnings, since Egypt and Saudi Arabia were currently at odds over the civil war in Yemen and trading accusations and shots, and the Saudis wanted to counter Egyptian MiG fighter incursions. Under the "Magic Carpet" deal, in July 1966 the Saudis were provided four F.2s as "F.52s", with a fifth passed on as an attrition replacement a year later, and two T.4s as "T.54s". Ironically, the Egyptian incursions stopped before these interim Saudi Lightnings got into service, but they were useful for bringing the Saudi Air Force up to speed on the type.
The one F.3A that wasn't upgraded to an F.6 became the initial F.53 prototype, performing its initial flight on 19 October 1966. Deliveries of the F.53 began in July 1968. All Saudi Lightnings would fly in natural metal finish. They performed ground attack missions during Yemeni incursions in late 1969 and early 1970 and proved highly effective in the attack role, though one Lightning was shot down, the pilot ejecting safely and rescued.
Saudi Lightnings were replaced in the ground-attack role by the Northrop F-5 from 1971, and lost the reconnaissance mission not long after, reducing the Saudi F.53s to single-role interceptors with no great distinction from an F.6. The Lightning was formally retired from Saudi service in 1986. Of the 47 delivered, not counting two that had been lost before delivery, 18 had been lost in Saudi service, 22 were returned to the UK for possible use or resale, and the rest were set up as gate guards and other static displays. Some of the display items have camouflage color schemes, but such paint jobs were apparently not used in actual service.
* The only other foreign buyer was Kuwait, which ordered 12 "F.53Ks" and two "T.55Ks" in late 1966, with these aircraft largely or completely the same as their Saudi equivalents. Deliveries were in 1968 and 1969. The Kuwaitis did not find them very satisfactory as Kuwait lacked the capability to properly service them and keep them flying. By 1973 the Kuwaitis were trying to sell them off, and in 1977 they were finally phased out completely, replaced by the Mirage F1, which was much simpler and more in line with Kuwaiti needs and capabilities. Some of the Kuwaiti Lightnings also survive as static displays, though apparently a few of these were destroyed during the Gulf War in 1990:1991.
* By the late 1970s, the Lightning was beginning to be replaced by the McDonnell Douglas Phantom in RAF service, with a number of Lightnings relegated to such roles as ground decoys. Overall performance of the Phantom was comparable to that of the Lightning, with pluses and minuses, but the Phantom provided better endurance; more sophisticated and capable avionics; and much more substantial missile armament: a Phantom could carry four Sidewinder short-range AAMs and four Sparrow medium-range AAMs, in contrast to the two Firestreak or Red Top short-range AAMs carried by the Lightning. Later model Sidewinders and Sparrows were also far superior technically to the older Firestreak and Red Top. The Lightning was superior in terms of gun armament, however, since RAF Phantoms were limited to carriage of a centerline 20 millimeter Vulcan cannon pod, which lacked both the accuracy and the hitting power of the Lightning's twin Aden cannon.
However, the Lightning persisted in RAF frontline service for another decade. 1979 was the 25th anniversary of the Lightning's operational service, and so a special display was planned for RAF Binbrook, with Lightnings painted up in colors of various past users and a 25-aircraft flypast planned. Unfortunately, strong rains did much to dampen the spirit of the exercise.
Also in 1979, a program was begun to strengthen the wingroots of F.6s and T.5s. In 1985, British Aerospace (BAe, which had superceded BAC), performed a "service life extension program (SLEP)" on 35 F.6s, but this was squeaking the last droplets out of the type. Ideas for many improvements were not followed up. A modern off-the-shelf radar would have provided a significant increase in capability. Fit of the modern AIM-9L "all aspect" variant of the US Sidewinder AAM, proven in the Falklands to be an extremely effective weapon and far superior to the antiquated Firestreak and Red Top, would have been straightforward, since its seeker acquired a target without use of other gear, indicating a lock with a tone in the pilot's headphones. Sidewinder fit had been mocked up in 1982 but that was the sum of it.
The Lightning was finally phased out of first-line service in Britain in 1988, being completely replaced by the Panavia Tornado. A small number of Lightnings did serve on for a few more years in secondary roles, such as chase aircraft and as radar targets for Tornado evaluation. A "farewell flight" of three Lightnings was organized in 1992, though a few kept on flying for a bit after that.
While RAF pilots liked the Lightning, they weren't all that unhappy to see it go. It was a fantastic ride, but as a weapon system it was inadequate in both armament and endurance. Lightning pilots were said to be the last people in the world who would run out of gas while driving on a road trip, as checking fuel levels was an activity somewhat like breathing to them.
Much more could have been made of the Lightning if the will had been there. As mentioned, the Saudi T.55 could have been the basis for a really capable machine. EE / BAC also proposed a number of significantly improved variants, one of the most impressive being a navalized Lightning proposed in the late 1960s with an improved long-range derivative of the AIRPASS radar, in a solid nose; side-mounted air intakes; variable-geometry outer wings ("swing wings") like those of the Soviet Su-17 to permit carrier landings; greater fuel capacity and less thirsty, more powerful engines; and armament of four missiles, not just two. It didn't happen.
Many Lightnings survive as static displays and a group of British air enthusiasts keeps at least one in flight-worthy condition, though since the British Civil Aviation Authority won't approve it for flight it is restricted to noisy runway runs. A South African outfit named "Thundercity" that hires out rides and airshow displays on classic combat jets has two flying T.5s and an F.6.
The Lightning was for all practical purposes the last truly British
air-superiority fighter. From the 1960s on, the British government would,
for good reasons but not always with the tidiest results, join into
collaborations with other nations to develop leading-edge combat aircraft
such as the Jaguar, Tornado, and Eurofighter Typhoon. The Lightning was the
last of a very distinguished breed.
EE LIGHTNING PRODUCTION SUMMARY:
type built upgraded comments
P.1A 2 Initial prototypes.
P.1B 3 Production prototypes.
P.1B (DB) 20 Development batch evaluation machines.
F.1 19 Initial production interceptor.
F.1A 28 Minor update with refueling probe, etc.
F.2 44 Improved avionics, Avon 210R engines, etc.
F.3 70 2 Square tailfin, Red Top, refueling probe.
F.3A 16 14 Interim F.6 -- kinked wings, big ventral tank.
F.6 39 22 F.3A with overwing tanks, etc.
F.2A 31 F.2 upgraded with F.6 airframe improvements.
241 RAF SINGLE SEATERS
F.52 5 F.2s in Saudi colors as interim aircraft.
F.53 34 1 Saudi multirole F.6.
F.53K 2 Kuwait F.53.
36 EXPORT SINGLE SEATERS
277 TOTAL SINGLE SEATER PRODUCTION
T.4 22 Initial trainer.
T.5 22 Improved trainer.
44 RAF TWO SEATERS
T.54 2 T.4s in Saudi colors as interim aircraft.
T.55 6 1 Saudi trainer version based on F.6.
T.55K 2 Kuwaiti T.55.
8 EXPORT TWO SEATERS
52 TOTAL TWO SEATER PRODUCTION
329 TOTAL LIGHTNING PRODUCTION
* According to one story, late in the Lightning's service life a relatively inexperienced US Air Force pilot in an F-16 tried to take on a very experienced RAF pilot in a Lightning F.3, and found that the "old dog" repeatedly frustrated his missile attacks. The Yank pilot blindly kept at it and in the after-action analysis he was asked what he thought he was trying to accomplish. He replied: "I was going for a 'Fox Four'. I was trying to get alongside, open my canopy, and club the son of a bitch to death."
I doubt that a Lightning in itself would have been a match for an F-16, and certainly if worst came to worst an F-16 could simply have run the Lightning out of gas. But though I am not a pilot I do play the piano a bit, and I suspect that flying a combat aircraft is much like playing a piano -- skill makes a big difference.
* I like to recollect experiences I have had with particular aircraft when I write documents on them, but when I started this one I assumed I'd never seen a Lightning, even in static display. However, I then realized that I had seen Lightnings in flight, or at least I thought I did. I was stationed in the US Army in Germany in 1974:1975, and one day I looked up to see a fighter, I vaguely recollect maybe a Phantom, come over at low level. It was then followed by two Lightnings in what seemed to be hot pursuit.
The memory is really fuzzy after 30 years, though I think it really did happen. Memory is a funny thing, with contrarian studies on "regression hypnosis" showing that people can easily reconstruct memories of things that didn't happen. I haven't come up with a repressed memory of being abducted by aliens yet, however.
* Sources include:
I did pick up bits and pieces in other sources, like my 1970 JANES, but nothing of such significance that it seemed worth the bother to cite them.
* Revision history:
v1.0.0 / 01 jan 04 / gvg
v1.0.1 / 01 jul 04 / gvg / Added comments on Thundercity.