The English Electric Lightning was Britain’s primary defender of air space during the Cold War from 1960 on. The Lightning saw 28 years of active service in the RAF.
The Lightning ‘started’ life as the P1 – a prototype designed by W. Petter. The P1’s shape near enough mirrored the now familiar Lightning’s shape and was the first British designed aircraft to fly at Mach 2 – this it achieved on November 25th 1958 in a test flight.
The English Electric Lightning was known as a point interceptor. For the 28 years that the Lightning was in service, it was best known as the aircraft that would intercept aircraft from the USSR as they approached the UK’s air space. Lightning’s based at RAF Leuchars in Scotland were part of the Northern Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) unit and more often than not it would be a Soviet Tupolev Tu-95 Bear that needed to be escorted away from the UK’s air space.
The Lightning was designed to get to its target quickly – hence its name – but it had a remarkably short endurance once in the air – 35 minutes was not unusual during a supersonic sortie. The shape of the Lightning meant that space for fuel was at a premium and while the Lightning carried as much fuel as its design allowed, it was not sufficient to keep it in the air for long when it flew at speed.
Early versions were also handicapped by being equipped with radar that was designed in the 1950’s and only had a range of 30 miles. Later versions were fitted with the more modern Ferranti radar. A 1957 Defence White Paper had made it clear that the Lightning was only meant to be a stopgap and that a long-term fighter interceptor was to be designed to replace it. Therefore when it first flew as a RAF aircraft in 1960, shortcomings were expected. However, its advantages outweighed its disadvantages.
The Lightning had a very good rate of climb as required by a point interceptor jet. Its initial rate of climb was 50,000 feet a minute but this steadied out so that the Lightning could reach 40,000 feet in just 2 minutes 30 seconds. An advert for the RAF at the time stated “Want to climb two Everest’s in three minutes?” Powered by Rolls-Royce Avon engines, the Lightning was supersonic and reached Mach-2 speeds. In 1985, a Lightning reached a speed of Mach 2.2. Pilots frequently commented about the ease with which the aircraft handled even at speed.
“Yes, short legs, but a great turning radius and excellent acceleration.” Major Bill Beardley, USAAF.
The F6 Lightning variant was considered by many to be the best. It was faster than the previous variants but carried more fuel thus giving it an even better range. The only negative from a pilot’s point of view was that the original F6’s were not equipped with cannon. However, later versions were – even if such an addition reduced its total fuel load.
General characteristics of the F6:
Maximum speed = Mach 2 (1,300 mph) at 36,000 feet.
Range = 850 miles
Rate of climb = 20,000 feet per minute
Guns = 2 x 30mm Aden cannon
Missiles = 2 x under fuselage mountings for air-to-air missiles (De Haviland Firestreaks or Hawker Siddeley Red Tops)
While RAF Lightning’s flew to intercept unknown targets, they never flew in a combat situation so how it would have handled in actual combat against modern jet fighters is not known. In 1963, Lightning’s took part in exercises with Spitfire Mark XIX’s in preparation for combat missions in Indonesia but the expected missions never took place.