How England’s Electric Lightning Defied All Fighter Jet Physics

The Cold War was perhaps the most fascinating period for military aviation. It saw the Soviet Union and the West locked in a fierce arms race. Aircraft were of course needed to counter the other sides, strategic bombers became the nuclear deterrent and the technology involved in aircraft was really pushed to its limits and beyond. The Cold War saw many incredible and fast fighter aircraft take to the skies, ranging from the American F-104 Starfighter to the Soviet MiG-21 Fishbed.

In Britain, the Royal Air Force needed a new, fast, high-altitude interceptor that could protect its own V-bombers from enemy fighters, while attacking incoming Soviet bombers before they could drop their lethal payloads. At the time, in the mid-1950s, there was no Mach 2 capable jet fighter. That all changed when in April 1957, when the English Electric Lightning first took flight. The Lightning would become the first and only British-made jet fighter capable of Mach 2 speeds and would remain in service from 1960 until the late 1980s. To this day it remains the British fighter aircraft the fastest in history.

How Lightning Development Began

The Lightning was born out of a need in the late 1940s to supply Britain with a supersonic fighter aircraft. A swept-wing aircraft design as required, but to prove the concept worked some test aircraft were needed first. In 1949 the project to develop a research aircraft for what would become the Lightning began and this would result in three prototype aircraft, all under the umbrella English Electric P.1. Two of these would be airworthy aircraft while one would remain a static airframe. These would initially be powered by Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire turbojet engines, and the engines mounted one above the other at the rear of the aircraft. Production Lightnings would have Rolls-Royce Avon engines.

The P.1 design would prove the Lightning design to be viable, and P.1 WG760 would achieve a top speed of Mach 1.51, thought the two prototypes would never reach Mach 2. After further testing, the first Lightning prototype, XA847, was duly introduced in October 1958 with the now official Lightning name. On November 25 of that year, XA847 would reach Mach 2 for the first time. Officially the XA847 was a P.1B but much closer to the actual Lightning in its final form. The first version of the Lightning would be the F.1, and it would enter service with the RAF in May 1960.

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The Lightning enters operational service

The Lightning finally entered service with the RAF in 1960, and it would enter frontline service with No. 74 Squadron that year. Surprisingly, the Lightning would become only the second Western European-built fighter aircraft with supersonic capability to enter service, following the Swedish Saab 35 Draken’s entry into service in March of the same year. The Lightning quickly gained a reputation for being easy to fly, and its weapons radar systems proved to be very effective. However, the RAF initially struggled to secure more than 20 flying hours from each aircraft per month.

Another problem with the Lightning was its short range, as it could only fly for a short time before having to land and refuel. Later versions of the aircraft such as the F.6 would rectify this with a larger underbelly fuel tank, and drop tanks were also available for the Lightning. One of the Lightning’s greatest achievements came in April 1985, when the Concorde was proposed as a target for NATO fighters during British Airways trials. The F-15 Eagle, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-14 Tomcat, French Mirage and F-104 Starfighter all participated. But only the Lightning was able to overtake Concorde on an interception.

A reliable and faithful performer until the end

In the hands of the Royal Air Force, the Lightning would never see combat service. Over the decades, the aircraft would require increasingly heavy maintenance and its short range and small arms payload would continue to be a problem. But it continued in service, ever loyal to its crews and those who worked there. It wowed crowds at air shows, its twin Rolls-Royce Avon 301R engines propelling it to a speed of Mach 2.27 and over 1,500 mph. The fastest British-made fighter. But far too soon, the end was approaching.

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Lightning bids farewell

The aircraft was phased out of service from 1974 to 1988, and by then the aircraft needed enormous levels of maintenance, due to the number of hours accumulated on the airframes. The final act for the Lightning would be a series of air shows at their spiritual home, the famed RAF Binbrook. Formations of nine Lightnings, a tribute to The Firebirds demo team of 1963, flew in to bid farewell to the type. The last flight was in June 1988 as a Lightning flew to a new home as a museum piece. And so ended the career of the fastest British fighter plane to ever soar through the skies. Perhaps most remarkably, the Lightning was only supposed to have a lifespan of 10 years. That it has flown for nearly 30 years of service is a testament to the capabilities of this airborne rockstar.

Sources: RAF Museum, Popular Mechanics, HushKit, BAE Systems

Robert M. Larson