The English Electric Lightning was a supersonic fighter aircraft which played an important role defending British air space during the Cold War. The aircraft was introduced in December 1959 and retired in 1988, after nearly thirty years of service.
The first prototype of the English Electric Lightning was the P.1, designed by W.E.W. ‘Teddy’, a famous British aircraft designer. The P.1B was the only British Mach 2 aircraft, meaning it could move twice as fast as the speed of sound). This speed was achieved on 25 November 1958 during a test flight.
As a point interceptor, English Electric Lightning worked to intercept Soviet aircraft as they approached UK airspace. The Electric Lightnings that were based at RAF Leuchars in Scotland formed part of the Northern Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) unit.
The Lightning was able to reach its target in record time, but it had a very short endurance time when in the air: around 35 minutes for a supersonic sortie. This was because the aircraft had a limited fuel capacity.
The earliest versions were also limited by their radar. They were equipped with a radar designed in the 1950s which had a range of only thirty miles. As a result, the later versions were fitted with the more modern Ferranti radar. A 1957 Defence White Paper implied that the Lightning was only a stopgap; a long-term fighter interceptor would be designed to replace it. Thus, shortcomings were anticipated during its first flights as a RAF aircraft in 1960, but its strengths unarguably outweighed its weaknesses.
As required by a point interceptor jet, the Lightning boasted an impressive rate of climb. It was famous for its ability to rapidly rotate from takeoff to climb almost vertically from the runway, though this did not yield the best time-to-altitude. The Lightning's trademark tail-stand manoeuvre exchanged airspeed for altitude; it could slow to near-stall speeds before commencing level flight.
The Lightning was powered by Rolls-Royce Avon engine. It was a supersonic aircraft that could reach Mach-2 speeds. In 1985, a Lightning reached a speed of Mach 2.2. Pilots remarked that the aircraft could be handled with ease at speed.
Major Bill Beardley of the USAA said this of the Lightning: “Yes, short legs, but a great turning radius and excellent acceleration.”
The F6 Lightning was considered by many to be the best variant. It was faster than previous variants but carried more fuel, giving it a better range. One negative aspect of the original F6s, however, was that they were not equipped with cannon. Later versions were subsequently equipped with cannon.
The English Electric Lightning continued in service with the RAF until 1988 and some 337 aircraft were built in its 34 year history.
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