English Electric Lightning

In 1960, Fighter Command received an interceptor, the performance of which was beyond anything then in service. With a speed of over Mach 2, more than twice the speed of the Hunter, the technologically advanced Lightning was the RAF’s first truly supersonic aircraft. Its initial climb rate of 50,000ft per minute and ceiling of over 60,000ft made it an exceptional interceptor. Hampered by a characteristic short range, the addition of a refuelling probe along with overwing tanks and a larger ventral fuel tank in later versions doubled its fuel capacity. Immensely popular with pilots, ground crew and public alike, the Lightning became one of the most iconic British aircraft of the Cold War.

The English Electric Lightning belongs even today amongst the most successful interception fighters, and it was the first British aircraft to fly at twice the speed of sound. Yet at first, the Lightning as the P.1 was only a research airframe to examine flight attitude in the supersonic arena. In order to offer the least possible resistance, the experimental version was given a slender fuselage with one engine above the other. The leading edges of the wings were swept 60º as was also the tailplane. The prototype flew for the first time on 4 August 1954 with test pilot Roland Beaumont at the controls. A week later he exceeded Mach 1 for the first time. It is interesting to note that the supersonic speed was achieved without an afterburner. The second prototype P.1A was fitted with two cannons and while still in the flight testing phase the British Air Ministry decided in July 1955 to procure the fighter version P.1B, later given a larger fin. The P.1B prototype took off for its maiden flight on 4 April 1957 with a Rolls-Royce RA.24 Avon engine. This flight was made under a baleful star, for on this day the British Ministry of Defence announced that all fighter projects were cancelled with immediate effect because the day of the ground-to-air missile had dawned. Fighter aircraft were therefore no longer required. As it happened, the P.1B was so far advanced in its development that it was not possible to cancel the programme, and in July 1957 it flew at Mach 1.72, an unofficial world speed record. Twice the speed of sound was exceeded in November 1958. Only a month before the aircraft had been named “Lightning”, and in July 1960 deliveries began to No.74 Squadron RAF as the Lightning F.1. 74. Squadron was the first of eight RAF active units which operated Lightnings in the following 28 years. In Great Britain, all Lightning squadrons were stationed on the East Coast for tactical reasons, namely in order to intercept Soviet bomber formations if they ever came. Furthermore there were groups stationed in Cyprus, Singapore and not least at RAF bases in West Germany.

The Lightning had a first-class performance, an enormous thrust:weight ratio and was also excellent at low level in dogfighting tactics. The Lightnings in Germany were given an olive-green livery, while those stationed in the British Isles received a greengrey camouflage coat over the unpainted metal to the end of their service, sometimes varied to air superiority-grey.

There were a number of sub-variants amongst the 337 machines built. In 1962 the T.4 appeared as a trainer with dual controls, tutor and pupil sitting beside each other. The final and probably the best balanced version was the F.6 with modified wings with more strongly curved and extended leading edges and a larger tank at the belly. The enormous performance of the Lightning came at a price, however: the endurance in flight without refuelling was only around fifty minutes. Even if the Lightning had pronounced spectacular flying characteristics, from the technical point of view it became obsolete very quickly. Nevertheless the RAF operational squadrons kept their Lightnings until 1988 when the last of them were replaced by the Tornado F.3.

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After the Second World War, relations between the West and the Soviet Union deteriorated and the former wartime allies became adversaries. The blockade of Berlin from June 1948 indicated the Soviet Union’s bellicose intentions in Europe and the world seemingly faced the prospect of another conflict. In Britain, war weariness and an economy in near total collapse, led to rapid demobilization and a general decline in RAF strength after 1945 and by 1948, the RAF found its front-line squadrons ill equipped for the Cold War.

In August 1949, the Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command, Air Marshal Sir Basil Embry, began to strengthen Britain’s air defences. Outdated wartime aircraft were struck off and by 1952, all front-line air defence squadrons were equipped with jet aircraft, the Gloster Meteor and de Havilland Vampire and Venom. Obsolete in comparison to the Soviet MiG-15, the Meteor was replaced as principal day fighter by the vastly superior Hawker Hunter. Introduced to service with 43 Squadron at RAF Leuchars in July 1954, the Hunter was serving in eighteen squadrons by 1959. The Gloster Javelin took up the night fighter role in August 1956 and together with the Hunter, provided Fighter Command’s airborne defence for the rest of the decade. By 1964, both aircraft had been superseded by the supersonic English Electric Lightning, which entered service with 74 Squadron at RAF Coltishall in 1960, equipping all UK air defence squadrons until 1969 and the arrival of the Phantom.

In Germany at the start of the 1950s, the Second Tactical Air Force (2TAF) operated only thirteen Vampire day and three Meteor night fighter squadrons. Previously considered part of an occupation force, in 1951 2TAF’s squadrons were assigned to NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), becoming an integral part of European air defences within NATO’s order of battle. The Command expanded to a peak of thirty-five squadrons by 1955, including ten squadrons of Canadair Sabre F.4s. In the following year, thirteen squadrons reequipped with the Hunter, followed in August 1957 by the first Javelins, which entered service with 87 Squadron at RAF Brüggen. In 1965, the Lightning came to Germany, equipping 19 and 92 Squadrons.

The catastrophic 1957 Defence White Paper outlined a defence policy that prioritized nuclear over conventional forces and envisioned a surface-to-air missile system to protect the bomber bases, supported by a minimal force of manned fighters. As a result, Fighter Command was drastically reduced. From a post-war peak in 1956 of 600 front-line aircraft in thirty-five squadrons, by April 1962 it had shrunk to a mere 140 aircraft shared between eleven squadrons. The Second Tactical Air Force was initially cut from a total of thirty-five squadrons to seventeen, and by 1963 there remained just two air defence squadrons in Germany. The effect of these cuts was dramatic with squadrons disbanding almost overnight. This reduction in capability, compounded by further cuts in subsequent years, had an effect on the morale of RAF personnel for the next twenty years.

By 1970, despite cuts in numbers of aircraft and squadrons, RAF personnel in Britain and Germany had for twenty years successfully maintained interceptors and strike aircraft on permanent standby, ready for orders that could have signalled the start of nuclear war.

Following the detonation of the first Soviet nuclear weapon in August 1949, the potential threat to British cities from each unidentified radar contact grew considerably. Early interception was crucial. British air defences were, for the first time since the war, brought to a state of heightened readiness. From July 1950, day and night fighter squadrons provided a minimum of two aircraft at two-minute cockpit readiness under plans called Operation Fabulous. Operational Readiness Platforms (ORPs) were built alongside the runway, with Telebrief communication lines installed enabling aircrew to receive the order to scramble directly from the Sector Controller. From the early 1950s, improvements in ground-controlled interception and early warning radar increased Fighter Controllers’ speed and accuracy in directing pilots to the contact before it reached the coast.

Initially, the principal threat was from the antiquated Soviet Tu-4 Bull, a copy of the American B-29. With the development of a Soviet long-range bomber and reconnaissance force, by the early-1960s the threat was from the Tu-16 Badger, Tu-95 Bear and the M-4 Bison, far more capable aircraft, which frequently approached UK airspace to test RAF defences. Working with the NATO early warning chain in Norway and Europe enabled much earlier detection, enabling interceptions further out at sea, and essential when Soviet aircraft started to carry stand-off missiles. In 1961 with UK air defence increasingly integrated with NATO, Fighter Command and UK air defences were assigned to SACEUR.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, air defence squadrons continued to maintain aircraft on heightened readiness. By the mid-1960s and now known as Quick Reaction Alert (QRA), this was held at just two Lightning-equipped air stations, RAF Leuchars, and alternately either RAF Binbrook or RAF Wattisham. Lightnings initially on the ORP were held at ten minutes’ readiness in a dedicated QRA shed near the runway, which also provided accommodation for air and ground crews.