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WATCH: English Electric Lightning Interceptors Performed Like Nothing Else

These Cold War Interceptors Were Symbols of National Pride to the Brits- For Good Reason

EE Lightnings. Image via RAF

The first prototype of what would become a national symbol, the English Electric Lightning interceptor, flew for the first time on 4 August 1954. Five years later the Lightning began a 29 year service career with the Royal Air Force (RAF) that included a number of firsts. Perhaps most compelling is the fact that the Lightning housed two Roll-Royce Avon turbojet engines in a vertically stacked configuration inside its fuselage. The resultant shape of the fuselage didn’t keep the Lightning from becoming the first and only British designed and built Mach 2 fighter aircraft. This video, entitled “Streaked Lightning” was uploaded to YouTube by Joluqa Malta.

The Lightning’s performance, especially rate of climb, service ceiling, and speed, impressed pilots and made them believers in its capabilities. The Lightning prototypes were the first interceptors capable of supercruise- level supersonic flight without the aid of afterburners. Lightnings were designed and built specifically as interceptors; Soviet Tupelov Tu-16 Badger, Tu-22 Blinder and Tu-95 Bear bombers would have found them formidable opponents. Armed with a pair of 30 millimeter ADEN cannons, 48 unguided 2 inch air-to-air rockets, and/or de Havilland Firestreak or Hawker Siddeley Red Top missiles, Lightnings were as dangerous as they were quick. This video, entitled “E.E. Lightning Testing” was uploaded to YouTube by Joluqa Malta.

Other unusual aspects of the Lightning’s design include the configuration of the wings and horizontal tail. Referred to as a notched delta planform, the wings were also almost entirely “wet” meaning they held every drop of the 700 gallons (later 716 gallons) that could be carried, unless the unusual over wing-mounted auxiliary tanks were fitted. The main landing gear had to be designed to be as skinny as possible for complete stowage in those thin wings. The Avon engines were so powerful that one of them was usually shut down after landing to save wear on the brakes; both engines at idle speed would push the jet to 80 miles per hour running at idle. This video, entitled “E.E. Lightning Story” was uploaded to YouTube by Joluqa Malta.

As the Lightning continued development, the jets gained additional fuel storage thanks to ventral fuel tank (which gave the jet its distinctive belly bulge), uprated Avon engines, added and improved avionics and communications gear, upgraded fire control radars, revised vertical stabilizers, aerial refueling probes, ventral strakes mounted under the aft fuselage, and a couple of two seat trainer versions were developed. The trainer versions were fully combat capable and the crew was seated side by side in a widened cockpit containing full dual controls. The video, entitled “1970 Lightning Aircraft” (silent but nice footage) was uploaded to YouTube by British Pathe.

RAF Lightnings equipped 14 Squadrons, four Flights, and two RAF display teams- the Tigers (74 Squadron) and the Firebirds (56 Squadron). Lightnings were based at a total of ten RAF stations. In addition to the RAF, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia operated Lightnings. Kuwait operated Lightnings for a short time, replacing them with Dassault Mirage F1s and storing them. Those in storage were largely destroyed when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Saudi Lightnings were replaced by McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagles in 1986. The video “John Nichols flies the EE Lightning” was uploaded to YouTube by George Pollen.

EE Lightning riding herd on a Bear. Image via RAF

BONUS video. The video “Test Pilot TV Series- 1986 EE Lightning” was uploaded to YouTube by ClassicAviationTV.

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Bill Walton

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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