The English Electric Lightning (later the BAC Lightning) was a supersonic British fighter aircraft of the Cold War era, particularly remembered for its great speed, and its natural metal exterior that was used throughout much of its service life with the Royal Air Force and the Royal Saudi Air Force. The aircraft was a stunning performer at airshows, former holder of the world air-speed record, the first aircraft capable of supercruise and one of the most powerful aircraft ever used in formation aerobatics.
The prototype, known as the English Electric '''P.1''', was built to satisfy the British Air Ministry's 1947 specification coded F23/49 and flew for the first time from RAF Boscombe Down on 4th August 1954. This specification followed the cancellation of the British Air Ministry's 1942 E.24/43 supersonic research aircraft specification which had resulted in the Miles M.52. The Lightning shared a number of innovations first planned for the Miles M.52 including the shock cone and all-flying tailplane, the latter described by Chuck Yeager as the single most significant contribution to the final success of supersonic flight.
The P.1's designer was W. E. W. Petter, formerly chief designer at Westland Aircraft.
The Lighting was specifically designed as a point defence interceptor - essentially a guided missile-armed, air superiority fighter optimised to defend mainland Britain against incoming bomber attacks. As a result in order to reduce cross sectional area of the fuselage to improve performance the fuel capacity was highly restricted.
A unique way of minimising the drag of twin engine installation was put forward by Petter. This involved stacking the engines vertically (staggered to avoid too much weight aft, with the lower engine forward of the upper), effectively tucking them behind the cockpit, fed from the nose and achieving minimum frontal area. This effectively gave twice the engine power of its contemporaries for an increase in the frontal area of only 50%.
Limitations of fuel capacity dominated this aircraft's design, for unlike other fighters, its fuselage was nearly all engines and ducting, and thus could not hold much fuel. Hence all available room was adapted to the purpose of holding fuel. The flaps were even used as fuel tanks, and the landing gear had very narrow tyres that retracted outward so that there could be greater tankage inboard. This also meant that when the addition of drop tanks for greater range was considered, they could not be placed beneath the wing and so are on top. When the aerodynamic principle of the Whitcomb area rule|area rule became standard practice, a ventral tank was added to the fuselage, so the plane could carry more fuel while being more aerodynamic.
The first operational aircraft, a Mark F.1, arrived at Coltishall in Norfolk in December 1959. It served initially with 74 Squadron. As strategic awareness increased and a multitude of alternative fighter designs were developed by Warsaw Pact and NATO members, the Lightning's shortcomings in terms of range and firepower became increasingly apparent during the 1960s. The withdrawal of McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms from Royal Navy service enabled these slower, longer range aircraft to be transferred to the RAF and the less agile, slow climbing (and slower), but more versatile RAF Tornado F3 also arrived to defend UK airspace. Lightnings were therefore slowly phased out of front-line service between 1974 and 1989.
In their final years of UK service all RAF Lightnings were based at Binbrook in Lincolnshire and many were camouflaged to make them less conspicuous when flying at low level. They tended to defend the Flamborough Head Sector of airspace above the North Sea. These later aircraft were the single seater F.3 and F.6 and the twin seat trainer variants T.4 and T.5, all constructed by British Aerospace and distinguished from earlier versions by their flat topped fins. The F.3 was first flown on 16th June 1962 and the longer-range F.6 on 16th June 1965. The versions sold to Saudi Arabia were essentially similar to the T.5 and F.6 models in UK service and this final batch production|production batch reverted to the classic natural metal external finish which lasted well in the drier Arabian climate.
Owing to the arrangement of the two Avon engines, one above the other, the aircraft has an unusual configuration, yielding a slab-sided design. Slender flat wings swept rearwards at sixty degrees served to further emphasise the fuselage. Many Lightnings are conserved in museum collections where they delight visitors with their clean sleek lines, evocative of the high speeds that they once attained.