FLYING THE LIGHTNING
During the period July 1967 until November 1969 Roger Beazley completed an operational flying tour on the Lightning single seat supersonic fighter.
In the aircraft's 50th Year, the following thoughts sum up his impressions of flying the aircraft on 19(F) Squadron in RAF Germany,part of the Second Allied Tactical Air Force (2ATAF), based at RAF Gutersloh, West Germany.
Flying the Aeroplane
All pilots seem to agree that the aeroplane was a delight to fly. The Lightning was unique in many ways; the first UK Mach 2 aeroplane and the last all-British fighter, even its engine configuration was unusual one being placed above the other. In later years I was fortunate to fly a range of fighter/strike aircraft - the Phantom, Buccaneer, Jaguar, Tornado and it was only when I flew the F15 Eagle that I found something which was comparable both in performance and handling. The Lighting was aggressively attractive, seemed to have a sense of purpose, and when up close, was a much bigger aeroplane than initial impressions suggested.
Power was supplied by Rolls Royce Avons producing around 12,500lbs of thrust dry and 16,500 lbs of thrust in reheat (afterburner); typical maximum weight was 35,000 lbs.
I can only recall a few criticisms in handling. The main criticism was the lack of manoeuvre boundary indication (it lacked buffet close to the stall); an angle of attack gauge would have been very handy. The view from the cockpit was OK but somewhat restricted by fairly large cockpit coamings, and as with most British fighters in comparison to US aircraft, the cockpit was very small.
Pressure errors as Mach 1 was approached were extreme (minus 1200 ft or so) and it was of course, always short of fuel. My average sortie length over 2? years on a combination of Lightning F2s and F2As was slightly over 40 minutes. This of course became particularly critical when cruising at 9 miles a minute since one could get a long way from home very quickly!
Outright performance was second to none. One particular cold day (with nothing much to do) I managed low level to 35,000ft in something under 40 seconds having started, I have to confess, at 650kts indicated airspeed. I remember an exchange US Marine on 23 Sqn at Leuchars claiming that the Lightning was the best sports car the Brits ever built
Speeds were high but seemed to cause less problem to the pilot than the continual shortage of fuel. Consumption was very high indeed and a 15 minute flight from take off to landing with fuel minimas was possible.
Although high, the speeds were straightforward. The aircraft was lifted off the runway at 160 - 170Knots, the undercarriage had to be up by 250kts or else the nosewheel which folded forwards, could embarrassingly remain stuck down. Climb was entered at 450kts converting to 0.9M which was then held until reaching normal initial operating height which was 36,000ft. Attempts to climb higher than that were achieved by accelerating to 1.3M and then carrying out a "zoom climb". Stories about Lightnings reaching 80,000ft are around - I did not see more than 60,000ft and that felt quite high. Above around 45,000ft one really had to be supersonic to be able to manoeuvre.
F2A XN781 Close Up with RHB on Board
The descent was flown at M0.9 converting to 250Kts, 350kts or 450kts dependant on the range/height combination. The circuit or instrument pattern was commenced at 240kts reducing to about 190kts as a minimum. The glidepath was flown at 175kts reducing to 165kts "over the threshold" touching down at 155kts. Once all wheels were firmly on the ground the brake chute was deployed (around 140kts) and the brakes applied once things had settled down. On the rare occasions the brake chute "candled" then the landing was converted to a "touch and go" and the aircraft flown back into the circuit/instrument pattern and a slightly different final approach/touchdown technique used with wheel braking commenced somewhat earlier. Touch and go or roller landings were not carried out due to excessive tyre wear.
Lightning F2, 92 (F) Squadron, Lightning F3, 111 (F) Squadron, Lightning F3, 56(F) Squadron, Lightning F2 19(F) Squadron
The problems of aircraft serviceability were well known and experienced by all Lightning Squadrons fully stretching the skills and time of the engineering staff. But I have to say that I never felt unsafe in the aeroplane and found that on my next tour, Phantom serviceability rates were not very much different to that of the Lightning.
Once the aircraft was signed up by the engineers and on the line, other than a continual concern as to whether the Ferranti air intercept radar would work throughout the whole sortie (it had a nasty habit of failing about 5 minutes into the trip), then everything was normally going to work. I was fortunate in not experiencing an engine fire (a problem which lasted throughout the life of the aeroplane) although I did have my fair share of wobblies. An air speed indicator failure during gun firing necessitated being shepherded back to Gutersloh for a formation landing, an engine blow out at 52,000ft, a night flapless landing (which concentrated the mind), and a tail plane trim runaway on take off which again was not very pleasant.
At the time I joined 19 (F) in the summer of 1967 the emphasis was very much on the medium to high level intercepts using ground control guidance from German radar stations. Unlike in the UK, supersonics were flown over the land although restricted at night and prohibited on Sundays and German national holidays.
Flying kit consisted of either the standard flying suit or the very comfortable cold weather flying suit again unlike our UK colleagues who spent most of the year in the uncomfortable two piece rubber immersion suit. The partial pressure suit was worn when carrying out high fliers and when on Battle Flight. The standard bone dome was worn with the partial pressure Taylor helmet and the air cooled suit very much left in the flying clothing locker.
During my time on the squadron the threat changed from predominantly high level to predominantly low level. If not an a specific close control intercept sortie a Hi Level Search Pattern (HLSP) procedure was adopted but increasingly became discredited and for exercises and the real thing a low level equivalent was introduced (LLSP). Of course by then 19(F) had the F2A with the additional fuel so the low level search pattern was a bit more practical - a case perhaps of fitting the threat to suit the aeroplane. Another idea was introduced in that grid squares were allocated to each pilot who manned their particular square when airborne on operations and defended it from aircraft flying east to west through their area.
The technique was to fly at about 2000ft looking up with the radar and down with your eyes. On return to Gutersloh an operational turn round (pilot in the cockpit) was carried out prior to returning to the same square and whilst this was going on, that particular square remained unmanned, but hopefully the potentially enemy had no way of knowing this. For me navigation was easy since my square included the M?hne See so I could use the famous dam of dambuster fame as my visual anchor. I vividly recall one particular exercise when a F104 acting as target was spotted, and on giving chase, he saw me coming and immediately (and somewhat violently) descended towards the lake surface. He obviously misjudged it because at very low level I saw him pitch up having got so close to the surface that he left quite a distinct wake. From that point he flew sedately straight and level and a simulated kill with a Firestreak was an easy option for me.
Of course the raison d'?tre for 19(F) Squadron to be at Gutersloh was to police the inner German border as part of the UK post-war (and then Cold War) responsibilities. Two aircraft were kept on 5 minutes alert 24 hours a day and 19(F) Sqn shared this onerous duty with 92(F) Sqn which detached from Geilenkirchen for Battle Flight duties. 92(F) eventually moved up to Gutersloh from Geilers about half way through my tour.
RHB aboard Lighting F2 XN727
Many hours sitting on battle flight was rewarded with the occasional interesting live scramble usually to intercept someone who was getting too close to the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) this side or the Inner German Boarder (IGB) the other side. Two scrambles particularly come to mind.
The first occurred in May 68 resulted in an intercept of a Heron 2 (G-ANPV) flying North East some miles North of Hamburg on its way, as we subsequently found out, to Copenhagen; apparently the flight plan had been lost. What pleased me was that not only did I manage to ascertain the type, heading and direction (essential) but also the registration (very handy) and unusually in this case also the owner! Having been an engineering draughtsman before joining the RAF I recognised the company's logo on the fin (Tube Investments) - I think the Sector Controller was quite impressed when I passed that last bit of information.
The other scramble which was particularly interesting was almost a year later there was the potential for real disaster. We were briefed on Battle Flight that a Hercules aircraft had, without authorisation, taken off from a USAF base in England (Alconbury) and there was information that the individual flying it was intent on defecting to the East. When subsequently scrambled to search in the Fritzlar area for a Hercules which had been spotted low level I began to think how all this might finish up. In the event I found nothing, but subsequent information suggested that the Hercules reported in the Fritzlar area was a USAF aircraft out of RT contact on a low level navex and the one from England was assumed to have ditched somewhere over the Atlantic with its tech sergeant still at the controls!
Routine scrambles resulted in intercepts of western civil and military aircraft getting too close to the East German border, scrambles to react to East German/Russian aircraft being scrambled by the other side and one very difficult one for me - a scramble to intercept a hot air balloon drifting within the ADIZ.
Another occasion involved a decision from Sector to double the Battle Flight alert state to four aircraft and issue the pilots (now increased from two to four) with personal weapons (the 9mm pistol) and tin hats! In August 1968 the Soviet Union had invaded Czechoslovakia not only by surprise but under massive electronic jamming. A year later, almost to the day if I recall, equally massive electronic jamming was observed and on the strength of that the powers that be decided that the Battle Flight was to be enhanced although the use of the tin hat was never fully explained. But without an entry in my logbook (i.e. no scrambles) I cannot place an exact date of the event although it was probably August 1969.
Missile Practice Camps (MPC)
I attended two MPCs at RAF Valley in North Wales the first being very early in my time on the Squadron in September/October 1967 when still non-op and the second in July 1968. On the first I fired a Firestreak from the two seat T4 which miffed me a bit. Although I was captain, I was very aware that one normally only got one missile per tour and I would have rather fired from a single seater - in fact the missile failed immediately after launch and although it looked as though it blew up, I suspect it failed structurally - we finished up flying through the debris. During the second MPC, I was fortunate to be issued with another Firestreak which was fired on a low level profile and was totally successful; the photo below!
Firestreak Firing by RHB from XN781, 17 July 1968
The AFCENT Air Defence Competition 1968
The annual air defence competition involved squadrons from the two Allied Tactical Air Forces, 2ATAF in Northern Germany (principally Danish, Dutch, Belgians, Germans and the UK) and 4ATAF (principally Germans and US) in the South. The 1968 competition involved 19(F) and three pilots were randomly selected - I was one. The F2A conversions were then coming on line and it was decided to fly the competition using the F2A which meant that that on the flying programme, we three had priority on F2As which was rather nice. Three Belgian pilots were also involved flying the F104 Starfighter.
The competition meant flying four intercepts from 5 minutes alert, out of the cockpit (but from the bottom of the aircraft ladder) and from the alert pan at the end of the Gutersloh runway. The intercepts were low level, medium level, supersonic and at night.
All went reasonably well until the last intercepts which were flown at night and in the southern part of the sector adjacent to the 4ATAF area. Although the intercepts were successful they were not as efficient as they might have been partially because 4ATAF was having an electronic jamming exercise that particular night. Not surprisingly perhaps, a team from 4ATAF won the competition and our Team came second - I wonder why?
The 25th Anniversary of the Liberation of Brussels
Another interesting job occurred when the Squadron was tasked to take part in a mass flypast over Brussels with 19(F) providing 5 aircraft to mark the 25th Anniversary of the liberation of the City. The aircraft mounted the flypast from Beauvechain having arrived on Friday 12th September then flying over the city along with a bunch of Belgian F104s all led by a Belgian Spitfire on the Sunday.
RHB aboard Lighting F2A XN789
Writing this short account has brought back many memories of a highly enjoyable flying tour on a smashing aeroplane with a great bunch of people on a prestigious squadron; and in the days when everything seemed much simpler. As I write in 2004 the aircraft celebrates its 50th year and although I sympathise with the regulatory problems, it is a shame that one now has to go all the way to South Africa to see that Queen of the Skies occasionally fly.
19(F) and 92(F) Lightnings Mark F2A, RAF Gutersloh
This article is reproduced here by kind permission of © Tayside Flying Club