English Electric Lightning: English skies ripped apart by riveted lunacy

 Images of the English Electric Lightning, supplied by BAE Systems Military Air and Information (MAI).

The Lightning was designed to defend mainland Britain against jet bombers. The point defence role required speed and climb rate over endurance, and the Lightning was certainly successful in these respects.

English Electric Lightning. Three words which sit so beautifully together (ignoring the tautology of ‘electric’ lightning). The charged air of English skies ripped apart by riveted lunacy. The Lightning was quite mad- a greedy machine set on eating fuel and turning it into speed. Unlike anything else its two Avon engines were stacked one on top of each other making it stand monstrously tall on the ground.

 Images of the English Electric Lightning, supplied by BAE Systems Military Air and Information (MAI).

The unique stacked engines created less drag than side- by-side engines. If one was to fail the thrust would still be on the centreline (in theory this was safer, though would put a lot of strain on the surviving engine).

The Lightning would scorn today’s tedious drones controlled by gamers in porta-cabins. The Lightning was the anti-thesis of the UAV- it was essentially a manned missile, tricksy and twitchy – and it killed more of its own pilots than it did enemies (it actually did not see combat). When it entered service in 1959 it could outfly and outfight any of its peers, but failure to adequately upgrade the Lightning made it obsolete while its performance was still unbeaten. Its astonishing maximum climb rate of 50,000 feet a minute was not equalled by a Western fighter until the F-15 entered service in 1976. While other fighters were getting Pulse Dopplers and radar-guided missiles, the Lightning was stuck with an antiquated radar and a missile armament of only two equally old-fashioned missiles (the contemporary F-4 Phantom II could carry eight air-to-air missiles). When it was retired it 1988, the Lightening still did not have the ability to carry chaff or flares (essential for survival) or a radar warning receiver (which alert the pilot to the presence of hostile radars).

 Images of the English Electric Lightning, supplied by BAE Systems Military Air and Information (MAI).

 Images of the English Electric Lightning, supplied by BAE Systems Military Air and Information (MAI).

The Lightning was Britain’s first, and only, Mach 2 fighter. Flying the Lightning was the most sought after position in the RAF, it was a delightfully exhilarating and agile aircraft for those brave enough to fly it! All Images of the English Electric Lightning, supplied by BAE Systems Military Air and Information (MAI).

Lightning at a glance

Nicknames: The Frightening

Who used it? The air forces of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Great Britain. Today the private

company Thunder City provides civilians the chance to fly in a Lightning.

First flight? 1957

How many were built: 337

Any good? Its phenomenal performance was marred by its poor endurance and weapons systems. As a point defence intercepter it was excellent. An early assessment against the US F-106 left the Lightning pilot with the impression that he had the best fighter in the world. By the late 1960s, it was behind the technology curve.

Rivals? There was no direct equivalent to the Lightning.

Lockheed U-2: The Peeping Tom of the Cold War


The first U-2 was designed and built a mere eight months after the contract was signed (today a military aircraft takes around twenty years to enter service). The project was lead by the great Kelly Johnson and developed in such great secrecy that even Congress was unaware of it.

For almost sixty years U-2s have penetrated the inhospitable darkness of the stratosphere to snoop on America’s least favourite nations. From their first mission over the USSR in 1956 the soviets were aware of the presence of these CIA-operated intruders, but were powerless to destroy them; fighters of the1950s simply could not catch an enemy flying at 70,000 ft.


 Gary Powers and a U-2. At the crash site of his aircraft, soviet investigators found a packet of Kent cigarettes, a .22 pistol and a suicide pill. When Powers returned from his imprisonment in a spy swap in 1962, the CIA sent a female agent to secretly test if he had been turned by the soviets; Powers and his investigator fell in love and got married.

Things changed on May Day 1960 when a U-2 was shot down by a soviet surface-to-air missile. The CIA pilot Gary Powers was captured and sentenced to three years in prison followed by seven years of hard labour (of which he served only two). The US cover story that it was a weather plane that had flown off course was never believed by the soviets; the U-2 had fallen to the ground almost intact, allowing its secret equipment to be studied at leisure. The shoot-down was a diplomatic disaster for the Americans (spying overflights were technically an act of war), one that Premier Khrushchev exploited for maximum effect when he stormed out of planned summit meeting in protest. This was also the first time that the general public had heard of this highly classified project. The U-2 was not safe over the USSR, but was still a useful reconnaissance tool. It would not be long till the U-2 would spark another Cold War imbroglio, this time one that brought the world calamitously close to a nuclear war; in 1962 U-2s photographed preparation for the installation of a soviet missile base in Cuba, triggering the Cuban missile crisis.Since then the U-2 has spied in almost every continent, identified war graves and carried out research for NASA.

This ghostly aircraft may end its life rather lonely, as in 2015 work began on developing an unmanned version of the aircraft.


 All of the U-2 family have extremely thin broad wings. These ‘high aspect’ wings are like those of sailplane, the huge wing area is needed to cruise in the very thin air of the lower stratosphere. Like many official stories about the U-2, the NASA markings are baloney and were only applied to conceal the aircraft’s more nefarious tasking.


The CIA secretly supplied U-2s to the Taiwanese air force (RoCAF) to spy on mainland China. The aircraft were flown by the 35th Squadron, known as the Black Cats. Of the nineteen aircraft flown by the RoCAF, eleven were lost, five of these being shot down over China.

U-2 at a glance

Nicknames: Gray Ghost, Shady Lady, Angel, and Dragon Lady

What so special about it? It can fly very high and has special cameras and

sensors for spying. Later versions have a data-link for transmitting this

intelligence back to base.

Who used it? The CIA, USAF. RAF, RoCAF, NASA

First flight? 1955

How many were built: 86

Any good? In high threat places it had a nasty habit of getting shot down, but

must be pretty good as its had a very long service life.

Rivals? The English Electric Canberra PR.9 could fly pretty high too (a licence-

built Canberra was also used by USAF for reconnaissance). The Myasishchev M-

17 Stratosphera (NATO codename ‘Mystic’) was the closest thing to a soviet

equivalent (that we know of), one of the M-17’s missions was to shoot down US

reconnaissance balloons.

In popular culture: the Irish rock band U2’s name may have been influenced by

the U-2.

Have a peek at other material: There’s  a whole feast of fantastic BritishFrenchSwedishAustralian,  Japanese , Belgian,  German and Latin American aeroplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read as is the Top Ten cancelled fighters.

Read an interview with a Super Hornet pilot here.

Follow my vapour trail on Twitter@Hush_kit

Reducing the cost of military aircraft: The 7 golden rules


Military aircraft take too long to develop, cost too much to manufacture and are consequently available to air arms in insufficiently small numbers. Here’s how to avoid the current mess.

1. Prioritise development

For a frontline aircraft, here is the order of priority:

Sensors/software: average development time 18 years to maturity

New guided munitions/development/integration: average development time 17 years to maturity

Engines: average development time 15 years to maturity

Airframe: average development time 10 years to maturity

Strangely, the reality is almost the opposite with an aircraft starting life in the wind tunnel, despite aerodynamics being the most predictable facet of modern aircraft development.

2. At least two of the following components must be already available off-the-shelf:  sensors/engines/airframe (note that former two can be replaced in upgrades). 

3. Invest a large amount in a short development time. However terrifying this figure may be, it is guaranteed to be less than the 25 years it currently takes a frontline aircraft to go from concept to operational service. 10 years is not unreasonable. Do not let the requirement be altered during development. 

4. Three simple metrics should dominate the design process: power-to-weight/reliability/range, however wonderful the weapons systems promise to be they will benefit from these inherent advantages.

5. Plan who will pay for upgrades in the future. 

6. Small factories (of the lowest possible tech) close to all component assemblies (to make this work it must made clear that the cost savings outweigh the political advantages of multi-state collaboration).

7. The A variant will have insufficient fuel, electrical and processing power for upgrade, this is normal, but plan how it will be rectified in the B or C model.


Top Ten Fighters at the outbreak of World War II

Flugzeuge Messerschmitt Me 109 auf Flugplatz

The fighter aircraft was never more important than it was during the global calamity that began in 1939. However, at this time of need, the fighter types available were pretty limited to say the least.  If you were an air force leader choosing a fighter to defend your nation, your choice (if you were lucky and appropriately aligned politically) would be from this pack of misfits and immature thoroughbreds.

Here are the top ten operational fighter available on September 1st 1939. 

10. Mitsubishi A5M Cheeky Claude


There may have been a few better land-based fighters in 1939 but if you wanted a carrier fighter then this is it. None of the classics had entered service yet, no Wildcat, no Zero even the Brewster Buffalo didn’t appear till December. If you want a monoplane it’s either this or a Blackburn Skua, and let’s face it, no-one wants a Skua. Manoeuvrable, well armed, fairly fast and long ranged, the A5M was dominant over China and was first carrier aircraft to demonstrably prove to be as good as its land-based contemporaries.

9. Fokker G.1 Dutch Courage


Resembling an unholy union between a P-38 Lightning and a Morris Traveller the G.1 caused a sensation when it was first revealed in Paris. The twin boom design was radical but effective (and influential), and was dubbed La Faucheur (the Reaper) by the French press due to its unheard of armament of eight nose-mounted machine guns. Tasked with policing the Netherlands’ neutrality, the G.1’s first ‘kill’ was an RAF Whitley. When the Germans invaded in May 1940 the G.1 had only five days of action to prove its worth during which it operated effectively, despite being massively outnumbered, in both the ground attack, and air to air role, scoring at least 14 kills. In 1941 two Dutch test pilots escaped to the UK in one which, despite its exciting history was left outside to test the effects of the climate on a wooden airframe and then scrapped in 1945. Bah.

8. Messerschmitt Bf 110C Achtung Zerstorer!


The best twin-engined fighter of 1939 looked like an invincible force when first committed to action. It was fast, powerful, had a massive range and terrific firepower. It was also the first aircraft to be painted to resemble a shark thus exponentially increasing its effectiveness. Unfortunately it was very large for a fighter and lacked manoeuvrability. Having said that, the 110 could outclimb any other European fighter in 1940. Supremely successful over Poland, France, Norway and the low countries, its subsequent mauling when faced with modern, well organised single-engined fighters has diminished its postwar reputation. This is unfair as it was the tactical employment of the aircraft that was at fault rather than the aircraft which was more or less as good as it was possible to be in 1939.

7. Bloch MB.152 lente mais brutale


Despite being the best French fighter available in 1939, the prototype of what would become the MB.152 actually failed to fly, as a result the fact that this aircraft makes it onto the list at all is nothing short of amazing. No one would call it a looker, in fact the whole nose was canted off to one side to counteract propellor torque – an ingenious if mildly hideous solution – and it wasn’t particularly fast but the MB.152 was amazingly resilient (one once returned to base with over 360 bullet holes), and unusually well-armed for a single-seat fighter of this era with two 20-mm cannon.

6. Curtiss P-36/Hawk 75/Mohawk The Quiet American


By far the best American fighter of 1939, and by far the shiniest aircraft on this list, the Hawk 75A scored the first aerial victory on the Western front of the Second World War. Two years later the Curtiss made history again by scoring the first aerial victory for the US over Pearl Harbor. Despite seeing very little service with US forces the Hawk 75 flew successfully over France, scoring a third of all French victories though making up only 12 per cent of the fighter force. Survivors were then used to great effect by Finland. In the RAF Mohawks fought the Japanese until the end of 1944 and Argentina only withdrew theirs in 1954. The Hawk 75 was tough, nimble – notably more manoeuvrable than a Spitfire or Hurricane at high speed, well armed but never quite fast enough.

5. Polikarpov I-16 Stalin’s Fat Falcon


Due to its primary mission being to become the fighter with the greatest number of nicknames in aviation history (Yastrebok: ‘Hawk’, Ishak: ‘Donkey’, Rata: ‘Rat’, Boeing: ‘Boeing’, Mosca: ‘Fly’, Super Mosca: ‘Super Fly’, Dientsjager: ‘Duty Fighter’, Siipiorava: ‘Flying Squirrel’, Abu: ‘Gadfly’), by 1939 the I-16 was no longer at the cutting edge of combat aircraft technology but it was still a force to be reckoned with. Despite looking like a barrel it was easily the most advanced fighter in the World when it entered service in 1934, the aesthetically abrupt I-16 cut a dash over Spain and was master of all aircraft that opposed it – except, tellingly, one. Faster than nearly all contemporary fighters, it was jaw-droppingly manoeuvrable but difficult to fly. Interestingly Mark Hanna, possibly the only Western pilot to fly both the Hurricane and I-16 (though neither in combat) said ‘I had just flown a Hurricane for the first time, a week before the Rata … I felt that you’d be better off fighting in a Rata. At any rate I felt quickly far more comfortable in it. In air combat against early low-powered 109s, I would suspect that the two aircraft were very comparable’. Which leads us neatly on to:

4. Hawker Hurricane I Slow but steady wins the race


The Hurricane was available in large numbers in September 1939 which was its principal advantage over its great rival the Spitfire. Later its relative simplicity and great sturdiness would prove invaluable but when war broke out these were not great concerns and it was simply one of the world’s best fighters. Hurricanes saw the most action of any British type over France and it acquitted itself well before historically proving its worth in the Battle of Britain. Not particularly fast, the Hurricane was very well-armed by the standards of the day, able to withstand battle damage to a greater degree than any other British fighter, though horrifically prone to catching fire in the vicinity of the pilot, in tests at 15000 feet the cockpit went from room temperature to 3000 degrees Celsius in ten seconds when the fuel tank caught fire. It was supremely responsive and easy to fly – a great boon at a time when very few pilots had experienced combat.

3. Macchi MC.200 Saetta Chunky Italian Lightning


Saetta Entering service a mere month before the outbreak of World War Two the Macchi MC 200 was for several years Italy’s premier fighter. Despite its slight rotundity and anachronistic open cockpit the Saetta was an excellent flying machine, being pretty quick with viceless handling and sprightly manoeuvrability. Later it would fly rings around Hurricanes over the Mediterranean. Sadly for the Italians it never had the sort of engine power that was becoming de rigeur by 1939 and its armament was pitiful, so the afore-mentioned Hurricanes largely got away. Despite its shortcomings it established a surprisingly good kill ratio against later designs over Russia, where it operated until early 1943. Fitted with a decent engine it became arguably Italy’s best all-round fighter of the war (the Folgore). Of course all this was academic in 1939 because Italy was neutral and probably should have stayed that way.

2. Supermarine Spitfire I The Usual Suspect


What is surprising about the Spitfire is just how early it was available. When most of the world was still operating biplanes that would not have looked out of place in 1918 (including the RAF) the Spitfire looked sensational and pointed the way to the future. Despite being the fastest aircraft in service anywhere it was still an underdeveloped aircraft in 1939, the rate of climb particularly suffered due to its being fitted with a fixed pitch wooden airscrew. Well armed by contemporary standards, it was considered easy to fly though not as forgiving as the Hurricane. On the downside it was woefully short-ranged and the engine was prone to overheat virtually as soon as it was started. In combat the Spitfire was not able to withstand the same levels of damage as the Hurricane and it could not perform some of the manoeuvres possible with the 109 because the engine would conk out.

1. Messerschmitt Bf 109E Emil the Great


Today Messerschmitt is just a teensy part of the Airbus group, the prime German contractor for the Eurofighter Typhoon, an aircraft that has virtually the same wingspan as the Bf 109 but is ten tonnes heavier and over 1000 mph faster. It is one of the best fighter aircraft in the world in 2015. Back in 1939 the Bf 109E had proved to be the most formidable aircraft of the Spanish civil war and it was the finest fighter in service at the outbreak of World War II.

The best fighter in the World was not without its flaws, Willy Messerschmitt was a noted glider designer before he turned his hand to fighters and aspects of its design were somewhat flimsy for a combat machine, a tail supported by struts was pretty weedy by the late thirties and the occasional catastrophic total structural failure kept the Luftwaffe pilot of 1939 on his toes. Nonetheless in September 1939 it was a more mature combat aircraft than its great opponent and nearest rival, the Spitfire and at the outbreak of war over 2000 Bf 109s had been built as opposed to barely 300 Spitfires. It had been refined with experience garnered in Spain, it was cannon armed and its fuel injection system was better able to cope with combat manoeuvres than the British aircraft. It was fitted with a constant speed airscrew which was a great boost to engine efficiency and pilot workload. In addition it had marginally better range which was to be greatly improved by a drop tank. Within hours of the outbreak of hostilities it was sweeping all aerial opposition aside and appeared unstoppable. It was decidedly more difficult to fly than most of its enemies but Germany entered the war confident (correctly) that its premier fighter aircraft was the world’s finest.

Meet the ten most formidable piston-engined fighters here and the most potent modern fighters here.

Edward Ward is a regular contributor to Hush-Kit, his fine illustrations can be seen here

For the latest alternative aviation news, satire and time-wasting, please follow my vapour trail on Twitter: @Hush_kit

The Indomitable Squall: Rafale’s cutting-edge radar

THALES / Ecrans du cockpit du Rafale, à Dassault Aviation (HM1) sur la base aérienne d'Istres, le 11/12/2008.

THALES / Ecrans du cockpit du Rafale, à Dassault Aviation (HM1) sur la base aérienne d’Istres, le 11/12/2008.

While the Typhoon and Gripen patiently wait the arrival of AESA radars, the Rafale has been operating with this modern sensor since 2013. The RBE2 AESA (it really needs a name) is the first fighter AESA in series production outside of the US and Japan, and put Thales at the forefront of radar technology. We went to the manufacturer of the RBE2, Thales, to find out more.

(As we have already said, the new radar does need a name- or suggestion would be ‘ravisseur’…)

What is the current contractual and funding status of RBE2 AESA?

60 RBE 2 AESA have been ordered in 2009 for equipping the batch 4 of the Rafale.

When did the first AESA radar enter service?

The first entered service in summer 2013.

How many have been delivered to the customer?

We are exactly in line with our contractual commitment.

(25 as of September 2014)

What percentage increases over PESA will the radar offer in terms of search and tracking ranges?

In terms of performance, detection range is increased by considerably more than 50% and the radar can look in many directions at the same time offering significantly enhanced tracking capabilities.

How much of an improvement will it be?

Angular coverage in azimuth is improved and very small targets with lower radar cross section such as cruise missiles can also be detected. Furthermore improvement of the situational awareness allows pilots to enlarge their potential to ensure the success of their mission.

How many transmitter/receiver modules does it have?

The active array is made up of several hundreds of T/R modules. It is confidential.

How does it compare with the Typhoon’s Captor in terms of detection range?

AESA radar of the Typhoon does not exist today. It seems to be a prototype. When it is in service on board the Typhoon comparison will  be possible to be done !

What modes does it have?

RBE2 provides unprecedented levels of situational awareness, with earlier detection and tracking of multiple targets as well as the capability of using several radar modes at the same time:

• All-aspect look-down/look-up detection and tracking of multiple air targets for close combat and long-range interception, in jammed environment and in all weather,

• Real-time generation of three-dimensional maps for terrain-following,

• Real-time generation of high resolution air to surface detection for navigation and targeting,

• Detection and tracking of multiple sea targets.

Does it have aggressive jamming or hacking modes? Can you explain this more.

We will not comment this.

What bands does it operate in?

It operates in X band.

Would multi static or similar operations be possible: could the radars of two Rafales work together to detect low RCS targets?

Ye,  thanks to coordination two Rafale can work together.

Is the new radar heavier than the baseline RBE2, how much weight is added by increased cooling?

It is the same weight and same interface as the baseline RBE2.

What features will the radar use to detect low RCS targets?

AESA brings the Rafale extended range capabilities supporting low observable target detection.

How long would it take to fit a RBE2 AESA to a Rafale built the with baseline PESA radar, what changes would have to made?

It takes less than 2 hours as we have just to remove the PESA antenna and to plug and play immediately the AESA antenna.

How much will it cost per unit?

No comment

Is the lack of a  repositioner a disadvantage in terms of field of regard?

We made the analysis as early as in the middle of the nineties to evaluate the advantage to use or not a repositioner. Our conclusion was that this solution works well when the situation is not complex but it is absolutely irrelevant when it becomes more dense due to a high quantity of targets spread in space.

No, it is not a disadvantage. We rejected the repositioner as this solution is not relevant for the majority of the missions.

Was the RBE2 the first fighter AESA produced outside of the US and Japan?

Yes it is the first and only serial AESA produced in Europe.

Are there any plans to offer the RBE2 AESA as a radar for F-16s?

No the RBE 2 AESA is specifically designed for the Rafale.

Hush-kit is reminding the world of the beauty of flight.

What was Italy’s ultimate fighter?

Follow my vapour trail on Twitter: @Hush_kit

Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read