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 the 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 equaled 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). When it was retired it 1988, the Lightning 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! Image: Michael Hall. 

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.


  1. pickledwings

    Good write up on a great plane.

    Beyond Thunder City, there are some other “live” Lightnings still out there:

    The Lighning Preservation Group in the UK keeps the last few “live” Lightnings on British soil for fast taxi runs at Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome:

    The Anglo American Lightning Organisation has, slowly, been getting a Lightning closer to flying condition in American skies:

    A privately owned Lightning is also kept “life” for taxi runs at Cranfield, Bedfordshire:

  2. syntaxerror9

    Some specialists could give more details about drag reduction due two the engines position?
    I have some ideas about the cockpit position that seems to be more integrated in the engines airframe…

    Other thing i had never thought before, with engines positioned like that, one is much less vulnerable from ground to air fire! We can say that one is totaly protected by the other one.

    And yes, no yaw movement in case of failure of one.

    All these, leads me to ask a question.
    Why all twin engines don’t use this engines settlement?

  3. Gray Stanback

    Actually, the Lightning WAS used in combat–just not by Britain. Saudi Arabia used theirs against Egypt, mainly in the ground-attack role, between 1968 and 1981.

  4. meeware

    My maths teacher’s first job had been to design the windscreen for the lightening – no easy job when speed of that kind hadn’t really been associated with any sort of visibility prior to 1950. Bullets not needing windows etc. They still used one as a chase aircraft at Warton when the Tornado program was underway, but it’s performance so outstripped the test vehicle that the landsharks’d have to circle around the airfield building up speed so the lightening wouldn’t out pace them as they roared into the air. And how they roared!

    There’s a story doing the rounds about how a ground engineer accidentally flew one- fright of his life poor guy – http://www.thunder-and-lightnings.co.uk/lightning/survivor.php?id=30

  5. Michael Hall

    The photograph of XP695 of 11 Squadron at St.Mawgan is mine and used without permission, not sourced from “BAE Systems Military Air and Information (MAI)” as stated.

  6. jexter

    I was USAF in the late 70s and my job required me to spend some time on and off at RAF Mildenhall. Seeing a Lightning on the ground at neighboring RAF Lakenheath, all I could think was “Dude, go easy on the chips!” It looked fat and ungainly. Then I was at an airshow and watched a Lightning fly straight up…

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