Flying and fighting in the Lightning


All images: Property of Ian Black

The English Electric Lightning was the most exciting jet fighter ever created. When it entered service, in 1959, it was the most formidable fighter in the world. For twenty nine years it thundered over British skies as a brutish deterrent to would-be attackers. Ian Black flew this over-powered monster for the Royal Air Force in the final years of the Cold War. Here he shares the secrets of flying and fighting in Britain’s final jet fighter. 

What were your first impressions of the Lightning?
Very big, it sat high off the ground unlike the Hawk. It seemed to have myriad switches. all randomly located in the cockpit. It was very cramped when wearing full exposure suit, which we did for 8-9 months of the year in the UK. It had an extremely eccentric starting system that was a bit like a Jules Verne Rocket; once the engine was turning it was like lighting a firework and you were off on a journey of a short, but exciting, duration.

Which Lightning marks did you fly?
I started on the T.Mk 5 trainer then flew the F.Mk 3 single-seater in training then flew the bigger heavy Mk.6 on the Squadron – then flew the F.Mk 6 and T.Mk 5 privately

 What were the Lightnings worst vices?
Lack of fuel was the obvious one. From a handling point of view it was gloriously over-powered, something few aircraft have. With its highly swept wing and lack of any manoeuvre /combat flaps or slats the aircraft was often flown in the ‘light- heavy buffet’ which masked any seat-of-the pants feeling of an impending stall. It actually had few of the traditional ‘vices’ but could be a handful on landing with its big fin and drag chute, which made the aircraft weathercock on a strong crosswind landing. Tyres were also by necessity very thin to fit into the wing and high pressure, so didn’t last long.


How good was the radar?
In 1960 it was probably state of the art, but by 1988 it was positively prehistoric ! It was hopeless at low level overland, difficult at low level over the sea. At height the targets would often be doing in excess of .9 Mach so the combined speed of fighter and target would be around 20 miles a minute – with a maximum pick-up range on an average target of 18-20 miles this gave you less than a minute from initial contact to engagement. It also had very limited electronic counter measures capability.

How good were the weapon systems?
Again the weapons system was state of the art in the 1960s, by 1988 it was prehistoric. The system had potential: a data-link where the ground controllers would perform the intercept with pilot flying to target hands-off. The weapons were fine against lumbering Soviet bombers up at altitude, but not great in a high G combat scenario.

How did Lightnings do against teen series fighters in BFM/DACT (dogfight training) exercises? What tips would you offer in these situations?
Lightnings fought F-14, F-15, F-16 and F-18s. At long ranges Lightnings would have been shot down with radar-guided missiles-  with no RWR (radar warning receivers) the Lightning would not have stood a chance. Against the teen series the Lightning did OK in close-in combat, but the best version for air combat was the F.Mk 3 and that had so little fuel you could really only one last for one engagement.
If you’re fighting a Phantom in a Lightning what is the best approach?
Use the vertical – keep the F-4 close and keep it high where it doesn’t perform as well – around 5000 feet a clean wing F-4 ( UK ) was a close match for a Lightning. If you were fighting an F-4 with AIM-9L it was a hard match, so keeping it tight and trying to be inside his minimum range was good… and use guns.

Interview with F-100 pilot here

How would the Lightning have done against a MiG-23?
Easy. The MiG-23 was pretty awful at a turning fight, but would probably have out-run a Lightning at high-speed at low level.

How did the Lightning do against the Tornado F.Mk 3?
The ‘F2’ really only entered service in 1986  and the F3 in 1987 (a year before the Lightning was retired). We did do some work against the Tornado, but mainly radar intercepts – we knew that although it had track while scan, it was easily confused so we would start at 40,000 feet then descend to 10,000 quickly whilst changing formation and then climb back up again. Normally, the early F3 Foxhunter radar was totally confused by this stage.

10 greatest fighter aircraft of 1985 here

Which tactics should Lightning pilots use in air combat?
My own tactic was to come to the merge at high speed, say Mach 1.1- 1.2, then to come back to idle at the cross point to avoid getting shot in the face then start a low G climbing turn with full re heat hoping to top out around 40,000 feet (making sure you didn’t go into contrails and give your position away. If your opponent didn’t climb up with you it was an easy task to dive down on them ( they were often now blind to you ) and pick you moment
What was your most notable flight and what happened?

Flying my father, taking a Lightning to Cyprus twice , flying low level in West Germany from Gütersloh where Lightnings had been based in the 1970s.

Flying my First Lightning solo was incredible. Imagine watching something you loved for 25 years and then actually getting a chance to do it — but in the process you have to learn to be a fighter pilot!

Flying a Lightning solo was pretty special, but taking one across the Med’ with a tanker was a unique experience – I flew a T.Mk 5 once to Cyprus (and back ) and an F.Mk 6 one way. The T.Mk 5 had to be refuelled 6 times to get there with the aid of tanker support.

As a child I had always assumed flying Lightnings at low level in Germany was as good as it got, (over the North sea wasn’t nearly as exciting) so given the chance to do a week of just that was too good to be true. Especially as we were working with the Harrier force engaging in air combat when the weather was too bad to fly at low altitude

Taking my dad flying was a bit nerve wracking – I had 50 hours on type, while he had nearly 2000. It was 15 years since he’d last flown Lightnings and he regarded as one of the best Lightning pilots there ever was. He pretty much flew it from start to finish – I’m not sure what was worse him teaching me to drive or me taking him in a Lightning !

Interview with EAP and Tornado test pilot Dave Eagles here

How well trained were Lightning pilots? Were you given sufficient flying time?
Lightning pilots, along with Harrier pilots, were the best — no contest. We got lots of flying, and we were always on top of our game from low-level intercepts to high-flying supersonic targets.

What tips would you offer for a Lightning landing?
I guess pick a point on the runway and keep a constant angle down to touch down. Keep the speed accurate and if it doesn’t look right then overshoot and do it again.

I understood that you recently flew a Lightning in South Africa, what was that like?
I’ve been flying the Lightning at Thunder City on and off for ten years and its very different from flying in the RAF but still great fun. It’s a challenge because there is no one to supervise you or help you, so you are very much on your own. The aircraft are lovingly cared for, so they are in great condition.

What projects are you working on that would interest our readers?
I’ve set up which is to produce one book a year on various topics. So far we’ve done Lightning and F-4UK (British Phantoms) and next year the book planned Vol 3 is called “ZINC” a collection of all the types I flew but mostly Tornado, Mirage 2000 and other NATO types.

What should I have asked you about the Lightning?
What makes the Lightning unique. It’s the only jet fighter with a vertical twin-stack engine layout – It’s all British and did Mach 2.0 It’s probably the ultimate fighter in terms of man and machine working as one. It is a massively overpowered fighter with an incredibly high pilot work-load.

Ian Black flew with RAF Squadrons 19,11,23,25,234,65,56,  and EC 2/5 of the Armée de l’air. 


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You should also enjoy some more of our articles: There’s a whole feast of features, including the top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an alternate history of the TSR.2, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is the The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker.

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  1. Will Kinton

    “Britain’s final jet fighter”

    You’re kidding, right?

    What about the Sea Harrier? The Tornado ADV? Typhoon?

      • Gray Stanback

        I’ll give you the Shar and the Tornado, but I still consider the Typhoon primarily a British plane. It was first designed to meet a British requirement, and the prototype (the EAP/Experimental Aircraft Programme) was built by British Aerospace.

  2. hijimhereJim

    Many thanks for a really interesting article – at least we have one which operates at Bruntingsthorpe in the summer doing runway sorties lol. When I was an CI at 2532 Squadron ATC we had another CI (Nigel) who had flown the type. He was a character with it – one morning he was late getting to work so floored it only to see a speed trap as he was exiting a was at the height of the Ireland problem, Nigel said he threw the car sideways and got out with his hans in the air shouting don’t shoot. needless to say he got away with it. Happy Landings

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  10. Alastair

    I remember as a kid reading a book about boys out plane spotting and one of them being a little peeved that an airfield nearby now hosted Jaguars instead of Lightnings. Anyone remember what that was?

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  23. Ron Smith

    I spent a couple of weeks at Gutersloh with an Air Training Corps visit in ~1968. Establishment was 2 & 4 Sqn with Hunters and 19 & 92 Sqn with Lightning 2As. There was a German Air Force F-104G Sqn visiting at the time. I was in Air Traffic when one of the Starfighters called up for a priority landing with ‘unusual vibrations’. He flew one approach and went round again. Landed off the second approach – by which time, all the airborne Lightnings were calling up with ‘Bingo’ fuel.

  24. Rhett Hayes

    Not sure how it would compare to a Typhoon but the Lightning must be pretty close in sheer power and speed. Scared the bejesus out of me at Finningley in the 70’s!! I know groundcrew guys that got trips in them and I am so jealous!

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