Lightning in the British Skies

Nov. 1, 1959

Now being readied for service with Britain’s Royal Air Force Fighter Command is the English Electric Lightning, an immensely powerful, single-seat interceptor with a top speed capability of about Mach 2.3, a landing speed of 130 knots, and full all-weather combat effectiveness.

Married to the great firepower of two de Havilland Firestreak infrared homing missiles or forty-eight two-inch rockets, as well as two 30-mm cannons, these characteristics should make the Lightning one of the hardest hitting fighters in the world and an important addition to Allied airpower.

For the first time in a British fighter, full all-weather capability has been built into a single-seat machine. The Lightning will replace both the elegant but transonic Hawker Hunter, which is currently the RAF’s standard day fighter, and two-seat Gloster Javelin, which mounts the night and all-weather defensive screen. The Lightning is scheduled to go to operational squadrons in the next few months. It is now undergoing test flights — one of which, unfortunately, resulted in a recent crash in the Irish Sea. This did not, however, diminish official enthusiasm for the aircraft.

Britain was late getting into the manned supersonic aircraft field, due mainly to a government decision made in 1945 to rely on supersonic research with unmanned models only. In 1949 this decision was reversed. Design began in Britain on two supersonic research aircraft, one of which became the Fairey Delta 2, a one-time world speed record holder, and the other the P-1, progenitor of the Lightning.

In 1953 the British Air Staff decided that there was a need for a manned supersonic fighter in addition to guided interceptor missiles. Major developmental work began on the P-1. Two flying prototypes and a static test airframe were built of an interim design, the P-1A, which went supersonic on its first flight in August 1054. It was the first British airplane to do so. Further design work concentrated on the P-1B, the full combat version.

The P-1B, since named the Lightning, was seen to be a totally different airplane when it first emerged in April 1957, bearing only a superficial resemblance to the lower-powered interim machine.

The Lightning was the first British airplane to be treated as a complete weapon system. Its importance to the British Air Staff can be gauged by the fact that an unprecedented number of preproduction airplanes were ordered “off the drawing board.” Systematic and concurrent development of all the integrated items which make up a weapon system followed. Of this batch, three prototypes and twenty preproduction development models, the majority are now flying.

The powerplants are two Rolls-Royce Avon 24R turbojets, officially stated to be type tested at 11,500 pounds of thrust. Each is fitted with an afterburner, raising the total thrust to about 29,000 pounds. The engines are mounted one above the other, staggered fore and aft to reduce the cross-sectional area.

All necessary drives are duplicated. The Lightning can be flown safely on one engine. The position of both engines on the axis line means that there is no imbalance if one engine should fail or be deliberately cut.

The untapered wing is swept at an angle of sixty degrees. The horizontal stabilizer, of similar shape, is mounted low beneath the vertical stabilizer. This avoids the pitch-up tendency encountered by supersonic airplanes with high mounted stabilizers when flying at subsonic or transonic speeds. The thickness/chord ratio of the wing is approximately five percent, with the ailerons mounted across the tips from leading to trailing edge, parallel to the lateral axis.

“Saw cuts” have been designed into the leading edges of the wings to aid flow distribution. They were considered preferable to the more usual and easily damaged boundary layer fences.

Mounted in the Lightning’s nose is the scanner of the Ferranti Airpass system. “Airpass” stands for Air Borne Interception Radar and Pilot’s Attack Sight System. This is a target-acquisition and fir-control system developed concurrently with the airplane. It is said to be suitable for installation in even lightweight fighters.

The Lightning carries a full range of tactical and navigation aids, including many other specially developed instruments and an autopilot. The aircraft is also equipped with autostabilization. This latter aid is solely to reduce the load on the pilot, enabling him to devote his full attention to the interception. It does not imply tricky handling characteristics. Preproduction Lightnings have been flown and maneuvered at Mach 2 without autostabilization.

The flight characteristics of the Lightning have drawn praise from pilots of several countries who have flown it. Among these have been a number of US Air Force aviators. It has been accorded the most complete tunnel testing of any plane ever built in Britain.

The ventral bulge seen under the Lightning in the accompanying photographs was originally intended to house a Napier Double Scorpion Kerosene rocket together with its hydrogen-peroxide oxidant. This rocket would have provided extra power at altitude or during the climb. But improvements on the Avon engine and its afterburner, together with the increased performance of the Firestreak missile, have rendered installation of the rocket unnecessary. The bulge has been retained for extra fuel capacity.

The Lightning has a wide track undercarriage, which retracts outward, both the undercarriage legs and the wheel-well doors being inboard of the wheels. The nose-wheel retracts forward into the lower center body strut. Forward opening slab airbrakes are mounted in the fuselage topside just below the junction of the dorsal spine and the fin leading edge. Deceleration on landing is aided by a ten-foot-diameter ring-slot parachute housed beneath the variable area jet nozzles.

Early in May a two-seat version of the Lightning, designated the P-11, made its first flight. Intended as an operational trainer, this airplane retains the full combat capabilities, and houses the same range of electronics and armaments, as the single seater. The two seats are placed side by side.

The aircraft is identical to the Lightning apart from a fattening of the upper, forward fuselage. The trainer version will be available early in the service life of the RAF’s newest and best interceptor.

English Electric Lightning Data Sheet

Designers: Initial conception, W. E. W. Petter; designer through development, F. W. Page.

Engines: Two Rolls-Royce Avon 24R turbojets with afterburners.

Crew: One.

Length: 50 ft., 0 in.

Span: 34 ft., 10 in.

Weight: Not released.

Maximum Speed: Approximately Mach 2.3.

Takeoff Run: Approximately 800 yards loaded.

Landing Run: Approximately 700 yards.

Landing Speed: 130 knots.

Ceiling: In excess of 65,000 ft.

Ordnance: 4 Aden 30-mm. cannons or 2 Firestreak infrared homing missiles and 2 Aden cannons or 48 unguided, spin-stabilized, 2-inch rockets and 2 Aden cannons.

The author, Robert Rodwell, has been a frequent contributor to Air Force/Space Digest. A British aviation writer, he last report in these pages in May ’59 on the emplacement of Thor IRBMs in his country. Mr. Rodwell has flown, as a passenger, in many current US and British military jet aircraft in the past several years.