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English Electric Lightning F6 Jet Fighter Plane

The UK's Air Ministry issued specification F23/49 for a high speed a point defence air superiority interceptor jet fighter armed with cannon to protect the UK's airspace from air attack by foreign powers in 1947, the Lightning (Sir Dermont Boyle named the aircraft in 1958) was English Electrics response. It should be remembered at this time the Cold War was beginning and the most serious perceived threat was nuclear gravity bomb delivered by a strategic bomber, threat warning was minimal and it required an interceptor of fairly short range but with a phenomenal rate of climb, maximum speed and high altitude ability to successfully intercept attacking strategic bombers.

English Electric Lightning f6 Jet Fighter Plane


English Electric tasked W. E. W. Petter, formerly the chief designer at Westland Aircraft to design the aircraft to be known as the P.1, Petter did what other designers had done before to get maximum speed out of a plane, get the most powerful engine you can and build the smallest plane you can around it! Petter however went further, he used two vertically stacked fuselage mounted Sapphire Sa.5 engines (More powerful Rolls-Royce Avon 301R used on production aircraft) afterburning turbojets instead of one, placing one above the other obtaining twice the thrust of the most powerful contemporary fighters with only a 50% increase in frontal drag area, to prevent his design becoming to tail heavy he mounted the lower engine forward of the rear one. The English Electric P.1 was almost all engines and air-way ducting, the aircraft was massive compared to existing designs but was very small relative to the size of the engines used, the main problem was where to put the fuel, Petter resolved this by by putting it everywhere he could, to make some of the fuselage available he had the undercarriage retract outward using the smallest wheels he could, Petter even put fuel tanks in the wing flaps! In later years the need for more fuel capacity resulted in the English Electric Lightning F6, as pictured above, external jettisonable fuel tanks were mounted above the wings rather than below as the undercarriage was in the way.


The prototype, the English Electric P.1, made it's first flight on 4 August 1954 from RAF Boscombe Down, it had limited range due to fuel capacity restrictions but in all other ways it's performance was impressive even by today's standards, and almost almost science fiction by those of 1954!

Petter had included leading edge design ideas into the P.1, he incorporated an all-flying tail-plane (described by Chuck Yeager as the single most significant contribution to the final success of supersonic flight) and a shock cone for the engines air intake which also housed the AI 23 Airpass radar, when test flown the aircraft broke the sound barrier without it's afterburners even being lit, this was the first time a jet aircraft had been able to do this and it did so on it's very first day it flew!, by the end of July, the world air speed record (mach 1.72) had been broken, by November 1958 mach 2.


AI 23 Airpass Radar

AI 23 Airpass radar mounted behind the Lightning's intake shock cone

The ability to brake the sound barrier without afterburner re-heat is now referred to as super-cruise, it is of note that fifty years later the only current fighters in service today able to achieve sustained super-cruise are the EF-2000 Eurofighter and the Lockheed F-22A Raptor!

The English Electric Lightning F1 entered front line service with the RAF in 1960 demoting the existing hawker hunter interceptor force into ground attack aircraft and replacing the Gloster javelin in 1968, during the "Cold War" the RAF's Lightnings intercepted numerous Soviet TU-95 (Bear) bombers probing into UK airspace over the North Sea but they would always turn back once intercepted in quite a friendly manner, in fact the only time an RAF English Electric Lightning actually was forced to shoot down an aircraft for real it was a pilot-less RAF Harrier, it's pilot had been forced to eject but his Harrier just flew on straight and level, it had to be shot down to ensure it did not eventually crash into any inhabited areas.


English Electric Lightnings were finally phased out of RAF service between 1974 and 1988 for several reasons, the age of the aircraft meant that maintenance was becoming more time consuming and the remaining flight hours on the airframes was becoming an increasing worry, the incidence of aircraft being lost due to the aircraft catching fire whilst in flight was also increasing (the obsolete method of starting the engines using liquid "AVPIN" C3H7NO3 self-oxidising isopropyl nitrate monofuel did not help), also redundant RNAF Phantom FGR2 fighter aircraft with greater endurance were now available with the last of the big aircraft carriers the Ark Royal being de-commissioned and they had greater space for modern weapons and associated avionics even though performance was inferior it was deemed adequate until the new Panavia Tornado F3 fighter entered service, this was known to be not far behind the English Electric Lightning in both speed and agility with advanced avionics and weapon capability.


English Electric Lightning f6

English Electric Lightning f6 Jet Fighter

In one NATO exercise with British Airways cooperation, F-15s, F-16s, F-14s, Mirages, F-104s and Lightnings were all tasked with catching Concorde in a stern intercept, only the Lightning managed to catch and overtake her! During another NATO exercise during 1984, Flt. Lt. Mike Hale intercepted an American Lockheed U-2 spy-plane at a height which it's pilot had believed was beyond interception, 88,000 ft (26 800 m), Mike Hale was flying a twenty two year old (1962) F3 specification English Electric Lightning! (Mike Hale used a ballistic trajectory to achieve this height).

It is of note that although the Avon jet engine was designed over half a century ago by a team led by Cyril Lovesey, who had had been previously in charge of Merlin development, it was still found to be the most suitable for Richard Noble's Thrust 2 record breaking car which held the World Land Speed Record from 1983 to 1997.


English Electric Lightning F1

English Electric Lightning F1

English Electric Lightning F.6 Specifications:

  • Crew: Pilot only
  • Length: 55 ft 3 in (16.84 m)      Wingspan: 34 ft 10 in (10.62 m)      Height: 19 ft 7 in (5.97 m)
  • Wing area: 474.5 ft (44.1 m)
  • Empty weight: 28,040 lb (12 719 kg)         Max takeoff weight: 41,700 lb (18,915 kg)
  • Engines: Twin 16,360 lbf (72.77 kN) Rolls-Royce Avon 301R afterburning turbojets
  • Maximum speed: Mach 2.27 (1,500 mph, 2,415 km/h) at maximum altitude
  • Range: 800 mi (1287 km) combat, 1,560 mi (2,500 km) ferry
  • Service ceiling: over 60,000 ft (18,000 m)
  • Rate of climb: 50,000 ft/min (255 m/s)

The maximum service ceiling was never officially stated, however an American U-2 spy-plane with a very surprised pilot is recorded as having been intercepted at an altitude of 88,000 ft (26 800 m) by a twenty two year old aging 1962 specification F3 English Electric Lightning during a 1984 NATO exercise, one can not help but wonder what the maximum altitude limit really was...

Short SB5 research aircraft

Short Brothers SB5 research aircraft


English Electric Lightning F.6 Armament:

  • Guns: Twin 30 mm ADEN cannon
  • Missiles: Two Firestreak or Red Top Infrared Air-to-air guided missiles

The Short Brothers SB5 research aircraft

A difference of opinion between the Royal Aircraft Establishment and English Electric regarding optimum wing and tail configuration to give the Lightening good low speed handling resulted in Short Brothers being contracted to build the Short SB5 research aircraft, the SB5 was tried with swept wings of 50, 60 and 69 degrees and various tail positions, the optimal configuration proved to be 69 degrees combined with a low tail, the RAE had preferred a high tail configuration as fitted to the RAF's existing Gloster Javelin fighter.


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