The English Electric Lightning was the United Kingdom’s premier interceptor that guarded its skies during the cold war. Best known for its blazing speed and incredible climb rate, it remains a favourite among pilots who often describe flying it as ‘steering a rocket’.
WEW ‘Teddy’ Petter and Freddie Page are regarded as the pioneers of the plane’s initial concept. They implemented some very unorthodox features in the design like the vertically stacked engines, high wing sweep angle, and notched delta wing; receiving scepticism from many. Nevertheless, English Electric continued its development and rendered several changes to the Lightning’s design between 1947 and 1954. The UK manufacturer finally settled on the P1 design and soon its prototype -the WG760- became airborne on 4 August 1954.
Have you ever imagined sitting on a rocket that is shooting for the heavens? Well, many pilots described flying the Lightning as precisely that and thoroughly enjoyed the adventure. One Lightning pilot, Dave Stock (later killed in the fighter) commented:
The only reason the Lightning was given wings was to separate the port and starboard lights – by Neil Pietersen
The two powerful Rolls-Roys Avon turbojet engines gave it the ability to climb at an extraordinary rate of 20 000 ft per minute. While its ceiling is speculated to have been more than 60 000 ft. At full bearing load, the lightning topped at a speed of Mach 1.7. Later versions, however, could reach Mach 2 at full operational load (missiles equipped). The only downsides of the Lightning were its limited range and low payload capacity. As such lightning pilots regarded the fuel tank indicator as the most important instrument in the cockpit.
Legacy of the ‘Rocket’
Having served the Royal Air Force for more than 30 years, the ‘rocket’ was finally retired in 1988 and replaced by the Panavia Tornado interceptors and Lockheed Phantoms. It also served internationally with the Kuwait Air force and the Royal Saudi Air force.
The legendary English Electric Lightning remains to this day the only British manufactured combat plane to exceed Mach 2. It was a feared rival and an undisputed defender of the skies.
What do you remember about the English Electric Lightning?
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