Cold War

English Electric Lightning – Very Very Frightning

Even while the iconic Spitfire was still in frontline service with the RAF, plans were being drawn up for a new generation of combat aircraft that would offer performance not dreamed of by wartime pilots. One company that would drive this forward was not new, but it was also not a name popularly associated with the design of British military aircraft: English Electric. And they would go on to produce an aircraft with unbelievable performance – the Lightning.


English Electric Company Limited

The English Electric Company Limited (EECL) was formed in December 1918, just after the signing of the armistice that ended World War One. During the 1920s and 1930s, the company focused on the manufacture of electrical generation and distribution equipment but when World War Two began in September 1939, it became involved in the manufacture of aircraft and aero-engines.

After the war, EECL became the main manufacturer of the new De Havilland Vampire jet fighter.

EECL were the manufacturer for the Vampire.
The Vampire was an aircraft built by EECL post war.

However, though EECL had become one of the largest manufacturers of military aircraft in Britain, it had not yet designed any aircraft of its own. In 1944, that changed with the recruitment of a brilliant but erratic designer who had formerly worked for Westland, William Edward “Teddy” Petter.

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In July 1944, Petter was offered the position of Chief Aircraft Designer with EECL. He accepted and was given the task of creating a design office and recruiting a team of young aviation designers to produce radical new designs.

While Petter may have been a little eccentric and somewhat erratic, there is no doubting of the quality of his designs. The first, resulting from an Air Ministry specification for a high-speed, high altitude bomber, resulted in the English Electric Canberra, Britain’s first jet bomber.

This aircraft remained in RAF service for a staggering 57 years! However, even while this project was in the early stages of development, Petter and his new team were looking at another even more radical design for a high-speed, high-altitude fighter.

The Canberra was another of EE's creations
The EECL Canberra was an extremely popular aircraft and had great success on the export market. This photograph is of an Indian Air Force model.


The design created for the new single-seat fighter was certainly different from anything else at the time. To reduce drag, it envisaged a deep fuselage containing two Rolls-Royce Derwent jet engines stacked one above the other.

A high tail was fitted and the wings were swept back at 40˚. The projected speed in level flight was planned to be at least Mach 1.5. In November 1948, this design was submitted to the Air Ministry for approval. They were sufficiently impressed that funding was granted to begin detailed design work on what EECL designated the P.1.

The Lightning prototype - P.1
The prototype Lightning P.1 looked quite different from the model introduced into service. Photo credit – Alan Wilson

Petter was not satisfied with the planned performance of the new fighter and further design improvements were undertaken in the hope of achieving Mach 2.

The engines were to be the new and more powerful Rolls-Royce Avon jet, then still under development. Wing sweep was increased to 60˚, which meant that the ailerons had to be moved to the wingtips.

Wind tunnel testing showed instability in the high tail and this was changed to a conventional tail, set below the level of the wings.

The first three prototypes were built in 1953, though these were powered by the less powerful Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire turbojet engine as development work on the Avon was still not complete. These were generally successful, with the first example achieving supersonic flight in August 1954, but they fell far short of Petter’s hopes of Mach 2.

Nine Lightnings in formation at the Farnborough airshow.
The Lightning had an aggressively swept wing design. As seen here at the Farnborough Air Show. Photo credit – TSRL CC BY-SA 3.0

The second generation of three prototypes was created, designated the P.1B (the three original prototypes were then retroactively designated P.1A). These featured a redesigned fuselage and engine intake and were powered by two Rolls Royce Avon R24R engines provided with reheat.

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Despite the promising performance of the P1, the pace of development of the new interceptor remained relatively slow: many people in the Air Ministry felt that the existing Gloster Javelin interceptor which entered RAF service in the mid-1950s was more than capable of defending against all known threats.

Firesteak missiles being loaded at RAF Akrotiri
Lightnings of No 56 Squadron during armament practice camp at Akrotiri Photo credit – RAF OGL v1.0

Then, in 1957, they learned about a new Russian bomber under development: the Tupolev Tu-22 (later given the NATO designation Blinder). This was planned to enter service in 1962 with a cruise speed of Mach 1.2 and a dash speed of Mach 1.5.

There was simply no way that the subsonic Javelin could intercept a bomber capable of such speed.

The Lightning Variants

Suddenly, Britain needed an interceptor with dramatically improved performance. The only British aircraft under development with the performance needed was the Lightning. Even before the first P.1B had flown, the Lightning was chosen as the RAF’s next interceptor.

The P.1B flew for the first time in April 1957 and achieved Mach 1 on its first flight. It regularly exceeded 1,000mph on trial flights and in late 1958 achieved Mach 2, the first British aircraft to do this.

To celebrate the fighter’s astounding performance the new aircraft was formally named Lightning towards the end of 1958.

A Lightning after taxing.
A Lightning taxiing after a ground run in the UK.

However, while its climb rate (20,000 feet per minute), acceleration, cruise speed and altitude (RAF Lightnings reached over 80,000 feet) were as high as anticipated, the new design did have one notable flaw.

The stacked configuration of the engines left no room in the fuselage for fuel tanks. All fuel had to be carried in the thin wings that also housed the undercarriage bays. The wheels were made thin to allow more space for fuel in the wings and even the flaps were used as mini-fuel tanks.

From the P.1B on, a small ventral fuel tank was added, but even with this in place, the range of the new interceptor was very, very limited at around 150 miles with only a few minutes of flight available if using maximum power.

Despite this, the first Lightning F.1 aircraft were delivered to the RAF in December 1959. The first operational Lighting squadron, 74, took delivery of the aircraft in July 1960.

A Lightning equipped with a Firestreak
A Lightning equipped with a Firestreak air-to-air missile.

The Lightning F.1 was armed with two 30 mm ADEN cannons in the fuselage and additional weapons could be carried in a ventral pack containing either two more ADEN cannons, forty-eight unguided 2-inch rockets, or a pair of Firestreak air-to-air missiles.

The AIRPASS (Airborne Interception Radar and Pilot Attack Sight System) avionics pack comprised Ferranti A.I.23 radar providing search, tracking and ranging of targets and a relatively simple gunsight providing gyroscopically derived lead angle data to the pilot.

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In 1960, English Electric Aviation merged with  Vickers-Armstrongs Aircraft, the Bristol Aeroplane Company and Hunting Aircraft to create a new company, the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC).

All versions of the Lightning produced after this merger were identified as the BAC Lightning. The first new versions, the F.1A and F2, provided minor improvements, but the F.3 introduced in 1962 represented some major advances.

The F.3 featured even more powerful Rolls-Royce Avon 301R engines with reheat, a revised fin and a modified inlet cone. It also featured improved avionics and could be armed with the new Red Top air-to-air missile, though the fuselage-mounted ADEN cannon were dropped.

Lightning F.6 on display in Georgia.
The EECL Lightning F.6. Photo credit – Greg Goebel.

With the new engines, the F.3 was the most powerful Lightning of all, but additional performance meant an even shorter range. It was becoming clear that the most important single improvement to this aircraft was to increase the volume of fuel that it could carry.

The solution was the F.6, introduced in 1965 and provided with a much larger fixed conformal ventral fuel tank that included two ADEN cannons mounted in the front. This version could also carry two additional jettisonable fuel tanks on over-wing pylons.

The large ventral tank did slightly reduce climb ability but it increased the operational range of the F. 6 to over 800 miles. Several existing operational F.2 and F.3 models were upgraded to F.6 specification.

The F.6 was the last major revision to the basic Lightning used operationally by the RAF. There were also two-seat training versions, the T.4 and T.5 based respectively on the F.1A and F.3.

There were also two export versions, the F.52 (provided to the Royal Saudi Arabian Air Force and based on the F.2) and the F.53 (provided to both the Saudi and Kuwait Air Forces and based on the F.6). Including prototypes, a total of just over 330 Lightnings of all types were manufactured by EECL and BAC.

The Lightning was never used in combat and the last operational example was retired from RAF service in 1988.

In terms of its design, the Lightning was completely focused on one task: the ability to climb rapidly and engage fast, high-flying Soviet bombers. However, as the threat from aircraft such as the Tu-22 was negated by improved Surface-to-air missiles, this narrow mission focus became a problem.

The Frightning

While flying high and fast, the Lightning was easy to fly. If it was required to fly low and slow, it became a handful and the workload in the small cockpit became very high (as a consequence the Lightning was occasionally known as the Frightening by its RAF pilots).

Lightning Cockpit
The cockpit of the Lightning was very small. Photo credit – Iain A Wanless.

It was clear that the Lightning could never be developed to become a capable multi-role aircraft and as the threat it had been designed to tackle became less significant, it became less relevant.   

The defining characteristic of all versions of the Lightning was extreme power: with the engines at idle, the Lightning would rapidly accelerate to around 80mph unless the brakes were continually held on.

For a rapid take-off, the Lightning would use reheat, tuck its wheels up and fly level just above the runway until it reached 430 knots. At that point it would rotate into a near vertical climb, often passing over the runway end at 10,000 feet or more.

It would then continue to climb at around 20,000 feet per minute, reaching Mach 0.85 at around 36,000 feet. If it was climbing higher, it would level out to reach Mach 1 and then continue to climb to 70,000 feet or more.

Are any English Electric Lightning still flying?

As of now, no English Electric Lightning aircraft remain in active service. The last operational Lightning was retired from the RAF in 1988. While there may be preserved Lightning aircraft in museums or private collections, these iconic supersonic interceptors are no longer flying in military or commercial roles.

Their unique power and performance capabilities left a lasting impression, but they are now a part of aviation history rather than active aircraft.


As a young teenager, I was privileged to watch a mass take-off of Lightning F.6 aircraft of 23 Squadron in the early 1970s at a Battle of Britain air display at RAF Leuchars in Fife. I had literally never seen anything like this.

A HH-53 rescuing a crsahed Lightning
A HH-53 helicopter prepares to lift a Lightning.

I stepped back from the wall of noise, the ground trembled and my internal organs vibrated in sympathy as I watched the aircraft become tiny specks in what seemed like no more than a few seconds.

Instantly, and I suspect in conjunction with several thousand other enthralled members of the audience, I decided that I wanted to become an RAF fighter pilot. I never did achieve that ambition, but nor did I ever forget the visceral power of this amazing aircraft.

Now, I understand that this represented a huge waste of precious and dwindling resources. But a tiny part of me still mourns the passing of an aircraft that represented as no other, the ability of the human race to challenge the confines of gravity.

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We will probably never again see a military aircraft as single-minded as the Lightning. That may be laudable from an ecological point of view, but the Lightning will never be surpassed in terms of sheer spectacle and raw power.

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  • Crew: 1
  • Length: 55 ft 3 in (16.84 m)
  • Wingspan: 34 ft 10 in (10.62 m)
  • Height: 19 ft 7 in (5.97 m)
  • Empty weight: 31,068 lb (14,092 kg) with armament and no fuel
  • Max takeoff weight: 45,750 lb (20,752 kg)
  • Powerplant: 2 × Rolls-Royce Avon 301R afterburning turbojet engines, 12,690 lbf (56.4 kN) thrust each dry, 16,360 lbf (72.8 kN) with afterburner
  • Maximum speed: Mach 2.27 (1,500 mph+ at 40,000 ft)
  • Range: 738 nmi (849 mi, 1,367 km)
  • Combat range: 135 nmi (155 mi, 250 km) supersonic intercept radius
  • Service ceiling: 60,000 ft (18,000 m)
  • Rate of climb: 20,000 ft/min (100 m/s) sustained to 30,000 ft (9,100 m) Zoom climb 50,000 ft/min