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English Electric Lightning

The English Electric Lightning is a powerful British fighter plane of the Cold War era, particularly remembered for its modernity that was emphasised by its natural metal exterior throughout much of its service life with the Royal Air Force and the Royal Saudi Air Force. A stunning performer at airshows and one of the most powerful aircraft ever used in formation aerobatics.

XS897 Lightning of RAF 5 Squadron breaks over XR770 on one of the squadron's last sorties prior to disbandment. The aircraft were painted with the old style roundels to represent one of the squadron's earlier aircraft.
Larger version

The prototype, known as the English Electric P.1, was built to satisfy the British Air Ministry's specification coded F23/49 and flew for the first time from RAE Boscombe Down on 4th August 1954. The designer was W.E.W.Petter.

The first operational aircraft, a mark F1, arrived at Coltishall in Norfolk in December 1959. It served initially with 74 Squadron. As strategic awareness increased and a multitude of alternative fighter designs were developed by Warsaw Pact and NATO members, the Lightning's shortcomings in terms of range and firepower became increasingly apparent during the 1960s. The withdrawal of McDonnell Phantoms from Royal Navy service enabled these longer range aircraft to be transferred to the RAF and more efficient SEPECAT Jaguars also arrived to defend UK airspace. Lightnings were therefore slowly phased-out of front-line service between 1974 and 1989.

In their final years of UK service all RAF Lightnings were based at Binbrook in Lincolnshire and many were camouflaged to make them less conspicuous when flying at low level. They tended to defend the Flamborough Head Sector of airspace above the North Sea. These later aircraft were the single seater F.3 and F.6 and the the twin seat trainer variants T.4 and T.5, all constructed by British Aerospace. All could be simply distinguished from earlier versions by their flat topped fins. The F.3 was first flown on 16th June 1962 and the longer-range F.6 on 16th June 1965. The versions sold to Saudi Arabia were essentially similar to the T.5 and F.6 models in UK service and this final production batch reverted to the classic natural metal external finish which lasted well in the drier Arabian climate.

The arrangement of the two Avon turbojets one above the other remains a relatively unusual configuration, yielding a rather slab-sided design. Slender flat wings swept rearwards at a startling sixty degrees served to further emphasise the fuselage. Many Lightnings are conserved in museum collections where they will continue to delight young visitors with their clean sleek lines, evocative of the high speeds that they once attained.

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