Engineering Marvels: The English Electric Lightning

[image title=”lightning_f1_f3″ size=”full” id=”379″ align=”right” linkto=”” ]In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the interception of Soviet long-range nuclear bombers was a very worrying topic for Western Military leaders. Models such as the Tupolev Tu-22 were already in development, and could reach Mach 1.5 at 40,000 feet – more than a match for the existing sub-sonic fighters of the age. It was predicted that they could deliver a nuclear payload to British or American cities and be totally unreachable by existing fighter aircraft or surface-to-air missile systems.

The British needed something to stop them, and they favoured speed, accuracy and power to do that. Their response was the development of the English Electric Lightning. The Lightning (not to be confused with the P-38 Lightning of WWII fame), is a second-generation Jet Interceptor. They were designed to climb rapidly to ceiling height and engage a bomber with high-speed missiles, and they did it astonishingly well.

So, what makes the Lightning an Engineering Marvel? There are a few reasons. Click Read More to find out.

Lightnings were fast. Really fast. They were not only fast by 1960s standards, but are exceptional performers even today. With a maximum speed of 1500 miles an hour (about Mach 2.27 at altitude) and the ability to supercruise (hold super-sonic speed for an extended period of time without afterburn), they were formidable aircraft.

Lightnings were incredibly powerful. Due to their design, they had almost as much thrust as they did weight. This gave them a climb rate of 50,000 feet per minute and a maximum service ceiling of over 60,000 feet (reports show 88,000 was achievable). In fact, the first aircraft to outclass the Lightnings in climb speed was the F-15 Eagle, almost 20 years later. The Lightning was so powerful that it was able to perform what was sometimes called the “Lightning Vertical Take-Off” – once sufficient speed was attained (usually directly after take off), the landing gear was retracted, power increased to military maximum, and the aircraft was able to climb at almost 90 degrees.

The airframe had very little drag, considering it was a twin-engined design. This was overcome in a rather unique way. The engines were inside the body of the aircraft, and were placed on top of one another in a staggered formation, with the lower engine forward of the upper. The front profile of the aircraft was almost entirely made up of the intake for the engines, which fed air via a massive duct which ran under the cockpit. This design meant that the overall frontal aspect (and therefore drag) of the aircraft was reduced, and when you’re building something which is made for speed, that’s a pretty important feature.

They were incredible performers. Even at twice the speed of sound, pilots could perform quite complex maneuvers which were usually reserved for sub-sonic flight. This meant that the Lightning was able to maneuver in behind a target aircraft in order to be able to fire in an incredibly short amount of time. In fact, 1985, British Airways offered a Concorde as a practice target for NATO fighters. The Lightning was the only aircraft able to overhaul the Concorde by using a stern conversion intercept technique, which is impressive considering the Concorde was travelling at Mach 2.2 at 57,000 feet. It’s also impressive considering the other aircraft taking part in the trial were F14 Tomcats, F15 Eagles, F16 Fighting Falcons and F104 Starfighters – all more modern than the Lightning, and all outclassed by an aircraft which was released in 1959.

They pioneered the concept of HOTAS – Hands On Throttle And Stick. Both the control stick and throttle had a number of extra switches and dials which allowed a single pilot to manouver the aircraft while operating the weapons system and radar. A pilot could scan with the radar, acquire a target, lock on to the target’s heat signature and launch a missile or rocket.

They could operate at an exceptionally high ceiling. The Lightning demonstrated it’s exceptional ceiling during a 1984 exercise by performing a zoom climb to 88,000 feet, then by intercepting an American U2 spy plane at 66,000 feet – an altitude which was previously thought to be safe from interception by the USAF. This sort of high-altitude interception was fairly incredible, even 25 years after the release of the aircraft.

Finally, they were completely developed within Great Britain. Not a single nut or bolt on the aircraft was produced elsewhere, making this aircraft the first and last all-British Supersonic Fighter/Interceptor.

So if they were incredible performers, why weren’t they continued as an active design?

Essentially, the only reason that these aircraft were phased out was their short combat radius (only 900 miles), and poor (compared to their modern equivalents) radar systems. Due to the minimalist design, the aircraft had very little space left for anything other than Engines and Ducting. The fuel tanks on the Lightnings were therefore restricted to a very limited area, and were extended to any available space, including the wing flaps, in order to carry a sufficient amount of fuel for combat operations. The Radar system, the same as the fuel tanks, was relegated to quite a small area – the Shock Cone in the nose of the aircraft. With such a limited space, the Lightnings weren’t able to be upgraded to more modern Radar systems, and became outdated.

Finally, due to the unique aerodynamic aspects of the aircraft, it was very difficult to mount more than the standard two air-to-air missiles. This meant that the Lightning was really only good to do what it was originally designed to do – rapidly intercept high-altitude bombers. And with those bombers being replaced by Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, the Lightning was essentially without a job.

So there you have it. The English Electric Lightning. All in all, a remarkable aircraft, and a remarkable feat of British engineering.


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