English Electric Lightning

English Electric Lightning

Lightning XS897 of RAF 5 Squadron breaks over Lightning XR770 on one of the squadron's last sorties prior to disbandment
First flightAugust 4, 1954
Entered serviceDecember 1959
ManufacturerEnglish Electric
Length55 ft 3 in16.84 m
Wingspan34 ft 10 in10.62 m
Height19 ft 7 in5.97 m
Wing area 380.1 ft² 35.32 m²
Empty28,000 lb12,700 kg
Loaded 50,000 lb 22,680 kg
Maximum Takeoff lb kg
Engines2 x Rolls-Royce RA34R Avon 310 turbojet engines with afterburners
Thrust2 x 15,680 lbf2 x 69.7 kN
Maximum speed1,500 mph2,400 km/h
Combat fadius400 mi 640 km
Ferry fange1,560 mi 2,500 km
Service ceiling60,000+ ft18,000+ m
Rate of climb 50,000 ft/min m/min
Wing loading lb/ft² kg/m²
Thrust/weight 0.63 lbf/lb 6.2 N/kg
Guns2 x 30 mm ADEN cannons
Bombs6,000 lb (3,000 kg)
Missiles2 x Firestreak AAM
Rockets44 x 2 in (50 mm) rockets

The English Electric Lightning was a supersonic British fighter aircraft of the Cold War era, particularly remembered for its natural metal exterior that was used throughout much of its service life with the Royal Air Force and the Royal Saudi Air Force. The aircraft was a stunning performer at airshows, former holder of the world air-speed record, the first aircraft capable of supercruise and one of the most powerful aircraft ever used in formation aerobatics.



The prototype, known as the English Electric P.1, was built to satisfy the British Air Ministry's 1947 specification coded F23/49 and flew for the first time from RAF Boscombe Down on 4th August 1954. This specification followed the cancellation of the British Air Ministry's 1942 E.24/43 supersonic research aircraft specification which had resulted in the Miles M.52. The Lightning shared a number of innovations first planned for the Miles M.52 including the shock cone and all-flying tailplane, the latter described by Chuck Yeager as the single most significant contribution to the final success of supersonic flight.

The P.1's designer was W.E.W. Petter, formerly chief designer at Westland Aircraft.

The Lighting was specifically designed as a point defense interceptor - essentially a guided missile-armed, air superiority fighter optimized to defend mainland Britain against incoming attacks. As a result in order to reduce cross sectional area of the fuselage to improve performance the fuel capacity was highly restricted.

A unique way of minimising the drag of twin engine installation was put forward by Petter. This involved stacking the engines vertically (staggered to avoid too much weight aft, with the lower engine forward of the top one), effectively tucking them behind the cockpit, fed from the nose and achieving minimum frontal area. This effectively gave twice the engine power of its contemporaries for an increase in the frontal area of only 50%.

Limitations of fuel capacity dominated this aircraft's design, for unlike other fighters, its fuselage was nearly all engines and ducting, and thus could not hold much fuel. Hence all available room was adapted to the purpose of holding fuel. The flaps were even used as fuel tanks, and the landing gear had very narrow tyres that retracted outward so that there could be greater tankage inboard. This also meant that when the addition of drop tanks for greater range was considered, they could not be placed beneath the wing and so are on top. When the aerodynamic principle of the area rule became standard practice, a ventral tank was added to the fuselage, so the plane could carry more fuel while being more aerodynamic.

The first operational aircraft, a Mark F.1, 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 Douglas F-4 Phantoms from Royal Navy service enabled these slower, longer range aircraft to be transferred to the RAF and the less agile, slow climbing (and slower), but more versatile Panavia Tornados 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 twin seat trainer variants T.4 and T.5, all constructed by British Aerospace and 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.

Owing to the arrangement of the two Avon engines, one above the other, the aircraft has an unusual configuration, yielding a slab-sided design. Slender flat wings swept rearwards at sixty degrees served to further emphasise the fuselage. Many Lightnings are conserved in museum collections where they delight visitors with their clean sleek lines, evocative of the high speeds that they once attained.

Specifications (F.3A/F.6)

  • Range: 800 miles (1280 km)
  • Date deployed: June 1965

Units using the Lightning

Royal Air Force

Aerial display teams

  • The Tigers of No 74 Squadron. Lead RAF aerial display team from 1962 and first display team with Mach 2 aircraft.
  • The Firebirds of No 56 Squadron from 1963 in red and silver.


  • No. 5 Squadron
  • No. 11 Squadron
  • No. 19 Squadron
  • No. 23 Squadron
  • No. 29 Squadron
  • No. 56 Squadron
  • No. 74 Squadron
  • No. 92 Squadron
  • No. 111 Squadron
Lightning landing, 1964
Lightning landing, 1964
Missing image
Lightning XM974 at Farnborough Airshow, England, in 1964
Missing image
Lightning XM215 at Farnborough Air Show, England, in 1964


The Lightning’s performance is excellent not just by 1950's or 1960's standards but compared with modern operational fighters. Its initial rate of climb is 50,000 ft per minute (15 km/min). The Mirage IIIE climbed initially at 30,000 ft/min (9 km/min); the F-4 Phantom managed 32,000 ft/min (10 km/min); the MiG-21 could only manage 36,090 ft/min (11 km/min); the initial rate of the F-16A is 40,000 ft/min (12 km/min), and the Tornado F-3 43,000 ft/min (13 km/min).

The official ceiling was a secret amongst the general public and low security R.A.F documents simply stated 60,000+ ft (18,000 m) referring to the altitude, although it was well known within the R.A.F to be capable of much greater heights. Recently the actual operating ceiling has been made public by Brian Carroll, a former RAF Lightning pilot and ex-Lightning Chief Examiner, who reports taking an F-53 Lightning up to 87,300 feet (26,600 m) at which level "Earth curvature was visible and the sky was quite dark". In 1984, during a major NATO exercise, Flt Lt Mike Hale intercepted an American U-2 at a height which they had previously considered safe from interception. Records show that Hale climbed to 88,000 ft (26,800 m) in his F3 Lightning. Hale also participated in time-to-height and acceleration trials against F-104 Starfighters from Aalborg. He reports that the Lightnings won all races easily, with the exception of the low level supersonic acceleration, which was a dead-heat.

Carroll reports in a side-by-side comparison that the F-15C Eagle is "almost as good, and climb speed was rapidly achieved. Take-off roll is between 2,000 & 3,000 feet [600 and 900 m], depending upon military or maximum afterburner-powered take-off. The Lightning was quicker off the ground, reaching 50 feet [15 m] height in a horizontal distance of 1,630 feet [500 m]".

In British Airways trials, Concorde was offered as a target to NATO fighters including F-15s, F-16s, F-14s, Mirages, F-104s - but only the Lightning managed to overtake Concorde on a stern intercept. During these trials Concorde was at 57,000 ft and travelling at Mach 2.2.

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