In the 1960s there seemed to be two schools of thought in manned air defence. One said that you built a large, heavy aircraft, equipped with as many long-range missiles as possible, to enable patrols to be carried out as far from home base as practicable – examples of this would include the McDonnell Douglas F4 Phantom and the Tupolev Tu-28 ‘Fiddler’. The other extreme was to build a fast, manoeuverable, lightly-armed interceptor, with an incredible climb rate, to tackle intruders when they were on approach to their targets. These were the tactical ‘heirs’ to the Luftwaffe’s Me163 of WW2, and could be exemplified by the aircraft seen here, the British Aircraft Corporation (formerly English Electric) Lightning F.6., finished in a striking Dark Green/Dark Grey camouflage scheme with silver undersurfaces.
The definitive development of the earlier P.1B research aircraft, which first flew on 4th April 1957, the F.6 combined a lot of detail improvements from the previously generations of Lightnings. XP697, the prototype F.6, made its maiden flight on the 17th April, 1964; compared to its predecessor the F.3, there was a change of wing camber and area, as well as increased fuel capacity (Lightnings, whatever the Mark, where always looking for more fuel capacity!) Overwing fuel tanks carrying 260 gallons, to port and starboard, could now be fitted – the 60º swept wing had no space underneath, as that was taken up by the undercarriage wheel wells; a fixed, removeable, refuelling probe was also fitted to the underside of the port wing. The two R/R Avons of 12,690 lb thrust, were stacked vertically but staggered, giving the minimum cross-sectional area and therefore drag, and pushed the Lightning to 1,500 mph – or Mach 2.27 - at altitude. The climb rate was a staggering 50,000 ft per minute! The F.6 served with Nos. 5, 11, 23, 29, 111 Squadrons of the Royal Air Force and with No. 226 OCU (Operational Conversion Unit).
XR771 was delivered to No. 5 Squadron ( Motto, ‘Frangas non electas’ – ‘Thou mayest break but not bend me’) at RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire in December, 1965, and carried the Squadron letters ‘AN’. It had a long and arduous Service life, finally finishing up with No. 11 Squadron (Motto, ‘Ociones acrioresque aquilis’ – 'Swifter and keener than eagles’), coded ‘BF’ in 1988. During this period, as well as sending a detachment to their annual Armament Practice Camp at RAF Akrotiri on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus and making other overseas trips, the Lightnings were constantly being scrambled over the North Sea to investigate Russian aircraft (usually Tupolev Tu-95 Bear turboprop bombers) which were probing UK airspace. The F.6 carried two 30mm Aden cannon in the front of their 600 gallon under-fuselage fuel tank (yet another way of getting more fuel onto the airframe), as well as either two De Havilland Firestreak or Hawker Siddeley Redtop first generation infra-red air-to-air missiles. The McDonnell Douglas F4 Phantom began to partially replace the F.6 in 1974, and the end came when the last Lightnings of the Binbrook Wing were replaced by the Panavia Tornado F.3 in 1988.
Amazingly, the Lightning nearly became the LAST manned fighter of the RAF! In one of the most appalling decisions ever taken with reference to the Armed Forces of the UK, the Defence Review of 1957 decreed that, in future air defence was to be undertaken by land-based missiles ONLY. This terrible mistake – forced through by the Minister of Defence, Ducan Sandys, a missile enthusiast – ruined several aircraft manufacturers and force wholesale closures. Despite being reversed in later years, t can be said that Britain’s aircraft industry never really recovered from this stupidity.
Looking at this Lightning, lovingly restored by the Midland Air Museum, Coventry, I can remember my joy at watching the almost unbelievable zoom climb with which RAF Lightings finished a display sequence at many airshows, and seeing the crews of other NATO fighters look on in envy. This aircraft was capable of ‘supercruise’ – supersonic cruise without using reheat; as well, in 1984 a USAF U-2 was intercepted by an RAF Lightning – at 88,000 feet, where the pilot had thought himself totally invulnerable!
Despite the collapse of a company in South Africa - due to a terrible in-flight fire and crash - which had flown several Lightnings at air displays, one Lightning aircraft (a twin-seat T.5) is under restoration to fly in the USA.
Long live Lightnings!