English Electric Lightning

By Ian Old
RAF Tengah, June 1967 to August 1971

The English Electric Lightning was the RAF’s first truly supersonic fighter aircraft. It was very distinctive, with highly swept, shoulder-mounted wings and a slab-sided fuselage due to its two engines being fitted one above the other. It began as an experimental design in 1947, being given the designation ER (Experimental Requirement) 103. Therefore it was not designed as a fighter but as a machine to explore high speed flight. In 1949 both English Electric and Fairey Aviation were awarded contracts to build two prototypes, the former company’s machine being titled the P.1. This came closest to meeting the requirements of the Air Ministry’s Specification F23/49 for a supersonic day fighter.

The P.1 first flew on 4 August 1954 and was fitted with two Sapphire engines, each producing 10,000 lbs. of thrust when reheat was selected. It was capable of reaching Mach 1.53 in level flight. The vertical engine installation meant fewer problems for the pilot when flying on one engine, compared to the engine layout of the Meteor and Canberra. The P.1B development first flew on 4 April 1957, and had two Rolls-Royce Avon engines. It was more like a fighter, with airborne intercept radar (AI.23) installed in the centre of the air intake. Its radar, armament and powered flying controls were linked to provide an all-weather interceptor. It carried two 30mm cannon and could be armed with two Firestreak air-to-air missiles (AAMs). On 23 October 1958 the name Lightning was given to the type and on 25 May 1960 the Lightning F.1 entered RAF service.

The F.3 was the first version of the type to have the larger, squared-top fin necessary to counteract the aerodynamic effect of the Red Top air-to-air missile (AAM), which had larger fins compared to the Firestreak AAM, which was also fitted to Javelins. It was also the first version not to have 30mm cannon fitted. The F.6 was the extended range development of the F.3 and this was because the type was found to lack significant endurance. It was first designated as the F.3ER (Extended Range), then referred to as the F.3A or F.3*. The ventral tank was enlarged to hold 600 gallons as opposed to the 250 gallons of the initial variants but produced less drag than the smaller tank due to the profile adopted. The wing area was increased with a cambered leading edge, this improving lift at high angles of attack, reducing drag at subsonic speeds and producing a 20% increase in range.

Nine F.3s were flown as such before being converted to the F.3ER standard, fifteen were built as F.6 Interims (the basic F.6 standard) and 39 machines were built to the final F.6 specification. The F.3ER prototype made its first flight on 17 April 1964. The full F.6 variant could be flown with over wing tanks, whereas the F.3ER (or F.3A/F.3*/F.6 Interim) could not. It was thought that the tanks, only suitable for ferry flights or for missions not requiring much manoeuvring, could be jettisoned by use of explosive charges but it was later discovered that this would cause structural damage to the wings. After this, the tanks were fitted without explosive charges.

74 Squadron was the first frontline unit to operate Lightnings, in 1960. It had moved onto the F.3 version from April 1964, moving to Leuchars from Coltishall in the same year. It received the longer-range F.6 version from August 1966 and it was the first unit to receive the definitive F.6, which could be fitted with overwing tanks (260 gallon capacity) to extend the ferry range. The squadron was soon busy gaining experience in flying endurance missions as it had been selected for service with FEAF soon after re-equipping.

In June 1967, on three successive days, all thirteen single-seat aircraft were flown out to Tengah under the banner of Operation “Hydraulic”, staging through Akrotiri, Cyprus, Masirah, Oman and Gan in the Indian Ocean. These were XR768-773, XS893, XS895-897, XS920-921 and XS927, coded ‘A’ to ‘N’ in order, excluding ‘I’. The first six aircraft left Leuchars on 4 June, with five the following day and the final two on the next day, these arriving at Tengah on the 11th. Seventeen Victor tankers were involved in this mission, which at the time was the longest ferry flight carried out by the RAF involving air-to-air refuelling. The one trainer variant on strength, T.5 XV329, went by sea as it could not be fitted with overwing tanks, had a ventral tank of only 250 gallon capacity compared with the 600 gallon tank fitted to the F.6 variant and would therefore have required many more inflight refuellings. 74 Sqn. was the last flying squadron to become part of FEAF’s Order of Battle.

Up to 30 April 1968 74 Sqn. shared FEAF air defence responsibilities with 60 Sqn. and its Javelins, also based at Tengah. The Lightning was then the primary air defence type in the RAF and the most capable fighter in service. During 1967-71, at its peak the RAF’s Lightning force comprised nine squadrons. It was the last fixed-wing type to enter service with FEAF.

74 Sqn. took part in numerous exercises and visits around the area, including to Malaysia, Australia and Thailand, alongside RAAF Mirages and against Royal Navy Sea Vixens operating from RN aircraft carriers.

The first of four Lightnings to be written off whilst serving with the Tigers in Singapore was XS896. On 12 September 1968 it was the second aircraft of a pair recovering to Tengah. A reheat fire warning was illuminated and Flying Officer P.F. Thompson elected to attempt to land. His aircraft pitched up, dropped one wing and entered a flat spin. He ejected very close to the ground but the main parachute failed to deploy and he was killed on impact. Subsequent investigations found that a wrongly-connected fuel line had allowed fuel to leak into the reheat bay and collect there, where it ignited. The resultant fire burnt through the magnesium alloy control rods, causing the nose to pitch up as elevator control was lost.

In June 1969 four aircraft, using tanker aircraft, deployed to RAAF Darwin, Australia for Exercise “TOWN HOUSE.” This was one of three detachments to Australia made using air-to-air refuelling during the Tigers’ time in the Far East.

In April 1970 XS928 suffered serious damage to both wings when fuel vented out of the wing tanks and caught fire. It was sent to the UK for rebuild and did not return to Singapore.

1970 was a very unfortunate year for 74 Sqn. as it lost two pilots and three aircraft. The first involved XR767 on 26 May. It disappeared during a night time mission involving two aircraft practicing low-level intercepts and is believed to have crashed into the sea 50 miles NW of Singapore. The body of the pilot, Flight Lieutenant J.C. Webster, was never found and the only part of the aircraft recovered was part of one overwing tank.

The second loss occurred on 27 July. XS930 was the second aircraft of a pair, the pilots being briefed to carry out a rotation take-off, requiring them to climb very steeply. XS930 stalled at approximately 600 feet and fell out of the sky. The pilot, Flight Lieutenant F. Whitehouse, ejected but was too close to the ground and died, as did two civilians. Over one hundred private buildings were destroyed. The tragedy was being filmed as the rotation take-off was not a common event.

Following the accident to XS928 earlier in the same year, a new approach to fuel management was adopted, following advice from BAC, the Lightning’s manufacturer. The change meant that the flight refuel fuel switch was selected until the aircraft was airborne. This meant that the ventral tank fuel pump was not selected and therefore not working whilst the aircraft was on the ground. This was because XS928 had suffered fire damage due to fuel venting onto its wings whilst on the ground at Tengah.

The new approach was flawed as it was not realised that using the fuel from the wing tanks instead of the ventral tank would move the centre of gravity (CoG) towards the tail. On the mission that saw the loss of XS930, the aircraft had to wait on the ground and taxi further to reach the runway, meaning a higher consumption of the fuel in the wing tanks. It was established by the Board of Inquiry that the CoG was moved outside of safe limits. This meant that when the pilot pulled hard on the control column to initiate a steep take-off, the aircraft over-rotated, climbing nearly vertically and reaching approximately 500 feet purely due to the reheated thrust of the engines before stalling.

During the night of 12 August, XS893 was abandoned by Flying Officer M. Rigg due to the port undercarriage leg failing to leave its bay. The standard procedure meant the pilot had to eject, which he did at 12,000 feet and 290 knots. He survived but suffered bruising as the barometric pressure setting for parachute deployment had been set at 16,000 feet, meaning the parachute opened immediately and the violent deceleration caused stitching in the harness to fail and the pilot struggled to remain attached to the parachute. The pilot was rescued by a Whirlwind HAR.10 of 103 Sqn., based at Changi since March 1969. The Board of Inquiry determined that the ideal ejection speed and altitude in a similar situation was 250 knots and 9,000 feet. The aircraft crashed into the sea 18 miles E of Changi.

74 Sqn. was disbanded on 25 August 1971 and its aircraft began leaving the island from early September. It was the last RAF fighter squadron to be based in Singapore.

Technical details:

Wingspan 34 feet and 10 inches, length, 55 feet, 3 inches and height, 19 feet and 7 inches.

Engines (F.6) Two Rolls Royce Avon Mk.301 turbojets, each developing 11,100 lb. thrust (cold) and 16,300 lb. when reheat was selected.

Maximum speed was Mach 2.2. The service ceiling was stated officially, vaguely, to be more than 60,000 feet but various pilots have claimed to have reached over 80,000 feet.

Twenty two Lightnings served with 74 Sqn. at Tengah, four being lost during that time. Eighteen left the island, one of which did not see any further service. Seven machines were destroyed in flying accidents post FEAF, leaving ten to make it to retirement. Of these, six complete airframes still survive, along with one cockpit section.

Individual airframe details:

XR725 (converted to F.6 standard after being first flown as an a F.3)

Joined 74 Sqn. in July 1970 and became ‘A’, replacing XR768.

To 60 MU, Leconfield, in September 1971 for overhaul.

Its last flight was on 17 December 1987, amassing 3,870 hours and 20 minutes flying time.

Current status: After being sold to a private firm, it is now preserved on private property, in Binbrook village, Lincolnshire, in 11 Sqn. markings.

Of the following, XR758 – XR767 were built as F.6 Interims before conversion to F.6 standard.

XR758

It joined 74 Sqn. on 23 February 1969 and took over as ‘J’ as the replacement for XS896.

In November 1969 it suffered Cat.4 damage due to an explosion during engine start, at Darwin, Australia. Dismantled and flown as airfreight to the UK in January 1970 for repair.

Fate: It made its last flight on 12 May 1988, when flown to Laarbruch where it was used for battle damage repair training. It was sold for scrap in 1994.

XR759

Issued to 74 Sqn. in June 1971 and was given the code ‘G’, replacing XS893. It was the last fighter aircraft to be issued to a RAF unit based in Singapore.

Upon 74 Sqn.’s disbandment it joined 56 Sqn. in September 1971.

Fate: It was last flown on 29 September 1987 and was scrapped in April 1988, at Binbrook. The nose section was saved and is in Haxey, North Lincolnshire.

XR761

After joining 74 Sqn. in June 1970, it was assigned the code ‘B’, therefore succeeding XR769.

Upon 74 Sqn.’s disbandment it was transferred to 56 Sqn. in September 1971.

Fate: Lost on 8 November 1984, when pitch trimmer control was found to be less than effective before both reheat fire warning lights became illuminated. The pilot abandoned the machine successfully 7 miles E of Spurn Point, Yorkshire.

XR764

It was assigned to 74 Sqn. in late 1970 and became ‘E’, taking up the code vacated due to the loss of XR767, making it the last fighter aircraft to be issued to FEAF.

In September 1971, following 74 Sqn.’s disbandment, it joined 56 Sqn.

Fate: on 30 September 1971 it was abandoned successfully by its pilot, 29 miles SE of Akrotiri, Cyprus, after an engine fire. It had flown a total of 937 hours.

XR767

It joined 74 Sqn. in May 1970 and replaced XR772 as ‘E’.

Fate: crashed into the sea off Singapore on 26 May 1970 during a low-level practice intercept. Its pilot was never found.

All aircraft onwards up to XV329 were built as F.6s.

XR768

Issued to 74 Sqn. on 1 August 1966 and became ‘A’.

Returned to the UK when it was flown to 60 MU, Leconfield, in July 1970 for overhaul.

Fate: Lost on 29 October 1974 when abandoned off Mablethorpe, Lincolnshire, after a double engine failure. The pilot ejected and survived. Total flying time was 2,120 hours.

XR769

Issued to 74 Sqn. on 2 November 1966 and was given the code ‘B’.

Flown to the UK in February 1970 and joined 5 Sqn.

Fate: on 11 April 1988 was abandoned off the Lincolnshire coast after a serious fire. It was the last Lightning to be lost in RAF service. The RAAF exchange pilot lived to tell the tale.

XR770

It was displayed at the 1966 Farnborough airshow in false Royal Saudi Air Force markings.

Issued to 74 Sqn. on 26 September 1966 and was assigned the code ‘C’.

Flown to 60 MU, Leconfield, in September 1971 for overhaul as 74 Sqn. was disbanded. It was last flown on 29 April 1988.

Current status: It was given to the Borough of Grimsby, then moved to Grainthorpe before being transported to RAF Waddington in 2008 where it has been restored and is preserved in 5 Sqn. markings.

XR771

Issued to 74 Sqn. on 20 October 1966 and became ‘D’. It underwent modification work by BAC from 2 June 1968, rejoining 74 Sqn. on 1 November 1968.

When 74 Sqn. was disbanded in August 1971 it was transferred to 56 Sqn.

It was last flown on 23 March 1988.

Current status: Preserved at the Midland Sir Museum, Baginton (Coventry Airport) from September 1988.

XR772

Issued to 74 Sqn. on 21 October 1966 and was given the code ‘E’.

Returned to the UK in January 1970 when flown to 60 MU, Leconfield, for overhaul.

Fate: Crashed on 6 March 1985 due to a suspected structural failure whilst over the North Sea. The pilot ejected but did not survive.

XR773

Issued to 74 Sqn. on 7 November 1966 and became ‘F’.

In September 1971, after 74 Sqn.’s disbandment, it joined 56 Sqn.

It was last flown in the UK on 23 December 1992, having been used for trails work by BAe after the Lightning left RAF service. Then it was shipped to South Africa in 1997.

Current status: airworthy and stored in Cape Town but not flown since late 2009.

XS893

Issued to 74 Sqn. on 23 November 1966 and it took up the code ‘G’.

Fate: abandoned off Singapore on 12 August 1970, when the port undercarriage leg failed to leave its bay. The pilot ejected and survived. Total flying time was 857 hours, 40 minutes.

XS895

Issued to 74 Sqn. on 5 December 1966 and was coded ‘H’.

Transferred to 5 Sqn. at Binbrook during August 1971 when 74 Sqn. disbanded.

It was last flown during December 1987, thereby reaching a total flying time of 3,275 hours.

Fate: Transported to Pendine, South Wales, for use as a target in 1988 and it had been reduced to scrap by 1995.

XS896

Issued to 74 Sqn. on 7 December 1966 and became ‘J’.

Fate: written off on 12 September 1968, due to a fire in the reheat system on No.2 engine. A landing was attempted but the aircraft entered a flat spin and the pilot died despite ejecting.

XS897

Issued to 74 Sqn. on 21 December 1966 and was allocated the code ‘K’.

In late August 1971, it was transferred to 56 Sqn. after 74 Sqn.’s disbandment.

It was last flown on 14 December 1987 and its flying time was 3,391 hours, 55 minutes. It was then sold off.

Current status: preserved at Coningsby, painted as F.3 XP765, in 29 Sqn. markings and coded ‘A’.

XS920

Issued to 74 Sqn. on 5 December 1966 and was coded ‘L’.

Flown to 60 MU, Leconfield, in early January 1970 for overhaul.

Fate: crashed 13 July 1984 when it flew into power cables during a practice pursuit of a USAF A-10, in West Germany. Its pilot died.

XS921

Issued to 74 Sqn. on 21 December 1966 and became ‘M’.

After 74 Sqn.’s disbandment, it was transferred to 56 Sqn. in September 1971.

Fate: abandoned on 19 September 1985, 30 miles E of Flamborough, Yorkshire, when the aircraft entered an unintentional spin. The pilot ejected and survived.

XS927

Issued to 74 Sqn. on 3 April 1967 and was coded ‘N’ and was the last F.6 to join the unit before the move to Tengah.

It returned to the UK in September 1971 when flown to 60 MU, Leconfield, for overhaul.

Fate: Its total flying time was 3,575 hours and 35 minutes and was last flown during October 1986. It was sent to Foulness for use as a target in 1988 and scrapped in 1993.

XS928

Joined 74 Sqn. in January 1970 and became ‘L’, replacing XS920. On 6 April 1970 it suffered damage to both wings when fuel vented out and then caught fire, on the ground at Tengah. Dismantled and flown to BAC Warton in November 1970 and was rebuilt, with new wings being fitted.

It made its last flight during August 1992 having been one of four machines kept for trials work.

Current status: preserved at BAES Warton, Lancashire, in 5 Sqn. markings.

XS930

Issued to 74 Sqn. on 22 May 1970, its code remaining unconfirmed. Despite various sources stating it was coded ‘F,’ this seems very unlikely as XR773 was still ‘F’ in August 1971. It seems more likely that it was either ‘J’ (replacing XR758) or ‘L’ (replacing XS928) but this yet to be verified.

Fate: written off on 27 July 1970 when it crashed very shortly after take-off at Tengah.

XV329 (T.5)

Its first flight was made on 30 December 1966, from Filton. It then moved on 28 February 1967 to 60 MU, at Leconfield, for acceptance checks before going to Shorts, at Sydenham, Northern Ireland on 3 March 1967 to be dismantled and prepared for the sea voyage to Singapore. It was loaded onto MV Calchas on 8 March and arrived at 390 MU, Seletar, on board a lighter on 10 April 1967. It was found to have suffered significant corrosion in the tail section and the panels behind the canopy. Specialist tools had to be flown out from the UK to enable repairs to be made. It joined 74 Sqn. on 1 July 1967 and was coded ‘T’.

In October 1971 it arrived at Sydenham having been transported from Singapore aboard MV Robert Middleton. On 14 December of the same year it was cleared for one flight only to 60 MU. This was due to damage suffered from acid spillage from batteries and excessive corrosion in the tailplanes sustained during the journey back to the UK. During 1973 it was declared Cat.5 (Spares) and gradually stripped of useful components and then in March 1974 it was Struck Off Charge (SOC).

Fate: dumped at Leconfield in May 1974, still fully marked as a Tigers machine. Its hulk was still present in a scrapyard in Halifax, West Yorkshire in 1975 but did not survive after that.

Markings:

When deployed in 1967, the aircraft had the Tiger’s head on a white circle on the fin, along with the code letter in black. The black and yellow triangle markings, meant to represent the stripes of a tiger, were applied either side of the roundel, below the cockpit. From 1968 onwards, the fin was painted black, but not the spine, and the code letter was in yellow.

Code

1st allocation

2nd allocation

3rd allocation

A

XR768

XR725

n/a

B

XR769

XR761

n/a

C

XR770

n/a

n/a

D

XR771

n/a

n/a

E

XR772

XR767

XR764

F

XR773

n/a

n/a

G

XS893

XR759

n/a

H

XS895

n/a

n/a

J

XS896

XR758

????

K

XS897

n/a

n/a

L

XS920

XS928

????

M

XS921

n/a

n/a

N

XS927

n/a

n/a

T

XV329

n/a

n/a

Unknown

 

XS930

 

Credits:

Lightning Strikes Twice, Martin W. Bowman (Amberley)

The Lightning Boys, Richard Pike (Grub Street)

English Electric/BAC Lightning, Bryan Philpott (PSL)

Lightning, Roger Lindsay (Ian Allan)