The Armchair Pilot suggests …. flying faster than Mach 1
Published December 2012
As a boy growing up in the early 1970s not far from RAF Coningsby, it was the F4 Phantoms that caught our attention as they flew overhead, so much so that in the art room at my school there was a large mural showing an F4 on take-off. We felt an affinity with the Phantoms, a lot of the RAF Coningsby staff lived in the town, and we saw the F4s regularly, along with Buccaneers & Vulcans, practicing bombing on what is now the Wainfleet range.
It was several years later when I started working at what had until recently been the British Aircraft Corporation, but was now British Aerospace, at the Warton division that I was immersed, some might say brainwashed, into the tradition of good British aircraft serving the RAF.
I was lucky enough that when I started at Warton, we had one of nearly everything BAC produced flying regularly: Tornado prototypes, a Jaguar and a Canberra were all frequently in the sky (the latter two serving as chase aircraft for the former). Sit in the social club though and mention the “TSR2”, and eyes would mist up with talk about the “…best aircraft we never had…” so it would be time to change the subject to that other BAC icon, indeed the social club itself was named after said aircraft – the Lightning.
In my time, I never properly got to see the Lightning actually flying. I heard it, and felt it, many times but only saw it once briefly when Prince Charles visited Warton and we were all treated to a flying display as part of which the Lightning headed down the runway on full reheat, pulled back on its tail and promptly disappeared into the cloud. However the stories about the Lightning never ceased from the people who made them.
Eventually, working in a later summer vacation from university back at Warton I was assigned to the hanger where the chase planes were kept, and there it was: a Saudi-spec F.53 Lightning, sadly languishing as the only test pilot with a Lightning rating had been tragically killed a year or so earlier, but still an imposing silver beast. As an Open Day was approaching the reason for my assignment to that hanger became clear, I was handed a large tin of Duraglit and given instructions to “Get it polished”.
Despite that the stories of my fellow workers, and those of occasional RAF pilots who came over to tour the hangers, gave me a sense of a marvellous airplane so when I received the book The Lightning Boys: True Tales from Pilots of the English Electric Lightning by Richard Pike it was time to round off a bit more of my education.
Richard Pike himself contributes only one chapter and that is about his visit, as a serving RAF pilot, to Warton delivering an older Lightning from RAF Gûtersloh for modification, and picking up a Mk 2A to take back. On arrival at Warton he is invited to take a few minutes “..to drop by and chat with us..”, which turns into a full scale engineering interrogation as it’s “..nice to hear it from the horses mouth”. As he is taken back to the Mk 2A, the production staff from the nearby assembly halls turn out onto the apron to watch him depart, at which point he realises the pride that goes into delivering his steed for that day.
All the other chapters are written by other pilots who each bring a story of their own about life with Lightning, except for one chapter by an engineering officer who vividly dreams about flying not a Lightning, but the P1 prototype when he is tasked with transporting it from RAF Henlow back to RAF Binbrook (the P1 is now at RAF Cosford). This chapter especially rung home for me as it also covered the fact that the two prototypes kept at the gate at Henlow had to be periodically cleaned with Duraglit by those who had committed a misdeed, however one wag had the idea of varnishing one of the two.
A couple of chapters cover flying aerobatics in the Lightning, one pilot describing how he was duped by the Red Arrows team members into embarrassing himself on camera (on the ground before his display it must be added). One of the chapters describes the problems of workload when flying aerobatics in such a powerful aircraft, and the second describes what to do when things go wrong.
Given the Lightning’s role as a fighter, then it’s not surprising that a few of the chapters cover various aspects of interception, one pilot describing being scrambled from close to the East German border (RAF Gûtersloh again) with all the attendant diplomatic issues to attend with being so close to the wall only to find that the errant aircraft being intercepted was a West German privately owned King Air on a day trip showing his passengers the border protection.
Another chapter is about a long range interception, only possible by the Lightnings being constantly accompanied by Victor tankers due to the two Avon jet engines’ voracity for fuel, but in this case the pilot has to push fuel endurance to the limit. Whilst on the subject of in-flight refuelling, in a later chapter yet another pilot recalls what happened when an in-flight refuelling session went horribly wrong.
Not all of the incidents are down to the Lightning itself, on a dogfighting exercise between French Air Force Mirages and UK Lightnings, a mid-air bump between a Mirage and a Lightning takes away the Lighning’s canopy and stops the ejector seat from firing. Given no choice but to land the aircraft, the pilot makes it down but not without drama.
Despite its shortcomings as a flying machine, the ability to drink through the short reserves of fuel in short order, a propensity to catch fire given half a chance, and the huge workload for the pilot, the Lightning is presented as a plane which stands out for the experience it gave the pilots lucky enough to strap into it. As the nights draw in, this is great book for dreaming about how it was for those lucky enough to get the chance. The variety of experiences and topics keeps the pace of this book fresh, the only problem being that it has to end.