English Electric Lightning F.Mk.6
Two-engine single-seat midwing supersonic jet fighter aircraft, U.K.

Archive Photos [1]

[English Electric ““Lightning” F.6” (XS925) on display (c.1994) at the Royal Air Force Museum London, Hendon Aerodrome, London, England (Photo by John Shupek copyright © 2002 Skytamer Images)]

Overview [2]

  • English Electric “Lightning”
  • Role: Interceptor
  • National origin: United Kingdom
  • Manufacturer: English Electric; British Aircraft Corporation
  • First flight: 4 August 1954 (P.1A)
  • Introduction: December 1959
  • Retired: 1988 (RAF)
  • Primary users: Royal Air Force; Kuwait Air Force; Royal Saudi Air Force
  • Number built: 337 (including prototypes)

The English Electric “Lightning” is a supersonic jet fighter aircraft of the Cold War era, noted for its great speed and unpainted metal exterior finish. It is the only all-British Mach 2 fighter aircraft and was the first aircraft in the world capable of supercruise. The “Lightning” was renowned for its capabilities as an interceptor; pilots commonly described it as “being saddled to a skyrocket”. Following English Electric's integration into the unified British Aircraft Corporation, the aircraft was marketed as the BAC “Lightning”.

The “Lightning” was prominently used by the Royal Air Force RAF and the Royal Saudi Air Force. The aircraft was a regular performer at airshows, it is one of the highest-performance aircraft ever used in formation aerobatics. Following retirement in the late 1980's, many of the remaining aircraft became museum exhibits; until 2010, three examples were kept flying at “Thunder City”" in Cape Town, South Africa. In September 2008, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers conferred on the “Lightning” its “Engineering Heritage Award” at a ceremony at BAE Systems' site at Warton Aerodrome.

Development [2]


The specification for the aircraft followed the cancellation of the Air Ministry's 1942 E.24/43 supersonic research aircraft specification which had resulted in the Miles M.52 program. It was soon realized that the aircraft should be regarded as a prototype fighter to satisfy the British Air Ministry's 1949 specification F23/49 rather than being a pure research aircraft. The “Lightning” design shared a number of innovations first planned for the Miles M.52 including the shock cone and all-moving tailplane or stabilator. The prototypes, known as P.1, were built to Ministry of Supply Operational Requirement ER.103 of 1947 for a transonic research aircraft. The first of the two P.1's (WG760) flew for the first time from RAF Boscombe Down on 4 August 1954.

The P.1's chief designer was W.E.W “Teddy” Petter, formerly chief designer at Westland Aircraft. The design was controversial, and the Short SB.5 was built to test wing sweep and tailplane combinations. The original combination was proved correct. The forerunner of the “Lightning” series was the P.1A and P.1B flying “proof-of-concept” aircraft. Looking very much like the production series, the prototypes were distinguished by the rounded-triangular intakes, short fins and lack of radar or operational equipment. Initial prototypes were powered by un-reheated Armstrong Siddeley “Sapphire” turbojets, although the Rolls-Royce “Avon” was used in subsequent aircraft. On 25 November 1958, the P.1B became the first British aircraft to fly at Mach 2. The second P.1A (WG763), was fitted with two 30 mm ADEN cannons, however it was not possible to equip heavy underwing stores. Due to the limited internal space of the fuselage the fuel capacity was relatively small, giving the prototypes an extremely limited endurance, additionally the tires would rapidly wear out.


The first operational “Lightning”, designated the F.1, was designed as a point defense interceptor to defend mainland Britain from bomber attack. To best perform this intercept mission, emphasis was placed on rate-of-climb, acceleration, and speed, rather than range and combat endurance. It was equipped with two 30 mm ADEN cannon in front of the cockpit windscreen and an interchangeable fuselage weapon pack containing either an additional two ADEN cannon, 48, two inch air-to-air rockets, or two de Havilland “Firestreak” air-to-air missiles, a heavy fit optimized for attack of large aircraft. The Ferranti A.I.23 radar supported autonomous search, automatic target tracking, and ranging for all weapons, while the pilot attack sight provided gyroscopically derived lead angle and backup stadiametric ranging for gun firing. The radar and gunsight were collectively designated the AIRPASS: “Airborne Interception Radar and Pilot Attack Sight System”.

The next two “Lightning” variants, the F.1A and F.2, saw steady but relatively minor refinement of the basic design, and the next variant, the F.3, was a major departure. The F.3 had higher thrust “Avon” 301R engines, a larger, squared-off fin and strengthened intake bullet allowing a service clearance to Mach 2.0 (the F.1, F.1A and F.2 were limited to Mach 1.7), the A.I.23B radar and “Red Top” missile offering a limited forward hemisphere attack capability and most notoriously, deletion of the nose cannon. The new engines and fin made the F.3 the highest performance “Lightning” yet, but with an even higher fuel consumption and resulting shorter range. The next variant, the F.6, was already in development, but there was a need for an interim solution to partially address the F.3's shortcomings. The F.3A was that interim solution.

The F.3A introduced two improvements: a new, non-jettisonable, 610 gal (2,770 L) ventral fuel tank, and a new, kinked, conically cambered wing leading edge, incorporating a slightly larger leading edge fuel tank, raising the total usable internal fuel to 716 gal (3,250 L). The conically cambered wing noticeably improved maneuverability, especially at higher altitudes, and the ventral tank nearly doubled available fuel. The increased fuel was very welcome, but the lack of cannon armament was felt to be a deficiency. It was thought that cannon were desirable to fire warning shots in the intercept mission.

The F.6 was the ultimate “Lightning” version to see British service. Originally, it was nearly identical to the F.3A with the exception that it had provisions to carry 260 gal (1,180 L) ferry tanks on pylons over the wings. These tanks were jettisonable in an emergency, and gave the F.6 a substantially improved deployment capability. There remained one glaring shortcoming: the lack of cannon. This was finally rectified in the form of a modified ventral tank with two ADEN cannon mounted in the front. The addition of the cannon and their ammunition decreased the tank's fuel capacity from 610 gal to 535 gal (2,430 L), but the cannon made the F.6 a “real fighter” again.

The final British “Lightning” was the F.2A. This was an F.2 upgraded with the cambered wing, the squared fin, and the 610 gal ventral. The F.2A retained the A.I.23 and “Firestreak” missile, the nose cannon, and the earlier “Avon” 211R engines. Although the F.2A lacked the thrust of the later “Lightnings”, it had the longest tactical range of all “Lightning” variants, and was used for low-altitude interception over Germany.

Export and Further Developments

The F.53 was the “Export Lightning”, adding a multirole capability to the interception-orientated design. The F.53 was based on the F.6 airframe and avionics, including the large ventral fuel tank, cambered wing and overwing pylons for drop tanks of the F.6, but incorporated an additional pair of hardpoints under the outer wing. These hardpoints could be fitted with pylons for air-to-ground ordnance, including two 1,000 lb (450 kg) bombs or four SNEB rocket pods each carrying 18 68 mm rockets. A gun pack carrying two ADEN cannon and 120 rounds each could replace the forward part of the ventral fuel tank. Alternative, interchangeable packs in the forward fuselage carried two “Firestreak” missiles, two “Red Top” missiles, twin retractable launchers for 44 × 2-inch rockets, or a reconnaissance pod fitted with five 70 mm Type 360 “Vinten” cameras. BAC also proposed clearing the overwing hardpoints for carriage of weapons as well as drop tanks, with additional Matra JL-100 combined rocket and fuel pods, each containing 18 SNEB 68 mm (2.7 in) rockets and 227 liters (50 imp gal) of fuel, or 1,000 lb bombs being possible options. This could give a maximum ground attack weapons load for a developed “Export Lightning” of six 1,000 lb bombs or 44 × 2-inch rockets and 144 × 68 mm rockets. The T.55 was the export two-seat variant; unlike the RAF two-seaters, the T.55 was equipped for combat duties. The T.55 had a very similar fuselage to the T.5, while also using the wing and large ventral tank of the F.6.

The “Export Lightning” had all of the capability of the British “Lightnings”: exceptional climb rate, agile maneuvering, and a hard-hitting punch. Unfortunately, the “Export Lightning” also retained the difficulty of maintenance, and serviceability rates suffered. Still, the F.53 was generally well regarded by its pilots, and its adaptation to multiple roles is a testimony to the exceptional talent of its designers.

In 1963, BAC Warton worked on the preliminary design of a two-seat “Lightning” development with a variable-geometry wing, based on the “Lightning T.5” with a revised undercarriage. Initially proposed as a carrier-based aircraft, the “VG Lightning” concept was revised into a land-based interceptor intended for the RAF the following year. However, no “VG Lightning” was ever built.

Design [2]


There were several unique and distinctive features in the design of the “Lightning”; principally the use of stacked and staggered engines, a notched delta wing, and a low-mounted tailplane. The vertically stacked, longitudinally staggered engines was the solution devised by Petter to the conflicting requirements of minimizing frontal area, providing undisturbed engine airflow across a wide speed range, and packaging two engines to provide sufficient thrust to meet performance goals. The configuration allowed the twin engines to be fed by a single nose inlet, with the flow split vertically aft of the cockpit, and the nozzles tightly stacked, effectively tucking one engine behind the cockpit. The result was a low frontal area, an efficient inlet, and excellent single-engine handling. Unfortunately, this stacked configuration led to complicated maintenance procedure, and the recurring problem of fluid leakage from the upper engine being a fire hazard.

The fuselage was tightly packed, leaving no room for fuel tankage or main landing gear. While the notched delta wing lacked the volume of a standard delta wing, each wing contained a fairly conventional three-section main fuel tank and leading-edge tank, holding 312 imp gal (1,420 L); the wing flap also contained a 33 imp gal (150 L) fuel tank and an additional 5 imp gal (23 L) was contained in a fuel recuperator, bringing the aircraft's total internal fuel capacity to 700 imp gal (3,200 L). The main landing gear was sandwiched outboard of the main tanks and aft of the leading edge tanks, with the flap fuel tanks behind.[5] The long main gear legs retracted toward the wingtip, necessitating an exceptionally thin main tyre inflated to the high pressure of 330-350 psi (23-24 bar).

A conformal ventral store was added to the design to house, alternatively, a fuel tank or a rocket engine. The rocket engine, a Napier “Double Scorpion” motor, also contained a reserve of 200 imp gal (910 L) of high-test peroxide (HTP) to drive the rocket's turbopump and act as an oxidizer. Fuel for the rocket would have been drawn from the “Lightning's” internal tankage. The rocket engine was intended to boost the “Lightning's” performance against a supersonic, high altitude bomber threat, but this threat never emerged, thus “Lightning's” basic performance was deemed sufficient and the rocket engine option was cancelled in 1958. The ventral store saw wide use as an extra fuel tank, initially this was jettisonable and held 250 gal (247 gal usable, 1,120 L). Later ventral tanks were non-jettisonable.

Despite its acceleration, altitude and top speed, the “Lightning” found itself outclassed by newer fighters in terms of radar, avionics, weapons load, range, and air-to-air capability. More of a problem was the obsolete avionics and weapons fit. The radar had a short range and no track-while scan capability; it could only detect targets in a fairly narrow (40 degree arc). While an automatic collision course attack system was developed and successfully demonstrated by English Electric, it was not adopted owing to cost concerns. Plans to supplement or replace the obsolete “Red Top” and “Firestreak” missiles with modern AIM-9L “Sidewinder” missiles never came to fruition because of lack of funding.


Early models of the “Lightning” the F.1, F.1A, and F.2, had a rated top speed of Mach 1.7 at 36,000 ft in an ICAO standard atmosphere, and 650 KIAS (Knots Indicated Airspeed) at lower altitudes. Later models, the F.2A, F.3, F.3A, F.6, and F.53, had a rated top speed of Mach 2.0 at 36,000 ft, and speeds up to 700 KIAS for “operational necessity only.” A “Lightning” fitted with “Avon” 200-series engines, a ventral tank and two “Firestreak” missiles typically ran out of excess thrust at Mach 1.9 on a Standard Day; while a “Lightning” powered by the “Avon” 300-series engines, a ventral tank and two “Red Top” missiles ran out of excess thrust at Mach 2.0. As speed increased, the “Lightning's” directional stability decreased; there were potentially hazardous consequences in the form of vertical fin failure if yaw was not rapidly counteracted by correct rudder use. Stability was protected by imposed Mach limits during missile launches; later “Lightning” variants featured a larger vertical fin which gave a greater stability margin during high speed flight.

Supersonic speeds also threatened inlet stability; the inlet's central shock cone served as a compression surface, diverting air into the annular inlet. As the “Lightning” accelerated through Mach 1, the shock cone generated an oblique shock positioned forward of the intake lip; known as a subcritical inlet condition, this is stable but also produces inefficient spillage drag. Around the Design Mach speed, the oblique shock is positioned just in front of the inlet lip and efficiently compressed the air without any spillage. As speed increases beyond Design Mach, the oblique shock becomes supercritical, where supersonic airflow enters the inlet duct. The “Lightning's” inlet was designed to handle only subsonic air, a supercritical state not only drastically reduced engine thrust output but could lead to surges or a compressor stall, which could result in engine flameout and/or damage.

Thermal and structural limits were also present; as air is heated up when compressed by the passage of an aircraft. This heating increases considerably when at supersonic speeds. The airframe absorbs heat from the surrounding air, the inlet shock cone at the front of the aircraft becoming the hottest part. The shock cone was composed of fiberglass, necessary because the shock cone also served as a radar radome; a metal shock cone would interfere with the AI 23's radar emissions. The shock cone would be eventually weakened due to the fatigue caused by the thermal cycles involved in regularly performing high-speed flights. At 36,000 ft and Mach 1.7, the heating conditions on the shock cone would be similar to those at Sea Level and 650 KIAS, but if the speed was increased to Mach 2.0 at 36,000 ft, the shock cone would be exposed to temperatures more than 70% higher than those at Mach 1.7. The shock cone was strengthened on the later “Lightning” F.2A, F.3, F.6, and F.53 models, thus allowing routine operations at up to Mach 2.0.

The small-fin variants could exceed Mach 1.7, but the stability limits and shock cone thermal/strength limits made such speeds risky. The large-fin variants, especially those equipped with “Avon” 300-series engines could safely reach Mach 2, and given the right atmospheric conditions, might even achieve a few more tenths of a Mach. All “Lightning” variants had the excess thrust to slightly exceed 700 KIAS under certain conditions, and the service limit of 650 KIAS was occasionally ignored. With the strengthened shock cone, the “Lightning” could safely approach its thrust limit, but fuel consumption at very high airspeeds was excessive and became a major limiting factor.


The “Lightning” possessed a remarkable climb rate. It was famous for its ability to rapidly rotate from takeoff to climb almost vertically from the runway, though this did not yield the best time to altitude. The “Lightning's” trademark tail-stand maneuver exchanged airspeed for altitude; it could slow to near-stall speeds before commencing level flight. The “Lightning's” optimum climb profile required the use of afterburners during takeoff. Immediately after takeoff, the nose would be lower for rapid acceleration to 430 KIAS before initiating a climb, stabilizing at 450 KIAS. This would yield a constant climb rate of approximately 20,000 ft/min. Around 13,000 ft the “Lightning” would reach Mach 0.87 and maintain this speed until reaching the tropopause, 36,000 ft. on a standard day. If climbing further, pilots would accelerate to supersonic speed at the tropopause before resuming the climb.

A “Lightning” flying at optimum climb profile would reach 36,000 ft in under three minutes. The official ceiling was kept as a secret, although low security RAF documents usually stated 60,000+ ft (18 000+ m). In September 1962 Fighter Command organized several supersonic interception trials on Lockheed U-2A's at heights of around 60,000-65,000 ft, which were temporarily based at RAF Upper Heyford to monitor Soviet nuclear tests. For the trials operations were carried out by the AFDS temporarily moved to RAF Middleton St George. Energy climb techniques and flight profiles were developed to put the “Lightning” into a suitable attack position. To avoid risking the Lockheed U-2, The “Lightning” could not be permitted to close any closer than 5,000 ft and definitely not fly in front of the Lockheed U-2. For the actual intercepts four “Lightning” F1A's were used on eighteen solo sorties. The sorties proved that, under GCI, successful intercepts could be made at up to 65,000 ft. Carried out to the backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis, the flight targets were deliberately not listed in the pilot log books. RAF “Lightning” pilot and Chief Examiner Brian Carroll reported taking a “Lightning F.53” up to 87,300 feet (26 600 m) over Saudi Arabia at which level “Earth curvature was visible and the sky was quite dark”, noting that control-wise “[it was] on a knife edge&rdquo.

In 1984, during a major NATO exercise, Flight Lt Mike Hale intercepted a Lockheed U-2 at a height which they had previously considered safe from interception (thought to be 66,000 feet). Records show that Hale also climbed to 88,000 ft (26,800 m) in his “Lightning F.3” (XR749). This was not sustained level flight, but in a ballistic climb or a zoom climb, in which the pilot takes the aircraft to top speed and then puts the aircraft into a climb, trading speed for altitude. Hale also participated in time-to-height and acceleration trials against Lockheed 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 compared the “Lightning” and the McDonnell Douglas F-15C “Eagle”, having flown both aircraft, stating that: &ldquo'Acceleration in both was impressive, you have all seen the “Lightning” leap away once brakes are released, the Eagle was almost as good, and climb speed was rapidly achieved. Takeoff roll is between 2,000 and 3,000 ft [600 to 900 m], depending upon military or maximum afterburner-powered takeoff. The “Lightning” was quicker off the ground, reaching 50 ft (15 m) height in a horizontal distance of 1,630 feet (500 m)”. Chief Test Pilot for the “Lightning” Roland Beamont, who also flew most of the “Century series” US aircraft, stated his opinion that nothing at that time had the inherent stability, control and docile handling characteristics of the “Lightning” throughout the full flight envelope. The turn performance and buffet boundaries of the “Lightning” were well in advance of anything known to him.

Operational History [2]

Royal Air Force

The first aircraft to enter service with the RAF, three pre-production P.1B's, arrived at RAF Coltishall in Norfolk on 23 December 1959, joining the Air Fighting Development Squadron (AFDS) of the Central Fighter Establishment, where they were used to clear the “Lightning” for entry into service. The production “Lightning F.1” entered service with the AFDS in May 1960, allowing the unit to take part in the air defense exercise “Yeoman” later that month. The “Lightning F.1” entered front-line squadron service with 74 Squadron at Colishall from 11 July 1960. While performance was excellent, with the aircraft's radar and missiles effective and pilots finding the “Lightning” easy to fly, serviceability was at first extremely poor. This was due to both the complexity of “Lightning's” systems and shortages of spares and ground support equipment. Even when the “Lightning” was not grounded by technical faults, the RAF struggled to get more than 20 flying hours per aircraft per month compared with the 40 hours that English Electric believed could be achieved with proper support.

Despite these problems, in addition to its training and operational roles, 74 Squadron was appointed as the official Fighter Command aerobatic team for 1961, flying at air shows throughout the United Kingdom and Europe. Deliveries of the slightly improved “Lightning F.1A”, with improved avionics and provision for an air-to-air refueling probe, allowed two more squadrons, 54 and 111 Squadron, both based at RAF Wattisham to convert to the “Lightning” in 1960-1961.

An improved variant, the F.2 first flew on 11 July 1961 and entered service with 19 Squadron at the end of 1962 and 92 Squadron in early 1963. Conversion of these two squadrons was aided by the use of the two seat T.4 trainer, which entered service with the “Lightning” Conversion Squadron (later to renamed 226 Operational Conversion Unit) in June 1962. While the OCU was the major user of the two seater, small numbers were also allocated to the front-line fighter squadrons.

The “next generation” “Lightning F.3”, with more powerful engines and the ability to use the new “Red-Top” missile (although at the cost of losing the little used cannons) was expected to be the definitive “Lightning”, and at one time it was planned to equip ten squadrons, with the remaining two squadrons retaining the F.2. The F.3 was first flown on 16 June 1962 and the longer-range F.6 on 16 June 1965.

The English Electric “Lightning” is credited with a single kill, a British “Harrier” pilot ejected and the pilot-less aircraft continued to fly, and the aircraft was shot down by a “Lightning” to prevent it possibly ending up in Soviet hands.

In British Airways trials in April 1985, “Concorde” was offered as a target to NATO fighters including McDonnell Douglas F-15 “Eagles”, General Dynamics F-16 “Fighting Falcons”, Grumman F-14 “Tomcats”, Dassault “Mirages”, Lockheed F-104 “Starfighters” - but only “Lightning” (XR749), flown by Mike Hale and described by him as “a very hot ship, even for a “Lightning””, managed to overtake “Concorde” on a stern conversion intercept.

During the 1960's, as strategic awareness increased and a multitude of alternative fighter designs were developed by Warsaw Pact and NATO members, the “Lightning's” range and firepower shortcomings became increasingly apparent. The withdrawal of McDonnell Douglas F-4 “Phantom II's” from Royal Navy service enabled these slower but much longer-ranged aircraft to be added to the RAF's interceptor force alongside those withdrawn from Germany which were being replaced by SEPECAT “Jaguars” in the ground attack role.

The “Lightning's” direct replacement was the Panavia “Tornado F3's”, an interceptor variant of the Panavia “Tornado”. The “Tornado” featured several advantages over the “Lightning”, including a far larger weapons loadout and considerably more advanced avionics. “Lightnings” were slowly phased out of service between 1974 and 1988. In their final years the airframes required considerable maintenance to keep them in airworthy condition due to the sheer number of accumulated flight hours.

Fighter Command/Strike Command: The main “Lightning” role was the air defense of the United Kingdom and was operated at first as part of Fighter Command and then from 1968 with No. 11 Group of Strike Command. At the formation of Strike Command nine “Lightning” squadrons were operational in the United Kingdom.

Far East Air Force: In 1967 No. 74 Squadron was moved to RAF Tengah, Singapore to take over the air defense role from the Gloster “Javelin” equipped 64 Squadron. The squadron was disbanded in 1971 following the withdrawal of British forces in Singapore.

Near East Air Force: The Royal Air Force had detached “Lightnings” to RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus to support the Near East Air Force and in 1968 No. 56 Squadron RAF moved from RAF Wattisham with the “Lightning F.3” to provide a permanent air defense force, it converted to the F.6 in 1971 and returned to the United Kingdom in 1977.

Royal Air Force Germany: In the early 1960's No. 19 Squadron and No. 92 Squadron with “Lightning F.2's”, moved from RAF Leconfield to RAF Gütersloh in West Germany as part of Royal Air Force Germany and operated in the low-level air defense role until disbanded in 1977 when the role was taken over by the McDonnell Douglas “Phantom FGR2”.

Middle East

On 21 December 1965, Saudi Arabia, keen to improve its air defenses owing to the Saudi involvement in the North Yemen Civil War and the resultant air incursions into Saudi airspace by Egyptian forces supporting the Yemeni Republicans, placed a series of orders with Britain and the United States to build a new integrated air defense system. BAC received orders for 34 multirole single-seat “Lightning F.53;s” that could still retain very high performance and reasonable endurance, and six two-seat T.55 trainers, together with 25 BAC “Strikemaster” trainers, while the contract also included new radar systems, American “HAWK” surface to air missiles and training and support services.

In order to provide an urgent counter to the air incursions, with Saudi towns close to the border being bombed by Egyptian aircraft, an additional interim contract, called “Magic Carpet”, was placed in March 1966 for the supply of six ex-RAF “Lightnings” (four F.2s and two T.4 trainers, redesignated F.52 and T.54 respectively), six Hawker “Hunters”, two air defense radars and a number of “Thunderbird” surface-to-air missiles. The “Magic Carpet” “Lightnings” were delivered to Saudi Arabia in July 1966, with an additional F.52 being delivered in May 1967 to replace a “Lightning” lost in an accident. The “Lightnings” and “Hunters”, flown by contract pilots, were deployed to Khamis Mushait airfield near the Yemeni border, resulting in the curtailing of operations by the Egyptian Air Force over the Yemeni-Saudi border.

Although the first F.53's had been handed over to the RSAF in December 1967, they were kept at Warton while trials and development continued and the first Saudi “Lightnings” to leave Warton were four T.55's delivered in early 1968 to the Royal Air Force 226 Operational Conversion Unit at RAF Coltishall, the four T.55's were used to train Saudi aircrew for the next 18 months. The new-build “Lightnings” were delivered under Operation “Magic Palm” between July 1968 and August 1969. Two “Lightnings”, a F.53 and a T.55 were destroyed in accidents prior to delivery, and were replaced by two additional aircraft, the last of which was delivered in June 1972.

The multirole F.53's served in the ground attack and reconnaissance roles as well as an air defense fighter, with “Lightnings” of No 6 Squadron RSAF carrying out ground attack missions using rocket and bombs during a border dispute with South Yemen between December 1969 and May 1970. One F.53 was shot down by Yemeni ground fire on 3 May 1970, with the pilot ejecting successfully and being rescued by Saudi forces. Saudi Arabia received Northrop F-5E “Tiger II” fighters from 1971, which resulted in the “Lightnings” relinquishing the ground-attack mission, concentrating on air defense, and to a lesser extent, reconnaissance. Up to 1982 the “Lightnings” were mainly operated by 2 and 6 Squadron RSAF (although a few were also used by 13 Squadron RSAF), but when 6 Squadron re-equipped with the McDonnell Douglas F-15 “Eagle” then all the remaining aircraft were operated by 2 Squadron at Tabuk. In 1985 as part of the agreement to sell the Panavia “Tornado” to the RSAF, the 22 flyable “Lightnings” were traded in to British Aerospace and returned to Warton in January 1986. While BAe offered the ex-Saudi “Lightnings” to Austria and Nigeria, no sales were made, and the aircraft were eventually disposed of to museums.

Kuwait also ordered 14 “Lightnings” in December 1966, comprising 12 F.53K's and two T.55K's. The first Kuwait aircraft, a T.55K first flew on 24 May 1968 and deliveries to Kuwait started in December 1968. The Kuwaitis somewhat overestimated their ability to maintain such a complex aircraft, not adopting the extensive support from BAC and Airwork Services that the Saudis used to keep their “Lightnings” operational, so serviceability was poor. The Kuwaiti “Lightnings” did not have a long service career; after unsuccessfully trying to sell them to Egypt in 1973, Kuwait replaced its last “Lightnings” by Dassault “Mirage F1's” in 1977.

Variants [2]

  • English Electric P.1A: Single-seat supersonic research aircraft, two prototypes built and one static test airframe.

  • English Electric P.1B: Single-seat operational prototypes to meet Specification F23/49, three prototypes built, further 20 development aircraft ordered in February 1954. Type was officially named “Lightning” in October 1958.

  • “Lightning F.1”: Development batch aircraft, single-seat fighters delivered from 1959, a total of 19 built (and one static test airframe). Nose-mounted twin 30 mm ADEN cannon, two “Firestreak” missiles, VHF Radio and Ferranti AI-23 “AIRPASS” radar.

  • “Lightning F.1A”: Single-seat fighter, delivered in 1961. Featured “Avon” 210R engines, an in-flight refueling probe and UHF Radio; a total of 28 built.

  • “Lightning F.2”: Single-seat fighter (an improved variant of the F.1), delivered in 1962. A total of 44 built with 31 later modified to F.2A standard, five later modified to F.52 for export to Saudi Arabia.

  • “Lightning F.2A”: Single-seat fighter (F.2s upgraded to near F.6 standard); featuring “Avon” 211R engines, retained ADEN cannon and “Firestreak” (replaceable “Firestreak” pack swappable with ADEN Cannon Pack for a total of four ADEN Cannons), arrestor hook and enlarged Ventral Tank for two hours flight endurance. A total of 31 converted from F.2.

  • “Lightning F.3”: Single-seat fighter with upgraded AI-23B radar, “Avon” 301R engines, new “Red Top” missiles, enlarged and clipped tailfin due to aerodynamics of carriage of “Red Top”, and deletion of ADEN cannon. A total of 70 built (at least nine were converted to F.6 standard).

  • “Lightning F.3A”: Single-seat fighter with extended range of 800 miles due to large ventral tank and new cambered wings. A total of 16 built at the end of F.3 production, known also as an F.3 Interim version or F.6 Interim Version, 15 later modified to full F.6 standard.

  • “Lightning T.4”: Two-seat side-by-side training version, based on the F.1A; two prototypes and 20 production built, two aircraft later converted to T.5 prototypes, two aircraft later converted to T.54.

  • “Lightning T.5”: Two-seat side-by-side training version, based on the F.3; 22 production aircraft built. One former RAF aircraft later converted to T.55 for Saudi Arabia.

  • “Lightning F.6”: Single-seat fighter (an improved longer-range variant of the F.3). Featured new wings with better efficiency and subsonic performance, overwing fuel tanks and larger ventral fuel tank, reintroduction of 30 mm cannons (initially no cannons but later in the forward part of ventral pack rather than in nose), use of “Red Top” missile. Total of 39 built (also nine converted from F.3 and 15 from F.3A).

  • “Lightning F.52”: Slightly modified ex-RAF F.2 single-seat fighters for export to Saudi Arabia (five converted).

  • “Lightning F.53”: Export version of the F.6 with pylons for bombs or unguided rocket pods, 44 × 2 in (50 mm), total of 46 built and one converted from F.6 (12 F.53K's for the Kuwaiti Air Force, 34 F.53's for the Royal Saudi Arabian Air Force, one aircraft crashed before delivery).

  • “Lightning T.54”: Ex-RAF T.4 two-seat trainers supplied to Saudi Arabia (two converted).

  • “Lightning T.55”: Two-seat side-by-side training aircraft (export version of the T.5), eight built (six T.55's for the Royal Saudi Arabian Air Force, two T.55K's for the Kuwaiti Air Force and one converted from T.5 that crashed before delivery).

  • “Sea Lightning FAW.1”: Proposed two-seat Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm carrier capable variant with variable-geometry wing; not built.

Specifications (Lightning F.6) [2]

General Characteristics

  • Crew: 1
  • Length: 55 ft 3 in (16.8 m)
  • Wingspan: 34 ft 10 in (10.6 m)
  • Height: 19 ft 7 in (5.97 m)
  • Wing area: 474.5 ft² (44.08 m²)
  • Empty weight: 31,068 lb (14,092 kg)
  • Max. takeoff weight: 45,750 lb (20,752 kg)
  • Powerplant: 2 × Rolls-Royce “Avon” 301R afterburning turbojets Dry thrust: 12,530 lbf(55.74 kN) each
  • Thrust with afterburner: 16,000 lbf (71.17 kN) each


  • Maximum speed: Mach 2.0 (1,300 mph, 2,100 km/h) at 36,000 ft. 700 KIAS at lower altitude
  • Range: 850 mi (1,370 km) Supersonic intercept radius: 155 mi (250 km)
  • Ferry range: 920 mi (800 NM, 1,660 km) 1,270 mi (1,100 NM, 2,040 km) with ferry tanks
  • Service ceiling: 54,000 ft (16,000 m) zoom ceiling >70,000 ft
  • Rate of climb: 20,000 ft/min (100 m/s)
  • Wing loading: 76 lb/ft² (370 kg/m²)
  • Thrust/weight: 0.78


  • Guns: 2 × 30 mm (1.18 in) ADEN cannons
  • Hardpoints: 2 × under-fuselage for mounting air-to-air missiles, 2 × overwing pylon stations for 260 gal ferry tanks and provisions to carry combinations of: Missiles: 2 De Havilland “Firestreak” or 2 × Hawker Siddeley “Red Top”


  1. Photos: John Shupek, Copyright © 2002 Skytamer Images. All Rights Reserved
  2. Wikipedia, English Electric “Lightning”

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