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BAC Lightning supersonic fighter

Written by Sakhal

From all the air forces in the world, only the Royal Air Force jumped from the subsonic fighter to the Mach 2 one without any intermediate aircraft, by replacing the diurnal fighter Hawker Hunter and the all-weather Gloster Javelin by the English Electric - later BAC - Lightning. The Lightning had its origin in a specification from the Ministry of Supply emitted in 1947, which asked for a manned aircraft of supersonic investigation. "Teddy" Peter, the same engineer that projected the light bomber Canberra, started in 1947 the investigation program for the development of such aircraft. The project from English Electric, called P.1, was presented in 1949 and soon it was seen that it had operative application, continuing parallely the development of the aircraft for military purposes. The first investigation prototype P.1A flew the 4th August 1954, propelled by two turbojet engines Bristol Siddeley Saphire, mounted one above the other in an unorthodox configuration. Also three operative prototypes P.1B were built; the first of them flew the 4th April 1957, propelled by two turbojet engines Rolls-Royce Avon, surpassing Mach 1 in this first flight. In the mid 1949, however, the Royal Air Force had published the specification F.23/49 for a supersonic fighter and the prototype was modified to adapt it to those requisites. The new aircraft flew in 1957 with a new fuselage with an air intake in the nose, whose central part was occupied by a cone that should house a radar Ferranti Airpass, necessary for the aircraft being used in any weather condition. The 25th November 1958 it became the first British aircraft that reached Mach 2, achieved in horizontal flight. This was possible because the engines Avon had been fitted with primitive afterburners. In that time the P.1B had been baptized as Lightning and it was ordered its entry into production for the Fighter Command. The first series Lightning F Mk 1 flew the 9th October 1959; fully equipped for combat, the Lightning started to serve in the RAF in July 1960. Samely as the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter from the USAF, the Lightning was developed as a supersonic interceptor armed with missiles, but without having any of the limitations of the Starfighter; in fact, the Lightning was the only supersonic fighter par excellence in the world until the arrival of the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle.

BAC Lightning supersonic fighter

English Electric Lightning F-1. Propulsion plant: two turbojet engines Rolls-Royce Avon 200 with 5096 kilograms of thrust each; speed: Mach 2.1 at 12192 meters of altitude; wingspan: 10.60 meters; length: 16.84 meters; weight: 18100 kilograms; armament: two ADEN 30-millimeter cannons in the nose and two Firestreak infrared air-to-air missiles.

Albeit it was a relatively complex aircraft - the ratio between hours of flight and hours of maintenance was terrible in comparison with other aircraft of that time - this interceptor capable of operating with any weather condition at least provided the RAF with a modern fighter equipped with radar, air-to-air guided missiles and supersonic capability. The production of the Lightning was halted due to the belief that all the manned fighter aircraft had been rendered obsolete, a shaking criterion that clearly appeared in the White Book of the Defense made in Great Britain in April 1957. Despite of that, it was possible to convince the British Treasury to allow in 1961 the production of an improved version, the F Mk 2, fitted with orientable afterburners and navigation system for every weather condition. When after a time it was evident the mistake of the doctrine presented in the White Book, it was authorized - in 1964 - the version F Mk 3, fitted with more powerful engines, increased fuel capacity, larger flight surfaces, fire and collision routes control and Red Top missiles capable of being launched from any position and not only from a position behind the target, as was the case with the Firestreak. In 1965, finally, it was decided to follow the suggestion made by the manufacturing company to increase fuel capacity to almost twice and fit the aircraft with a new type of wing, twisted and arched, tested in flight for the first time in 1956, that would increase its operativity and allow to hang much superior weights. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait bought, altogether, 57 exemplars of a special version that turned the Lightning into a polyvalent fighter and attack aircraft. Along with those exported units, the total of Lightning produced ascended to 338. In 1983 remained in service in Saudi Arabia 15 aircraft F 53 and two T 55 two-seat training aircraft, plus 17 exemplars of both versions in reserve, while United Kingdom had 24 aircraft F Mk 3 and F Mk 6 and another 24 exemplars of both versions in reserve.

However, the Lightning had its good share of problems - among them an inadequate weapons system -, but its capability for fast takeoff and climbing to an altitude of 9150 meters in little more than two minutes were important qualities in times in which was believed that an east-west war could be started with a nuclear attack on the airfields, with a minimum warning time. During the Cold War, United States and United Kingdom faced an aerial threat from a main axis, but British air defense had to expect a much shorter alarm time. For such reason it was imperative to have an aircraft gifted with a fast reaction time and in this sense the Lightning was excellent. With this aircraft in the air, interception should be frankly easy, albeit the main communication method between the pilot and the controller was voice. From the beginning it was thought to equip the Lightning with data transmission so data would pass directly from the ground computers to the automatic attack system in the aircraft, but this system was never installed. In a rearguard sector, with the Firestreak missiles mounted in the Lightning, the target had to be well inside of the visual radius during the final phase, provided that it were daytime, so the risk to attack an ally aircraft was small. The Lightning was constantly improved along its career, culminating in the version F Mk 6. This one had the leading edge of the wing designed to reduce subsonic aerodynamic resistance and, to improve operational range, it was installed a large ventral deposit having more than twice capacity than previous deposits. The first Lightning F Mk 6 flew the 17th April 1964 and entered service the following year. It was the last turbojet fighter of exclusively British conception; it would render a good service in the RAF in the first line of the aerial defense of the NATO until it was finally retired in 1976.

BAC Lightning supersonic fighter

Lightning F-6 (serial-number BC-XS895) from the 11th Squadron of the Royal Air Force.

BAC Lightning supersonic fighter

Upper aircraft: Lightning F-2A from the 92nd Squadron of the Royal Air Force. This one was an F-2 (F Mk 2) model fitted with almost all the improvements introduced in the version F-6 (F Mk 6). Lower aircraft: Lightning F-6 with the initial appearance that it had when serving in the 5th Squadron of the Royal Air Force. The aircraft was not painted and was armed with missiles Firestreak.

BAC Lightning supersonic fighter

The upper profile shows the original version F-1 (F Mk 1) while the other three views correspond to the most perfectioned version of the Lightning, the F-6 (F Mk 6).

Specifications for Lightning F Mk 6

Type: Single-seat all-weather interceptor

Builder: English Electric Aviation, later incorporated to British Aerospace

Propulsion plant: Two turbojet engines Rolls-Royce Avon 302 with 7112 kilograms of thrust each with afterburner

Wingspan: 10.60 meters

Length: 16.84 meters

Height: 5.97 meters

Weight (empty): 12700 kilograms

Weight (maximum at takeoff): 18954-22680 kilograms

Maximum speed at an altitude of 12000 meters: 2415 kilometers/hour (Mach 2.3)

Initial rate of climb: 15240 meters/minute

Service ceiling: 23500 meters

Operational range (without external tanks): 1290 kilometers

Armament: Interchangeable pylons for either two Red Top air-to-air missiles that can be launched from any position or two Firestreak infrared air-to-air missiles to be launched in the wake of the enemy; optionally, two Aden 30-millimeter cannons in ventral mount; exportation versions can carry as well a maximum of 2722 kilograms of bombs or another offensive loads, in pylons under the wings

Article updated: 2015-01-23

Categories: Aircraft - Cold War - 20th Century - [General] - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2014-12-02

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