The English Electric Lightning is a twin-engine, sweep-wing, single-seat, supersonic fighter. Developed to bring the RAF into the supersonic age, the aircraft was able to fly at twice the speed of sound. The Lightning was an incredible leap forward in performance and technology. In fact, it had such a power to weight ratio that it could stand on its tail and exceed the speed of sound in a vertical climb.

Our Lightning, XM135, on display at IWM Duxford is particularly interesting. In 1966 Wing Commander Walter 'Taffy' Holden accidentally took to the sky in this aircraft without a canopy, radio, usable ejector seat or any jet flying experience. In this episode of Duxford in Depth, Liam Shaw takes a detailed look at the Lightning's design, development, armament and service history as well as 'Taffy' Holden's incredible story.

The 'aluminium death tube'

The English Electric Lightning was developed to bring the RAF into the supersonic age. It was an aircraft that, even in its prototype stage, broke the sound barrier and very, very quickly as development increased it was able to fly at twice the speed of sound. In fact, the aircraft itself had such a power to weight ratio that it could actually stand on its tail and exceed the speed of sound in a vertical climb. It was an incredible leap forward in performance and technology. And our aircraft here it's got a very interesting story, but on one particular occasion it was accidentally flown by an engineering officer, a non-supersonic pilot 'Taffy' Holden.

Archive clip: "Want to fly a Lightning? Want to occupy the single-seat, in the single-seater, all-weather, night and day, high-flying, supersonic, supernormal Lightning?"

The development of jets and jet technology had been pioneered by the British aircraft industry from the very early days with aircraft such as the Gloucester Meteor entering service before the end of the Second World War. Britain really did have the edge over pretty much everyone else in the world and it comes as a bit of a surprise that some of this cutting-edge technology would be sold to the Russians. An engine was sold at the request of the Russian government and this engine was reverse engineered and put into the Mig-15 and unfortunately, it was the Mig-15 when used in Korea against Royal Australian Air Force Gloucester Meteors that proved the error of selling the Russians this engine. In Britain the Miles M52 was envisaged as the first aircraft that would break the sound barrier. Unfortunately, it was scrapped and a lot of the technology found its way into the American aircraft industry. But shortly after the scrapping of the M52 English Electric began development on what would become the Lightning. The RAF up to that point had been flying subsonic aircraft such as the Hunter. But with the first flight of the English Electric P.1, or as it would later become, the Lightning the RAF moved into the supersonic age.

Roland Beaumont, Chief test pilot with English Electric: "Despite its exotic configuration, I mean 60 degrees of wing sweep was way out in those days nobody had ever seen an aeroplane like that before, and there were lots of dark theories about how it would become unmanageable and its stability would be questionable and so on. It turned out to be absolutely first class. Very docile, very easy to fly providing you change your sights a bit and when you were used to doing a final approach at about 90 or 100 knots, in this aeroplane you were doing your final approach at 180 and touching down to 150 so it was a bit faster. But all that really meant was you need a bit more runway to land it on."

The thought behind the Lightning really was that it would be used as a point interceptor. Much like the Spitfires and Hurricanes had done during the Battle of Britain defending our shores against a potential enemy the English Electric Lightning would be doing just the same. Initially, it was designed to guard the V bomber bases that house the Vulcan, the Victor and the Valiant fleet, the nuclear deterrent. But the Lightning would go on to end up providing a role in Germany and around the world as well.

Robert McCandless, Naval liaison officer with Central Fighter Establishment: "So the Lightning pilots were trying to devise some tactic that could be used to get a Lightning up to sixty thousand feet and chase these very high-level Russian aircraft coming over doing photography. What they would do is fly along at 35/40,000 feet, full throttle, until they got up to maximum speed. And then they would pull back hard leaving it at full throttle and use the momentum to get up. And they could just about stagger up to 60,000 feet before they started to fall away again. And I find it absolutely incredible."

The English Electric Lightning would go on to be Britain's last home designed supersonic fighter and really the roots of this go down to the 1957 infamous white paper issued by Duncan Sandys who believed that the future of air interception would be done by ground-launched rockets. And really it meant that the Lightning was never fully developed beyond the pure interceptor aircraft that it became. The aircraft would see production in a number of main variants and our aircraft here being the F.1, the first post-pre-production version that would see service, survived around about 10 years or so in service after its fortuitous landing by 'Taffy' Holden. Our aircraft here arrived at Duxford in 1974, but the final examples retired from RAF service in 1988. The mantle of RAF defence would be handed over at that point to the fighter version of the Tornado and quite a few pilots who transitioned from the Lightning to the Tornado at that time were not hugely happy to be giving up their beautiful English Electric Lightnings.

Keith Spong, Civilian fitter and inspector with English Electric: "It was a brilliant aircraft you know, just it looked right and we're always saying if an aeroplane looks right it flies right. It has been known it's called the 'aluminium death tube' I think it was a favourite name for it. As the saying goes, one pilot they asked him what his flight were like he said 'well I was with it all the way to the handbrake off'. Things like that you know, it was a beast."

In all versions its main armament was a pair of air-to-air missiles. On early versions, as with our aircraft, here they carried the Firestreak. A passive infrared homing missile or a heatseeker that was designed to shoot down incoming Russian bombers. As the aircraft were developed through and beyond the F.3 to the F.6 it would be the Red Top that would take over. It had a better seeker head, a heavier warhead, and a better range giving the Lightning far more punch. But most versions would also be equipped with the 30-millimetre ADEN cannon. In the F.3 version of the Lightning, the cannon was removed much to the upset of the pilots, leading to them being retrofitted to keep the aircraft as a gunfighter as well as one capable of firing missiles.

With the Lightning, a lot of politics dogged its service life and its subsequent development. It was originally envisaged to defend the V bomber bases in the UK, as such range was not that crucial. Future versions of the Lightning did increase their fuel tankage and some later versions could even carry over the wing ferry tanks. But politics did indeed dog it and stopped it becoming an export success. It was only ever exported to the Royal Saudi Air Force and the Kuwait Air Force much later on and the reason for this really was that lack of range. But in both of those air forces, the Lightning would find use not just as an interceptor but would be able to carry air-to-ground rockets and bombs.

Brian Tomlinson, Worked in English Electric stress office: "If you look at a boat in the water there's a bow wave. Well a supersonic aircraft also has a bow wave in the air. And the air in front that is not the same air as is behind it and so there were a lot of unknowns. So there's an exploratory nature when you're dealing with something as advanced as that. Furthermore, it had to be kept very small. Pushing a big aircraft supersonic takes a lot more power so you need a smaller aircraft and that means everything that's got to go in it is packed really tightly. There is not a square inch of empty space in that aircraft, that makes design much more difficult."

So the English Electric Lightning that we have on show here at Duxford has quite an interesting story. This aircraft having seen some squadron service was on the strength of 33 maintenance unit at RAF Lyneham. They were trying to work out why the instruments were not working properly when the aircraft engaged reheat in the engines. 'Taffy' Holden was waiting for a test pilot to come and run it, but a test pilot wasn't going to be available for some time and he wanted to get the aircraft off of his books. His background was that he had some flying experience in his earlier RAF career but had taken the engineering route. So on the day in question he decided that he would have a go. 'Taffy' Holden climbs into the aircraft. It's been trimmed for flight from its previous operation, he straps himself in but he's not wearing a crash helmet or otherwise as you would expect for a pilot to be wearing. He started up the engines to see what was happening and accidentally or possibly through a fault in the cockpit the engine went into reheat. The aircraft then began to roll forwards and he couldn't get it disengaged. As a result it was gathering speed and he's beginning to work out that he's got to do something, he can either bring the undercarriage up and crash the aircraft possibly have to fly it. His decision is made for him because as he approaches the duty main in use runway an RAF transport commander DeHavilland Comet is taking off. He's got very little time to think about it, he pulls the stick back and he gets the aircraft airborne.

Frederick Hazelwood, Commanding Officer RAF Lyneham: "The OC ops rang me up and he said "'Taff' Holden's airborne in a Lightning". So I said "good" I said "I didn't know they had dual control". He said "no he's on his own, he's on his own". I said "my god has he gone mad or something?". Anyway I rocketed up to air traffic control and there was this Lightning gently going around the circuit, very sensible chap you see this wing commander. Going round the first thing one could see was that he hadn't got the hood back and you know you could see his hair sticking up I mean he hadn't got a helmet on you see. What he did was very simple he went round and he changed it to the other runway which was in fact coming sort of going up to meet you if you know what I mean. And he came in and I said "my god" I said, "he's going to make it!". No break chute of course, none at all, and because the aircraft was terribly, terribly light I mean he went to the end the runway and he pulled up, got out. Had he had a hat on I'm sure he would have saluted and I was first up and he said "I'm terribly sorry sir" I said "Taff", I said, "I'm not at all!". I've still got his original 765c which sort of says five minutes solo in a Lightning you see which it was!".

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