The English Electric Lightning jet interceptor was very much a product of the Cold War of the late 1950’s - early 60’s

With the Soviet’s high altitude nuclear bombers on standby to target key NATO targets across Britain and Europe, the British government realised that there would be only minimal warning of the launch of a Soviet attack.

Having no effective ground based anti aircraft missile protection able to neutralise the high altitude Soviet bombers, the Air Ministry put out a tender for a supersonic jet interceptor capable of not only climbing to the extremely high altitudes of the bombers in a just a matter of minutes but with a speed to both overtake and destroy them before they were able to drop their nuclear payloads.

The task set for the British Aerospace Industry was not an easy one as they struggled to find the balance between engine performance, airframe and armament weight and fuel capacity.

Early tests quickly confirmed that they would be looking at a twin-engined fighter to achieve the climb and speed performance criteria but these became a direct trade off with fuel load capacity and structural integrity.

The British Government were looking at a minimum climb speed of at least 50,000 ft per minute if not faster and an operational ceiling of 60,000 ft plus, with an attack speed in excess of Mach 1.5

The answer was a radical twin-vengine design that stacked the two Rolls-Royce Avon engines on top of each other in a blister with the first, just below the tail fin and the second, staggered slightly forward to avoid too much weight aft.

While this engine configuration ensured an extremely low drag on the aircraft it meant that the fuselage was basically all engine, cockpit and ducting with minimal room for fuel.

For supersonic flight, aircraft designers knew that the wings and tail structure also needed to be extremely thin and streamlined which even further reduced the Lightning’s fuel capability.

The Lightning’s limited fuel capacity and hence operational range of barley 900 miles, was to be a constant challenge throughout its operational life with designers being forced to adapt every available void to carry fuel. Even the wing flaps were used as fuel tanks.

With the option of underwing fuel drop tanks to increase range being ruled out due to its aerodynamics, a large vertical tank was installed along the underside of the fuselage. Even the landing gear and its tyres were reduced in size to make way for additional fuel carrying capacity.

Some variants had the ability to carry drop tanks on top of the wing structures but again, aerodynamics were significantly degraded.

But for all its early development issues and limited range, the English Electric Lightning was fast…. Very fast.

In fact it would often achieve more than Mach 2 and its engines were so powerful that the upper engine had to be shut down during taxiing due to the aircraft's brakes being overwhelmed by the idling thrust.

Overheating and possible engine fire was also an ongoing issue for the Lightning with the continual flexing of the aircraft's airframe at supersonic speeds resulting in unburnt fuel from the overhead engine dripping down on the engine below, even when the upper engine was shut down during taxiing.

Engine fire was a constant concern for pilots who would frequently glance across the aircraft’s warning panel on the port wall of the cockpit just above the throttle controls.

The warning panel consisted of 5 illuminated warning lights signalling (from LtoR) No 1 Engine Fire Indicator; No 1 Engine Reheat Indicator; DC Generator Failure Warning Light; No 2 Engine Fire Indicator; Autopilot Failure Warning Light, and the Cockpit Pressure Failure Light. The small adjacent buttons muted or disabled the audio alarms .

As soon as either of the large Engine Fire Warning Lights were activated, the pilot would press one of the two ‘yellow-banded’ Engine Fire Suppression Switches mounted at the rear of the warning panel. Each Suppression Switches featured an inbuilt warning bulb that would glow indicating which Engine to shut down.  

While RAF pilots loved the Lightning for its sleek shape and staggering climb acceleration, manoeuvrability and attack speeds, the ground crew mechanics continued to struggle with its complexity and dangerous fuel leaks.

Armed with two 30 mm ADEN cannons and two air-to-air missiles, the Lightning began operations with RAF 74 squadron in 1960 with a later variant serving with 19 Squadron in 1962 both stationed on the British mainland and at the joint NATO bases in Germany.

Later variant were also exported and served with in the Saudi Arabian Airforce but aircraft design was continually changing and the RAF began slowly phasing out the twin engined jet fighter in the early 70’s as newer aircraft with greater range, more advanced electronics and increased weapon carrying carry capacity such as the Tornado and Jaguars became operational.

Even so, the Lightning still proved to be a formidable fighter and while its operational specifications were kept secret, it was reported to have successfully intercepted a USAF U2 at a height previously thought to have been safe for the spy plane.

Whilst never technically having fired a shot in anger, the Lightning was used to shoot down a Harrier Jump jet after its pilot had ejected and the aircraft continued flying toward enemy territory.

In June 1988, the last Lightning in RAF service took to the skies destined for a private buyer but the aircraft’s servicing complexity and poor safety recorded forced the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority  to withdraw its flight certification and the only existing aircraft can only be seen in museums as static displays.  

All English Electric Lightning Instruments listed below come complete with detailed Scale Model, Mango Wood Stand & Plaque plus Printed Fact Sheet featuring photo of instrument in aircraft cockpit.



    Rare English Electric Lightning Engine Fire Suppression Switch