Cold War Era

Lightning Vs Spitfire: why the iconic Mach 2 interceptor struggled to win mock dogfights against the legendary WWII plane during the trial flights conducted by the RAF between the two types

“We did find that the piston-engined fighter presented a very poor target to infra-red homing missiles, especially from the rear aspect,” Wing Commander John Nicholls, former Lighting Pilot.

Taken in 1963 at RAF Binbrook, the interesting photo in this post features Spitfire PR XIX PS853 parked side by side with one of the local English Electric Lightning Mach 2 fighter jets.

On that year the Officer Commanding the Air Fighting Development Squadron within the Central Fighter Establishment (CFE), Wing Commander John Nicholls, flew PS853 in a series of trial flights against Lightnings from Binbrook. A veteran of combat in Malaya in the Spitfire XVIII, as well as a MiG killer when on exchange with the USAF during the Korean War, he described the reason behind these unusual sorties, and the flights themselves, in Alfred Price’s Spitfire At War book, published in 1974 (and later available in John Dibbs and Tony Holmes’ book Spitfire The Legend Lives On):

‘This was at the time of the Indonesian confrontation and, since the Indonesian Air Force operated a large number of P-51 Mustang fighters, we were very interested in discovering how best a Lightning might engage such an aircraft. In the RAF we did not have any Mustangs, but at Binbrook we did have our Spitfire with a performance that was, in many respects, similar. Thus it came about that our Spitfire came to be involved in a short battle trial pitted against a fighter that was her successor by three generations.

‘Of course, from the start we knew that the Lightning could overtake the Spitfire by nearly 1,000 mph – there was no need to run a trial to prove that. But we did find that the piston-engined fighter presented a very poor target to infra-red homing missiles, especially from the rear aspect. And, since the Lightning would therefore very likely have to follow up its missile pass with a gun attack, a high overtaking speed would have made accurate firing very difficult. On the other hand, if the Lightning pilot slowed down too much he could end up playing the slower and more manoeuvrable fighter’s dogfighting game and lose. None of this was new – we had learned the same thing during trials between the Lightning and the Hunter. Another problem was that if the Spitfire pilot had sufficient warning of the attack he could spin around to meet it head-on – and thus present the most difficult target of all.

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. Supermarine Spitfire Mk Vb – W3257 E-FY – 1941

‘In the end we evolved a type of attack that was the antitheses of all I had learned from my own operational experience of fighters-versus-fighters combat over Korea. Instead of trying to get above the enemy and diving on him to attack, we found it best to use the Lightning’s very high power-to-weight ratio to make a climbing attack from behind and below. From that angle the field-of-view from the Spitfire was poor, there was a good chance of achieving surprise and the infra-red source gave the best chance for missile acquisition. If the Lightning pilot did not acquire the target or bring his guns to bear on his first pass he could continue his steep climb – which the Spitfire could not possibly follow – and when out of range he could dive and repeat the process. Using such tactics, we felt that in the end a competent Lightning pilot could almost always get the better of an equally competent Spitfire (or Mustang) pilot.

‘Almost certainly that trial at Binbrook was the final operational act carried out in earnest in the Spitfire’s long career.’

On Apr. 1964 PS853 (that was originally completed on Sep. 5, 1944) joined the BBMF at Coltishall, in Norfolk, and four years later it participated in the filming of The Battle of Britain.

Spitfire The Legend Lives On is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: Crown Copyright

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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