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The English Electric Lightning
Conceived an interceptor to defend the V-Force airfields during the Cold War, the English Electric Lightning was a Mach 2 interceptor featuring an unrivalled rate of climb which was often described as being ‘a pilot sitting on two rockets’.
The impressive performance of the Lightning was the result of the English Electric P.1 wing design combined with 2 x Rolls-Royce Avon engines configured in a unique stack-staggered arrangement.
Double engine failure on the Lightning
A double engine failure on the Lightning was a rarity, but RAF Lightning pilot Colin Wilcock had such an experience as he recalls in the book Lightning Boys by Richard Pike;
‘Apart from vague impressions, or snatches of conversation, I don’t remember much else about the morning. Not beforehand, anyway; not until it happened. There may have been one or two visitors present in our 5 Squadron crewroom, I don’t recall, but I suspect the room was occupied mainly by squadron pilots like myself. Binbrook, after all, was a remote place and we saw few others apart from occasional visiting aircrew. For those of us there that morning, l’m sure a keen topic of conversation would have been John Walmsley’s in-flight refuelling experience of yesterday.
‘It was an incredible, worrying event for which I for one, as a mere twenty-one-year-old rookie pilot on the Lightning, felt completely shocked and unprepared. Double engine failure on the Lightning, as far as I was concerned, just did not happen. Such an occurrence was certainly no part of the intensive and costly training which I had completed recently courtesy of Her Majesty’s Royal Air Force.
Flying back to Binbrook
‘One thing I do remember was that the weather was reasonably good although the wind was quite strong that day. The windsock was made to stand out of straight, like a signpost, but that was normal for Binbrook. Also normal was the crewroom’s calm atmosphere, although I was a little too relaxed, perhaps, when the duty operations officer poked his head around the door.
‘“You’re just the chap,” he said as he fixed me in his stare.
‘“Transport should arrive here before long to drive you over to Leconfield. XR755 has been cleared by the engineers there so I want I want you to fly the aircraft back to Binbrook.”
‘”It’ll be a fifteen-minute flight; should be no problem.”
Testing the engines
‘By the time I had collected my bone dome and other flying gear, the aircrew bus, as promised, had turned up. I told the operations officer what was going on and soon I was on my way to Leconfield. When I got there, and when I spotted Lightning XR755 parked in front of a hangar ready for the short flight back to home base, I saw at once that the Victor tanker’s in-flight refuelling basket from yesterday’s incident had been removed. The Leconfield engineers had found no damage to XR755’s airframe or engines. And the aircraft, they said, was fine although there had been no opportunity for them to start up the engines for ground checks. Before getting airborne, therefore, they wanted me to test the engines when I was positioned at the end of the runway.
Inspection of the air intake
‘As part of my pre-flight walk- checks, my inspection of the air intake was more thorough than usual that day, nonetheless I could see no sign of damage. At least, I don’t remember seeing any sign of damage. One thing I do remember, though, was the ground crewman who helped me to strap in to the Lightning cockpit. I don t know why I should recollect this, but he was oldish – or so it seemed to a twenty-one-year-old, anyway – and he looked as though he had spent his life helping to strap-in aircrew.
‘With a bone dome on my head we could not converse but his expression seemed to say: ‘Be careful. There isn’t any sense in not being careful.’ I could not r ply, of course, but when I was fully strapped-in, and when he began to step down the ladder attached to the cockpit side, I gave him a thumbs-up sign as if to say: don’t worry. I’ll be okay. Should be a doddle.’
Start-up and taxi
‘The start-up and taxi seemed to go normally, so I asked air traffic control for permission to line up on the runway to check the engines. Once there, I ran up each engine in turn to around 80% power – the maximum I could hold before the brakes started to slip. Again, all seemed in order so I asked for clearance to take off. This was given without delay and, as I wanted to double-check everything, I quickly ran through the pre-take-off checks once more.
‘I remember, in particular, the flap setting: there were no intermediate flap settings in the Lightning – the flaps were either up or down. To reduce my lift-off speed to around 180 knots I ensured ‘flap down’ was selected. This would mean the use of reheat and, although there was no proof, even with hindsight, the influence of reheat could hardly have helped what was about to happen.
Acting swiftly, and coolly
‘The initial part of the take-off appeared normal. I set off down the runway, selected reheat at the appropriate moment, and eased back on the stick as the aircraft approached 180 knots. The nosewheel lifted off. Within seconds the mainwheels followed. Then, suddenly, I realised there was a problem. This was a moment when some people, apparently, might `freeze-up’; a split-second when the computer system between the body and the brain could go wrong: the brain wanted to know what was happening and needed instructions but the system couldn’t cope. For me, thankfully, this did not happen. Perhaps it was my training; perhaps it was instinct; perhaps it was a sense of sheer survival. Perhaps, after all, I had a guardian angel looking after me that day. Whatever the reason, I found myself able to act swiftly, and coolly.
No time to waste
‘Just after lift-off and just as the whole aircraft began to vibrate quite severely, I knew there was no time to waste. I cancelled both reheats immediately and raised the flaps and undercarriage. By now fairly convinced that the engines were the source of vibration, I throttled back each in turn. As one of the engines (I forget which) seemed to cause more vibration than the other, I shut it down without further ado. At this stage I was flying over the River Humber with Binbrook ahead.
‘Aware of the potential of a Martin-Baker let-down I re-tightened my seat straps as much as possible, looked ahead for good clear areas over which to point the aircraft before I ejected, and momentarily felt for the top and bottom ejection seat handles to confirm, in my mind, their position. I made an emergency radio call and was cleared by Binbrook for a priority landing. The vibration persisted as the airfield loomed, and the possibility of an ejection remained firmly at the forefront of my thoughts. My worst fears, however, were not realised. I managed to land the aircraft, and I even managed to taxi clear of the runway. From that point, though, the aircraft was handed over to the engineers.
Lightning Double engine failure
‘The results were a cause of considerable amazement. The engineers peered again into XR755’s air intake but, as there were still no signs of damage, they decided to carry out ground tests. During these tests, both engines seized. Clearly, deeper investigation was required; it was time to call in a representative of the manufacturer, Rolls-Royce. Both engines were removed and stripped down. Then the experts found, at last, the root of the problem. Of the sixteen stages of XR755’s Rolls-Royce Avon 302 axial flow engines, the compressor blades were missing from about stage eight onwards. When we had inspected the front of the engine through the air intake all had appeared in order; the goings on at the back end, though, were a different matter.
Lightning Double engine failure: Guardian angel in attendance
‘The man from Rolls Royce said that I was lucky not to have suffered a sudden fire or worse. The cause of the damage, he reckoned, was the ingestion of fuel when the Victor tanker’s hose had broken. A gradual degradation of the engines had meant that by the time I landed at Binbrook the Avon 302s were ready, as the saying goes, to give up the ghost. They did not, however, and they managed to keep going. I, too, managed to continue – another twenty-two years of fast-jet flying, to be precise, during which time I never had to eject from my aircraft.
‘Perhaps, that day, I really did have a guardian angel in attendance.’
Lightning Boys is published by Mortons Books and is available to order here.