Thanks to its unrivalled performance the Lightning was used in the late 60s to carry out proving flights to allay fears over the effects of Concorde flying at Mach 2 over land.
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 official ceiling of the Lightning was a closely guarded secret although it is said to be in excess of 60,000 ft and it is well renowned for its exceptional rate of climb at 20,000 ft per minute.
As Richard Woods, an aviation expert, tells on Quora ‘RAF Bourn in Cambs I recall was the site of tests in about 1965. We hacks all trooped up with other interested parties and were very royally entertained at great expense.
‘The plan was to have English Electric Lightnings, Britain’s very effective Mach 2+ interceptors, fly over the area at I believe 20,000 feet and at roughly Mach 2 – about 1350 mph at that altitude. The Lightning was much smaller than the Concorde but was not such a slippery aerodynamic shape so the test was run at lower altitude than Concorde to get the best comparison.
‘I was a hack on the Cambridge Evening News and we had stationed a few reporters at vulnerable sites run by concerned people. Commercial Greenhouses and stock holding buildings.’
‘The flights were timed but we heard them well enough. You see you do not ‘break’’ through the sound barrier. Once the aircraft reached supersonic compressibility you drag the screaming turmoil along behind you – for as long as you maintain Mach 1+ – or in this case Mach 2+. You cannot do it for long – Lightnings at full boost burn fuel so fast 20 minutes in the air is a long time!
‘I was sitting by a phone waiting. It rang: “Seventeen panes of glass shattered at XYZ” said the voice. Another “Animals really spooked in the shed, taking time to settle them down”.
‘When the Press Conference started the Ministry team seemed very happy – right up until we asked: “Are you gentlemen aware that at XYZ at precisely 15.01 this afternoon 17 panes of glass in a two acre greenhouse spontaneously imploded and at JKL an entire herd of Aberdeen Angus were so spooked it took 20 minutes to calms them down?”
‘Oh we were pleased with ourselves. All that AND champagne and caviar!
‘But Concorde never did fly supersonic over land – she had to cruise subsonic to altitude over the Irish Sea before the afterburners were turned on. That was part of the economic penalty that made her impractical.’
Photo credit: BAE Systems and Crown Copyright