The ultimate supersonic hot-rod? (Ian Black)

With tensions between Russia and the West at a new high — IAN BLACK describes a Cold War-era scramble — in the ultimate interceptor — the English Electric Lightning  

It is August 2014 and I’m writing this article amid a plethora of 'hot news articles' involving air defence intercepts. A Royal Air Force Typhoon FGR4 intercepts Qatar Airways flight QR23 and escorts it into Manchester Airport with a credible bomb threat over UK airspace. Meanwhile, USAF F-15s of Alaskan- based squadrons are intercepting Russian Tupolev Bear bombers close to US waters after the tragic shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine. Tensions are high and the world is a more volatile place than it ever was.

But turn the clock back a quarter of a century and I’m sat on a windswept base in North Lincolnshire — the air reeks of aviation fuel. I’m feet away from a live armed English Electric Lightning fighter built in the early 1960s but still then fulfilling a vital peacetime role QRA (Quick Reaction Alert). Then, as now, the Royal Air Force maintained a round-the-clock alert state. Two aircraft were live armed ready to scramble at a moment's notice to intercept the unknown. The two pilots and two aircraft (no different today at RAF Coningsby with the Typhoon) are part of a big picture — air defence fighter, pilot, ground crew, engineers, air traffickers, refuellers, suppliers, ground control intercept (GCI)officers, civilian radar and, of course, tanker support all keep Britain’s skies safe.

Scramble scramble scramble


An XI Sqn Lightning FMk6 blasts off from a wet UK runway in April 1988. This was the last scramble with live Red Top missiles. (Ian Black) 

The Lightning was well suited to the job of a rapid response fighter capable of launching in all weathers in well under five minutes from idle to airborne.

Pilots sat waiting in full exposure suits on 24-hour calls of duty day and night. The monotone click, click of the telebrief was a stark reminder of the open line to GCI (ground control). This would either be pre -warned with a phone call of expected 'activity' as 'Zombies' (unknown contacts) headed round the Iceland-Faeroes gap or in true Battle of Britain style, the call of “Scramble Scramble Scramble” followed by your own personal callsign and a vector and height for initial contact with GCI.

It is hard to describe in words, the feeling of sitting in a dormant state fully kitted-out to getting the message to launch. With just a frequency, heading and height you run to your aircraft, grab your 'bone dome' and climb the ladder into your cockpit — outside it could be a beautiful summer's day or it could be the dark of night mid-winter snow blowing round the hangar — it matters not. The clock is now ticking. It is vital you are airborne in under five minutes and the only joker you can play for not achieving this task is a technical fault — but it needs to be good.

Strapping in


Battle flight — a Lightning sits in close whilst his wingman scans the skies with the Ferranti radar.  (Ian Black)

Strapping in takes the longest part, ensuring your harness is locked, safety pins are removed and oxygen is connected. As soon as the ground crew remove your ejector seat safety pins and your seat is live, he dismounts, removing the cockpit ladder, the rapid start gang bar is pulled up, power is on and with a single finger raised you give a circling motion of the hand and press the number 1 starter.

An almighty wheezing noise is followed by a 'whoosh' as a gallon of volatile Avpin A Mono combustible fuel similar to the German T-Stoff/V-Stoff rocket fuel is injected into the starter and the massive Rolls-Royce Avon springs to life. As soon as the RPM rises, a check of the jet pipe temperature (as a hot start will melt the back end and do serious unseen damage) and the number two engine is given the same treatment. With both engines at idle, the electrics and hydraulics come to life.

Now the radio crackles and as calmly as possible, you ask air traffic for taxi clearance. The hangar doors are now open, the ground crew have removed the external power and, as you release the parking brake, the Lightning lurches forward like a pit bull on a lead eager to be released. As a QRA scramble you have absolute priority and the 20 metres you have before entering the active runway is enough to complete the vital pre take-off checks: Canopy is down and locked — seat pins are out — flaps are down and no warning captions are illuminated. The ground crew have worked their magic and your aircraft is serviceable — as you line up both throttles are moved smoothly forward. A low rumble becomes a roar and you push the throttles into reheat (burner) a noticeable kick in the back lets you know they are lit without the need to look inside. The speed increases rapidly and you are now committed to take off. At 165 knots you ease the stick back and the heavy Lightning reluctantly breaks terra firma. Swiftly the gear is selected up to reduce drag and the flaps come from down to up. Head inside and a glance around the cockpit to check nothing is amiss. The radar is selected to 'on' and you hope that this 1950's valve-driven device will function — it’s a no-go item and your only means of finding the tanker and target in the dark night sky.

Identify and shadow


Looking for trouble — an XI Sqn Lightning F.Mk6 — the 'bolt-on' AAR probe was an afterthought. (Ian Black)

While the late 1980s might have been the height of the Cold War, the mission today is no different — defending UK airspace. Each pilot has spent the past year on his particular type, training for this moment — the ability to intercept, identify and engage a target day or night. In peacetime the normal routine will be to intercept, identify and shadow or shepherd the target but, in an escalation to war, that may change.

Today, pilots have the added responsibility (as seen recently) of intercepting a civilian airliner and either shadowing it or, in the worst scenario, destroying it. Obviously, this would require Prime Ministerial approval and the threat that an airliner was going to impact a major city causing untold loss of life would not be taken lightly. However, the fact that the UK possesses the capability to engage any target from a slow-speed Cessna to a high-speed airliner should send a clear message to anyone intent on using an aircraft as a method of destruction that the RAF are prepared for this tactic.

Then and now


Having been built in the 1960s, the English Electric Lightning was well suited to getting airborne in rapid time and intercepting an unknown target in day and night in clear air. However, its successor, the Tornado F3 and, more recently, the Typhoon FGR4 have some distinct advantages. The Lightning’s endurance is poor (abysmal might be a better term) and tanker support was a 100% requirement on every QRA launch. Its navigational aids were minimal and it also relied on the tanker for information once outside radar and radio aids navigation. The ability to record the unknown aircraft in a Lightning is down to a trusty Pentax 35mm camera armed with high ASA film. Today video recording is in vogue and pilots have a range of other devices to complete the task — infrared search and track (IRST) as well as night vision goggles (NVGs) which make night flying a walk in the park. The Lightning only had a small light fitted to the refuelling probe to illuminate targets — despite trials in the early 1960s of fitting high-intensity searchlights into one of the two air-to-air missiles, the idea was dropped. Occasionally pilots were known to use hand-held torches to get identification details of Russian bombers but this meant getting dangerously close.



 A RAF Typhoon intercepts a Russian AF Su-27 over the Baltics, 2014.  (MoD)

Today the threat may have expanded, but the role remains the same. Quick Reaction Alert is perhaps the most important task the Royal Air Force undertakes in peace time from home soil and future governments would be well advised to diminish this responsibility at their peril. While the Lightning might have been capable of the task in the 1960s, the Typhoon of today's generation is more than suited to the increased diversity of threats to UK airspace. 



The Lightning continues generate great affection even today. (Ian Black)

Limited edition Lightning book now out 'Lightning 1954 – 2014'
Ian Black

A photographic tribute to the most well known British fighter of the past 50 years the work covers the later years of operations, including the flying of this iconic fighter in civilian hands. Each image has been chosen to capture the very essence of what it was like to operate and maintain this charismatic aircraft.

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18 September 2014