January 1958: Thunder and Lightnings

The Engineer was dubious about the development process for the fearsome English Electric Lightning

Fighter aircraft are often thought of as the supermodels of the aviation world: all graceful lines and sweeping curves; pure geometry made solid. The English Electric P1, the forerunner of the aircraft named the Lightning, was no supermodel.

More a bruiser than a supermodel

Take a look at a Lightning in an air museum and the word that comes to mind is brutal. It’s a massive, hulking presence, slab-sided with squared-off wings which look like sharpened planks, and the gaping shark-mouth of the air intake below its angular canopy is matched by its triangular tail-fin which rises like the ominous dorsal fin of Jaws.

In 1958, the Lightning was still in the late stages of its development; it would enter service the following year. ‘It is not possible to say what performance is either required or available from this machine,’ says The Engineer in its review of aerospace developments, ‘but it is widely believed that the design figures for at least maximum speed have been increased greatly during the protracted development programme.’ This marked a departure from the previous philosophy of aircraft development, which tended to make only small steps forward with each new aircraft.

Indeed the Lightning was a notably powerful beast, capable of twice the speed of sound and a remarkable climb rate: pilots described it as like being ‘saddled to a skyrocket’. It was the spearhead of the RAF’s interceptor capability for over two decades, although it was never required to do the job it was designed for: intercepting  high-altitude bombers. In fact, it never attacked another aircraft.

The influence f the Lightning continues to be felt today. Later this year, when Bloodhound SSC makes its first test-runs on runways in the UK, it will do so on Lightning tyres, taken from an aircraft which performed exhibition flights in South Africa until 2010.

Pictures accompanying this article at the top of the page were taken by Steve McGee at a a Lightning Preservation Group Twilight Run event at Bruntingthorpe Airfield