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December  2004, Archive Story

 

TIGER OR PUSSYCAT? - THE ENGLISH ELECTRIC LIGHTNING

Tiger or Pussycat? That depended on whether you were flying it or being hassled by it. As a fighting machine it was surely a real Tiger, as many opponents discovered to their cost due to its pure unadulterated power, the mind numbing acceleration and the certainty that it would and could do anything you asked of it.

As for its Pussycat image, that too was true of this great aeroplane; it always conveyed a feeling of total reliability. It was sure footed in every respect, and having flown it in all the many variations of weather that one can imagine I was never in any doubt that it would take me home it good style. In fine weather with unlimited visibility you could just as easily have been in a Tiger, or should that be a Puss Moth, winging through the sky with consummate ease; equally I have brought it home in typical East Anglian weather, low cloud, rain, limited visibility and unfriendly crosswinds. In warmer climes, dust storms with equally poor forward visibility have never presented any problems that this thoroughbred could not handle.

I recall one occasion when I was returning from RAF Germany with our junior engineering officer Flt Lt Lloyd in the right hand seat of T4 XM994 of 65 Squadron. We had enjoyed a long weekend at Gütersloh and needed to be back at Coltishall early on the Monday morning. The UK weather was not the best but no particular problems were forecast so, having filed a flight plan, we took off for a routine trip.

Cruising easily at around FL350 we were soon in contact with UK radar, who cleared us into British airspace. Shortly after that we called up Coltishall for clearance to descend and join the ILS for an instrument approach and landing. We were maybe halfway into the let down, passing through 15,000 ft when Coltishall informed us that the weather was closing in with poor visibility and driving rain. All local diversion airfields were in much the same state, so with nowhere else to go I continued our recovery to Coltishall. By the time I had levelled off at 2,000 ft approach radar informed me that the airfield was now condition 'Red'.

I cannot recall the actual visibility, suffice to say that it was well below minimums for my Master Green card but with nowhere else to go there was little choice but to continue. RAF Coltishall, like many other fighter units, was blessed with some of the best WRAF radar controllers and I elected at this stage to take a precision radar approach which I would couple with the ILS. My passenger was somewhat tense, having heard how poor the weather was; even so he decided to stay with me! (there was some other choice?). I asked him at this stage to concentrate on looking forward to pick up the runway lights and that as soon as he saw them to tell me exactly where they were, ie. 100 yards to the right or left depending on the accuracy of the line up.

By now a nice crosswind had developed, blowing at around 15 to 20 knots across the runway. The approach continued in increasingly bumpy conditions but, as always, the Lightning rode well and responded easily and promptly to the slightest input on the control.

We were now getting very close to the airfield boundary when at about a quarter of a mile my attentive passenger shouted 'contact' with the lights which were some 150 yards to our right. I looked up from the instruments, jinked hard right and left and we were down, all in one piece, and the final manoeuvre to achieve the touch down point says much for the controllability of the Lightning. As I have mentioned previously, it is so sure footed in all stages of flight that it generates a significant degree of confidence in the pilots who fly it, knowing that it you treat it right it will do as you wish.

I suppose the only criticism that I can muster about the Lightning is the fact that there was no chance to get up and wander around when on a long transit flight. I flew several of these over the years, Leuchars to Malta or Cyprus and once from Warton to Dhahran in Saudi Arabia. There were also many occasions when a scramble from QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) would result in long flights up to the Iceland/Faroes Gap chasing Bears (not the furry kind). These sorties could last for 3-4 hours, by which time the rear end was getting hot (and I do not mean the jet pipes).

The long transit flights were not helped by the crews of accompanying tankers who could be seen having a meal, drinking tea and generally having a soft time of it. Meanwhile, we got by on a few Polo mints. Even so, none of us would have swapped our beloved Lightnings for anything else.

Close formation in the Lightning was another plus; the controls were balanced to a fine degree and, coupled with the instant response from the engines, the aircraft could be held in position with minimal effort. Much different, at least initially, from the F-15, which had engines requiring a day or so's notice to spool up.

All this combined to make display flying relatively easy and I had my place in a number of display formations. One in particular was in Saudi in honour of a passing out parade of Saudi technicians at Dhahran. The King and his entourage were there, so everything was to be just so. Our American friends, who operated the F-5's, were also tasked with providing a four-ship team. The Colonel in charge of the F-5 unit and I got our heads together, deciding on the exact format we would follow. His parting words were 'Don't try and outdo our show' (as if I would!).

Came the day and, after several rehearsals, the game was on. No height limits had been laid down so, with everything to go for, I led the 'Lightning Four' into our planned display over and around the stadium. We never went below 100 ft, so the noise was no more than a dull roar (back to the Tiger again) while the F-5's took the part of Pussycats. The whole display went off very well; word came back that His Majesty the King was more than delighted with the Lightnings’ performance, in spite of the fact that he couldn't hear much for a day or so!! The Americans' reaction was not quite so polite, though I did tell them that I kept our display 'up a bit' to give them a chance. Vive la Lightning.

More on formation, and the Lightning's turning ability was well demonstrated when we had a German detachment of Starfighters on a visit. We flew a considerable number of sorties with them, pairing a Lightning with a Starfighter as a fighting unit. These were all very successful until a recovery was started.

To facilitate an easy recovery for our visitors, we always briefed for the Lightning to lead the return to base with the Starfighter flying in close echelon. This was fine until the Lightning applied more than about 35 degrees of bank at high level (above 25,000 ft) at which stage the Starfighter simply could not match the turn and fell out of position every time. Another plus for the Lightning's excellent handling. A similar profile was flown with a detachment of Swedish Saab Drakens. However, they were a different kettle of fish altogether and handled equally as well as the Lightning, staying in tight formation without difficulty.

Tanking (air-to-air refuelling) was another of its good qualities, and although it required a large degree of rudder and aileron trim to off-set the downwash from the tanker's wings, it was steady as a rock; a bit like fishing from a river bank, only we were catching the odd ton or so of fuel through the tanker's hose. The Victor was our usual supplier, though at one time we flew a trial with the American KC135s. This was done initially during daylight and then at night. In each case it proved easy, and we declined the offer from their hose operator to 'fly the drogue on to our probe', as they usually (or perhaps always) did for their own air force.

Sometimes, but not often, it proved impossible to get 'plugged in'. For me, this only happened once, and that was on a return from a QRA scramble on the proverbial Bear Hunt some 400 nm north of Leuchars. The interception had been successful, and my No 2 and I were en route for home and an RV with the tanker. We met up OK, only to discover that the tanker's wing hoses were not available. Only the somewhat larger and much heavier centreline hose was in use. Normally, this would not have caused any problem, though it would have been a 'first' for me. Clear air turbulence, the like of which neither of us had ever experienced, joined in on the act so that the hose was moving vertically up and down over some 20-30 feet. I recall sitting behind the Victor for a little while, watching the basket whistle past my probe at an alarming speed.

Discretion dictated that we give this a miss. RAF Lossiemouth was within range on our internal fuel and the weather (typically Scottish) was superb, with unlimited visibility (well, 100 miles or so) and only about one eighth of cloud cover. An economic cruise and a glide descent put us on the runway with minimum fuel plus. It may surprise some of you to know that from, say, 36,000 ft with one engine shut down and the live engine at flight idle, the Lightning would glide for about 80 nm, by which time the height would have reduced to 2,000 ft and the flight idle RPM increased to fast idle to keep AC supplies and the turbine on line.

All in all, the Lightning was safe, fast and easy to fly, and in all the hours I spent winging my way around the sky it never gave me a serious moment when I thought it would let me down. Every take-off was followed by a wheels-down landing, and that says a lot for any aircraft.

By now you may have gathered that I quite liked flying the Lightning, and in that assumption you would be right. I first flew in it on 24 February 1966, but it was March of 1968 before I started the Lightning course at RAF Coltishall and from then on I continued to fly Lightnings until 1982, by which time I was about to complete my contract with BAe in Saudi as their Chief Flying Instructor, having managed to accumulate just short of 3,000 hours on type.

Like all of you, my fingers and just about everything else are crossed in the firm hope that the CAA will come up with clearance to fly and we can all enjoy the thrill (yes, even me) of seeing and hearing the Lightning in the air (and that's where it should be) once again, and again, and again!

Brian Carrol

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