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March 2004, Archive Story

THE LAST OF THE LIGHTNING PILOTS

Flight Lieutenant Ian Black, the last Royal Air Force pilot to pass through the Lightning Training Course at Binbrook, tells the story of his transition onto type and his experience flying the finest single seat jet ever produced in the UK. It was first published in War birds Worldwide - Jets (Midland Counties Publications).

Some years ago, the choices for a trainee pilot, having completed the Attack and Weapons training course on Hawks at RAF Brawdy and having been assessed for suitability for a high workload environment (possibly single-seat), were either single-seat air defence or F-4 Phantom or, in the ground attack role, Tornado, Buccaneer (Maritime), Harrier or Jaguar. Each aircraft had its benefits, but for me there was only one choice - the Lightning, possibly the meanest aircraft ever to leave a British factory.

Having grown up around the Lightning, it was a dream of mine to fly in an aircraft but only a fantasy to pilot one. Everything about the Lightning captured me - I had to fly it. Posting time came and it was with more than a little trepidation that I downed my pint pot, to read the word 'Lightning' stuck to the bottom! The dream had started. Attending the mandatory pre-OCU (Operational Conversion Unit) course, my compatriot and I were told how very lucky we were to be on the last LTF Course (Lightning Training Flight) and how many had passed before us.

Driving up the hill to RAF Binbrook brought back many childhood memories - the snow, howling gales and frequent rain, not to mention fog. Soon it was to become a way of life again. As a boy, I used to gaze at the runway with my elder brother, watching 5 Squadron aircraft take-off and landing and rushing off to intercept the resident Canberra and Meteor aircraft of 85 Squadron. How odd it was to be back, twenty years later, standing amongst enthusiasts and knowing that soon I would be on the other side of the fence getting to grips with the Ferrari of fighter aircraft.

If you ever went into the LTF crew room at Binbrook you will have surely seen one of the most incredible pieces of post-war wall art of an early flying machine covering an entire wall, complete with all the Lightning foibles and faults; a fascinating painting. You could only feel more than a little humble entering the coffee bar, thinking you were once King of the Skies having completed the Hawk weapons course at Brawdy, to be surrounded by seven or eight Lightning instructors all wearing 1000 hour badges, many of them who were Intercept Weapons Instructors, Qualified Flying Instructors or merely Tactics Instructors. The flying side of the Royal Air Force is one of life's great levellers!

Coffee over, it was time to go outside for a course photograph in front of the LTF Flagship, a high fatigue Mk.6 aircraft with a fuel pack fitted instead of the usual guns to give it an increased endurance as an airborne target for the unit's T.5 and F.3 aircraft. After a very civilised week's ground school, it was into the simulator for a further week's emergency training. Luckily, the use of the four inch torture tube (in the right hand corner, called the radar) was to come later. At the end of a week's basic simulator flying, it gave me a fair idea that the next six months was not going to be easy.

Ground school over, it was up to the LTF to begin the CONVEX (Conversion Exercises) phase. This normally comprised five dual sorties, then a solo sortie, then a mixture of random dual and solo sorties alternating in the T.5 and F.3. The T.5 had an awkward cockpit, both in terms of size and instrumentation layout, with all the main flight instruments grouped in the centre of the cockpit. This gave an instant parallax problem with the side by side seating.

The first impression of the T.5, and somewhat off-putting, was its enormous size, like a giant feline beast waiting to pounce. This aircraft was a good deal bigger than the tiny Hawk I'd been used to some two weeks previously. The cockpit was some ten feet off the ground and access could only be gained by using the awkward ladder strung underneath the in-flight refuelling probe. You had to be a small contortionist to climb the ladder, in full flying kit, whilst going under and over the probe to gain access to the cockpit. At first, strapping in was also laborious, coming from the Hawk which had a simple lap and shoulder restraint system; the Lightning had a far more complex and ancient system of straps, buckles and quick-release boxes. Prior to each sortie the engineering F700 (Form 700) was always checked in the engineering line hut. The '700 was basically like a car service schedule showing any minor faults or major faults which required rectification on the aircraft.

Arriving at the Lightning, the customary pilot 'walk round' would be carried out before each sortie. Starting on the left hand side with the nose wheel-well, a quick check of the nose-wheel doors to ensure they would move freely and onto the radome area. A cursory check of the radome to ensure that the bullet wasn't burnt and that nobody had thrown any object down the intake which would cause foreign object damage (FOD). Around to the right-hand side of the fuselage and it was time to check for any fuel leaks. Lightnings often leaked like sieves, but as long as they leaked in the right place you were normally happy to take them. A good idea now was to check the tyres, especially on a windy day when tyres could get burnt out in one sortie, so well worn tyres were not normally accepted. Around the back of the aircraft and a check of the accumulator pressure gauges and quick look down the jet pipe to look for any molten metal - a sure sign of turbine blade failure. A similar glance across the left hand side of the aircraft and it was time to climb the ladder and get strapped in.

Having strapped in and turned the main aircraft battery ON, you could adjust the ejector seat height. This would also give you an indication of whether the voltage on the battery was good. Time to give the ground crew the signal to connect external power using AC and DC voltage. A quick look around the cockpit from left to right to ensure that nothing is missing and back to the throttle box to check full and free movement. As part of the engine start, it was now vital to signal to the ground crew that you wished to start the No.1 engine. At engine start, hot exhaust gasses are expelled from underneath the aircraft, and anyone standing nearby could be badly burned. He returns your 'wind up' signal and you open the throttle, allowing the HP cock to open. Pulling the rapid start gang bar up with the LP cocks ON and selecting the start ice light switch to START, you press the Start button for two seconds. Instantly, a loud hissing explosion occurs behind you as half a gallon of AVPIN (isopropyl nitrate) ignites inside its combustion chamber, turning the Avon engine into life.

A careful watch of the RPM gauge and the temperature gauge show you how the start is going. On a hot day with a tail wind, the engine will reach 800° Centigrade in two or three seconds. With No.1 engine running, you can either use external power or disconnect it and bring the aircraft's own power on line to start No.2 engine. Quite often the aircraft will be temperamental during start, particularly in the rain or damp. On winter days at Binbrook it wasn't uncommon to see three or four ground crew climbing onto Lightning spines and hitting them furiously with hammers in an effort to help them start!

With both engines running, relatively few checks were required prior to taxi. Checking that the ejector seat pins were out and your elbows were in, it was time to close the canopy. Any previous thoughts you had about the cramped cockpit were now confirmed. Once the hood was down you felt like a mouse in a cage, surrounded by ironwork and with small windows to view through. A final check of the brake pressure and a quick flick of the taxi light on to show you were ready to move; parking brake OFF and she quickly pounces forward.

Squeeze the brake and the tub nods down showing that both brakes are working well. A small kick of the right foot and a small squeeze on the stick mounted brake handle and the aircraft turns right with plenty of excess power to taxi, even at idle thrust. Taxiing a large aircraft like the Lightning using the stick mounted brake lever and differential brakes was a bit tricky at first but became natural with time. Keeping the head moving whilst taxiing out to avoid hitting other aircraft, you run through the pre take-off checks, basically to ensure you are going to get the aircraft airborne safely. If all else failed, four major checks could often save the day: CONTROLS, that they were full and free; CAPTIONS, that they were all out; PINS, that you had four stowed and the seat was live and the CANOPY was down and locked.

Lining up on the centre of the runway is not as easy as it looks. With those ultra-thin high-pressure tyres, the Lightning would skid and slide very easily on wet concrete, especially on the painted 'piano keys'. With clearance to take off and a final check of controls, canopy and captions, you apply the brakes and advance the throttles to FULL, checking that the RPM and the JPT (Jet Pipe Temperature) rise in the correct sense. With brakes holding at 92%, a quick check around the cockpit to ensure everything is in order, you release the brakes and slam the throttles forward. RPM up to 104%, JPT below 795°C and checking the nozzle position, you have already reached 100 knots by the RHAG (Rotary Hydraulic Arrester Gear) cable.

Checking the main and stand-by airspeed indicators agree, you soon find you are at 135 knots. Stick back, and the nose-wheel comes off, taking care not to scrape the tail as you do this. 155 knots, and a small rearward check on the stick gets you airborne. Even with the enormous thrust available on the T.5, the aircraft still felt heavy with a cold-power take-off. A burner take-off in a T.5 is another story!

Airborne with a positive rate of climb, the undercarriage is selected UP, checking the lights went from three greens to three reds and then out. This told you that the doors were clear and locked. On your first sortie at this stage, your brain is still telling you you are still in the crew room as she has already accelerated up to 450 knots, the Lightning climb speed. You instantly realise that with the nose about 101 to 151 above the horizon even in cold power that the aircraft is motoring. The standard climb out of Binbrook on runway 21 was a left hand turn onto a heading of 040° through the Blueway (airway Blue One) up to the normal level of FL250 (25,000 feet). You would normally be at this level by Spurn Point, just 15 miles North East of the airfield. Once you realise where you are, it is time to level off. The first thing you need to do is take a fuel check. Already the small underbelly tank is almost empty, leaving only wing and flap fuel to complete the sortie. On this initial sortie, just a few turns are performed to see how the Lightning handles, how much buffet is used and how docile the aircraft is at low speeds.

Now it is time to run through a simulated down-wind circuit leg at height, to give you an idea of what was to come. Speed reducing at back below 250 knots, undercarriage coming down, fuel sufficient for recovery, flaps travelling, harness tight and locked, checking you have three greens and that the toggle was engaged, ie. that the undercarriage was locked down. Tipping into a final turn at approximately 200 knots on an imaginary runway, the Lightning required a bit of pull and a bit of rudder to get it going around the corner.

Heads back in again now and on to instruments for an IF type turn. Holding at 190 knots, easy with the excess power and looking to roll out on finals with 175 to 170 knots. Watching your aiming point and holding the threshold in the middle of the windscreen. Popping the airbrakes out to allow you to have a higher power setting than required, so that if you had to abort or land short, a quick blip on the airbrakes would retract them and give you extra instant thrust. Still holding your imaginary runway on the nose and then watching the speed as the height reduces quickly, small adjustments in the power peg the speed at 170 knots and you cross the threshold, looking for 165 knots on touchdown.

Climbing away, putting the gear and flaps up and popping the airbrakes in it is time to recover now for a PAR (Precision Approach Radar). This allowed you more time to think what was going on rather than attempting a visual 'run-and-break' during your first sortie. Setting up for the descent, throttles at idle/idle, and looking to be about 15 miles on the runway centreline at 2000 feet with the gears and the flap down. Heads in now and on to instruments, it was quickly apparent that the aircraft was not speed-stable, ie. you constantly had to be aware of what the speed was doing and making small power adjustments. It was not possible, as in more modern aircraft, to set an RPM and peg a speed, and you constantly had to move the throttles to maintain the required speed.

Trying to pick up the scan rate between speed heading and height whilst listening to all the air traffic instructions certainly concentrated the mind. Maintaining your head in the cockpit, you look up at 400 feet and decide to overshoot to join the visual circuit. Unlike most fighter aircraft, you apply full power, select the airbrakes in and leave the undercarriage and flap down to minimise fatigue. At 500 feet midway down the runway you start a gentle 60° bank turn to put yourself down-wind at a thousand feet and 200 knots with the downwind checks complete.

On a right hand circuit, sitting in the left hand seat you were now blind to the runway, which lay on your right hand side. Now it was a case of instrument flying, holding the height on the altimeter and maintaining your runway heading, allowing for wind. Setting yourself up at the finals turnpoint, rolling in at 200-190 knots, kicking in a small amount of rudder and pulling back on the stick to keep the aeroplane going around the turn, the feature of a swept wing fighter. Half way round finals you pop the airbrakes to allow you to set a higher power setting than required, to give you the previously mentioned power to get you out of trouble if required. Getting onto the centre-line, your finger is constantly trimming back to give the aircraft its characteristic stalky nose-up appearance on finals.

Things are happening very fast now as you reduce the speed to 175 knots, looking to cross the fence at 165 knots and touch down on the numbers (and no-where else!) at 160 knots. A final check of your gear and flap as you now divide your attention between speed and runway. Is the threshold moving up in the windscreen? If so, you are not on a collision with the threshold and something has changed. Just as you feel you are about six inches off the deck, it's airbrakes IN, power UP and you overshoot. We rarely tried rolls; this saved tyre life and aircraft fatigue.

Climbing away, it's straight into another circuit. It could be a flapless circuit, adding ten knots to all the speeds and taking care to avoid a tail scrape with the higher nose attitude, or maybe a simulated single engine circuit, again no problem due to the enormous surplus thrust you have available with the Avon engines. Alternatively, you could undertake a low-level circuit at 500 feet as opposed to 1000 feet. Final landing, and you call 'precautionary' to air traffic to let them know that should you lose your 'chute you will be staying on the deck due to the fuel remaining, ie. that you haven't enough fuel to do another circuit.

Round finals again, you make doubly sure your touch-down point is in the numbers exactly the same as before, pegging the speed between 165 and 160 knots. If you landed past the numbers at 180 knots, you stood a good chance of entering the barrier due to the Lightning's poor brakes. The T.5 had no arrestor hook in case you had to use the over-run cable. Over the fence, and a small check back on the stick to plant her firmly on the concrete, pulling the 'chute handle and retarding both throttles to idle whilst squeezing the brakes all at once; similar, I imagine, to a carrier-deck landing in an F-4. Night landing in poor weather is a story in itself. Popping the 'chute killed about 10-15 knots immediately. The main difficulty came in high crosswinds on a wet runway, where the slab sided fuselage and the high tail and thin tyres made the aircraft a real handful. Pilots would frequently appear in the crew room ashen-faced after a wet, windy night landing! Some pilots would tell of their experiences of having both hands on the stick, smashing the rudder from side to side just to keep their aircraft straight on the runway.

Back to the LTF; average sortie time for the T.5 was between 30 and 35 minutes, and it normally required five of these sorties prior to your first solo in an F.3. This could often take some time, as you had to have flown the T.5 on the same day in suitable weather conditions with a minimal cloud base and good visibility and as low a cross wind as possible. Without stating the obvious, it was a real shock to find yourself on your own, with no one to give you that last bit of advice for the landing, remind you to check fuel or assist you if you had an emergency.

As you taxy out, you go through your pre take-off checks several times just to reassure yourself that all was well. Lined up on the threshold, you glanced back over either shoulder and you can see very little, only the in-flight refuelling probe on your left hand side and the highly swept wings. Once you are airborne in a single seater, there is only one person that can land the beast - and that is YOU! As it transpires, the landing is not too bad, as you have just had a consolidated effort in the two-seater, building up on your circuits. The tricky part comes in the radar phase, when your mind is still full of figures, heights and headings from the last intercept. Then comes the difficult part; trying to land the aircraft with all that information in your head.

The CONVEX part of the LTF course was about 25 to 30 sorties - five to go solo, after which max rate turning, supersonic performance, a large bout of instrument flying culminating in a IRT (Instrument Rating Test) giving you a 'white' rating using a decision height of 400 feet, then close formation (which was a delight), battle, low-level, and then tail-chasing. Finally, a few more general handling trips and then a final handling test. This really covered everything learned so far with some sort of simulated emergency near the end of the sortie, which required a diversion to a local airfield. Having passed your final handling test, it was back to ground school for a week's lectures prior to the radar phase.

Prior to any of the radar sorties, lengthy briefings were given on the weapons system - either Red Top or Firestreak (the gun was left to individual squadrons, however, as no LTF aircraft carried them). Additionally, many hours were devoted to basic radar theory, intercept technique and aircraft performance. As much use of the simulator was made as possible, with each sortie flown in the simulator prior to being flown in the air. Initial radar sorties were very basic, with no target evasion and known target heading with targets above the fighter at pre-set speeds. However, within six months the pilot would be expected to deal with any evasion in heading, height or speed. Early sorties provided an extremely high workload; attempting to fly the aircraft whilst having your head stuck in the radar tube and managing the weapons system and the fuel system required a new and unfound skill. To achieve a simulated weapons kill on radar was no mean feat. However, visual identification on radar was an even harder skill.

The Lightning's main task during peacetime was to identify targets unknown, day or night, 365 days a year. The vis-ident procedure involved closing on a target to about a mile (on radar again) and then gently easing in to 300 yards, again on radar, simulating in cloud or at night to pick up a target visually to join in close formation on him - no mean feat on a single-seat aircraft.

Towards the middle of the radar phase on the LTF, a night dual sortie was followed by a night solo - this being introduced to give a taste of squadron operation. With about 30 radar sorties (approximately 20 hours completed) the fun part of the course began with low-level evasion training and like ACT, ie. Lightning v Lightning Air Combat Training. Having come from the Hawk, the major plus of the Lightning at low level was its enormous thrust, something it had a staggering amount of. It was all too easy to go supersonic at low level, and a constant eye had to be kept on speed, fuel and position. Fighting the aeroplane at low level overland was back to the Fifties, folding the radar 'boot' away and reverting to the Mark One eyeball to detect hostile targets.

Once a hostile target was sighted, the Lightning was pure fun to fly and fight. If a target was sighted at long range, a small nudge on the throttles would quickly give you a mass of overtake and bring you into missile range in seconds. A late pick-up meant converting excess speed to angles; this was done either pulling to the G limit or, weather permitting, reefing the aircraft into the vertical to convert speed to height and thus allow better turn-rate from low speed at height. Most squadron pilots attempted to use only 'cold' power at low level. This had a twofold bonus; it kept down the noise and reduced fuel consumption. In addition to low-level evasion training over land, similar training over the sea was also carried out on the LTF. This would be most useful for the squadron work-up, where most intercepts were carried out over the North Sea.

If the weather was unsuitable for low-level flying, the course would switch into air combat mode, with students using a safety height of 10,000 feet as a base. If pilots new to the Lightning were surprised by the low level fuel consumption, air combat took the biscuit. In full reheat, sortie times in an F.3 from take-off to landing could often be as low a ten minutes. Having had your appetite whetted for most types of Lightning flying, the course culminated in an OPEVAL - an operational evaluation of your ability, whereby any aspect of the previous month's flying could be tested in a single sortie. A typical sortie could entail a high level intercept to a visual identification, descent to low-level for another radar intercept, followed by close formation recovery through cloud for a pairs landing, all with only 40 hours on type!

Having passed the OCU and feeling almost like a fighter pilot, you quickly realise there is still a long way to go. Electronic Counter Measures (ECM), night Practice Intercepts (PIs), air to air refuelling by day and by night and air-to-air gunnery, missile practice camps and 'Saturn' PIs, attacks from 250 feet to 55,000 feet at any height, heading or speed. I often reflected after several sorties that I had just flown one of the world's greatest fighters. Admittedly it had no amazing radar and no radar missiles, but on a clear day it's still a classic fighter, and now a real war bird. I often wondered in 1988, as I thought the Lightning was so good, what it was like to fly it in 1958! Hopefully, it won't be long before we see a Lightning in the air again.

Operators of Lightnings on the Civil Register are going to have their own small problems. Admittedly they won't be related to the weapons or radar systems, as these can be deleted. Obviously operating a Lightning won't be cheap, but neither is rebuilding a Lancaster from scratch, so it can be done. One of the critical factors of operating a Lightning will undoubtedly be the engineering set-up. Specialist tools will be needed for engine changes, removal of jet pipes and any major work on the aircraft's antiquated electrical system. Before any safety-conscious pilot would ever climb into a Lightning, the ejector seats will have to be in tip-top condition, undergoing regular servicing by qualified Martin-Baker personnel. This I believe could cost up to £25,000 per seat. Lightning main wheel tyres fit no other aircraft, and even have to be specially built for each aircraft, though I gather sufficient supplies remain in stock.

Almost unique to the Lightning (although the Canberra PR.9 and the Saab Drakens operating in Denmark also use it) is the highly volatile AVPIN starter fluid. For this you would need an explosives licence to house it. Again, only a small quantity of this fluid is manufactured per month and figures of around £40 per gallon have been quoted. Six gallons are used for two starts of the engines. Most important of all would be to remain current on the aircraft, ie. flying at least 20 to 30 hours per summer season if any sort of safe display was to be performed. However, with a little will-power and enough determination I am sure these problems can be overcome. I feel that realistically the two-seat variant of the aircraft will be the most economical to fly. Other major factors affecting a decision as the whether a flying licence could be granted for the Lightning would be the length of the runway it was to be operated from. 6,000 feet will be the absolute minimum you could use to operate the aircraft safely. Whether or not I would like to fly a civilian Lightning remains another story, but should one appear at an air show, I'd be the first to go and see it!

Ian Black

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