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November, 2003 Archive Story


Since the Lightning Review was first published, there has been a considerable amount of correspondence and some articles on how high and how fast the Lightning could go. I thought it appropriate to contribute to the subject with a short personal experience which may answer some of your questions. Firstly, flying fast or high was pretty irrelevant to our day to day operation. The F3 and F6 were limited in the Aircrew Manual to 50,000 ft because of the requirement to pressure breathe (using a pressure jerkin) above that height in the event of a decompression; without it, the pilot's chances in the event of such an (unusual) emergency were not good. In the 1980's, pressure jerkins were not available and targets above 50,000 ft were thought unlikely and better handled by surface-to-air missiles.

We normally practised high-flying targets at about 50,000 ft and just subsonic, this being governed by the aerodynamic and engine (reheat) performance of the Lightning. Occasionally, on an air test, where a M1.8 run was required, a zoom climb would be carried out at the end of the run, and this gave the chance of a quick look at 55,000 ft if one felt like it. Personally, I thought this was a pointless exercise, especially after John Aldington returned from an air test having experienced the canopy seal burst at 49,000 ft! Furthermore, our role had become an increasingly low level one, which was a lot more fun!

Having said all that..... If an operational requirement or tasking necessarily involved an excursion into the stratosphere (rather than going just for the sake of it) then that was a totally different situation. In November 1983, I happened to be behind the operations desk when an old friend rang up from the F-4 OCU (Operational Conversion Unit) at Coningsby. He was on the QWI (Qualified Weapons Instructor) course and they wanted a Foxbat target!


Well, M3.0 at sixty-something thousand feet was not really an option, but I offered M2.0 at about 40,000 ft or the compromise of something a bit higher and slower depending on the zoom capability of the aircraft and the weather (ie. height of the tropopause - engine performance is limited above it) on the day. Air to air refuelling was also essential in order to start the target runs with enough fuel to get home afterwards and not compromise the profile.

I gave the profile some thought. The main problem was keeping the reheats alight, this being a function of altitude (the air being thinner the higher you go) and forward speed (see diagram). I also did not want to go so high as to risk engine flameout and the consequent loss of pressurisation. With two clean F-4's carrying out the attack in 20 miles trail formation aiming for a head-on Skyflash shot and then re-attacking for a stern Skyflash, the profile had to be sustained.

I consulted the manuals and decided to aim for about M1.5-1.6 at whatever height I could achieve, hopefully maintaining full reheat. If the speed started to reduce, I would either have to gently descend (undesirable) or reduce power to minimum reheat in order to keep the burners alight and accept any further speed reduction until I had no choice but to descend.

On 18 November 1983, theory was put to the test and I took off in XS923 to do the best job I could. The aircraft was in its normal combat fit of drill/acquisition wingless Red Tops and the gun-pack ventral tank. If I had thought about it, I would have asked the engineers to remove the missiles, as, wingless, all they provided was extra weight and considerable drag, or alternatively take a Firestreak aircraft, as the missile wings produced lift.

Everything went as planned; the Victor was on a tactical tow-line and the two F-4's were airborne. I had emphasised at great length to the fighter controller the importance of the tanker being as close as possible after completion of the first run, as it was to be unrefueled. This would not be easy to plan, as the controller was not exactly familiar with closing speeds of M3.5+ and had to estimate the completion point of the intercept in order to place the Victor (at about M0.75 and 25,000 ft) close by.

As I cruised north, gently climbing and trying to use the minimum fuel possible, the F-4's filled up on the tanker. You must remember that, clean, their fuel capacity was only about 3,000 lbs more than the Lightning F6 and they burnt it at a faster rate at full power. Also, the priority was obviously for the fighters and not the target!

The first run was really a practice for all of us. We started 120 miles apart head-on. I achieved about M1.9 at 40,000 ft (luckily, the tropopause was at 40,000 ft on the day) and zoom climbed with about 25 degrees of pitch nose up at about 75 miles range. Bunting forwards to conserve as much energy as possible, I levelled off at 60,000 ft and M1.5, but a little too late at 40 miles inbound (I was aiming to be level at 50 miles).

The R/T was a little frantic, to say the least, the F-4's having reached about M1.6 on their attack run. They needed maximum energy; firstly, to achieve the snap-up for the missile, and secondly, to carry out the 180 degree re-attack turn for the stern shot, without falling out of the sky and while still being able to impart as much energy as possible to the missile. There were frantic calls of "range", "no contact" and "look up" and I even shouted my height at one point to help them!

As the second F-4 took his head-on shot and commenced his turn, I called controller for 'pigeons to the tanker' (range and distance). I could not believe the reply......
"Tanker on a 90 crossing right to left, 15 degrees right at 7 miles."
Yes, a perfect 90 intercept. Just one small problem, I was still doing M1.4 (just) in minimum reheat at just under 60,000 ft with rather a large turning circle and a little bit too much overtake for a tanker join - he was also 35,000 ft below me!

Well, it all worked out as you may have guessed. I did a 180 degree descending turn, going subsonic at about 50,000 ft (more familiar territory) and got the controller to turn the Victor through 180 degrees to give me a more restrained 90 intercept to join from the other side. After filling up, I commenced the split with the tanker and two F-4's going in the opposite direction. We discussed the intercept on the radio - apparently they had not expected me to be quite that high (I thought that was what they wanted!).

Take 2 - this time from 150 miles head-on. By 110 miles the F6 had stabilised at M1.98 at 40,000 ft - I had never achieved M2.0 and the aircraft just refused to go any faster. At 90 miles I zoom climbed and then gently banked over as before, hoping to achieve a high enough speed to maintain full reheat and sustain speed and height. I can report that the aircraft performed exactly as advertised, not bad with all those drag-hungry drains and vents stuck all over it as well as the drag and weight of the paint! We sustained level flight in full reheat at M1.6 at 60,000 ft, something I would not have believed possible in a rather old and tatty combat-fit F6, and the attacks were successfully completed.

So there you are....... OK, I admit it. The lure of the dark heavens was too much for me; move over, Chuck Yeager! I chickened out at 75,000 ft, a nice round figure, having just had minimum reheat blow out but still going quite well at about M1.3 but remember, it may have been M1.3 but at that height it's not very many knots airspeed. I could have gone a bit higher, but the thought of being out of control at 80,000 ft with the engines flaming out did not exactly appeal to me then and still doesn't! I could not resist a call to the controller at 75,000 ft "for re-entry".

There you have it. Believe whatever you like, but quite honestly it does not really matter. Certainly the 'lightweight' F1As at Coltishall or the original F2s were probably capable of quite a few thousand feet more than I achieved; in excess of 80,000 ft I would think, assuming they did not run out of fuel first. As for a ventral-less F3.............we will never know!

Porky Page

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