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I suppose that you could call the English Electric Lightning a ‘fighter by default’. Sometimes, when a country is under threat, it must develop a fighter in great haste, usually by ‘upgrading’ a trainer. An example would be the Miles M.20; I still maintain that this could have made a difference on some fronts during the Second World War, such as North Africa – slower than the Spitfire, faster than the Hurricane, more ammunition for its eight Browning machineguns and more range than either of them!

During the Second World War, Duncan Sandys was an officer in the 51st (London) Anti-Aircraft Brigade, Royal Artillery of the Territorial Army, who in 1940 commanded a ‘Z’ Battery of 3″ ‘unrifled projectiles’ (unguided rockets). Later in the war, thanks to a political appointment, he chaired a committee on the German rocket programme. In 1957, thanks to his obsession with rockets, he was responsible for a disastrous policy decision which scrapped almost all current military jet projects (except for a few which too far along to cancel), in favour of rockets for defence and nuclear bombers for deterrence or attack. Two British aircraft companies failed soon afterwards, and the rest were severely weakened. Even when the policy was reversed, it was too late; the British aircraft industry never really recovered.

One of the projects that survived was the English Electric Lightning supersonic fighter, developed from a research aircraft called the P.1. The P.1 had been designed by W.E.W. Petter, who, when he was with Westland Aircraft, developed the Lysander and the Whirlwind fighter. Designed to explore transonic speed and built to Specification F.23/49, the aircraft had an ultra-thin wing of extreme sweep – no less than 60°! There were two turbojets – Bristol-Siddeley Sapphires – stacked vertically, to reduce frontal cross-section (by 50%, in this case). The engines were staggered, with the upper engine being located well-forward of the lower one, in order to maintain the aircraft’s centre of gravity. The design was so revolutionary that the aircraft company Short Brothers were commissioned to build a simple, fixed undercarriage jet to test the behaviour of the swept wing at low speed. The Sapphire-powered P.1 first flew at RAF Boscombe Down on the 4th August, 1954, in the capable hands of the World War Two fighter ace (and post-war test pilot) Wing Commander Roland P Beaumont, CBE, DSO and bar, DFC and Bar, Belgian Croix de Guerre. On 11th of August, the aircraft reached Mach 1.01, becoming the first British aircraft to exceed the speed of sound in level flight.

Here we see the next stage of design evolution, the P.1A, WG763, on display at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester. Behind that rounded-oval nose intake lie two Rolls-Royce Avon Series 200 engines. These early generation Avons had  simple, 4-stage afterburners which allowed them to generate 10,000 lb of thrust each. With these engines, WG763 made its first flight on 18th July, 1955, and showed itself capable of reaching Mach 1.52. Flight data was rapidly accumulated, but a fuselage filled with engines and duct-work, and an ultra-thin wing, left little room for fuel, giving the P.1A a powered endurance of around 40 minutes. The final ‘P series’, the P.1B, would feature an under-belly fuel tank, and Ferranti Airpass radar in a conical inlet shock-cone. Fitted with 2 x 30mm Aden cannon in the nose and 2 x De Havilland ‘Firestreak’, an early generation infrared missile, the P.1B reached Mach 2, and was in effect, the first pre-production example of the Lightning fighter. Lightnings went on to be a spectacular success as a short-range interceptor (2.5 minutes to 40,000 feet), and later examples were reputed to be able to even intercept Lockheed U-2 aircraft flying at over 80,000 feet!

Creating a front-line fighter with world-class handling and spectacular performance from what was, essentially, a research aircraft, was a triumph of aeronautical engineering. That the Lightning remains the last all-British fighter is a matter of great regret.

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