Kit No. 1650
Decals: Two versions – both Royal Air Force
Comments: Extensive engraved exterior detail; highly detailed cockpit and landing gear
The English Electric Lightning (later the British Aerospace Corporation Lightning) was Britain’s first supersonic jet fighter, and the first single-seater with its own intercept radar. Due to its great speed it was renowned for its capabilities as an interceptor — it clocked Mach 2.3 at 36,000 feet – and the ear-splitting roar of its vertically stacked Rolls Royce Avon turbojets. Developed from a supersonic research aircraft, the P.1, the Lightning had a long development period. Although the P.1 prototype first flew on August 4, 1954, the first production F.1 Lightnings (the designation meaning Fighter, Mark 1) entered service with RAF fighter squadrons nearly six years later, in July 1960.
The Lightning became a mainstay of Britain’s RAF deterrent for most of the Cold War, forming Britain’s contribution to NATO’s front-line fighter defense, as well as being the chosen “Quick Reaction Alert” aircraft to respond to incoming Soviet reconnaissance aircraft flying near the United Kingdom.
With its great speed and natural metal exterior, it was sometimes called “the Silver Beast.” Although plagued by fuel capacity problems throughout its service career — it was low on fuel from the moment of take-off, particularly if using afterburners, or as the RAF termed it, “reheat” — it was prized for its great speed. The Lightning was so light on fuel that it had fuel cells in its wing flaps, and when on Quick Reaction Alert, requiring take-off within 10 minutes of a signal to intercept incoming long-range Soviet reconnaissance planes over the North Sea, it often could not complete the intercept without refueling from an airborne tanker. Plotting an interception course via radar also had to be precise, for if it missed the Russian on the first attempt, the Lightning did not have sufficient fuel for a second.
The Lightning was a key part of the West’s Cold War deterrent, forming a critical component of the fighter defense not only in the UK, but at Britain’s front-line NATO bases in Germany for at least 15 of its 28 years of service. A total of 339 Lightnings were built. Like the American F-4 Phantom, the Lightning for a time fell victim to the prevailing belief that missiles were all a jet fighter needed, so 205 of the 339 production models were armed only with two infra-red Firestreak or later, or two Red Top missiles. The F.1 through F.2A versions were armed with at least two 30mm Aden cannon (four if no missiles were carried). The guns then disappeared from later versions, returning with the F.6 version in the form of two 30mm Aden in a ventral pack. All two-seater versions (T.4 through T.55) were armed with missiles only.
The Lightning gunsight was very basic and usually only effective if approaching from a direct line astern a target. Gunnery tests showed that under G conditions with lots of angle, the guns were not so good. One pilot, Flight Lieutenant (later Wing Commander) Bruce Hopkins, reported, “…you were lucky to get twenty percent of the rounds on target in a Lightning…compared with forty or fifty percent on (Hawker) Hunters.” Regardless of the Lightning’s accuracy as a gunfighter, many pilots felt better going into action with the guns than without.
A host of improvements to the Lightning — hydraulics, weaponry and avionics — were planned but never implemented, in part because the type was thought to be an interim aircraft, at one time contemplated for replacement as soon as 1964. Like many other types, the Lightning soldiered on long past its intended service life, representing the tip of the sword of Britain’s air defense, and that of NATO, for many years. The Lightning was also flown by the Royal Saudi Air Force, and provided stunning performances at airshows, breaking the world air-speed record at one point.
As one of the best high performance aircraft ever used in formation aerobatics, it also provided a strong public relations message to the world about the state of Britain’s air defenses at the height of the Cold War. All but two Lightning squadrons, Nos. 5 and 11,were deactivated in 1977. At that time, all others were replaced at RAF bases in the UK and Germany by the McDonnell-Douglas Phantom (with British modifications, dubbed FGR .2). The last Lightning Squadron was deactivated in 1988.
Trumpeter’s 1/72 scale Lightning is a work of art, superior to anything previously offered in this scale in its level of detail. The kit is molded in grey and consists of 88 parts on five sprues – although the box claims eight sprues for some reason. It offers a choice of the F.2A or F.6 versions of the Lightning, with the primary difference being that the F.2A carried its guns in the upper nose, while the F.6 had the two 30mm Aden cannon in a ventral pack, along with over-the-wing gravity-feed fuel tanks. The engraved detail in the cockpit is similar in quality to Monogram’s (now Accurate Miniatures) line of 1/72 scale Phantoms.
A sheet is included depicting color plates of two Lightnings, one in natural metal and the other in dark green with natural metal under sides. The only drawbacks to the kit are the standard Trumpeter omissions of a complete lack of aircraft history, and the lack of information on the specific RAF units corresponding to the two versions of decals shown on the color plates. Given the overall quality of the kit, these are nagging but minor omissions.
- English Electric Lightning by Martin W. Bowman; The Crowood Press, 1997
- The Encyclopedia of World Airpower; Crescent Books, 1980