The much-loved Lightning is the star of this week’s newsreel from British Pathé, as 56 Squadron RAF pilots fly the type in a series of aerobatic manoeuvres.
The Lightning was developed by English Electric and was introduced in 1959 as single-seat, short-range interceptor. It featured a delta wing and two Rolls-Royce Avon engines giving early variants a maximum speed of around 1,130 mph. Later variants were capable of more than 1,300mph, passing Mach 2. The type was well-known for its incredible rate of climb, able to gain 20,000ft per minute. In the right hands, time between first take-off and 36,000ft could be as little as three minutes. The Lightning was the first – and remains the last – wholly British-designed fighter aircraft that was capable of Mach 2.
Armed with two 30mm ADEN cannon (except for the F.3 and F.3A) and two Firestreak or Red Top missiles, the Lightning was intended to scramble at short notice and either loiter (for a short while, as operational range was severely limited) or intercept Soviet aircraft. Later versions of the aircraft were capable of carrying external fuel tanks and were fitted with an air-to-air refuelling probe.
One of the oldest squadrons in the RAF, 56 Squadron operated the Lightning in four variants from 1960, replacing the Hunter F.6. The Squadron’s display team, the ‘Firebirds’, operated a number of red and silver painted Lightnings. The Firebirds were the second RAF display team to use the Lightning. In the air defence role, 56 Squadron was based at Wattisham until moving to Cyprus in 1967. Returning home in 1976, the squadron switched to the Phantom FGR.2.
Additional footage (no sound) can be seen below.