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The English Electric Lightning is a single seat, twin jet engined, all weather fighter/interceptor – the last pure interceptor type of aircraft designed and built entirely within the UK.

The Lightning was designed to meet a specific threat – shooting down Soviet bloc nuclear bombers penetrating UK airspace, should the Cold War have ever turned into a real conflict. The initial prototype, designated the English Electric P1A, flew in August 1954 and achieved supersonic flight early in its flight testing period. The design was refined in the shape of the English Electric P1B, which first flew in 1957 and this version, equipped with more powerful Rolls Royce Avon engines fitted with afterburners, easily exceeded its target speed of Mach 2 – twice the speed of sound. The Lightning F1 entered operational service with the Royal Air Force in 1960.

The first operational Lightnings represented a tremendous leap forward for the RAF, both in terms of speed and complexity. The combination of two afterburning Rolls Royce Avon engines and its unique 60 degree swept wing design gave it a tremendous rate of climb and turn of speed – from brake release on the runway to 40,000 feet altitude, climbing at around Mach 0.87, took only around 2 minutes 30 seconds.

Further development came with the introduction of more powerful engines, avionics and twin cannon armament in the Lightning F2. However, it was not until the F3 version that significant improvements were made in terms of endurance and capability by the fitting of a much larger ventral fuel tank and augmented fire control system for the improved “Red Top” air to air missile. The ultimate version was the Lightning F6, (which is represented here in its export version – the F53), which adopted design changes including the ability to carry jettisonable, over-wing mounted fuel tanks and a cambered and kinked leading edge to the wing, further enhancing its performance and manoeuvrability.

The Lightning served as the RAF’s front line interceptor from 1960 until its retirement in 1988. Although a demanding aircraft to fly and maintain, the Lightning was held in high regard by all who flew the type and commanded respect from friend and foe alike.

Our aircraft was one of a batch of 34 enhanced export versions designated Lightning F53, sold to the Royal Saudi Air Force and delivered in 1968-69. It entered service with the RSAF with the serial number 53-682, serving with number 2 and number 6 squadrons. Using the various additional armament options fitted to the F53, this aircraft carried out ground attack and reconnaissance missions against rebel insurgents operating along the South Yemeni border.

At the conclusion of its service with the RSAF in 1986, it and the other surviving airframes were returned to the manufacturers airfield at Warton in Lancashire, wearing the RAF serial number ZF584. It remained in storage until, following failed attempts to sell these aircraft to Austria and Nigeria, it was declared surplus to requirements and was offered to the Ferranti company. It was subsequently displayed, mounted on a raised plinth, outside their factory in South Gyle, Edinburgh.

When that facility closed in 2005, the airframe was acquired by the museum. It has been repainted to represent a Lightning F6 of number 111 Squadron RAF. The name of the last pilot to fly ZF584, Flight Lieutenant Mike Catterton, is painted below the cockpit in recognition of his part in its history and to commemorate a visit he made to the museum to see his former mount on display.

The Lightning is displayed outside at the entrance to the museum.

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