Lightning's at Night
The English Electric (EE) Lightning is an iconic fighter jet that served as a supersonic interceptor in the United Kingdom during the 1960s, the 1970s and the late 1980s. Until today, it remains the only UK-designed-and-built fighter jet capable of reaching Mach 2. It was also operated by the Kuwait Air Force (KAF) and the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF). The vertical, staggered configuration of its two Rolls-Royce Avon turbojet engines within the fuselage makes the English Electric Lightning unique and special. Because of this unique design and the unrivalled rate of climb (20,000 ft per minute) and speed of the aircraft, the pilots often described their job as ‘a pilot sitting on two rockets’.
Designed in the mid-1950s the Lightning entered frontline service with No.74 Squadron in 1960 and would continue to serve in operational roles up until 1988. Its extreme speed was shown in 1985 when, as part of a NATO exercise, an Royal Air Force Lightning was the only allied aircraft that was able to intercept and overtake Concorde, at that time the world’s fastest airliner. While the first operational Lightning's saw service as an interceptor to defend the V-Force airfields in the United Kingdom during the Cold War it soon came clear that this fighter jet could also prove its capabilities in other areas such as aerial reconnaissance and ground attacks. All together 337 aircraft were built in its 34 year history. During its important role in the United Kingdom as interceptors for supersonic Soviet bombers, such as the Tupolev Tu-22 or the Tupolev Tu-16, the Lightning’s could be armed with a pair of 30 millimeter ADEN cannons, 48 unguided 2 inch air-to-air rockets, and/or de Havilland Firestreak or Hawker Siddeley Red Top missiles. Because of this, Lightning’s were as dangerous as they were quick!
Following retirement by the Royal Air Force (RAF) in the late 1980s, many of the remaining Lightning’s became museum exhibits in the United Kingdom and abroad (Germany, France, Cyprus, Kuwait, the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia). Today, three of these former RAF fighter jets (XR713, XR728 and XS904) are being preserved and exhibited by the Lightning Preservation Group at the Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome and Proving Ground, Leicestershire. The Lightning Preservation Group is a group of enthusiasts who are dedicated to maintaining two of the last few remaining Lightning’s in fully functional condition. What makes these aircraft so unique at the Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome and Proving Ground is that they are set up in their Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) role. Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) is a state of readiness of air defence maintained at all hours of the day. During a QRA-scramble pilots run to their fighter aircraft after which they take off as quickly as possible to intercept the possible threat. At the Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome and Proving Ground there is a Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) hangar, also called 'Q-Sheds', from the former Lightning/Phantom base at RAF Wattisham. Lightning's were held on 10 minutes readiness in these type of hangars against any intrusion into the United Kingdom air defence. Thanks to the Lightning Preservation Group the remaining Lightning’s, their hangars and other hardware are a beautiful tribute to the men and machines of the famous Lightning Force which, for almost thirty years, were in the front line of the United Kingdom’s Air Defence against the Soviet threat.
On Saturday 2nd February 2019 I had the privilege to take pictures of these iconic aircraft during a special Lightning sunset and night shoot that was organized by the Center Of Aviation Photography (COAP) and the Lightning Preservation Group. During this wonderful event one Lightning jet was inside its QRA-hangar while two others were outside. Re-enactors (pilot, technician) created beautiful choreographed scenes with the aircraft such as QRA scrambles during sunset and night which led to stunning, timeless images and a real Cold War spectacle. Thanks to the professional organization of the Center Of Aviation Photography (COAP) and cooperation of the Lightning Preservation Group and Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome and Proving Ground this unique photo shoot became an unforgettable experience. For a short moment the photographers experienced the anxious days of the Cold War.
Text & photos: Kris Christiaens