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Supersonic Age

If you flew the lightning; Check In 

Click here for some video of the Mk 2 with a 4 ship rotation take off at the end.

The Lightning was a curious mixture.  Its original project design, much earlier than any other supersonic fighter in the world at a time when ignorance was paramount, was wholly sound and in many respects brilliant.  Properly developed it could have led to a vast programme, but the Royal Air Force’s narrow outlook severely restricted what the manufacturer could do and the timescale was inordinately long.  On the other hand, the unique configuration and (for its day) high ratio of thrust to weight make the Lightning still an outstanding interceptor and air superiority fighter, lacking only modern radar and weapons, which Britain omitted to develop because it thought fighters were obsolete.

If ever the expression ‘a pilot’s aeroplane’ had a meaning, it can be applied to the Lightning.  The striking layout works well, but it remains unique to the Lightning and the like of it will not be seen again.

The designer W.E.W. (Teddy) Petter started his research into a supersonic aircraft in 1946 but had no help from the Government who cancelled the Nation’s bold programme to build the W52 to fly level at thirty six thousand feet at one thousand mph (it ‘had not the heart to ask pilots to fly it’).

However, although the time was obviously not right, Petter decided his aircraft should have sharply swept wings and tail plane and a long slab-sided body with two engines one above the other.

It was not until December 1948 that the Air Staff agreed to write a specification for an aircraft ‘to investigate the practicality of supersonic speed for military aircraft’, designed to have fighter-like handling characteristics, to be built to fighter strength factors (7G) and to carry guns and a sighting system.  English Electric was awarded the contract and Petter went ahead with the P1.

He chose to use a pair of simple Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire turbo jets, with plain fixed nozzles and no reheat and fed by a plain inlet in the nose.  To minimize the frontal area he staggered the engines, bringing the lower one well forward with a long jet pipe.

Nobody seemed bothered about fuel capacity, so Petter left the body free of fuel and marked out part of the wing to serve as a fuel tank.  He also put the undercarriage in the wing so a mere five thousand pounds of fuel was all that could be carried.

Freddie Page took over when Petter left English Electric in 1950 and after Wing Commander R.P. ‘Bee’ Beaumont had put in a lot of time on the P1 simulator (then a radically new idea), he had an enjoyable first flight in WG 760 on August 4th 1954.

After this, a standard of build was agreed for an operational fighter designated P1B.  It was to carry the Ferranti AI-23 radar in the pressurised conical centre body of a redesigned inclined shock intake, and have a removable armament pack carrying two Blue Jay, Firestreak Mk 1 guided weapons on external pylons, or as an optional alternative, two 30mm Aden guns and ammunition.  After a lot of argument it was also agreed to fit a 30mm Aden gun on each side of the cockpit in a permanent installation.  The engines were changed to Rolls Royce Avon 201s with four stage reheat, a large fin was added to ensure ample stability at high Mach numbers and a neat faired in belly tank was added which held another two thousand pounds of fuel.  The flaps were changed (and later used as integral tanks); the fuselage was redesigned with a raised canopy and many other changes (such as new air brakes and dozens of access panels to the profusion of added equipment items).

‘Bee’ flew XA 847, the first of three hand built P1B prototypes, on April 4th 1957.  On November 25th 1958, he made a giant advance with a splendid flight to Mach 2.  To speed development of what to the British industry was an aeroplane of a wholly new order of densely packed complexity, no fewer than twenty development machines had been ordered, the first of these, XG 307, flew on April 3rd 1958.  These led fairly smoothly into the production fighter, which in October 1958 was named Lightning F1, and Civil Aviation Release was obtained later in 1959, No 74 ‘Tiger’ Squadron being equipped at Coltishall the following July and August.  By this time the programme had been severely hurt by the politically fostered belief – or rather wish to believe – that fighters were obsolete and should be replaced by cheap missiles.  The Lightning was regarded as something far too expensive that would have a short life and on which no more money should be wasted.  In fact it was potentially the world’s finest interceptor, and it cried out for development with greater fuel capacity and multi role equipment.  It was a very uphill struggle to accomplish this development in the face of official disinterest, and an incidental result in 1959 was elimination of the Lightning from the huge procurement plan of the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine (which bought the notorious F-104 G instead).

Gradually the Air Staff and Ministry officials grudgingly permitted small improvements to be made.  The Mk 1A introduced a crude refuelling probe fixed under the left wing (nobody would pay for a neat folding one) the Mk 2, with which 92 Squadron was equipped in March 1963, had improved Avon 210 engines and numerous systems advances.

In the same month the Squadron won the Dacre Trophy for being the top operational Squadron of 1962 and this was presented at a parade at Leconfield.  April saw the Squadron continuing their familiarisation on the Lightning and the highlight of the month was a games night in the Officers’ Mess during which one hundred and five officers and Senior NCOs drank fifty three gallons of beer.

By May the Squadron had completed its conversion phase and moved on to mastering the intricacies of radar work.  May also saw a momentous liaison trip to Warton at the kind invitation of the British Aircraft Corporation.  The ‘entertainment’ included a hilarious visit to one of the ‘lower’ night clubs at the far end of the Blackpool Mile.

From June to September, the main task was working through a programme of Radexes (Radar Exercises) and visidents (closing into close formation to visually identify a target) in order to make the Squadron operational once more.  They also practiced a little formation flying and a five ‘ship’ team was worked up for Battle of Britain Day and gave a show at Royal Air Force Finningley.

By the end of the month they became the first Lightning Squadron to get over three hundred hours without Air-to-Air refuelling.

During this time there were several days of strong crosswinds occasionally gusting up to thirty five knots.  With tyres at about £400 a time Tim Nelson set the taxpayer back £800 with one of his impeccable landings.  Another pilot who eventually mastered the art of landing seventeen tons of machinery at a hundred and sixty knots was Alec Reed, who succeeded in putting the fear of God into Pete Carter when he bounced the two seat T4 trainer ten feet in the air, as estimated by the caravan controller.

In October the Squadron was declared operational once more and did its first QRA duty the following month.  In the same month they held the Reunion at Royal Air Force Kenley, which was successful in it but was disappointing in that only three Battle of Britain pilots could attend.

By the end of the year the flying hours were not good and aircraft serviceability was poor but the depression was relieved by the news that at long last No 92 Squadron was to be awarded a Standard.  The CO was asked to select eight Battle Honours, no mean task, and out of the many to which the Squadron was entitled, the following were finally chosen:

    Western Front        1918
    Battle of Britain    1940
    Fortress Europe    1941 – 42
    El Alamein   
    El Hamma
    Sicily            1943
    Anzio and Nettuno
    Gothic Line

It was to be some twenty-one months before the Standard was made and ready for presentation.

1964 started with the Squadron going to the Missile Practice Camp at Royal Air Force Valley in Anglesey.  This was the first Lightning detachment there.  The detachment started with a visit to Aberporth to see the radar set up which controls the range over the Cardigan Bay.  On the following morning the Squadron drove North to Llanbedr to see the Jindiviks (Aborigine for “the hunted one”).  These are the pilotless drones that tow magnesium flares for the pilots to fire missiles at and camera pods to record the missile performance.  Everyone had their eye on one Jindivik, which had done twenty sorties on the trot without being hit itself.  Two days later Tim Nelson went up for the first live firing with a telemetry round.  On this occasion Tim had a spot of finger trouble as he forgot to press the R.T. button during the count down.  Consequently the magnesium flare was not lit, and the missile homed onto the jetpipe of the Jindivik smashing it into a million pieces much to everyones delight at a total cost of £50,000.  The next Jindivik “flamed out” and crashed into the sea before anyone could fire at it, which brought the Squadron bill up to over £100,000.

On Saturday night a small thrash developed and continued until 7.30 in the morning.  In spite of the iron railings behind the bar, Tony Aldridge evolved a most efficient method of obtaining drinks as and when required.  A glass tied to a billiard rest thrust through the railings and pushed up under the inverted bottles behind the bar produced an unending supply of shorts.  To obtain lager was rather more involved and called for a lassoing principle, this time with a tie attached to a billiard rest.  Eventually someone found a weak link in the railings and climbed through.  The Mess President, who slept or rather, was trying to sleep just above the bar, was not impressed with the tape recorder at 6.30 in the morning and made a dramatic entry, clad in red pyjamas.

Meanwhile back at Leconfield the station had been alerted for the Kingpin Alpha Exercise.  Six pilots to man four aircraft on two minutes readiness proved quite a strain and one pilot at least had a stint of over three and a half hours in the cockpit.  Ever since then he carried a water bottle tucked in his immersion suit just in case it happened again.

By all accounts the Squadron did extremely well and were much quicker off the mark than 19 Squadron, our traditional rivals.  There were several scrambles with some interesting targets that made the exercise far more interesting than some earlier ones.  January also saw rehearsals for a flypast marking the occasion of the birth of Prince Edward to Her Majesty the Queen.

The QRA commitment returned in February and the more senior pilots found that there was a big difference between being on readiness during daylight hours only and having to do it for twenty four hours.

At this time, training for in flight refuelling was begun and initially this was found to be quite a challenge.  It was after one such sortie, that Flying Officer G.C. Davie was killed while doing an approach, short of fuel.  Both engines flamed out and he used his ejection seat too late.  This was a very tragic period for the Squadron for eleven days previously, on the 16 Apr ‘64, Flight Lieutenant C.M. Cameron, an experienced pilot from the aerobatic team days, had been killed while practising low level aerobatics in 19 Squadron’s Hunter T7, XL 594.  Two funerals within a fortnight were enough to depress even the most ebullient of personalities.

May saw a number of foreign exchanges; at the beginning of the month four aircraft went to Creil near Paris.  The main event of this visit was the charge of £21 for seven whiskies at the Crazy Horse Club.  There was not a return visit.  Later in the month four pilots of the Royal Netherlands Air Force visited the Squadron and at the beginning of June four pilots went to Skrydstrup in Denmark.  The hospitality of the Danes had to be experienced to be believed.   Unfortunately Flight Lieutenants E.E. Jones and A.P.S. Jones succeeded in mislaying their civilian clothes and the sight of these two worthies wandering through the streets of Copenhagen wearing borrowed ‘winkle pickers and drainpipes’ is one that will last for ever in the memories of those who beheld it.

The ‘A’ Flight Commander Flight Lieutenant Ernie Jones and Flight Lieutenant P.D. Van Wyk in the Lightning and Hunter respectively gave several aerobatic shows in July.  In-flight refuelling also continued this month; then during August, the Squadron carried out a gun firing trial and then began working up for Farnborough the following month.

Compared with the Squadron’s contribution at the last Farnborough Show in 1962, when it supplied sixteen Hunters, this year it only provided six Lightnings doing a scramble, high speed run and a ‘run in and break’ to land.  Although this was disappointing for the pilots, the other ‘attraction’ of the SBAC’s Show helped to offset this.  The week was blessed with good weather and everyone enjoyed themselves.

Later in the month, five aircraft performed at Finningley for Battle of Britain Day as they had done the previous years.  In October, the Leconfield Wing, consisting of 19 and 92 Squadrons, took over the Leuchars QRA commitment for two months.  This entailed sending two pilots up to Scotland every three for four days and although it was quite a chore, the golfers on the Squadron seemed to take to it quite well.  Two of the pilots, Flight Lieutenants J.G. Butler and E.D. Stein, insisted that their rooms in the Mess at Leuchars were haunted and confessed to being relieved on going back so that they could get some undisturbed rest.

Squadron Leader Hine handed over command of the Squadron to Squadron Leader L.J. Hargreaves in October.  Unfortunately for 92, Les Hargreaves only had the Squadron for a short period as, at about this time, it was learned that all Lightning squadrons were shortly to have Wing Commanders as Commanding Officers and Squadron Leaders as Flight Commanders.

November marked the 10,000th Lightning sortie being flown from Leconfield by John Holdway who was presented with a silver plated model Lightning for his efforts.  Poor old nineteen who must have flown some of the sorties were reportedly somewhat put out by a news item in the local press that referred to the “10,000th sortie by 92 Squadron”!

By the end of November, all pilots were in flight refuelling qualified and therefore cleared to take part in Exercise ‘Forthright’, which meant tanking out to Cyprus.  During the first fortnight of December six pilots again went to Royal Air Force Valley for the Missile Practice Camp.  Due to some technical mishaps there were a number of misfires but eventually all five missiles were launched and the pilots were all impressed by the performance of the weapon.

In the New Year, one week before the tanking exercise to Cyprus, the original “it’s all been changed” took place.  Instead of the whole Squadron “tanking” out to Cyprus, only four aircraft were going and they were staging instead of in flight refuelling due to the loss of the Valiant tankers through metal fatigue.  This was a blow but eventually the four aircraft duly arrived in Cyprus.  They were to stay there until the beginning of June with one aircraft maintained at ten minutes readiness during daylight with a back up at thirty minutes.  This was an easy task compared to UK type of QRA, of course.  Pilots were rotated at about monthly intervals and most did two stints on the island.

At home, in January, the Squadron took part in the fly past marking Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral.  The rehearsals for this and the fly past itself made for some exciting flying but all emerged unscathed in the end.

In March, Flight Lieutenant Chris Bruce arrived on the Squadron.  Chris was to serve for a full tour as a Flight Lieutenant then another tour as a Squadron Leader Flight Commander, before returning in 1973 as a Wing Commander and CO.

During March, out in Cyprus, a four day exercise organised by NEAF had the Squadron aircraft almost on permanent cockpit readiness.  This, combined with restricted flying because of a shortage of aircraft hours, meant that the pilots were all the more ready to go “down town to Niazi’s for a kebab”.  The latter became more and more hilarious.  In April, Flight Lieutenant McKnight, the Squadron’s tame Canadian, was taken to hospital with a suspected ulcer.  Unfortunately, he was grounded for several months.

Despite having four aircraft in Cyprus, May saw the flying task of three hundred hours beaten for the first time for many months.  The serviceability rate had been picking up all year and at last the target was achieved.  This turned out to be the ‘first pickle out of the jar’ for the target was achieved again in June, July and August.  In fact, morale was so high that to make the three hundred hours in June, twenty nine hours were flown on the last night.  The Cyprus aircraft returned at the beginning of June.  This went uneventfully apart from a hydraulic failure that caused a twenty four hour delay at Cigli in Turkey.

In July, Flight Lieutenant ‘Ernie’ Jones was awarded the Queen’s Commendation in appreciation of the many aerobatic displays he had given both at home and overseas.  This was a very popular award.  Also in the month, initial preparations for the presentation of the Standard were started.  At the end of July a very enjoyable Fawn exercise was made to Norway and at the beginning of August, the Norwegians repaid the visit.

The Squadron was presented with its standard on 3rd September 1965.  The Reviewing Officer was Air Chief Marshal Sir James M. Robb, GCB KBE DSO DFC AFC RAF (Retired), who as the Senior Flight Commander on the Squadron in 1918, was partly responsible for shooting down the Squadron’s first enemy aircraft a Fokker DVII.  The afternoon’s flying programme was cancelled due to weather, but a static hangar display and evening’s entertainment were enjoyed by all.

The new C.O., Wing Commander J.A. Gilbert BA, took over the Squadron on September 6th, Squadron Leader L.J. Hargreaves departed for Binbrook, where he set about reforming No 5 Squadron with Lightning F3s.

The year’s Missile Practice Camp at Valley proved very successful with the Squadron winning the Aberporth Trophy for being the most efficient Squadron overall.

This was the last Squadron detachment before the Lightnings left Leconfield on 29th December 1965 for Royal Air Force Geilenkirchen in Germany and became part of Sector Two in the Second Allied Tactical Air Force.

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