English Electric/BAC Lightning variants.

Note: Only Lighting variants that served in the Third World War will be covered; for more information on other variants see the Thunder and Lightnings website.


Variant of the mark two Lightning brought up to near F.6 standard, although retaining nose mounted cannon and Firestreak missiles. Thirty one of these aircraft served with 19 and 92 Squadron in RAF Germany before being replaced at the end of the 1970s with the Phantom FGR.2.

While it is perhaps a stretch to say that the F.2A ‘served’ in the Third World War some surviving examples were used as a source of spare parts for the F.3/F.6 fleet. They were also to be found parked around the perimeter of a number of airfields serving as decoys.


First of the second-generations Lightings, powered by the Rolls Royce Avon 301R engine, which had more available thrust than previous versions of the engine. The F.3 was also the first Lightning variant that was able to use the ‘all-aspect’ Red Top missile. Unfortunately the F.3 was also the only single seat variant to dispense with cannon armament, which since it could only carry a pair of missiles, was, in hindsight, a serious error.

While the F.3 was no longer used as a front-line fighter, it was used by the Lighting Training Flight to train new pilots. A small number of F.3s were also retained for intercepting high-flying reconnaissance aircraft, as the variant proved it was better able to get up to high altitude than the later, and heavier F.6. [1]


The two-seat version of the F.3; unfortunately unlike the Saudis and Kuwaitis the RAF never invested in a training variant of the Lighting with the large ventral tank of the F.6, which imposed limits on sortie time. Mainly used by the LTF in the training of new pilots, however both front-line squadrons at RAF Binbrook had at least one or two T.5s on charge. On a few occasions T.5s were used operationally as they could carry the Red Top missile, like the single seat aircraft.


The definitive Lightning variant, based on the F.3 (indeed some were converted F.3s), but with a new large ventral fuel tank, new wings, the ability to carry over-wing tanks and the restoration of the twin ADEN 30mm cannon. Unlike the F.1 and F.2 the cannons on the F.6 were in the forward part of the ventral tank, which meant a slight reduction in available tankage. However, as events were to show, this was a sacrifice worth making.

When Red Top missile stocks began to run low the RAF did evaluate the possibility of arming the F.6 with AIM-9L Sidewinders. However the surviving Lightnings were replaced by Tornado F.3s and Tempest FGR.1s before the stocks of Red Top reached a critical level.


While a somewhat limited and obsolete aircraft by the mid-1980s the Lighting served a useful purpose in defending the UK from Soviet attack. Many a Soviet and East German pilot rued the day he decided to engage a Lightning in a dog-fight.

Despite its limitations and somewhat troubled safety record the Lightning was missed by its pilots (though not by those who maintained it!). In terms of absolute performance the Lightning was not matched until the Typhoon FGR.2 entered RAF service more than a decade after the last Lighting was retired.

While many Lightnings are preserved in British museums no aircraft with wartime heritage is still flying in the UK (although a T.5 and F.6 are airworthy in South Africa). However BAE Systems used four ex-Saudi F.53s and a single T.55 as high-speed targets for a number of programmes and one of the F.53s and the T.55 are currently airworthy. The F.53 is painted in the markings of both 5 and 11 Squadron (one set of markings on each side), the last front-line RAF squadrons to use the Lightning, while the T.55 is in a natural metal finish. These last survivors of the E.E/BAC Lightning serve to remind us of the bravery of those who flew and maintained the aircraft during the dark days of the Third World War.


[1] It was the F.3 that was used by the RAF to intercept US U-2s at reported altitude of 66,000 feet, although a Saudi F.53 is reported to have reached the astounding height of 87,300 feet.