The English Electric Lightning was developed from the prototype P1 (WG760) which first flew on 4th August 1954. Following progression through P1A and P1B, the Lightning was born and this magnificent flying machine entered service with No 74 Squadron at RAF Coltishall in June 1960. It was the RAF’s first truly supersonic fighter.
The aircraft’s design was predicated on a supersonic fighter requiring an ample surplus of power for acceleration and manoeuvre at altitude and hence the perceived need for two engines. A unique feature was the staggered configuration of these engines, one above the other with the upper engine to the rear giving a frontal area only 50% greater than that for a single power-plant. The Lightning was a ‘pilot’s aeroplane’. It was delightful to handle, being extremely responsive through the entire range of 130 knots to Mach 2 plus.
Development continued after the F1’s introduction leading to the F3 which possessed more powerful engines and a more advanced weapons system. Thereafter came the so-called ‘developed’ F3 with two jettisonable overwing fuel tanks, a ventral fuel tank with twice the capacity of the original F3’s ventral tank, and a cambered leading edge wing extension which, by reducing drag, gave a 20% increase in subsonic range. The ‘developed’ F3 gave rise to the production F6.
The F53 was the export version of the Lightning F6. A total of 36 aircraft were delivered to the Royal Saudi Arabian Air Force with the first arriving in theatre in December 1967. These aircraft were employed in a multi-role capacity of interception, ground attack and reconnaissance. Powered by 2 Rolls Royce Avon 302-C turbojets, each developing 16,300 lbs static thrust in reheat, the F53 could be fitted with a number of options including Firestreak or Red Top air-to-air missile pack, gun pack of 2 x Aden 30mm cannon, rocket pack containing 44 x 2in rockets or 5-camera reconnaissance pack. An outboard pylon under each wing could carry a Matra 68mm SNEB rocket pod or 1000lb ballistic bomb.
The Saudi-Arabian F53s were withdrawn from service at the end of 1985, by which time 14 of the 36 had been lost in flying accidents. In January 1986, the remaining 22 aircraft were ferried back to the UK by pilots of No 5 and No11 Squadron, RAF Binbrook, with ZF578 being flown by Flt Lt Dave Hart. After 4 years rusting away in storage at BAC Warton, she moved on to the Welsh Air Museum in Cardiff and then into private ownership where she assumed the identity of an F6 of No 23 Squadron RAF – XR753. She was gifted to Tangmere by her previous owners in 2002.