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Lightning Boys

True tales from pilots of the English Electric Lightning

Richard Pike

Grub Street 2011 (reprinted 2014)

ISBN 9781 908117151

 

This is from the stable as Buccaneer Boys (reviewed here). A selection of pilots who served on an aircraft type regale the reader with their best stores (or dits, I suppose if they served in the Fleet Air Arm, in the case of the Bucc). Pike himself did a Lightning tour, (as Pitchfork did on the Bucc) so it is compiled with some authority.

 

Peter Vangucci kicks off by reporting his slightly exotic background: his great-grandfather immigrated to England from Italy, and brought the entire Royal Italian Military Band with him (they eventually mutated into the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra – I bet few pilots know that)! Rick Groombridge carries on the Italian theme: the first squadron exchange to Italy since WW2 was full of good food, good wine, and general bonhomie. Flying was restricted to the mornings. He repeats the words of a Luftwaffe officer “For the next war it is your turn to have the Italians”!!

Later in the book an exchange posting of a French pilot to a Lightning squadron causes a terrifying episode when he takes a very cavalier attitude when flying in a formation low on fuel in marginal weather conditions.

 

It is followed by a story that indicates, somewhat elliptically, that the USAF  shot down one of its own UK based C130s after it had been pinched  by a Mildenhall sergeant. Very hush hush.

 

The Lightning was of course a complete Boys Own creation – a triumph of excess energy, flown by pilots who cared not for miles per gallon, and an air force blessed with bountiful Cold War budgets. It was created as a rapid interceptor of Warsaw Pact bombers. It fulfilled that function rather well – for the age, and in its later marks. But it was thirstier than a desert marathon runner, and could have achieved little without the tanker force.

 

Naturally it was a shoe-in as a display aircraft for the RAF, filling the fast and noisy role to a T. Some of the book’s best stories derive from display pilots. Another recurring theme is the terrifying nature of conversion flights in the early days before two-seat trainers were available. No wonder WIWOLs (When I Was On Lightnings) are reputed to have more testosterone than your average fighter pilot.

 

All that power came from two Avon engines. These were mounted one on top of another. The virtue of this unusual arrangement was that there was no asymmetric effect if an engine failed. The rather serious downside is that it meant that fuel pipes were routed a matter of inches above another engine – with reheat. Consequently (again more in the early days) there is a recurring theme of engine fires – which spread to the controls and airframe with catastrophic effects. The technical details behind this are laid out in Appendix B.

 

These days it is difficult to conceive of such an aircraft, with its then navaid and weapon fit, being considered a sensible one-man machine. The reader will be left in no doubt about the considerable stress of flying and fighting with it, particularly at night. An interesting chapter relates how one wife sensed that her husband had encountered difficulties on his latest Lightning flight, and she felt impelled to rush to the airfield to watch him limp home.

 

Another pilot, Jim Wild, gives one of the best descriptions of an ejection, and subsequent rescue from the unforgiving North Sea, that I have encountered. The book slips in rather interesting nuggets from time to time: for example the Lightning took no part in the Falklands campaign (one dreads to think of the impact on the fuel bill), because its tyre pressures were too high for the taxiways at Ascension.

 

All in all there is much in here for those interested in this iconic British aircraft (I don’t think that phrase will be used much in future!). It lacks some of the colour of the companion Buccaneer volume, but then the banana bomber’s pilots were a colourful bunch!  

 

 

[Volume 2 has recently been published and I hope to reveiw that too]

 

Quibbles?

 

A glossary would have been useful to the lay reader.