The Lightning was the only British designed and built fighter capable of speeds in excess of Mach 2 to serve with the Royal Air Force. It evolved at a time when Britain led the way in aviation and it suffered at the hands of the government in the same way as did the industry which had created it. There is no doubt that the Lightning will go down in the history books as another classic British fighter.
Take note of the 2 minute mark and the full tactical take off.
The Lightning possessed a remarkable climb rate, and its time to reach an altitude, or time-to-climb, was exceptional. To achieve this short time-to-climb, Lightnings employed a particular climb profile, which was more shallow in angle compared to that demonstrated at air shows. The Lightning was famous for its ability to rapidly rotate at the end of the runway and climb almost vertically away, but although this near-vertical climb was impressive, it did not yield the best time to altitude, nor was it a demonstration of the ability to sustain a vertical climb. When Lightning pilots performed their trademark tail-stand, they were actually trading airspeed for altitude. The Lightnings would seemingly zoom “out of sight,” accelerating away, when in fact they would slow to near stall before pushing over into level flight. During the optimum time-to-climb profile, the maximum climb angle never exceeded 30 degrees.
The Lightning’s optimum climb profile began with an afterburner takeoff. Immediately after takeoff, the landing gear would be retracted and the nose held down to allow rapid acceleration to 430 KIAS, then a climb initiated and stabilized at 450 KIAS. At this IAS, the climb rate would be constant at approximately 20,000 ft/min.,[nb 9] The Lightning would reach Mach 0.87 at 13,000 ft.[nb 10] The pilot would then maintain Mach 0.87 until the tropopause, 36,000 ft. on a standard day. The climb rate would decrease during the constant-Mach portion of the profile.[nb 11] If further climb were required, the Lightning would accelerate to supersonic speed at the tropopause prior to resuming the climb at supersonic speed.
A Lightning flying its optimum climb profile would reach 36,000 ft less than 3 minutes after brake release. This was—and is—impressive performance. That the Lightning never reached the climb rates of some of its contemporaries during this profile was not important; that it reached altitude quickly, was.
The official ceiling was a secret to the general public and low security RAF documents simply stated 60,000+ ft (18 000+ m), although it was well known within the RAF to be capable of much greater heights; the official maximum altitude mainly being determined by cockpit pressurisation reliability and safety. In September 1962 Fighter Command organized a series of trial supersonic overland interceptions of Lockheed U-2As, temporarily based at RAF Upper Heyford to monitor resumed Soviet nuclear tests, at heights of around 60,000-65,000 ft. The trials took place in two stages, the second series consisting of 14 interceptions, including four successful and four abortive ones at 65,000. The late Brian Carroll, a former RAF Lightning pilot and ex-Lightning Chief Examiner, reported taking a Lightning F.53 up to 87,300 feet (26 600 m) over Saudi Arabia at which level "Earth curvature was visible and the sky was quite dark" but control-wise it was "on a knife edge".
In 1984, during a major NATO exercise, Flt Lt Mike Hale intercepted an American U-2 at a height which they had previously considered safe from interception. Records show that Hale climbed to 88,000 ft (26,800 m) in his Lightning F.3 XR749. This was not sustained level flight, but in a ballistic climb or a zoom climb, in which the pilot takes the aircraft to top speed and then puts the aircraft into a climb, trading speed for altitude. The normal service ceiling for this aircraft was 60,000 feet in level flight. Hale also participated in time-to-height and acceleration trials against F-104 Starfighters from Aalborg. He reports that the Lightnings won all races easily with the exception of the low-level supersonic acceleration, which was a "dead heat".
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