The Spitfire & the Lightning – how two British icons met in simulated combat

Lightning Spitfire 1963

The pilot of the Mark.XIX Spitfire turned hard to port, his propeller driven aircraft being more nimble in this direction as opposed to starboard because of the direction of the propeller that turned faster than his eyes could see. The ever graceful Spitfire looked every bit like an angry angel whose home was in the sky as it’s wingtips drew long white vortices behind it. The Spitfire’s pilot looked over his left shoulder and saw the jet powered fighter swooping down on him; he knew the jet pilot had got too close and out of position to use his weapons. The attacking jet fighter overshot the Spitfire and even over the roar of the Rolls-Royce Griffon engine just a few feet in front of him the Spitfire pilot could hear the howl of the other aircraft’s two jet engines.

It sounds like an encounter between a Spitfire and Germany’s Me.262 jet fighter in the last few days of World War II. In fact it was not 1945 but 1963 and the attacking jet fighter was an English Electric Lightning F.3 – the RAF’s premier interceptor in those darkest days of the Cold War. The story of how these two legendary fighters came to find themselves locked in simulated combat begins with a sad end to a proud chapter of the RAF’s history.

Spitfire PS853

Spitfire PS853

It was the 10th of June 1957. The place was RAF Woodvale near Formby in Merseyside. The scene was tranquil as the temperatures continued to rise leading to what would be a record breaking British summer. It was beautiful flying weather and on the tarmac at RAF Woodvale a loud engine coughed and then growled in to life. It taxied out passed the line up of small single engined training aircraft of the Liverpool and Manchester University Air Squadrons before turning on to the runway. It took off with a grace and majesty that few aircraft have ever achieved in history and after a short flight it flew a circuit over the base and landed. In doing so it achieved the sad yet proud accolade of having conducted the last ever operational sortie by an RAF Spitfire (Spitfire XIX PS853).

The Spitfire spent its last days in operational service with the RAF as part of RAF Woodvale’s “Temperature and Humidity Flight”, known affectionately as the “THUM flight”, and their job was to conduct meteorological reconnaissance missions to assist the station’s weather forecasting team. To carry out this role the Spitfire’s taken on charge by the flight were fitted with a balanced bridge psychrometer (to measure humidity) and an aneroid barometer (to measure air pressure) along with an eight channel VHF radio to relay the information back to the ground. While it lacked the glory of flying in a frontline capacity the job was not without its risks and in order to be part of the flight team a prospective pilot had to display above average competence in his flying skills. He would be expected to fly his aircraft in almost any weather conditions to get as detailed a reading as possible to assist with weather forecasting. The dangers were highlighted by the loss of two Spitfires at Woodvale between 1952 and 1957 carrying out this mission.

As much as the aircraft were loved by all at Woodvale the Spitfires were becoming increasingly difficult to keep flying regularly as spare parts became harder and harder to come by. In one instance spare parts had to be shipped from a storage depot in Malay where they had been sitting in a box since the end of the war. A large number of De Havilland Mosquitoes were becoming available and these were deemed to be better aircraft for the role and the supply chain. Therefore with little fanfair, Spitfire XIX PS853 completed its historic flight and was then transferred along with its two sister aircraft at Woodvale to RAF Biggin Hill where it would yet again make history by being one of the founding aircraft of the famous Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (then known as the Historic Aircraft Flight). With the end of operations at Woodvale it seemed as though the Spitfire was now destined to only ever fly again at displays while at the same time a new fighter was beginning to enter service and would arguably become just as iconic an aircraft as the Spit’.

English Electric Lightning F 1 74 squadronThe English Electric Lightning couldn’t have been further from the Spitfire if it was piloted by Buck Rogers. As much a rocket as it was an aeroplane it was powered by two Rolls-Royce Avon turbojets that took it to Mach.2 or twice the speed of sound (nearly three times the speed of the fastest Spitfire) while allowing it to climb like a homesick angel. While the Spitfire could be described as a weapon the Lightning was part of a weapon system that included air-to-air missiles and radar that allowed the aircraft to conduct interceptions in nearly all weather independently of ground control if necessary. It was designed to decimate the bombers of the Soviet Union because unlike the Spitfire pilots of the Battle of Britain in 1940 the Lightning pilots defending Britain in the late 1950s and early 1960s had to get every single enemy bomber since it would now only take one aircraft to lay waste to London with nuclear weapons. It was very much a true weapon of the Cold War but it would be this sophistication and performance that would actually be its biggest drawback when the RAF found itself being dragged in to a wholly unexpected conflict in the Far East.

Malaysia map1963. The decolonisation and dissolution of the various parts of the British Empire was in full swing but with it brought a whole host of problems around the world that made sure the 1960s was one of the British military’s busiest times especially for the RAF. One of the results of this decolonisation process was the creation of the nation state of Malaysia by the amalgamation of the Federation of Malaya, Singapore (expelled from Malaysia in 1965) and the British protectorates of North Borneo and Sarawak (collectively known as British Borneo) in September 1963. The new nation was bitterly opposed by Indonesia who had their own political and ideological aspirations for the region. Almost immediately, fighting broke out in what was to become a brutal but undeclared war that involved both insurgent and regular armed assaults against the infantile Malaysian government which looked to Britain for help who sent soldiers, aircraft and Royal Navy carrier groups in to the region.

The Indonesian military was well motivated but its equipment was hardly up to the same standard as the technologically superior British, Australian and New Zealand forces in the region. The main fighter of the Indonesian air force was the North American P-51D Mustang of World War II fame. With the RAF looking increasingly likely to deploy its Lightning supersonic fighters in to the fray, questions

Indonesian P-51

Indonesian P-51D Mustang (wp.scn.ru)

began to be asked over how effective the aircraft would be against these piston engined fighters. The RAF wasn’t so much concerned with their equipment but rather their pilots who had been trained to take on high altitude bombers or tangle with MiG-21s in high speed dogfights. Having operated the Mustang themselves during the war the RAF leadership knew all too well that to a high speed jet fighter the relatively diminutive Mustang would be tough to spot and far more nimble. In a far sighted decision the RAF ordered tests to be undertaken at RAF Binbrook between a Lightning F.3 and a Spitfire with the aim of developing tactics to combat the Mustang.

Lightning Spitfire 1963-2With the only Spitfires immediately available to the RAF being those of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, one was selected to fly to Binbrook to take part in the trials. The aircraft was Spitfire XIX PM631, one of those that had served with the “THUM Flight” at RAF Woodvale in 1957. With the arrival of the Lightning F.3 and a cadre of pilots to fly the aircraft the historic meeting of these two aircraft in simulated combat could begin.

Straight away the Lightning pilots had problems. The speed of their aircraft compared to the Spitfire saw them repeatedly overshooting as they tried to set up their shots. The Lightning’s turning circle was also massive compared to the Spitfire and this meant that the Spitfire pilot, although slower, could cut across the turning circle of the Lightning and fire his guns ahead of the still turning Lightning although taking the shot still required a great deal of skill to manually train on an aircraft travelling around supersonic speeds.

Lightning Firestreak

Lightning with Firestreak missile

After a handful of simulated flights the whole exercise came to a shuddering halt when the Spitfire developed engine troubles as a result of it being thrown around the sky in mock dogfights; in its ceremonial role with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight it had mainly had to contend with slow speed flypasts. While efforts were made to find another Spitfire the Lightning pilots took the time to look at what they had learned already and it made for some sober reading. What had started as a bit of a laugh amongst some of them had revealed some potentially serious problems for any deployment to Malaysia. As well as the obvious problems of having to contend with the slower speed and higher manoeuvrability of the Spitfire another perhaps even more serious problem had cropped up. The Firestreak missile, the Lightning’s main weapon, had proven extremely ineffective in acquiring the Spitfire with it’s infra-red seeker. The problem was that the exhausts from the Spitfire’s piston engine didn’t provide a big enough heat source for the primitive seeker to detect nor did the aircraft fly fast enough for friction to heat the airframe sufficiently as would be the case with the supersonic aircraft the Lightning was designed to fight against. This meant that the Lightning’s only real chance of knocking out the Spitfire/Mustang was with its two 30mm guns; a very difficult proposition using traditional tactics.

If the RAF thought they had problems then it was nothing compared to the Sea Vixen pilots of No.893 NAS aboard HMS Victorious who were already in the South China Sea although not yet involved in combat operations. The squadron was equipped with the Sea Vixen FAW.1 which like the Lightning was armed with the Firestreak missile but while it could carry four of these weapons (twice what the Lightning could carry) it lacked a gun. The original DH.110 prototype had provision for 30mm ADEN

Sea Vixen Victorious

893 NAS Sea Vixen FAW.1

guns but the Royal Navy felt that gun battles were about to go the way of the dinosaur and so instead the decision was taken to fill the space where the guns would have gone with pop out launchers for a number of 2-inch rockets to ripple fire against slow moving bombers. In defence of the Royal Navy this was a common belief amongst the world’s air arms and a whole generation of fighters were developed without guns.

Sea Vixen 2inch Rockets

Sea Vixen’s 2-inch rockets

Like the RAF the Navy realized it would likely have to face the Mustangs in air-to-air combat and had to develop tactics accordingly. Ideally the Mustang could be destroyed by the Firestreak but failing this the Sea Vixen pilots were briefed on how to use the 2-inch rockets. The Sea Vixen pilot was expected to not only train the rockets like a gun but also take in to account the gravity-drop of the weapons (unlike bullets the heavier, slower rockets actually begin to descend immediately after launch). To achieve this against a small tight turning target required the mental arithmetic more akin to a computer than a Sea Vixen pilot who lacked even a gunsight.

The pilots of the Sea Vixens understandably scoffed but if rumours are to be believed the importance of finding a solution was highlighted when a Royal Navy Buccaneer S.1 strike aircraft had what the pilot believed was a near-miss with a P-51D Mustang over the South China Sea. When the aircraft returned to the carrier a series of 50.cal bullet holes were spotted in the wing indicating that the Buccaneer had in fact been attacked but no critical systems were hit. (It has to be emphasized that this is a commonly repeated story amongst service personnel of the time but one that has never been confirmed by official sources perhaps for fear that if it got out it would worsen an already tense situation).

PS853Back at Binbrook the team assembled to develop tactics for the Lightning had found a replacement Spitfire and it was sat at the entrance to the base. It was the base’s gate guardian and it was another Spitfire XIX that had been lovingly maintained in an airworthy condition having only been taken off flight operations with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight a year earlier. It was none other than PS853 itself; the Spitfire that had flown the last sortie for the RAF in 1957 and bizarrely it was about to do the same again. A thorough inspection confirmed that the staff at Binbrook had done an exemplary job in maintianing the aircraft and so it was cleared for flight operations to continue the trials.

By now the Lightning pilots had looked at the results of the earlier flights and were confident they had developed tactics suitable for combat with piston engined aircraft. Before the initial merge the Lightning pilots would descend below the Spitfire’s altitude. They would hit full reheat and start a climbing attack against the Spitfire most likely with their guns as there would be little time to train the Firestreak (assuming it could even get a strong enough lock). If they failed to destroy the Spitfire then the Lightnings would race away and set up the action again. Under no circumstance was the Lightning pilot to turn on the Spitfire to initiate a traditional dogfight.

Their objective achieved, the team was disbanded and the Spitfires returned to their ceremonial duties. Ultimately the Lightning wouldn’t be deployed to Malaysia until 1966 by which time the situation was significantly calmer but the tactics developed were adopted by Javelin and Hunter pilots operating in the region. Thus ends the story of how Britain’s two iconic fighters met in simulated combat

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17 responses to “The Spitfire & the Lightning – how two British icons met in simulated combat

  1. Pingback: Defence of the Realm – Royal Air Force | Defence of the Realm

  2. A really interesting blog post. I can remember Lightnings going over our house in South Derbyshire when I was a young lad…along with the unmistakeable shapes of Vulcans and Victors.

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  3. Pingback: 80 Years Of A True Legend Of The Skies | Defence of the Realm

  4. Tony, i am uncertain about the ‘inability’ of the Firestreak to engage the Spitfire. Its engine had 2,000 hp and it was far more ‘hot’ than many other things like light helicopters (Defender) or COIN aircraft (such the OV-1) Neverthless, the uncooled IR sensor of the small SA-7 was capable to acquire them and shot down as well. Hell, even the AA-2 was capable to hit land veichles once disattived the proxy fuse. So how the cooled Firestreak cannot engage the Spitfire Mk XIX??

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    • This was from a report published about the trials in an aviation journal. This is not speculation. For the record in try to find evidence for everything I write. I do not speculate unless I cannot find an answer I’m looking for in which case I will say that it is a best guess

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      • Perhaps the true problem was, that the Spitfire was too nimble to leave enough time to be locked by the Firestreak.

        I wonder how the far better Red Top would have fared if used instead of the Firestreak. The Red Top had the best IR sensor of any ’60s AAM missiles. Surely better than the AIM-9B. All around, how the Firestreak and Red Top were regarded in service with RAF? Were they useful? And if not, why they weren’t replaced by AIM-9?

        Liked by 1 person

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