Getting Britain’s first afterburning Mach 2 interceptor from the drawing board and into RAF service was no mean feat.
Hugh Trevor describes the challenges faced by those tasked with flight testing the English Electric Lightning.
It was a lovely clear July day in 1965. British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) chief test pilot James ‘Jimmy’ Dell and test observer Graham Elkington were accelerating to Mach 1.82 on a southerly trajectory, 35,000ft over the Irish Sea, side-by-side in the cramped cockpit of XM966. Originally a Lightning T.4 trainer, this aircraft had been rebuilt as the second prototype T.5 by BAC Filton. St Bees Head, Cumbria, was visible to port as the aircraft flew down Test Run Alpha towards the airfield at Warton, Lancashire. Test sortie 263 aimed to expand the flight envelope, focusing on roll/inertia coupling characteristics. Dell smoothly rolled into a 3G port turn, prior to applying full starboard aileron with the doors of the ventral rocket pack extended.
“Rocket doors open. Instrumentation on. Reversing roll now. Roll rate reducing, nose coming up…”
BANG! The aircraft yawed wildly to port and rolled inverted. The Lightning’s fin had failed. Both crew members blacked out under high g-forces. Jimmy Dell came around as an explosion and an almighty blast of wind marked the departure of Elkington’s ejection seat, together with the canopy. The aircraft was still inverted and Dell hung from his straps and to such an extent that he could see the windscreen over the top of its frame. Oscillating inverted, the aircraft was plunging towards the sea. Dell’s left hand struggled to reach the radio transmit button on the throttle.
The rest of this feature is in the March issue.
Photo credit: Hugh Trevor