The Fighter That Broke Mach 1 During A Vertical Climb

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In April 1985, the fastest planes in the world went to test out the latest star in the world of aviation- the BAC Concorde, a supersonic plane that can supercruise up to Mach 2.04. 

Famous planes from NATO Allied countries were offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance to go head-to-head with the iconic plane but failed. 

Only a fellow British Aircraft Corporation model would rise up to the occasion, beating the others. A single BAC Lighting interceptor – then flown by pilot Mike Hale, managed to overtake the Concorde. 

The Race for Supremacy

In Britain, a need for a new, fast, interceptor jet arose – one that could intercept a Soviet assault and shoot down enemy aircraft before they could unleash a nuclear firestorm.

As early as 1946, William Edward Willoughby “Teddy” Petter, chief designer at English Electric and the designer of the famous Canberra bomber, started taking note of ideas of that same concept. 

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The following year, Petter and English Electric were awarded a study contract for transonic research, delving into transonic flight, low supersonic speeds, and their handling. By 1950, the contract agreement produced two prototypes and a static test airframe for the trials.

Trials and Tribulations

However, Petter would end up resigning after getting frustrated with the company’s management and the direction it was taking when it came to military aircraft development. Another engineer, Frederick Page, took his place right after.

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In December 1952, a small-scale prototype flew for the first time to mixed results. To fix the issues, it was then modified to a low-mounted tailplane. The first true flight of this model reached top speeds of Mach 0.85 and on a follow-up flight a week later, it hit Mach 0.98 even reaching Mach 1.0 for a short time.

Record Breaking

On August 13, the prototype officially broke the sound barrier and maintained level flight above Mach 1.0, becoming the first British-built plane ever to accomplish this feat.

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The English Electric P-1B eventually received the official name Lightning, which was derived to reflect the plane’s supersonic capabilities. It reached Mach 2 for the first time on November 5, 1958. This made the Lightning the first British-designed and built plane capable of reaching Mach 2.0 in level flight, a significant milestone in the history of British aviation.

Into the Skies

The Lightning interceptor finally entered the RAF in 1960, entering frontline service with 74 Squadron. When English Electric merged with two other aircraft manufacturing companies Vickers and Bristol forming the British Aircraft Corporation, the interceptor became widely known as the BAC Lightning.

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Design-wise, production models had a clean and oblong-shaped fuselage covered in a silver finish, as well as with highly swept wings. One of its most unique design features was the vertical staggered configuration of its duo Rolls-Royce Avon turbojet engines within the fuselage. 

It became one of the most high-performing fighters of the Cold War, becoming a favorite aircraft of the many pilots who flew it.


Born at the height of the Cold War, its primary purpose was to respond to potential threats from Soviet long-range bombers. The Lightning was all about speed and altitude.

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However, the anticipated Soviet bomber assault never came. Still, its presence acted as a deterrent, contributing to the uneasy peace during the Cold War period.