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The Men who flew the English Electric Lightning – Martin W. Bowman

Review by Stuart Forth.

The Spitfire, Lancaster and Vulcan are all legendary British aircraft and, as such, have copious amounts of books written about them. The same is true for that icon of Cold War aviation, the English Electric Lightning. Quite rightly, the people who flew, serviced or just witnessed this fire-breathing thoroughbred firsthand wax lyrical at the mere mention of its name. One wonders then, how much more can be written about these aircraft? Surely, all the tales have been told.

In The Men who flew the English Electric Lightning, Martin Bowman has drawn together stories from pilots and groundcrews who worked with this Mach 2 interceptor. Does this sound familiar? I shall return to this question momentarily.

The book consists of twelve chapters which are more or less in chronological order, starting with the early prototypes, and entry into service, and ending with the last operations in 1987 and 1988 by Nos. 5 and 11 Squadrons at RAF Binbrook. There is also a chapter with stories from the Lightning’s service with the Royal Saudi Air Force. There are two black and white photo sections with extended captions and an extensive appendix listing the units that flew the type.

As you begin to read this book, however, you notice small errors, such as spelling mistakes, and the transposing of numbers and letters within aircraft serials, creeping in. At first, these can be forgiven, but, as the book continues, it becomes annoying, frustrating and tiresome. Also, given the way the book is laid out, it can sometimes be difficult to tell who is narrating the story as one tale merges into the next with no clear delineation.

One wonders how much input the author actually had in the creation of this book. The chapter ‘Ab Initio’ reads like it has been lifted straight from the training manual but does eventually redeem itself with anecdotes from the Operational Conversion Unit. It gets worse as large descriptive paragraphs are repeated within a few pages of each other. The ‘Fast Jet Fraternity’ chapter has an in-depth description of how to achieve a ‘guns’ kill on page 104 which is then repeated on page 107. This happens again in the ‘Tanking’ chapter where a description of the techniques required to take on fuel at night are on page 115 and repeated almost word for word on page 121. It’s almost as if the book has not been proof-read. There are errors in some of the photo captions and, for a book that was first published in 2021, some of the information is out of date. At the end of an anecdote from Tony Paxton it states he ‘… is now a Flight Commander with 23 Squadron flying Tornado F.3s from Leeming.’ The last operational Tornado F.3s went out of service when No. 111 Squadron disbanded on 22 March 2011! If you can ignore these errors, though, this book does have some very enjoyable stories within its pages. The ‘Linies’ chapter has a great description of the pre- and post-flight servicing a Lightning required and it is good to see the often-forgotten engineers have not been left out.

Because of the sheer volume of books available on the Lightning and the people that operated them, Pen & Sword, in producing this book, are up against some stiff competition, and it is disappointing it is such a seemingly ‘cut and paste job’ and an unpolished final product. This is somewhat unusual for Pen & Sword and I’m hoping it is just a blip in production caused by the pressures we are all facing during this global pandemic. 

This brings me to the question at the start of this review: Does this sound familiar? A collection of stories from the people who operated a particular aircraft sounds a lot like the Boys series of books. If you’re in the market for this sort of book, Richard Pike’s two Lightning Boys titles from Grub Street are the crest of the wave. If you already have these, then by all means get The Men who flew the English Electric Lightning if you can get past the production errors. There are some enjoyable anecdotes in it, but is it worth it if finances are tight? Probably not.

ISBN 978-1-52670-5 648

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