Another a couple of decades of WIWOL (but not quite the same)

So the USA is going to call the Lockheed Martin F-35A the Lightning II. Great choice – but they’ll never be true WIWOLers.

By now you either know exactly what I’m talking about, or you haven’t a clue. Existing WIWOLers can stop reading now.

It works like this – at any bar in any RAF mess over the past 30 years or so – but mainly aircrew messes – the cry occasionally goes up: “weewoll, weewoll!” It’s provoked by the use, by any drinker, of the expression “when I was on Lightnings”.

The idea is to stop the offender from banging on about his experiences on Lightnings. But the fact that it’s used is grudging recognition that anyone who’s served on Lightnings has usually got more and better stories than the rest of us. We are talking about the quintessential Cold War, single-seat, Mach 2, manned rocket. It had a radar that today would be classed ‘not fit for purpose’, two (count ‘em) missiles that had about a 50/50 chance of hitting anything, and it spontaneously combusted if the pilot so much as cursed (which he did as a matter of routine.)

Lightning stories are practically infinite. The best-known is perhaps the most widely repeated story ever in the RAF, and it’s entirely true. You can read about it here.

A subtler story, but my favourite, which I’ve only heard about, is the techncial drawing of a Lightning that was on the wall of a squadron crewroom for years and entitled something like “The Pilot’s Perfect Lightning”. It was a true technical diagram but with the word ‘fuel’ replaced in every instance by the word ‘foam’. Right down to the ‘overwing foam tanks’ and, best of all, the ‘refoaming probe’ on the nose.

When I was a teenage cadet I visited 92 Squadron at RAF Gutersloh in Germany in about 1976 – all of 10 minutes or so flying time from the East German border and a few thousand miles of Western Pact territory. The pilots there, who were on four-minute alert but could get it down to about 90 seconds, told me how they called up their opposing quick reaction crew in the East on Christmas day to say hi. I spent the next five years of my life desperate to fly Lightnings – which one way or another never quite happened.

But I salute the men who flew this 60′s era fighter in the night over the North Sea watching the Bears, the radar and the fuel gauge with roughly equal attention for a couple of decades. The F-35A may turn out to be a great aircraft, but I doubt it will ever produce stories like the English Electric Lightning.

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