The Preston area has a long history of aircraft manufacture. Perhaps the best known was the English Electric Lightning fighter, along with the Canberra bomber. The Lightning was a supersonic jet fighter destined to play a part in the most dangerous stand-off of the 20th century.Advertisement
In 1897, Dick, Kerr bought a disused factory in Strand Road. By this time many towns were converting tramways to electric traction. Consequently, the company manufactured trams and electric locomotives. In 1905 the company became the United Electric Car Company, also retaining the Dick, Kerr name.
Another notable achievement of the Dick, Kerr company was its women’s football team. They formed during World War I and played internationally in 1920.
English Electric was formed after World War I. It comprised of five companies from around the UK. In fact two were in Preston: Dick, Kerr and Co and the United Electric Car Company.
During World War I experimental sea planes were developed, and the Strand Road factory played a part in this. In 1918 aircraft production was focussed in Preston. After the military contract ended in 1921 the company began to produce its own aircraft.
Aircraft production ceased in 1926. However, with another war looming, the factory was rebuilt in 1938. At this time Handley Page bombers began construction. Additionally, a new larger factor was built at Samlesbury. This factory remains in production today as BAE Systems.
In 1947 English Electric also acquired Warton Aerodrome, to the west of Preston. Here, the first production Vampire was built.
The first UK jet powered prototype had flown in 1941. This used Sir Frank Whittle’s turbojet engine. Built by the Gloster Aircraft Company, the E28/39 achieved 340 mph. However this was not the first jet to fly. The Germans flew the Heinkel HE178 in 1939.
The first RAF operational jets came into service in 1944, with the Gloster Meteor, a two engined aircraft. The Vampire was a contemporary of this seminal aircraft.
The De Haviland company first flew the Vampire in 1943 and many were built in Preston. The Vampire was the first jet to fly at 500mph, more efficient engines allowing single engined operation. The EE Lightning was soon to follow.
The first hand built prototypes of the Lightning were built at Samlesbury, in 1953.
The English Electric Lightning remained in service until the late 1980s and could achieve Mach 2 or twice the speed of sound.
The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 was the closest we have ever come to nuclear war.
“If we had gone, the chances are we would have been dead anyway, and even if we had got back safely there would be nothing to come back to”. So said a Vulcan bomber pilot, stationed in Lincolnshire.
In late October 1962, pilots sat in their Vulcan aircraft ready to attack the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. Earlier, Alert condition 3 had been declared. This was short of full mobilisation. Importantly, the Prime Minister did not want the Soviet Union thinking they would be attacked, imminently.
However, ‘all (pilots) confirmed that they had spent hours in their (nuclear) armed aircraft at cockpit readiness (five minutes) to scramble on the afternoon of Saturday 27 October 1962’. UK air defence was also on full alert, indeed, Lightning fighter aircraft were poised to shoot down Soviet bombers.
The Lightning aircraft went into front line service in 1959. Consequently, they were fairly new in 1962, when the Cuban missile crisis gave the aircraft a pivotal role. The Soviet Union regularly tested the air defence of the UK, by flying bomber aircraft close to the UK air defence zone. In this way response times were obtained.
The Lightning would have been tasked with shooting down attacking bombers. Thankfully, they never had to.
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