It may be inauguration day in the United States, but rather than talk politics we thought we’d have a game of Top Trumps Virgin Atlantic-style and discuss one of our favourite subjects – aircraft!
Captain Ian Black, one of our 787 pilots, has a long and distinguished flying career. Ian is the epitome of an aviator and has flown some of the most iconic aircraft in the world during his military and civil careers. We asked him to talk us through the differences between one of the first jets he flew, the English Electric Lightning, and the most recent; the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Which one will come up trumps?
Ian comes from a family of aviators. His father was a hard act to follow; a decorated RAF officer who flew a variety of jets from the post-war era. But the aircraft that fascinated Ian the most was the all-British supersonic English Electric Lightning. As Ian’s career began, the Lightning’s was coming to an end. But that didn’t stop him. Ian’s father was the RAF’s first Lightning pilot, and Ian went on to become the last, while his later career involved flying a huge range of military jets from Migs in Malaysia to Mirage jets in France.
After hanging up his military boots Ian joined us at Virgin Atlantic, flying first on the Airbus fleet before moving over to the 787s. As a career pilot at the top of his game he has a vast wealth of experience, but the English Electric Lightning remains his favourite aircraft – although as we will see, the 787 comes close.
So which aircraft wins our Top Trumps?
Which is the best looking?
Why don’t we start with the hardest question? Both are true design icons, where engineering rather than design produces truly gorgeous lines. The Lightning has angular swept back wings designed in the 1950s by men smoking pipes and using slide rules, pens and paper. A Cold War-era style that just oozes power and strength, and a truly classic aircraft. The 787 was designed by the brightest minds at Boeing. Using decades of experience and complex computer programmes they produced the sleek aerodynamic lines which have been compared to the contemporary and stylish classic Comet aircraft, all done in state-of-the-art super strong and super light carbon. Lightning wins (just).
Sleeping at night
Our 787-9 carries up to 264 customers and safely delivers them in comfort and style to the other side of the world. With our famous lie flat Upper Class beds and comfortable Premium Economy and Economy seats it is easy to get to sleep on a long flight. The Lightning cockpit was never meant to be somewhere you could sleep. But while on QRA (Quick Response Alert) duties in the height of the Cold War, we were on standby 24/7. We had to be airborne in five minutes to intercept any hostile aircraft approaching our airspace. As the slogan of the time said, this allowed everyone in the UK to ‘sleep safely in their beds’. Got to give this one to the 787.
Easy one this. The Lightning cockpit was cramped and uncomfortable with a narrow field of view. Once you were strapped in, you were strapped in. The 787 has a very spacious flight deck. Plenty of room to stand up and have a nice stretch before going for a stroll around the cabin and maybe sitting at the bar for a coffee and a natter with some of our customers. 787 wins
On a long ferry flight on the Lightning we could spend several hours in the air with occasional visits to an air-to-air refuelling tanker. But a man has got to eat. A typical lunch for the RAF Lightning pilot was a little cardboard box with four tiny sandwiches, a carton of Kia-Ora orange juice and a Mars bar. Eating involved removing your oxygen mask and grabbing a couple of mouthfuls of food then putting the mask back on before you fainted. Repeat until the meal was finished then desperately search for somewhere to store the empty containers. On the 787 it’s tougher. Choosing which entrée to have with the salmon starter can be difficult. Our meals are served by our lovely cabin crew with a constant supply of nice cappuccinos and English tea throughout the flight. We’re going to have to give this one to the 787.
I’m going to spare Ruby readers the details of how to go to the loo in the cramped cockpit of a Lightning while on a ferry flight from Cyprus to the UK. Suffice it to say the 787 wins this one hands down. With its spacious restrooms, posh soaps, hot and cold water and paper towels we can forgive it for being a bit noisy to flush. It also has the advantage that you don’t need to find somewhere to store your bag of waste near your seat that didn’t already have a crumpled lunch box stowed there. 787 wins.
Both aircraft were ground-breaking in their time and took aeronautical design to a new level. The Lightning was designed as a Point Defence Interceptor, something it excelled in. It was also the first British aircraft that could break the sound barrier in level flight, and it was made largely from aluminium which was very new at the time. The 787 was designed to be the most fuel efficient, comfortable airliner of a generation. So many fantastic new innovations go into the 787 that might not be too obvious: the cabin altitude is lower so you really do feel better when you get off a 12-hour flight; the dimmable cabin windows give it a really ‘cool’ feel anytime of day or night, and inside it’s super quiet. A draw.
Find out more about some of the other innovation on our 787s.
Fuel economy and range
The 787 was designed from the ground up to be the most economical aircraft ever built. The Lightning wasn’t! It drank fuel at an alarming rate, basically pouring neat fuel into the jet pipe to produce the afterburners which gave it so much performance. The 787 literally sips fuel. I’ve flown for Virgin Atlantic for 20 years and when we started with the then very modern Airbus A340, we would take 100 tons of fuel from London to Hong Kong. Now on the 787 it might be 65 tons – that’s a massive saving in aviation terms of perhaps 10 years technology. The Lightning had a fuel capacity of 13,500lbs but on a full afterburner intercept mission could use it all up in just 155 miles! 787 wins
Navigation and communication
Just 80 miles offshore and things got tricky for the Lightning pilot. With a very limited radio and radar system and few navigation aids it would be time to head for home. Onboard the 787 I have a vast array of equipment and systems to use. This includes wi-fi, satcom, a radar that can see for hundreds of miles, no end of navigation aids, an electronic flight bag, instant access to details of every single airfield in the world and the ability to talk to our Crawley Ops Centre from anywhere. 787 win.
The 787 was the first airline to be fitted with electronic rather than hydraulic brakes. I was a bit cynical to begin with but am really impressed with the way that the aircraft can stop in a very short distance on the wettest runway. It has reverse thrust and in the HUD (Head Up Display) we can actually see how efficiently we are braking. The HUD might look like a jet fighter-style gimmick but it’s actually a great device for ensuring every landing is a smooth one … hopefully! The Lightning had tiny wheels with very thin tyres and a braking parachute. It was all very seat of the pants stuff. Even the longest runways seem to run out at an alarming rate at times. There were no HUDs in Lightning days. 787 easy win.
Interesting one. Both powered by two Rolls Royce engines. The Lightning has two Avon 301Rs with afterburners producing a total of 16,360 ibf each. The 787 has Trent 1000 engines which produce 71,000ibf each. So the 787 wins, unless we do it on weight to thrust ratio, then everything changes.
While the Lightning would do Mach 2.2 (after we had air-to-air refuelled) the 787 cruises at Mach .85 or 85% of the speed of sound. Ok, it’s not Concorde but it’s one of the fastest modern airliners around and it’s a play off between speed and fuel burn. Sure, it would be nice to fly at Concorde speed but environmentally the fuel usage is not justifiable. That said, Richard is a pioneer in the aviation world and as well as his Virgin Galactic project he’s also had a passion for The Boom ‘Son of Concorde’. Perhaps now, with the advances in design, materials and engine efficiency it could work. Of course only ex-Lightning Pilots will be allowed to fly Virgin Supersonic Airliners! Lightning wins.
This is no contest. While the 787 gently climbs with the comfort of its customers in mind, the Lightning was well known for howling off the runway like a scalded banshee, sitting on its tail and getting up to 20,000 feet in a vertical climb within a minute of take-off. While some passengers might enjoy the vertical climb, serving the inflight meals might give our Cabin Crew a hard job! Lightning wins.
The Lightning could go into the Stratosphere with ease – seeing the curvature of the earth was one of the perks of the job – but it wasn’t comfortable. In a 787 we can cruise at 41,000 in a calm serene environment wearing just ordinary clothes or if you are lucky enough to be in our Upper Class cabin, a rather sexy snooze suit. Above 40,000 feet in a Lightning you needed a tight fitting helmet, visor oxygen mask and full pressure breathing suit – all this under a bulky exposure suit as well as Anti G trousers and a Mae west (life jacket) so given the choice sat at 40,000 feet, give me a 787. 787 wins
No one forgets a Lightning but then again no one forgets their first flight in a Virgin 787 – for opposite reasons. With its scalloped engine nacelles and the latest in aerodynamics and noise reduction science the 787 is the quietest airliner in the skies and a good neighbour to people who live near airports. Noise didn’t even come into the equation when they were designing the Lightning. With its afterburners crackling for take-off it was one of the noisiest machines around – capable of breaking windows with its sonic boom and making children cry at air shows. We kinda like both. So draw.
So there we have it. The Lightning was the ‘Dan Dare’ rocket ship of its era. The 787 is the quintessential airliner. Our fleet of Dreamliners are setting the bench mark for modern air travel – Mach 2.2 is so 1950s. The winner is The Boeing 787 Dreamliner – the Trump Card in Virgin Atlantic’s pack!
We’d like to thank Ian, also a notable aviation author and photographer, for taking the time to help us with this article. Follow him and his travels around the world on social media: on Twitter @BlickyIan; with his whippet Wilf on Instagram, or visit his website Firestreak Books to find out more about his writing and photography.
All photos copyright Ian Black and Virgin Atlantic.