The English Electric/BAC Lightning was a fighter aircraft operated by the Royal BC Air Force from 1967 to 1985.
British Columbia took part in the construction of the Pinetree Line early-warning system in the early 1950s together with the United States and Canada, contributing six stations to the line, including three located at existing airbases (RBCAF Comox, RBCAF Kamloops, RBCAF Tofino). BC also took part in the initial planning stages of the Mid-Continent Line, but by the time construction began in 1956, tensions with the US over the BC-Alaska border had resurfaced in another instalment of the long-running "Salmon Wars". BC withdrew from the Mid-Continent Line project in protest over a collision between an RBCN patrol boat and a US Coast Guard cutter (each side maintains the other was at fault, and each side maintains it was in their territorial waters). This forced a replanning of the line, with the stations originally to have been in BC relocated to the Yukon Territory in Canada.
The Soviet threat was still there, however, and something needed to be done. Despite the difficulties between the US and BC, and despite BC's withdrawal from the Mid-Continent Line project, the US nevertheless invited BC to join the North American Air Defence Command (NORAD) then being formed by Canada and the US. BC, however, was reluctant to join; the initial British Columbian position - playing along with public opinion - was that the border dispute had to be settled before any other BC-US matters could be dealt with. Over the next few years, the US continued to try to convince BC to join, but BC became further reluctant; through informal contacts with the Royal Canadian Air Force, along with previous experience with the Pinetree Line, the RBCAF came to the conclusion that as willing as the US was to fund the construction of new radar stations, it was not very forthcoming with the information gleaned by those stations.
Nevertheless, the BC government and Chiefs of Staff were fully aware that facing the Soviet threat would be much easier if the effort were coordinated with the USAF and the RCAF; politics played a role, however, and as long as public opinion was strongly anti-American, as it was in the 1956-1959 period, Prime Minister Sir W. A. C. Bennett was unable to do anything that seemed to be bowing to American pressure. By 1962, however, BC quietly began discussing joining NORAD with the US. In late 1963, the US State Department issued a statement in which they took responsibility for the accident between the USCGC Dexter and the HMBCS Skidegate (though the statement was carefully worded to avoid mention of whose jurisdiction the incident took place in). This went over reasonably well with the BC public, and there was little reaction when, in 1964, BC officially joined NORAD.
Aircraft Selection ProcessEdit
As part of BC's contribution, the RBCAF had to raise two interceptor squadrons. The US recommended that the RBCAF get the F-104 Starfighter for these squadrons, suggesting that having a common type between the three participating air forces would be a good thing, and also suggesting that BC could buy Canadian-made CF-104s from Canadair. The RBCAF agreed with the line of reasoning, but reserved the right to decide for itself, and in the event considered several other aircraft alongside the F-104.
Two CF-104s, along with RCAF crews, arrived in BC in 1965 to assist the RBCAF in extensively testing the type; RBCAF testers also travelled to the United Kingdom and France to test other options, and later in the year, a number of RBCAF pilots were sent to Edwards AFB, where they received training on the F-104. By this point, the officers who had been in the UK and France had returned to BC, and it was taken as a certainty that the RBCAF would be getting Starfighters to fulfil BC's portion of NORAD air defence efforts.
Thus it came as a considerable surprise when in September of 1966 the RBCAF announced it was placing an order with British Aircraft Corporation for 24 Lightning F.6 and 4 Lightning T.55 to equip the two interceptor squadrons. The Americans were a bit miffed, and some suggested that BC never had any intention of buying the F-104 and that the whole affair was orchestrated as a way for BC to thumb its nose at the US while appearing not to do.
No. 2 Sqn RBCAF ("Thunderbird"), which had stood down after the end of the war, was the first to equip with the Lightning, receiving their aircraft in 1967 and deploying to RBCAF Dease Lake; No. 1 Sqn RBCAF ("Raven") converted to the Lightning later that year and deployed to RBCAF Terrace, both in the extreme north-west of BC (near the Alaska Panhandle).
In 1976 the RBCAF introduced a new roundel, and replaced the tricolour fin flash with the shield of the BC arms as a fin flash. The Lightnings, along with all other RBCAF aircraft, received these, but otherwise the markings remained unchanged, and the Lightnings remained in overall bare metal. At some point in the early 1970s, No. 1 Sqn applied the Raven from their squadron badge to the tail of their aircraft.
The Lightning F.6s remained in service in BC as front-line interceptors until 1980, after which the four T.55 trainers were transferred away from the squadrons to the Flight Training School at RBCAF Comox. They remained flying there until 1985, after which they were retired and sent to various technical colleges around the Dominion for use as instructional airframes.