Britain’s gas network still using engines from 1960s RAF fighter jets

Britain’s sprawling gas network is still reliant on a fleet of ageing aircraft engines, some stripped from 1960s RAF Lightning fighter jets, it has emerged.

Jon Butterworth, chief executive of National Gas, said many of the engines that drive gas through the system date back decades, some to the Cold War, and now need millions of pounds spent on replacing them.

National Gas is responsible for the 7,800 kilometre pipe network[1] which transports gas from the UK’s ports and terminals to the 23 million homes and 500,000 businesses that rely on it for heating.

Mr Butterworth said: “I’ve got turbines compressing gas, from the North Sea to London, that are converted from RAF Lightnings.

“They have lasted a long time but they’ve done their shift now and it’s time to update them.”

RAF Engine National Gas relies on decommissioned engines to pump gas through the 7,800 kilometre pipe network Credit: National Gas

The English Electric Lightning was among the RAF’s most renowned fighter jets,[2] entering service in 1960, at the height of the Cold War, to protect the UK against Soviet nuclear bombers.

Its Rolls Royce Avon engines were so powerful that the aircraft could reach twice the speed of sound, with pilots often comparing it to flying a rocket.

When the decommissioning of the Lightning fleet coincided with the UK’s conversion to North Sea gas,[3] the engineers building the network snapped up the engines to pump gas through the new energy system.

Mr Butterworth said the engines remain a tribute to British engineering, but it is now time to replace them. Their age means new parts have to be custom made and they also have high emissions.

However, cost remains an issue, Mr Butterworth said, with the network powered by 68 turbines spread across 21 pumping stations where upgrading just one costs around £40m.

All major expenditure by National Gas gets passed on to customers, and so has to be justified to regulators and politicians. Raising funds has proved increasingly difficult as investors shun gas as the focus on net zero targets[4] makes renewable energy more popular.

Last autumn, the Government’s National Infrastructure Assessment suggested the entire network should be decommissioned.

RAF The English Electric Lightning was among the RAF’s most renowned fighter jets, entering service in 1960 Credit: Kev Gregory/Shutterstock

Mr Butterworth said: “We’re having a right old battle because everyone thinks gas should be turned off by 2035.

“It means I’m struggling to replace some of the key assets that give us the resilience that we need.”

National Gas is a relatively new company, spun out of National Grid, which once oversaw both the UK gas and electricity transmission networks.

Mr Butterworth said he expected the network to carry natural gas around the UK for decades to come despite the Government’s net zero pledges.[5]

However, he warned that supplies are becoming an increasing concern with the UK’s existing offshore oil and gas fields fast running out. About 180 of the existing 284 active fields will close by 2030, meaning gas supplies will fall 80pc and the UK will be reliant on imports.

He said: “I feel really sad that we’re bringing liquefied natural gas (LNG) from around the world. It has to be frozen into a liquid, the energy is incredible, and then we have to transport it halfway across the world in a boat and then heat it up again.

“But we’ve got gas in the North Sea, on our shores. So it makes me sad that we don’t use the asset we’ve got and that we’d rather bring gas in from somewhere else. We should be grown up enough to understand that exploring importing gas from the North Sea is far less damaging to the environment than bringing LNG and cargoes in from around the world.

“When I talk to the chief executives of the nine other transmission companies around the North Sea they are envious of the energy resources in our territorial waters. The key point is that we need resilience and security of supply. And we’ve still got lots of gas.”


  1. ^ 7,800 kilometre pipe network (
  2. ^ RAF’s most renowned fighter jets, (
  3. ^ the UK’s conversion to North Sea gas, (
  4. ^ focus on net zero targets (
  5. ^ the Government’s net zero pledges. (