OPERATION BLACK BUCK 1 DURING OPERATION CORPORATE: 30 Apr – 1 May 1982
XM607 Side profile Credit Navigator Radar Flt Lt Norman Curtis-Christie
On the 2nd April 1982 Argentina invaded the British Territory of the Falklands Islands which are situated approximately 8,000 miles from the UK and 400 miles off the Southern most point of Argentina. The UK at the time was in an economic recession with 3 million people unemployed and calls for cuts in Defence and Foreign affairs, the Argentinians didn’t expect the response that followed from the British Government. Almost immediately after the invasion the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced that Britain would form an Amphibious Task Force to reclaim the islands under Government rule, it sailed two days later. Within the Ministry of Defence campaign planning was in progress, and the military response was to be called OPERATION CORPORATE.
The Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Beetham briefed the Prime Minister of the RAF intention to mount a bombing mission against the enemy-occupied airfield on East Falkland, whilst informing her that it still needed ‘refining’. The plan called for a Vulcan Bomber to attack the runway at Port Stanley airfield to deny its use by Argentine fast jets and hamper the re-supply of the invasion forces. Shortly after the Argentinian occupation of the Falklands, Ascension Island was identified as the potential Forward Operating Base for the Royal Air Force from which to mount its South Atlantic operations. It lay approximately 4000 miles from the Falkland Islands and would involve a round trip of 8,000 miles for the Bomber.
The following story depicts the audacious bombing mission that was planned and executed 36 years ago. Within it, there is courage, innovation, flexibility and enhancement of obsolete equipment demonstrating the ‘edge’ that our people give us as a Service. The two key aircraft were the Avro Vulcan B2 and the Handley Page Victor K2, both aircraft types approaching the end of their service life. The Vulcan squadrons were in the process of being disbanded, and the aircraft was about to be retired from the Royal Air Force’s Order of Battle. The Victor was also in the winter of its years, whilst the conversion programme was well under way for the VC10 Tanker to take over as the latest tanker marque. In reality, it would continue in service for another 11 years before final retirement in 1993.
On Good Friday 9 April 1982, the RAF Waddington Station Commander Group Captain John Laycock received a signal from HQ 1 Group instructing him to generate 10 aircraft in the conventional bombing role. This requirement was later reduced as there were insufficient tankers to support such a large commitment, apart from the added requirement to reactivate the aircraft’s air-to-air refuelling (AAR) system. The Vulcan was in its last 3 months of service, before being struck off charge and replaced by the Tornado GR1. This was now put on hold. The Station Commander recalled Wg Cdr Simon Baldwin MBE, Officer Commanding 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron, to lead a training and planning team of personnel drawn from the remaining squadrons, and the Station Operations Wing. After consultation with the squadron commanders, four crews were selected; Squadron Leader ‘Monty’ Montgomery of 44 Squadron, Squadron Leader John Reeve of 50 Squadron, Flt Lt Martin Withers of 101 Squadron and shortly afterwards Squadron Leader Neil McDougal of 50 Squadron.
The first looming challenge was that the Vulcan had not exercised its dormant refuelling equipment and systems in over 20 years. Nor did any pilots within the Vulcan Force have any actual AAR experience. Concurrently, the Waddington engineers set to work, picking the airframes with the more powerful Olympus 301 engines most suited to carrying a 21 x 1,000lb conventional bomb load and potentially operating above its cleared maximum operating weight. The AAR system had to be reactivated and a conventional bombing system had to be reconfigured, which included the recovery of conventional bomb racks that had been sold to a scrap metal merchant in Newark (they were found under tarpaulins in the same condition the day they were disposed of). Simultaneously at RAF Marham, the Station Commander Group Captain Jeremy Price directed his Victor crews to regain night currency in AAR.
At both stations, there was a hive of activity, particularly as more formal plans materialised. It was identified that both the Vulcan and Victor would need upgrades to their aircraft navigation systems; this was addressed by the installation of Inertial Navigation systems that had been hastily removed from the VC10s (earmarked to replace the Victor) in ground storage at RAF Abingdon Oxfordshire. The engineers at both stations set about implementing innovative solutions to integrate the new systems into their aircraft to enhance their capability.
‘Operation BLACK BUCK’ was the code name given for the planned strike mission. At RAF Waddington, Wing Commander Simon Baldwin’s planning process for the bombing mission factored in the following parameters, not listed in order of priority.
1. The altitude of the weapons delivery would be as low as reasonably possible to achieve a good percentage of accuracy, commensurate with the known air defensive capability at the target airfield.
2. The attack would take place during the hours of darkness to minimise the effectiveness of visually-aimed air defences. (Prior to the BLACK BUCK raids, the Vulcans would be equipped with a Westinghouse AN/AL1-101 Electronic Warfare (EW) pod to deal with the enemy air defence radars).
3. The timing of the attack would be planned at pre-dawn to maximise the element of surprise and catch the enemy at their most vulnerable.
4. A deep-penetration effect from free-fall bombs would be preferable to that of retarded bombs delivered at low level which would only scab the runway.
It was a long time since the Vulcan had dropped conventional bombs, and when Wg Cdr Baldwin first enquired, he discovered that RAF Waddington’s armoury held 41 1,000lb ‘iron’ bombs. Widening his search, he was alarmed to track down just 167 in the whole country. Sqn Ldr Mel James recalled that the bombs that he fused for BLACK BUCK 1 had 1955 kite marks stamped on them.
Meanwhile at RAF Marham developments were in progress for the Victor to address an emerging capability requirement. The task was given to the most current low level experienced pilot, Sqn Ldr Bob Tuxford, who had recently returned to the Victor Force from an instructional tour on the Jet Provost. He was called into the Marham operations building on the evening of 11 April 1982. Inside the room he was greeted by the Station Commander whilst in the background a couple of Non-Commissioned Officers fiddled over what looked like a Meccano infrastructure. This was to be the framework for an F-95 camera rig that was to be fitted inside the Bomb Aimer’s compartment of the Victor for possible Photo-Reconnaissance (PR) tasking. Tuxford was identified as being the most qualified skipper at Marham to put the Victor through its paces at low level.
On 12 April 1982, he flew the first modified camera aircraft with authorisation to let down to 250 feet above ground level. Over the following four days, 3 more practice low level PR sorties were flown, during which camera attacks were made against simulated coastal targets and airfields around the Scottish Islands and Northern England. With the addition of ex-27 Sqn Navigator Radars who were previously employed in the Maritime Radar Reconnaissance (MRR) role riding along, the tanker crews were introduced to the techniques of MRR, yet another new string to their bow. In addition to its primary AAR capability, the Victor crews were poised to demonstrate their versatility in two new roles during this conflict.
It was decided that due to the short time frame in which to practice tanking between the Victor and Vulcan, a Victor qualified air-to-air refuelling instructor (AARI) would fly with each of the Vulcan crews. Occupying the Vulcan Co-Pilot’s seat, the AARIs would oversee the Vulcan Captains whilst they gained the necessary close formation and refuelling skills to the required standard for AAR operations. The Vulcan crews were required to practice refuelling with Victor tankers by both day and night, an example of the hazards that this entailed is highlighted by Squadron Leader Barry Masefield an Air Electronics Officer in a Vulcan that was refuelling at night in April 1982:
‘I recall that during one of the night time refuelling sorties, there was a massive leak of fuel from the probe over the windscreen, virtually blinding the pilots and their sight of the Victor was just a hazy blur of lights. Contact with the hose was broken but instead of pulling back behind the Victor our aircraft surged forward until we were directly underneath the Victor and the refuelling hose started to trail down the starboard side of the Vulcan until it nestled neatly into the engine intakes, causing a big bang and a double engine flame out. A double engine failure is a concern at any time but at night with a co-pilot from a different type of aircraft sitting in the right-hand seat and not experienced with Vulcan failures, it concentrated the mind!
The Victor AEO transmitted a distress call on my behalf whilst the captain and I sorted out the situation. There was a noticeable silence from the AARI as he watched a Christmas tree of lights illuminate before his eyes from all the associated electrical failures and he thought it best to say nothing whilst the crew recovered the engines and electrics. After that incident the engineers made positive efforts to resolve the leak problems’. However, fuel spilling on the windscreen continued to be an issue throughout the BLACK BUCK missions’.
The Vulcan and Victor crews trained intensely during early April, with Victor crews also practising air-to-air refuelling with C130 Hercules and Nimrods in addition to supporting Quick Reaction Alert Air Defence commitments. The first detachment of Victor Tankers arrived on Ascension Island on 18 April 1982. Within 48 hours of their arrival, the first of three maritime radar reconnaissance tasks were flown into the area of South Georgia and approaches to the Falkland Islands. These were intelligence gathering and area searches to identify Argentinian Fleet dispositions for the South Atlantic Task Force which was sailing towards the Falkland Islands.
The Waddington Vulcan crews continued to practice their low-level training and conventional bombing techniques, which always included a refuelling serial: such was the intensity that some crews flew 11 times in 14 days. It was realised with an emerging ground to air threat that the Vulcan’s Cold War Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) and Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) capability needed enhancing to meet the new threat. Whilst it was well equipped to meet Soviet and Warsaw Pact air to ground threats, the Argentinians had procured their equipment from other sources. This capability gap was quickly closed by borrowing Westinghouse AN/ALQ-101 Electronic Counter Measure pods from the Buccaneer Force at RAF Honington. By the 19th of April the engineers had re-located the Skybolt mounting points under the wings. (The intention was for the Vulcan 301 series to be fitted with Skybolt air launched ballistic missiles in the 1960s). Using metal found on the scrap dump at RAF Waddington and with some ingenuity, the engineers designed and manufactured new pylons to carry the Westinghouse pod. An example of the mounting can be seen later in this article under the wing of XM607, viewed from the rear-view periscope of a Victor. On the 20th of April, the crews flew with their first 1,000lb bombs payload and Westinghouse pod configuration. Each crew dropped 7 x 1,000lb bombs from 300 feet. Whilst training on the ECM Range at RAF Spadeadam the new pod worked exactly as advertised. It was only shortly before they deployed to Ascension Island that Wing Commander Baldwin had gained sufficient information on the Argentine Air Defences to be able to refine the attack planning. Until he received the necessary information, he had to assume that the Argentine defences were comprehensive and covered all attitudes, and therefore the best way to attack would be at low level.
His revised attack plan involved a low-level penetration under Argentinian Search radar which would provide the vital element of surprise; a pop up to 8,000 feet about 30 miles from the target; an offset track 35 degrees from the runway centre line; a plan to jam the gun radars if necessary and drop 1,000lbs bombs in a stick of 21 with the appropriate stick spacing. On the morning of the 29 April as the television camera crews filmed the handover ceremony of the Sqn standard from IX (B) Vulcan Squadron to the new Tornado GR1 Squadron inside hangar 3 (IX (B) Sqn never actually disbanded, the standard was handed over to the next generation), the characteristic howl and thunder of 3 Vulcans taking off in quick succession could be heard in the background. It was 15 days after their first training flight for BLACK BUCK. What the media did not know as they captured the historic footage of the ceremony within the hangar was that the distracting roar was the sound of the heavily armed bombers leaving Britain enroute to Ascension Island.
Within 24 hours 2 of these aircraft would be on the operating pan at Ascension declared ready for Operation BLACK BUCK. On the evening of 30 April 1982, the Victor crews of 55 and 57 Sqn along with the 2 Vulcan crews, made up almost 70 aircrew in the hastily erected series of tents that was the Combined Operations Centre on Wideawake Auxilliary Airfield. Here they were briefed on the raid plan. By late evening the phone communication had been cut off to and from the island for Operational Security, which also included the imposition of radio silence between aircraft and operations throughout the mission. The following transcript from the diary of Sqn Ldr Mel James, OIC Vulcan engineering detachment describes the scene on the evening of 30 Apr 1982 when 11 Victors and 2 Vulcans started up in quick succession:
‘Crew in 2200 hours formally. 2230 hours engines start – ALL ENGINES. The pan is now a mass of anti-collision lights and engines, power sets and coolers running – the noise is incredible. Telephone/telex blackout on Island commenced 2100 hours. 2250 taxi sequence commences. 598 (Vulcan) followed by Victor followed by 607 (Vulcan) last out. All 11 tankers away without using reserves! Last aircraft airborne 2310 hours. Suddenly a silent empty ASP – that was the most incredible sight I’ve ever seen’
In the last aircraft of the formation, Martin Wither’s Vulcan accelerated down the runway and upon reaching the rotate speed of 135 knots he pulled back on the stick, but nothing happened. Eventually his aircraft gained lift under its huge delta wing and took flight. Both Vulcans took off that night at well over their maximum take-off weight of 204,0000lbs. The fuel plan kindly provided by Sqn Ldr Bob Tuxford AFC depicts the refuelling procedures. Three sections comprising Red, White and Blue would form the outbound wave. Red and White sections would consist of 4 Victors each, whilst a further three tankers would support the primary Vulcan and its reserve in Blue section. Under radio silence, 13 aircraft roared into the dark sky; the visibility was very good and the sky seemed to be awash with flashing red beacons amidst a clutter of multi-coloured navigation lights. Shortly after take-off, one Victor and the Primary Vulcan had to return due to unserviceability.
Following the loss of one tanker so early in the mission, the remaining number of 10 Victors was the minimum needed to make the refuelling plan work: one more unserviceability, and in all probability, the mission would have to be aborted. After climbing to altitude, Red, White and Blue Sections formed up and were heading south at 36, 34 and 32,000 feet respectively. The plan was to successively refuel each other along the cascading refuelling plan to enable one final tanker, ‘The Probe’ aircraft, to provide the Primary Vulcan the final fuel transfer prior to attacking the target. The Vulcan would take on fuel at a number of dedicated refuelling brackets to keep his tanks topped up throughout. The first bracket (Bkt-1) was located approximately 1 Hr 45 minutes after take-off, some 900nm south of the Island.
During this bracket, two tankers of Red and White section refuelled the other two Victors in their section and then returned to Ascension. Under radio silence the formation continued South, not knowing that the 4 Victors returning to Ascension had cut deep into their reserves to supply the formation with the fuel it needed. Closely spaced on their return, these four Victors were cleared to make successive approaches to the runway and directed to land in sequence as there was insufficient time for each preceding aircraft to back-track along the runway and vacate it for the next landing aircraft. This resulted in each Victor pulling up and stacking at the runway end whilst the final aircraft landed on the remaining reduced runway length available. The potential for a ‘motorway pile up’ was perilously evident. Luckily, the aircraft were all recovered without incident, but on shutdown, it was evident that the refuelling plan had been less than accurate.
Meanwhile, at Bkt-2 approximately 1800nm south, the off loading tankers began to dispense their available fuel into the two onward Victors and the primary Vulcan. Once their fuel was off loaded, the Victors headed back to Ascension. Unfortunately, one of these tankers developed a fuel leak, which lead to an anxious return journey for its crew. Without the immediate despatch of a rescue tanker launched from Ascension Island, the stricken aircraft looked as though a ditching might have been a distinct possibility. Unaware of the drama which they had left behind, the formation pressed on to the next refuelling at Bkt-3. Bob Tuxford as the new formation leader was accompanied by Steve Biglands in their Victors with Martin Withers in the Vulcan maintaining close formation. At approximately 2,500nm from Ascension, Tuxford topped up the Vulcan before starting to transfer his remaining fuel to Biglands in the ‘Probe’ tanker.
At approximately 40 degrees South, the formation entered an area of intense frontal activity. Convective high level cumulo-nimbus cloud, unseen as the weather radars had been turned off to maintain a low profile, caused the aircraft to gyrate like bucking broncos. Momentary flashes of lightning illuminated the black sky and St Elmo’s fire characterized by erratic sparks and jagged fingers of lightning danced around Tuxford’s front transparencies.
In the near impossible conditions for air to-air refuelling, at mid bracket, Steve Bigland’s Victor broke the tip of its refuelling probe, making further fuel transfer impossible. The refuelling plan in tatters and the mission close to failure, Tuxford made the decision to swap position with Bigland’s aircraft, and attempt to take back the fuel that he had just offloaded. Whilst the Vulcan crew looked on helplessly, Tuxford positioned his aircraft behind Bigland’s hastily-trailed hose, and braced himself for the most difficult refuelling of his entire career. The desperate scene is depicted on the front cover of this magazine, and is taken from a painting commissioned by Rowland White entitled “40 Degrees South” (reproduced by kind permission of the renowned aviation artist Ronald Wong). Tuxford persevered after several missed approaches but managed finally to make contact and take back at least part of the fuel required to continue the mission.
Shortly afterwards, with calm skies and a clear horizon restored, the Vulcan was called in to check the serviceability of Tuxford’s basket for potential damage or lodged probe tip. As this proved indeterminate, a test transfer of 5,000 lbs was offered the Vulcan to ensure the final transfer could be undertaken with confidence. After comprehensively checking his fuel state however, it was now clear that the fuel remaining in Tuxford’s tanks was drastically less than that which had been expected. Tuxford perceived the situation as two-fold: as the formation leader he could have aborted the mission whilst he still had sufficient fuel to return to base and call off the raid or continue whilst his reserves rapidly dwindled to the point that a safe recovery to.
Ascension was not guaranteed. Tuxford was now faced with a predicament: he needed to balance the planned fuel offload to the Vulcan at the final Bkt-4, whilst leaving a reserve quantity sufficient to enable the aircraft to get close enough to Ascension Island and meet a rescue tanker before running out of fuel completely. His gut feeling was to put all his trust in the years of experience in the Tanker Force, or more precisely the air commander and his operations team on Ascension Island. Without declaring his hand, he addressed his crew asking for an honest take on the situation.
One by one, they unanimously stated that ‘having gone that far, we might as well see it through’. At the final bracket approximately 500nm northeast of the target, Tuxford transferred what he calculated to be sufficient fuel to enable the Vulcan to accomplish the strike on the target. As the Vulcan was signalled that the transfer was complete, Withers was aware that his fuel tanks were not completely full, and initially called for more fuel! He did not know at the time just how precarious the Victor’s fuel state was.
After casting off the bomber, the atmosphere was subdued in Tuxford’s aircraft as he put it into a cruise climb that would give him the best range capability. It was paramount however that his crew maintained radio silence to avoid compromising the Vulcan’s presence & intentions. With 20,000lbs of fuel less than expected in his tanks, Tuxford’s crew realised that they could only get to within four or five hundred miles from Ascension without the assistance of a rescue tanker.
As the Vulcan broke away from the tanker Flt Lt Dick Russell unstrapped himself from his seat and moved down the steps to the sixth seat, whilst Fg Off Pete Taylor re occupied his Co-Pilot’s seat once more.
This will be continued in the Winter edition of Wycombe World
Sqn Ldr Kev O’Brien SO2 Manpower Plans
I would like to thank the following people who gave me their kind permission to use the contents of their works and for their time and encouragement. Mr Ronald Wong GAvA ASAA for allowing the reproduction of 40 Degrees South on the front cover. Rowland White author of the acclaimed book ‘Vulcan XM607, Air Commodore Simon Baldwin MBE, and Group Captain John Laycock (former Station Commander RAF Waddington) authors of ‘The Kings Thunderbolts are Righteous’, Group Captain Jeremy Price CBE former Station Commander RAF Marham, Group Captain ‘Monty’ Montgomery, Wg Cdr Mel James OBE, Sqn Ldr Bob Tuxford AFC author of ‘Contact!’, Squadron Leader Martin Withers DFC, Squadron Leader Dick Russel AFC, Squadron Leader Barry Masefield, and support and assistance from the Air Historical Branch.