• Falkland Mission Impossible

It was the most daring RAF raid since the Dambusters: Flying a jet 20 years past its sell-by date 4,000 miles beyond its range to bomb a target a few yards wide. The result changed the course of the Falklands War.

The Pentagon believed it was impossible. So, privately, did others commanding the British Task Force sailing south towards the Falkland Islands after their invasion by Argentina in the spring of 1982. And for the six-man crew of Vulcan 607, in the early hours of April 31, it was beginning to turn into a suicide mission.

Martin Withers and his co-pilot Dick Russell were 300 miles north of their target: the airstrip near the Falklands capital Port Stanley. It had to be destroyed to stop Argentine fighter jets using it to attack the task force.

They still needed 14,000 lb of fuel to carry out their mission and - if they survived the ground-to-air missiles from the heavily fortified capital - to reach the refueling rendezvous off the coast of Brazil, 300 miles east of Rio de Janeiro.

As it headed towards the Falklands the final mid-air refueling of the Vulcan was beginning. Withers eased his plane into position behind the Handley Page Victor tanker, the last in an immensely complex alternation of 11 tankers and 15 fuel transfers which had been involved in getting the bomber this far.

Once settled in its wake, less than 20 yards from the Victor's tail-cone, and plugged into its trailing fuel hose, Withers waited for the red lights at the base of the hose to flash green to show that fuel was flushing into the Vulcan's tanks through the four-inch pipes that ran beneath his feet.

The gauge spun up to 7,000 gallons - just a fraction of its total fuel capacity of 36,000 - and then the tanker signaled that it could give them no more. Withers was baffled and furious. Just as he was approaching his target, he was being left in the lurch.

He had no way of knowing that the tanker was even lower on fuel than the Vulcan and had probably sacrificed its crew to give the Vulcan a fighting chance of making the rendezvous.

"We don't have the fuel to carry out the mission," radioed the electronics officer from the back of the Vulcan. "I'm sorry, that's it. I have no more fuel to give you," replied the Victor's pilot, Bob Tux ford, as the tanker de-coupled and turned north into the night. That was that.

Headed for the scrapheap

Dick Russell, the only man on board the Vulcan with any real experience of air-to-air refueling, knew what the fail safe procedures were. He told Atoll Withers that to guarantee the safety of the aircraft they should abort the mission. If they were to succeed and then lose the bomber as the tanks ran dry, they would face disaster. Really it was a miracle they had got this far. Britain's V-bombers, built to deliver nuclear bombs, were headed for the scrap heap.

In the Fifties they had been state-of-the-art, our most impressive weapon in the Cold War. Built to deliver nuclear bombs, the delta-shaped Vulcan’s were brilliantly maneuverable, considering their size - an inch short of 100ft in wingspan. Their lightning-fast low-level flying played havoc with enemy radar. But by 1982 the writing was on the wall. Their base at RAF Waddington in the Lincolnshire fens was to be closed. In weeks, the last four Vulcan squadrons would be gone. On the far side of the base Vulcan’s were already being torn apart for scrap.

And then General Galtieri decided to grab the Falklands. These islands of sheep farmers, 8,000 miles away in the South Atlantic, were practically indefensible. The nearest British base, Ascension Island, was 4,000 miles away to the northeast - too far for C-130 transport planes to deliver troops. But it was British sovereign territory.

The islanders were British: in return for their allegiance the Crown owed them protection. Margaret Thatcher, a Prime Minister sinking low in the polls, ordered a naval task force to be prepare d which could set up an exclusion zone around the islands. However, if the invaders could resupply themselves by air, the campaign could turn into a grueling siege.

The only aircraft in the entire RAF which could fly to the Falklands from a friendly base was the Handley Page Victor K2, a bomber which had been turned into an air-to-air refueling tanker. The Tornado GR1s were too new and unproven to be risked, even if they could be refueled, and it would need a convoy of Sea Harrier jump jets to drop the same weight of bombs and an aircraft carrier nearby - which itself would be most vulnerable to fighters based at Port Stanley.

That left the Vulcan nuclear bombers. None of their crews had practiced dropping conventional bombs for ten years. And they hadn't practiced air-to-air refueling for 20 years. Had not the Chief of Air Staff, Sir Michael Beetham, himself been a pioneer of the technique, nobody would even have considered them. Of the ten Vulcan bombers requisitioned, only three had accurate bomb delivery and powerful enough engines for the task.

Each had its own quirks and eccentricities. Parts were hard to find. A vital refueling component was salvaged from a ground crew room where it was serving as an ashtray. The bomb cradles in which conventional bombs could be carried, not used since the Vulcan’s turned nuclear, were hard to find; some turned up in a scrapyard in Newark, Notts.

The nose-mounted probes on which the hoses clamped for air-to-air refueling frequently sheared off during the intensive training that the pilots were now undergoing; replacements had to be found from military museums.

Navigation problems

Then there were the navigation problems. The Vulcan’s would have to fly over 4,000 miles of open ocean, without a single surface feature that the radar officers could use to fix a position. There were no detailed maps of the area and, at that time, no satellite imagery.

The only reliable instrument was a sextant which, as in Nelson's day, was used to chart the aircraft's position relative to the angles of the stars.

Not until late in the planning did someone remember that the old Vickers Super VC10 airliners, abandoned by British Airways, had a carousel inertial navigation device which, once aligned to true north, was accurate enough to get them there.

The Argentinian armed forces meanwhile were consolidating their advantage on the Falklands, confident in the belief that could not be attacked by the British. They had occupied the islands on April 2. Within a few days they had flown in Argentine Marine detachments armed with 30mm cannon and Tiger Cat optically guided surface-to-air missiles. An anti-aircraft battery went up behind Stanley Town Hall.

Residents, powerless to resist the invader, watched a constant stream of aircraft flying in: C-130s, Fokker F-27s and F-28s and British-built BAC 1-11s. A skillful Argentine pilot even landed a fully-laden four-engine Boeing 707 on the small Stanley airstrip. By the end of April, the islands were bristling with defenses.

What really worried Simon Baldwin, the Flight Commander back in Waddington, were not the Tiger Cats but the Swiss Oerlikon cannon which could punch through a two-foot slab of steel and fire high-explosive shells 6,500 feet into the air. The Franco-German Roland radar-guided missiles were even more deadly.

Capable of supersonic speeds and accurate to 12,800 ft, they would leave a Vulcan dangerously vulnerable. Baldwin checked twice with Intelligence whether the ground-based Roland was deployed on the islands, and was told that it wasn't.

Intelligence was wrong.

Pilot training at Waddington continued day and night, while the engineers struggled to enhance the old bombers' capability and their chances of surviving. The Vulcan’s still looked beautiful, but inside the cockpit was a cramped, claustrophobic confusion of wires and pipes crafted from steel, canvas and Bakelite.

Uncomfortably cramped

In the small blister above the plane's nose where the pilot and co-pilot sat, it was uncomfortably cramped, with barely room to squeeze in between the two ejector seats. Behind them, four or five feet below and facing backwards, sat the radar, navigation and electronics officers at their chart tables. The light was provided by three dented reading lamps and two small, high portholes; the space smelled of sweat, leather and old metal.

On April 29, three Vulcan bombers took off for Ascension Island, so heavily y laden with fuel and cargo that they could hardly stagger into air. Ascension is leased by Britain to the U.S. which, in return, provides 'logistical support' - at that point it was overrun by British aircraft and servicemen, with hundreds more quartered on the Task Force flagship, the requisitioned liner Canberra offshore.

The following morning, Jerry Price, the senior RAF officer on Ascension Island, received the order for Operation Black Buck, the code name given to the mission to bomb Port Stanley airfield. Two more Victors arriving from England, completed the force: 14 tankers, representing more than half of the RAF's entire tanker fleet. He was going to need every one of them.

Together with his operations team, Price now laboured over the fiendishly complicated refueling plan - their only computer assistance a £3.99 pocket calculator bought at a market. The tankers would refuel each other, then the last tanker to refuel the Vulcan’s before their bombing run would then turn north to the rendezvous, where more Victors would be waiting to transfer enough fuel for the Vulcan’s to make it back to Ascension.

The crews all knew they were entering uncharted territory. If the mission succeeded, it would be the furthest bombing raid in history.

Before their night flight, few managed to sleep. The Vulcan radar officers carefully removed the safety pins from the 21 1,000lb bombs hanging in the bomb bays.

Among the security codes and the authentication codes were the 2
0two words Superfuse and Rhomboid. The first was to be transmitted if the bomb run was successful, the second if it failed. Whatever the outcome of Operation Black Buck, by the following morning Britain would be committed to war.

In case the Vulcan’s were shot down, the crew had to memorize the coordinates of remote safe houses on the Falklands where they would wait to be picked up: for three nights a Sea King helicopter would come looking for them. They were also handed bullets and pistols.

The men pulled on their flying suits and then eased into their tough rubber immersion suits, zipped front and back and sealed tight at the cuffs and neck. If they ditched in the South Atlantic without them, they would last three hours at most.

At 10.30 pm on April 30, the first aircraft fired up it s engines to full power. Followed by the other aircraft they hoisted their massive fuel loads into the sky.

Within minutes, the lead Vulcan was in trouble. The red pressure-warning light was on and a alarm sounded. One of the little portholes had come unstuck and could not be resealed. In the cabin, the temperature was dropping to minus 30 as the plane climbed towards 20,000 ft.

There was nothing to be done. Vulcan 598 had to return to base with its bitterly disappointed crew. The entire operation now depended on Martin Withers and his team in the second Vulcan, 607.

Then a tanker had to pull out. Of the 14 Victors on Ascension two had now failed and been replaced. A minimum of 10 Victors were needed to make the refueling plan work. If there was another failure, Price would have to abort the mission.

The crew of 607 went through their well rehearsed routines, checking through the walls of dials, and flickering needles that surrounded them. On the flight deck, Withers and Russell held 607' s place in the formation as they waited for the last two refueling operations to commence. Two of the final four tankers fueled each other and then the Vulcan in a 500 mph dance and left with just enough fuel to get home. Radar was switched off to avoid being detected by the enemy.

Further on, the last two tanker rest were busy fueling each other before giving the Vulcan the fuel it would need to return from its bombing mission when, at 40 degrees south, the convoy flew into the path of a raging electrical storm. The two Victors were thrown around and the fuel hose thrashed between them.

Suddenly with a loud crack the probe sheared off one of the tankers which was due to shepherd 607 to its last refueling. The tanker disengaged and was left with just enough fuel to get back to Ascension, leaving Bob Tuxford's tanker with rapidly diminishing fuel. He gave what he could to 607 and narrowly avoided ditching on the way back to Ascension.

Short of fuel

In the Vulcan, Withers was furious. They were already 37 minutes behind plan. But as Russell warned him to turn back, Withers consulted the others and made his decision. "We're short of fuel, but we've come this far," he told them. "I'm not turning back now." At 290 miles away from the target, 607 began a shallow descent towards Port Stanley.

Even now they could not be certain where they were. The in-flight navigation system gave two different compass readings.

The Radar Officer, Bob Wright, and the Navigator, Gordon Graham, had split the difference. If they were on course, the computer would respond with the information needed for Wright to get the bombs on target but only wh en the radar was switched on again - seconds before the planned drop.

Simon Baldwin in Waddington had worked out that the bomber should approach low to minimize its 'footprint' and then climb upwards to 8000 or 10,000 feet to try to stay clear of the "kill zone" of the Argentinian defenses before unleashing its weaponry.

As Vulcan 607 streaked towards her target, Graham called the mileage before the rapid climb, and Hugh Prior, the electronics officer, made sure that the chaff and decoy flares, which would be fired to draw enemy fire, and the American Dash 10 detection jammer were operational.

A radar contact appeared: 607 was dead on target. It was 4.30 in the morning, local time, when the Vulcan roared upwards, straight into view of the Argentine search radars. But the young radar operators were unperturbed. The bomber could only be one of theirs - this had not been a shooting war so far.

During th e few minutes it took the Argentinians to wake up to the fact that this was in fact an enemy aircraft, the Vulcan had soared to its

10,000 ft altitude and leveled off for the bomb run.

Its speed was 400 mph. From this moment the aircraft could not deviate, even if enemy radar was locked on them. At this height the runway would have been the size of a scratch of a fingernail on the map and the bomb run had to be precise to a few yards.

Two miles from the runway the first of the thousand-pounders fell away from the Vulcan's cavernous belly. When all 21 were away, Withers turned the Vulcan in a steep curve, in time for the crew to see a blossom of fire as the first bomb bored deep into the centre of the runway and detonated. Other blasts hit the airfield, gouging out massive chunks of its surface.

Vulcan 607 did, in fact, have enough fuel to make the rendezvous. It returned to Ascension Island and a heroes' welcome. The most ambitious sortie since World War II, had by the skin of its teeth been successful.

The damage destroyed any remaining hopes Argentine forces had of using the runway for their fast jets. Their entire Mirage fighter force had to be moved promptly back to the north of Argentina, and any jet cover during the coming British invasion would have to come from the mainland.

It shook Argentine morale to the core and provoked Galtieri's decision to order a naval offensive against the British Task Force, which had disastrous consequences for the Argentine Navy.

The V-bomber had been designed decades before to reach into the snowy wastes of Soviet Russia, but had never been used in anger. Their last outing, to a part of the world no one had dreamed they would visit, had finally justified these beauti ful aircraft.

The Falklands War lasted just 74 days. Though taken by surprise, Britain launched a task force to retake the islands and after conflict costing

255 British and 649 Argentinian deaths, the Union Jack was hoisted in Port Stanley on June 14.

by Christopher Hudson Daily Mail 26 May 2006


  1. http://farm6.static.flickr.com/5005/5241571563_515ddef2b8_m.jpg

    Avro Vulcan as it fles along the flight line at this Summer's Goodwood festival.

    The aircraft is the one that actually bombed the runway on the Falkland Islands in 1982 and is kept together by a growing club of supporters.

    The noise from its engines as it went past was measured at a mere 168 decibels and the "shock wave" extended almost three miles behind it.

    The crowd were clearly not expecting it and several people stopped dead in their tracks, one close by dropped her drink and a lot of people covered their ears.

    "Awesome" just does not do it justice!

    Dr Chris Ridgewell., Gd.Ch.LHonn.; OBE; FRSA

  2. The mighty one did the job it shows what the RAF is capable of Rule Britiania G-d Save The Queen