Operation Black Buck
Operation Black Buck - 1st May to 12 June 1982
After the recapture of South Georgia British attention was now focused on the main objective, the Falkland Islands themselves. Diplomatic negotiations and attempts to solve the situation peacably came to a practical end with the final rejection of the Haig peace proposals by the Argentinian Junta on 29 April. In reaction to this and in preparation for the final assault, on 30 April Britain declared a total exclusion zone around the Falklands to protect any non-combatant aircraft or vessels. In the closing hours of the same day, the United States openly gave its support for the British action, now seen by many as both inevitable and inescapable. Commentators of the time and since have speculated on the need or wisdom of military action to retrieve the invaded territories, but it must be said that all other avenues, diplomatic, negotiative and the 'warning shot' of the recapture of South Georgia had been exhausted and ignored by the Junta. There simply was no other choice. The stage was set, and the first players were moving into position.
Plans and requirements
The battle for the Falkland Islands proper may be said to have started on 1 May 1982, the weapon system used, and the manner it was deployed, were both testaments to the inventiveness, flexibility and adaptability that the British armed forces, and indeed in this case, industry, are rightly famous for. If you consider that at the time the British forces were equipped and trained to fight a war in Europe as part of NATO, for all three services to suddenly find themselves operating alone, 8,000 miles from home and 3,900 miles from the nearest friendly supply base meant that everything previously accepted as operational doctrine had changed. All the operational plans for the navy, army and air force were no longer relevant, and had to be changed anyway as the Argentinian forces were well aware of NATO tactics and plans, so use of any of the previously accepted methods would have meant the Argentines would have recognised and been able to extrapolate patterns to divine British intentions in advance, with predictable results for the attacking force. Everyone involved with the Task Force from the service chiefs down had to rethink and adapt all they knew in order to make the available equipment effective in the unusual environment the Falklands Conflict represented.
Not only were the plans and tactics completely changed, much of the equipment of the three services was too, in order to maximise its effectivenss in the new conditions. These changes had to be made extremely rapidly, many upgrades to systems were still under test as the ships sailed south, industry teams being involved all the way to Ascension Island and in a few cases beyond. The Task Force and its supporting elements were therefore operating under brand new doctrine, with brand new capabilities, mostly untried and untested. One of the great testaments to the achievements of the engineers is the fact that despite all this and the speed with which systems were developed and built, reliability and availability of equipment was incredibly high thoughout the conflict. Failures were rare, success in operation became a signature trait of Operation Corporate. All these changes demanded by the unusual conditions make the success of the British Forces all the more remarkable and speaks volumes for the capabilities of the personnel involved.
For the RAF, the first consideration was a relatively simple one, range. The RAF's large aircraft of the time were intended for use in Europe and over NATO waters, air-to-air refuelling capability for these types was previously considered unecessary. Suddenly, Hercules, Nimrod, Victor and Vulcan aircraft were expected to fly 3,900 miles, loiter on mission, then return the same distance. Marshalls of Cambridge and the RAF engineers among others worked themselves to a standstill fitting probes and tank systems to a variety of types, testing the new fittings almost as the paint dried. The practical result of all this frenetic activity was that just before midnight on 30 April, two crews from 101 Squadron climbed into two 22 year-old bombers to set out on what was then the longest bombing mission ever attempted.
The Avro Vulcan B2 first entered service in 1960, and was intended to be completely replaced by the Tornado during 1982, but that was before the Falklands Conflict began. The large four-engined delta-winged bomber was known affectionately as the 'tin triangle' and was originally designed to carry Britain's nuclear deterrent as a high-level bomber. It had never before operated in anger, but that was now to change. To prepare the Vulcans for their new role, from 9 April a round-the-clock engineering effort was begun. Aircraft based at Waddington were completely overhauled and refuelling probes were hunted down and recovered from such places as Catterick, Woodford, Goose Bay in Labrador and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. The internal refuelling systems were largely re-manufactured and the engines tuned to give full thrust on take-off. For the planned bombing missions the bomb bays and crew stations were converted to allow the carriage and delivery of conventional bombs. Only five days later air-to-air refuelling practice began with the makeshift but reliable system. Because of intelligence reports concerning Argentine air defences, as the five prepared Vulcans were about to depart for Ascension Island on 24 April an order was issued to fit the aircraft with an electronic counter-measures pod. The inventiveness and sheer will-to-do of the engineers really came into their own in solving this problem. Borrowed Westinghouse ALQ1O1(V) pods from 208 Squadron's Buccaneers were prepared, but how to mount them and install their systems? During its development, the Vulcan had been intended to carry the underwing pylon mounted Douglas Skybolt nuclear missile. Even though the missile was never fully developed, the aircraft had been built with the hardpoints and cooling systems required by the weapon. Using the original engineering drawings, RAF Waddington engineers designed and built new pylons to mount under the Vulcan's wing on the original hardpoints. One of the pylons could carry the ECM pod, the other could carry a variety of weapons for use in the other planned missions, not bombing raids, but defence suppression operations! Blinding the Argentine land based radars to the intentions and deployments of the Task Force was considered a priority, and the venerable Vulcan was the only offensive platform with the reach. After a series of engineering difficulties, the new pylons were cleared to carry the AS.37 anti-radar version of the Martel missile, and shortly thereafter its replacment, the AGM 45A Shrike anti-radar missile which were eventually carried in pairs. Suffice to say that the aircraft deployed ready in all respects for the challenges ahead of them, solely due to the incredible Waddington engineers.
The first mission
On the first mission, sitting in the bomb bay of each of the two Vulcans were 21 1,000 lb (454 Kg) bombs, over nine tons of high explosive, which, combined with the full fuel load, meant that both aircraft were over 2½ tons over their maximum weights. Because Ascension Island is relatively hot, the overloaded aircraft would have to run their four 20,000lb thrust Bristol Siddeley Olympus 301 engines at 103% power to get off the ground. The scene in the dark of the softly lit cockpits, the runway lights stretching away between the volcano and hills of Ascension, the banshee howl of the Vulcan and the slow acceleration of the lights is far better imagined than described.
Only one Vulcan would make fly each of the seven planned missions, codenamed 'Operation Black Buck', the second aircraft was intended as an airborne spare in case of any failure in the prime bomber. To fly this distance, and to return, each mission required the support of twelve Handley Page Victor K2 tankers of 55 and 57 Squadrons on the outbound leg, and a further two Victors and a Nimrod on the return leg. The Victors were also originally in service as part of the V-force of Britain's nuclear deterrent, the Victor K2s entering service in 1975 having been converted from B2 bombers originally built in 1960-61. The highly complex tanking plan is described fully on the previous page, during Operation Corporate the Victors were to fly over 3,000 hours in 600 air refuelling sorties supporting not only the large aircraft, but also the Harriers being deployed as replacements directly from the UK. The Victors also took part in the operation to recapture South Georgia, flying maritime reconnaissance missions lasting over 14 hours. The target for the three bombing missions was the airfield at Stanley, the only hard runway on the islands and vital to the Argentinian forces for supplies and reinforcements. In the month that had passed since the invasion, the 4,100 ft runway had not been extended or improved, but a large number of anti-aircraft weapons, both guns and missiles, now ringed the vital airfield. Denying the use of the runway to Argentine transport and combat aircraft was the primary concern, preventing expansion of the strip to enable high performance combat aircraft to operate against the Task Force at much reduced ranges was the secondary aim. This may sound simple, but had to be achieved without completely destroying the facility, because it was also recognised that the British would need the airfield urgently on the successful completion of the land battles. The first mission was intended to 'cut' the runway with a strike diagonally across the center to maximise the chances of a hit cratering the concrete and preventing its use by heavy transport aircraft, yet to also be relatively straightforward to repair later. The other two cratered the areas at either end of the existing strip, preventing its extension, but causing less damage than the first.
As the thirteen aircraft of 'Black Buck 1' left Ascension Island and headed south, the requirement for an airborne spare quickly became apparent. The commander of the prime aircraft, Sqn Ldr John Reeve of 50 Squadron, reported soon after take off that the rubber seal on a side window had come loose so the cabin would not pressurise. This meant that the reserve aircraft now had to take the lead. One of the Victors then had to turn back due to a mechanical problem, this was also replaced by its airborne spare, so the 11 remaining aircraft were able to carry on with the mission. The captain of the back-up Vulcan, Flight Lieutenant Martin Withers, with superb understatment considering their position, announced to his five-man crew: "Looks like we've got a job of work."
Despite their relative lack of expereience with the air-to-air refuelling system, the tanking went well up until the last-but-one slot. The nine depleted tankers had returned to Ascension, leaving the Vulcan, XM607, and two Victors. The last Victors were to refuel one another, but the receiver's probe was broken in turbulence. The two reversed roles, and the broken aircraft successfully returned to Ascension leaving XM607 and the last Victor, XL189 of 57 Squadron commanded by Squadron Leader Bob Tuxford. There was concern regarding the probe breakage, as to whether XL189's drogue had been damaged in the accident. Initially Flt Lt Withers' crew attempted to examine the drogue using a torch, which failed to reveal anything. Withers then decided that the only way to be sure was to attempt a fuel transfer, even though the last tanking bracket was much further south. The aircraft succesfully 'hooked up', and the mission continued.
After the last refuelling, XL189 returned to Ascension, to be met by another Victor tanker en-route in order to make the distance. This last tanker was not planned for this first mission, Tuxford had deliberately eaten into his fuel reserve and given the Vulcan more than the planned fuel amount in order to ensure the mission's success. Because of the radio silence imposed on the mission from this point, Tuxford was unable to radio for this extra tanker rendezvous until the codeword transmission 'Polo' from the Vulcan indicating a successful strike was received. The success of this tactic meant that it became a feature of all the seven 'Black Buck' missions. XM609 was now close to the Falklands, descending to 300 ft above the sea in order to reduce the risk of detection by radar. Forty miles from the target, the Vulcan climbed to 10,000 ft for the bombing run. Navigation over this distance proved phenomenally accurate, placing the Vulcan precisely on track. Withers turned on to a heading of 235° to drop the bombs across the runway effectively cutting it, and commenced the straight run-in. The 21 bombs took five seconds to release, the drop point being about three miles from the strip. No anti-aircraft fire was aimed at the Vulcan, the raid was a complete surprise, in fact, the only operating radar detected and jammed by the crew was mysteriously shut down during the attack.
Of the 21 bombs, one hit the runway at its mid point cratering the concrete, the rest fell to one side and caused serious damage to airfield installations, aircraft and stores. After the attack, the plan called for the Vulcan to return to 300 ft to avoid the defences. Since no reaction was detected from the Argentine defences, Withers immediately climbed to an economic cruising level to save fuel. The return trip went exactly as planned, the rendezvous with the Nimrod and the additional tanker support were straightforward after the events of the long night. XM607 touched down at Ascension at the end of an astonishing 15 hours and 50 minutes in the air, which included 18 air-to-air refuelings. For this extraordinary, record-breaking mission and their superb airmaship throughout, Flt Lt Withers and Sqn Ldr Tuxford were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Force Cross respectively.
The other six Black Bucks
During the night of 3/4 May a Vulcan B2, XM607 again, but this time flown by Sqn Ldr John Reeve and his crew of No 50 Squadron, flew the 'Black Buck 2' mission, almost identical in detail to the first. The area to the western end of the runway was heavily cratered in the attack, preventing any possible extension of the airfield for high performance combat aircraft.
On 13 May 'Black Buck 3' was called off as headwinds would have made the mission extremely difficult in terms of fatigue for the Vulcan bomber's crew. Another factor was the very large quantities of fuel that would have been needed, as well as the additional flight hours that would have accrued to the already overextended Victor tankers.
The 'Black Buck 4' sortie of the 28 May had to be called off some 5 hours after the Vulcan had taken off because of the failure of a hose-and-drogue refuelling unit on one of the essential Victor support aircraft. This mission was to have been the first AGM-45A Shrike equipped anti-radar mission, and the Vulcan was able to carry an additional 16,000 lbs of fuel in bomb bay tanks, thus reducing the number of Victor tankers required to support the raid, as well as allowing the Vulcan extended loiter time over the target.
The first successful anti-radar mission by a Vulcan bomber equipped with AGM-45A Shrike missiles was 'Black Buck 5' on 31 May, flown by Squadron Leader Neil McDougall and his crew from 50 Squadron. A fire control radar was damaged by the attack. The anti-radar missions spent longer over the islands trying to tempt the Argentinians to turn on their radars so the missiles fired from the Vulcan could lock on to them, a dangerous occupation in an aircraft the size of a Vulcan. These modified Vulcans could spend longer over the target on these missions as they were lighter than those with a full bomb load.
'Black Buck 6' flown on 3 June, enjoyed somewhat greater success as it caused damage to a Skyguard fire-control radar. After its inflight-refuelling probe broke the Vulcan had no option but to divert to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, where it was interned for some nine days before being released. The aicraft landed in Rio with zero fuel on board. The remaining missile on the Vulcans pylon was not returned with the aircraft and crew.
On 12 June, Stanley again reverberated to the detonation of bombs dropped by a Vulcan in the final 'Black Buck 7' raid of the series, successfully cratering the eastern end of the airfield and causing widespread damage to airfield stores and facilities.