Air-to-air refuelling in the Falklands War
On Friday 2 April 1982, Argentinian military forces invaded and occupied the British Overseas Territory of The Falkland Islands. The following day, the Prime Minister, Mrs Margaret Thatcher, told the House of Commons – on a very rare Saturday sitting – that ‘It is the Government’s objective to see that the islands are freed from occupation and are returned to British administration at the earliest possible moment’.
Roles assigned to the RAF for Operation Corporate were reconnaissance, ground attack, transporting personnel and freight, as well as the aero-medical evacuation of those wounded during the conflict. The RAF also showed the psychological exercise of the demonstration of will and capability.
But whilst these tasks were clear, the assets to deliver them were far less so. The distances were vast. Even from the advance base at Wideawake Airfield on Ascension Island, there was no aircraft which could fly to the Falklands and return unsupported; tankers were vital and self-evidently any aircraft going that far had to be able to receive fuel from a tanker.
This limited the choice to the Avro Vulcan. However, a dwindling number of those Vulcans remained: only those which had escaped retirement to museums or the breakers blowtorch. The RAF Museum London’s own Vulcan was already a museum piece at the time.
The unsung hero : the Handley Page Victor tanker
As for tankers, there were a couple of dozen Handley Page Victor K2s, with the prime tasking of supporting the Quick Reaction Force of English Electric Lightnings, defending Britain’s Air Defence Identification Zone, principally against Soviet aircraft coming round the North Cape into the North Atlantic. VC10 tankers were not yet in service.
Quite simply, without the Victor tankers, Operation Corporate could not have been launched.
The Victor as a V-bomber
The Victor started its career in the 1950s as a strategic bomber, entering Bomber Command service in April 1958. Together with its stable-mates, the Vickers Valiant and Avro Vulcan, its primary purpose was to carry Britain’s atomic Bomb ‘Blue Danube’ (weighing 10,000 lb – 4½ tons, 4,500 kilos) to Moscow. The previous generation of RAF bombers – Handley Page Halifax, Avro Lancaster/Lincoln and Boeing B-29 Washington, which the three V-Bombers were replacing, were low, slow and fitted with guns for self-defence, whereas the 1946 Operational Requirement against which both the Victor and Vulcan were designed followed the same principle as the de Havilland Mosquito. They were to be high and fast to outperform the opposition: 500 mph (800 km/h) at 50,000 feet (15,000 metres). No Soviet fighter or anti-aircraft gun could threaten them. Later Victors achieved 620 mph (1,000 km/h) at 62,000 feet (19,000 metres).
But this invincibility was to be short-lived. On 1 May 1960, a Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance aircraft piloted by Frances Gary Powers, on loan from the United States Air Force to the Central Intelligence Agency, was shot down whilst flying over Sverdlovsk Oblast in the Ural Mountains of the USSR. Soviet air defence technology had caught up rapidly. The Soviet S-75 Dvina missile (NATO reporting name SA-2 ‘Guideline’) could probably reach 70,000 feet. Well above the ceiling of the Victors and Vulcans. The V-Bombers were no longer safe at altitude.
At the beginning of 1963, the Air Council recognised the improved Soviet air defences meant V-Bombers could no longer expect to survive at high level so introduced the need for low level attacks: instead of flying at 50,000 feet, they dropped very low – 100 feet – in heavily defended areas of the Soviet Union.
But Victors were not able to fly at low level, where their more delicate wings could not withstand the stresses of the greater turbulence.
What to do with them all? Convert them to tankers.
The need for tankers
The early 1960s saw the introduction of the English Electric Lightning into Fighter Command (before it became Strike Command). Incredibly fast at twice the speed of sound, it was also desperately thirsty. Tankers were vital to permit the Lightnings on Quick Reaction Alert to chase away the Soviet Tupolev Tu 95 ‘Bear’.
In 1965, with the sudden withdrawal from service of all Valiants due to wing fatigue caused by air turbulence at low level, early Victors were converted to tankers. Some Victors had two hoses and could still carry bombs whilst others, later all, were three-point. The latter had one on each wing and a larger Hose Drum Unit (HDU) in the bomb bay, thereby losing their bombing capability. The wing hoses were suitable only for lighter, fighter-style aircraft whereas heavier bombers and transports had to use the centre-line hose for aerodynamic reasons.
Early Victors were released for tanker conversion as the more powerful B2 variants began delivery in 1962 but in due course 24 of these B2s were themselves converted to K2 tankers – see Timeline below.
Although by Op Corporate all Victors had been converted to tankers, a retro-modified Victor carried out one of the very first offensive operations by flying a radar and visual reconnaissance mission to South Georgia.
During the combat phase of Op Corporate, every aircraft going from Ascension south to Falklands, and fighters coming from UK to Ascension, required multiple tankers. For the intricate refuelling plan for Black Buck Victor sorties, please see a recent Vulcan blog post.
On the receiving end
The following individual types participated in Op Corporate and benefited from AAR to achieve their missions:
Hawker Siddeley Nimrod MR2
The Nimrod undertook reconnaissance missions and provided navigation and Search and Rescue cover for Harriers on their over-water flights from Ascension Island to the Task Force and also for Black Buck sorties. Also providing communications with our nuclear attack submarines going ‘down south’.
These Nimrods had to have refuelling systems installed for the first time for Op Corporate so on 13 April 1982 (just 11 days after the invasion), the Ministry of Defence placed an order with Flight Refuelling Ltd to fit AAR equipment. The first test flight took place on 30 April. Nimrods had not been designed for this, nor were there any spares in stores. Just like the Vulcans, museums and scrap yards were scavenged for parts. Perhaps unbelievably, the Vulcan recently presented to Castle Air Force Base, California, was raided by RAF engineering NCOs in ‘civvies’ for plumbing bits. After the conflict, Castle AFB congratulated the RAF on this spectacular audacity. And demanded the parts be returned.
With AAR, one Nimrod remained on patrol for 19 hours.
Tragically, though, the addition of AAR plumbing was to be a factor in the loss of XV 230 over Afghanistan 24 years later: a fuel leak from refuelling causing a catastrophic fire and the deaths of all 14 service personnel aboard.
Hawker Harrier GR3
RAF front-line combat-capable strike assets in 1982 were limited to the McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom, Blackburn Buccaneer and Hawker Siddeley Harrier GR 3. All three had AAR (air-to-air refuelling) capability. But it would not be reasonable to expect a pilot to fly 8,000 miles over 16 hours – even if they had the navigational capability, which they didn’t. Nor did the aircraft have sufficient oil for their engines over those distances. The only one of these three which were used was the Harrier GR3.
The RAF Harriers were initially assigned to Op Corporate as attrition replacements for any Sea Harriers lost in combat. However, losses were fortunately lower than anticipated. However, integrating these aircraft with a carrier was far from straightforward as some 30 modifications were required. Their Inertia Navigation Systems were designed to be calibrated at a known, fixed location but of course a carrier never stays still. In fact, this mating with the carrier was never achieved so the GR3 pilots relied upon ruler, pencil and ‘Mk 1 eyeball’ for bomb-aiming.
Engines lacked the special corrosion-resistant coatings that the Sea Harriers had to combat the damage from salt-laden air. Magnesium components (aluminium on Sea Harriers) reacted chemically to salt water. Naval transponders had to be fitted, holes were drilled to allow water to drain away, additional tie-down points to cope with the carriers’ rolling and pitching in heavy seas, and the nose steering gear modified. Nevertheless, despite all these modifications, a GR3 could never have been a direct substitute for a Sea Harrier as a fighter jet. Although AIM 9L Sidewinders air-to-air missiles were fitted, the Harrier did not have any radar.
Some flew from England down to the Task Force, stopping at Yandun International Airport, Banjul (Gambia) and Wideawake Airfield on Ascension Island. They used over-size fuel tanks and AAR probes but records suggest they did not fit the extension wingtips designed for just such ferry flights; one batch flew non-stop from St Mawgan to Ascension and then a few days later direct to the Task Force, making their first-ever carrier deck landing in the midst of an air alert.
The workhorse of the transport fleet. As well as lifting personnel and freight from UK to Ascension, they supported the Task Force by flying south and parachuting equipment not loaded before leaving the UK and key personnel including, it is said, special forces.
Marshalls of Cambridge Ltd fitted refuelling probes to 16 Hercules enabling them to fly all the way from Ascension to Stanley and return; Flight Lieutenant T Locke smashed the endurance record flying for 28 hours and 4 minutes to air-drop electrical components and missiles to a Rapier missile battery positioned around Port Stanley.
Avro Vulcan B2
At the very end of their operational lives, Vulcans were called upon to undertake what was then the longest bombing raids in the world – the nearly 4,000 miles (6,400 km) from Wideawake Airfield, Ascension Island, to Port Stanley, Falklands Islands, a 16 hour round trip – in the famous “Black Buck” raids; it took 13 Victor tankers to put one Vulcan over the target, with 15 air-to-air refuels (AAR) between the sole Vulcan and between Victors (some of the latter flying two sorties that night). As Tim Bracey will point out in his upcoming blog post on the Black Buck Shrike missions, the Vulcans did not need tanker support for their European nuclear role, so most of the plumbing had been removed and had to be replaced from spares and bits and pieces scavenged from museums and junk yards. And the current pilots had not been trained in AAR, so a sixth crew member was added – a Victor Captain qualified as an Air to Air Refuelling Instructor.
The particular Vulcans on Black Buck missions were from a batch of Mark B2s which had a number of modifications with a view to carrying the Skybolt missile (intended to replace Blue Steel but scrapped). They had more powerful Olympus 301 engines, as against the Olympus 201 of the other B2s. And as Skybolt had celestial navigation – so had to see the stars – they had to be mounted on underwing pylons so had the strengthening and wiring left over from that intended role, now enabling ECM (electronic counter measures) and anti-radiation (radar) Shrike missiles.
Although the damage to Stanley Airport in the first of the Black Buck raids was modest (one 1,000 lb bomb on the runway), the psychological impact was profound. If a Vulcan could reach Stanley, it could equally hit the mainland. So the potent Mirage fighters which had been escorting attacks on the Task Force were held back to protect the home country.
Hawker Sea Harrier FRS 1
Colloquially called ‘Shars’, the Sea Harriers were Royal Naval Air Service assets, they are included here as they did benefit from RAF tanker (Victor) and Air Sea Rescue (Nimrod) support on ferry flights.
Aircraft embarked on board HM Ships ‘Invincible’ and ‘Hermes’ did not need tanker support but No 809 Squadron flew from RNAS Culdrose to Ascension, with tanker assistance; an overnight stop was made at Yandun International Airport, Banjul, The Gambia, then onwards to Ascension. Large 330 gallon (1,500 litre) capacity ferry fuel tanks were available for each inner pylon but trials on Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton’s ski-jump showed they adversely affected trim and stability so the standard 100 gallon (450 litre) combat tanks were used. Again, there is no evidence of the larger ‘ferry wing tips’, which added lift, being fitted.
This flight was not without its moments: a SHAR losing its oxygen system so having to fly at a much lower altitude, with increased fuel consumption; another SHAR and its guiding Victor losing navigation systems so the entire formation relying upon one man in his SHAR for routing; and a Victor being unable to deploy either wing-mounted hoses so the SHARs had to use the main hose deployed from the Victor’s bomb bay: the aerodynamic effects of which were completely unknown as this had never been tested. But as one SHAR pilot said ‘what the hell, this is war’.
The Argentinian forces surrendered on 14 June 1982. However, the problem of the continued protection of the Falklands Islands and their population against a renewed Argentinian invasion, were UK armed forces to withdraw, now came to the fore and so a significant military capability had to remain in place, far in excess of the nominal force of Royal Marines which had been the permanent garrison before the invasion. A very significant logistical and defence challenge.
From the RAF’s perspective, that initially meant establishing a major air bridge.
Victors were being used at a quite unforeseen rate, eating into their fatigue lives. So two, somewhat drastic, measures were needed until the first VC10 tankers were due into service: convert Vulcans and Hercules to tankers.
With the Vulcans, two additional fuel tanks were installed in the cavernous bomb bay and the HDU was inserted where the ECM equipment had been in bays in the tail, aft of the rudder. The single basket was housed in a metal and wooden box below the very rear of the tail. An order was placed with British Aerospace at Woodford on 4 May and just 50 days later, 23 June, XH 561 was delivered to RAF Waddington; it undertook trials the very same day delivering fuel to another Vulcan and a Victor.
As for the Hercules, a solution – of the Heath-Robinson variety – was the contract given to Marshalls of Cambridge to convert 4 Hercules to perform the role of AAR tankers, one of which would be based at each of Stanley and Ascension.
Admittedly, the US Marine Corps had been using KC130 tankers since the early 1960s but these had been designed for the task, with additional pylons for the hoses outboard of the outer engines and the appropriate wiring and plumbing. But the RAF’s Hercules lacked these so the solution adopted by Marshalls was far quicker and more brutal: add tanks in the cargo area; put an HDU on the cargo door; and cut a hole in the door for the hose.
Air-to-Air Refuelling is a delicate and dangerous operation, where mistakes have led to fatalities. Two large aircraft have to fly at exactly the same speed and maintain the same relative positions just dozens of metres apart – even at night and in severe turbulence.
The first propeller tanker aircraft refuelled combat aircraft which were faster than them. Jet tankers – like the Victor – solved that problem but Op Corporate and Hercules receivers produced the same problem in reverse: the Victor tankers were too fast for the Hercules receivers.
The solution was a technique known as tobogganing: the two aircraft would separately climb to altitude then dive, picking up speed. This would enable the Hercules to catch and connect with the Victor’s drogue. At a lower altitude, they would separate, climb and repeat – a number of times if necessary.
And finally… aircraft and aircrew are, of course, the heart of the RAF but, dear reader, do spare a thought for other RAF units and personnel who are often overlooked: engineers, armourers, radar, controllers, communications, RAF Regiment, logisticians, medical etc, not forgetting drivers, cooks and clerks. They all served.
Victors continued to give sterling service right up to Operation Granby, the First Gulf War in 1991, being withdrawn for RAF service in October 1993.
But the very last ever (to date) flight of a Victor was on 25 August 2009 during a high-speed taxying run by a museum piece which got out of hand when the Victor took charge and tried to escape.
Both the RAF Museum London and Midlands have a Falklands veteran Victor tanker on display. Book your free ticket via our website to see them up close.
BIBLIOGRAPHY AND FURTHER READING
RAF Historical Society Journal No 30 2003
‘THE RAF IN THE POSTWAR YEARS: THE BOMBER ROLE 1945-1970’ Humphrey Wynn, RAF Air Historical Branch
‘Harrier 809’, Rowland White, Penguin/Corgi Books 2020
‘Contact: A Victor Captain’s experiences in the RAF before, during and after the Falklands conflict’ Bob Tuxford, Grub Street Publishing
Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft 1982/3
‘Falklands, Witness of Battles’, Jesus Romero [Major, Spanish Air Force] and Salvador Huertas [historian], Valencia, Spain 1985
‘Air War South Atlantic’ Jeffrey Ethell and Alfred Price Sidgwick & Jackson
www.victorxm715.co.uk (detailed history of AAR missions)
Multiple articles in aviation magazines
1958 Victor entered RAF Bomber Command service
1960 May Powers’ U-2 brought down over Soviet Union by missile
1960 Britain joins Skybolt project
1961 February Last Victor B1 delivered
1962 First deliveries of Victor B2 to RAF
1962 first Blue Steel missiles introduced to service (on Vulcans)
1962 October Cuban Missile crisis
1962 December Skybolt cancelled
1963 January Air Council issues requirement for V-Bombers to fly at low level
1963 May last Victor B 2 delivered to RAF
1964 Victors fitted with Blue Steel
1965 January Valiants withdrawn, scrapped
1965 April first Victor tankers delivered
1969 July Strategic nuclear deterrent transferred to Royal Navy
1970 Blue Steel withdrawn from service
1974 Conversion begins of Victor B2 to K2 (tanker) standard
1975 First K2 delivered to RAF
1982 Op Corporate (Falklands)
1991 Op Granby (Gulf War I)
1993 Victors Withdrawn
2009 August Bruntingthorpe attempted escape
OPERATION CORPORATE ORDER OF BATTLE (fixed wing only)
|VC 10||14 (UK to Wideawake and latterly Uruguay only)|
|Nimrod MR 2||13|
|Phantom||3 (Wideawake only)|