Avro Vulcan: part 4. The final Black Buck raids.
The Avro Vulcan
Whilst the Avro Vulcan may be well known for its missions to the Falkland Islands in 1982, its history goes back to the end of the Second World War and the very beginnings of the Cold War. On 9 August 1945, the second atomic bomb, Fat Man, was dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. That very same afternoon, Prime Minister Clement Attlee decided that the United Kingdom had to have its own independent atomic bomb – ‘Blue Danube’ – and of course a means of delivering it. Enter the Avro Vulcan, together with its stable mates, the Vickers Valiant and Handley Page Victor. Their primary purpose then – and indeed until 1968 – was to drop an atomic bomb on Moscow and other Russian targets.
The Avro Vulcan first flew on 30 August 1952 and entered service with the RAF in early January 1957 with No. 83 Squadron. Together, the Vulcan, Valiant and Victor mounted the UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent. Across East Anglia and further, there were always at least 20 bombers, fully fuelled with live nuclear bombs loaded – known as ‘Quick Reaction Alert (or QRA). The five-man crew were in huts, or caravans nearby, on 48-hour shifts, where they always had to be in flying kit, ready to scramble in less than 4 minutes. Why less than 4 minutes? That was the time a Soviet missile would have taken from launch in East Germany to detonating over the bombers’ bases!
From 1957 to 1969, the bombs became more powerful: from the equivalent of 40 thousand tons of TNT of Blue Danube (1957) to the one million tons of Yellow Sun II (1968). But Soviet air defences also grew stronger. And by 1968, the Vulcan would no longer have been able to reach its Soviet targets so the nuclear deterrent was transferred to the Royal Navy’s nuclear powered submarines with their Polaris missiles. The Vulcan continued to carry nuclear weapons through to the end of the 1970’s in a tactical role.
Thankfully the Vulcan only went to war once. In 1982 the Vulcan came to be used, not in its nuclear delivery role, but one of conventional bombs and missiles. Much has been written about the bombing raids on Port Stanley airport, less perhaps about the anti-radar missions that the Vulcan undertook towards the end of the war. This blog will therefore centre on those missile actions, but commence with an overview of the bombing raids, so as to be able to set the scene.
The Argentinian invasion of the Falklands
Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands on the 2 April 1982. The RAF’s initial involvement included transporting personnel and freight to Ascension Island, which became a key staging post to the Islands. As can be seen from the map below, Ascension was still a long way away from the Falklands.
As Britain’s response to the invasion was being developed, centring on the formation of a Task Force, thought was being given by the RAF as to what sort of offensive action might be possible. Preventing the use by the Argentine forces of the runway at Port Stanley was a key objective, as well as demonstrating that locations in Argentina were at risk from aerial attack. The Avro Vulcan was seen as the only viable aircraft with the range and weapons able to reach the Islands. Planning started, looking at how in-flight refuelling could operate, how the attack on the runway could be delivered (height, direction, speed, deployment of bombs etc) and how to counter the Argentine missile and gun defences.
The Vulcan’s full conventional bomb load of 21 1,000lb bombs was to be used. This is illustrated by the display beneath the RAF Museum London’s Vulcan as below.
Air-to-air refuelling (AAR) was key and a complicated plan was developed, using the majority of the RAF’s Victor tanker resources.
A major issue was that the Vulcan fleet and its crews had not used AAR in any form for many years. The Vulcan’s Cold War nuclear strike role did not require AAR. Therefore, the aircraft’s equipment had to be restored and crews trained; indeed, many necessary parts for the conventional missions and AAR had to be scavenged from scrap yards and museums! This took place at great speed and by early May Operation Black Buck was ready to be launched. One particular issue, as described by Martin Withers, the pilot of the first mission, was that the pilot cannot see the end of the Vulcan’s nose refuelling probe, which needs to go into the Victor tanker’s drogue.
The first mission was successful, with at least one bomb hitting the runway and thereby disrupting the Argentines ability to use it as a supply line or to launch attacks from. There were issues with the refuelling, whereby one of the Victors had a damaged refuelling probe, as well as the Vulcan’s own fuel consumption being higher than expected, but with the skill, experience and bravery of the crews involved, a successful mission was achieved. The crews had to keep a very close eye on their fuel consumption, these dials and others in the Vulcan cockpit would have been given lots of attention.
The Vulcan’s usual crew consisted of 5:
- Two pilots, side-by-side in the upper cockpit area. The Vulcan being equipped with unique ‘fighter’ type control sticks
In the rear, on a level down from the cockpit, facing the rear of the aircraft:
- Air Electronics Officer (AEO) on the right
- Navigator Plotter in the centre
- Navigator Radar on the left
In addition, for the Falklands operations, an additional crew member was carried. For the bombing raids this was an Air-to-air Refuelling Instructor (AARI), a Victor tanker Captain – to assist with the many refuelling link-ups. For the anti-radar missions, this was another pilot.
The missions were very long in both distance (the longest ever at that time) and duration: 6,000 nautical miles roundtrip, up to 16 hours for some. The crew had sandwiches and were able to heat up soup using the rather inefficient warmers located in the cockpit and rear cabin.
Further bombing missions were flown – Black Bucks 2, 3 and 7. These contributed to the Argentinians not being able to base fighter jets at Port Stanley and their Air Force keeping aircraft and other resources back to protect the mainland bases and cities. Below is a reconnaissance photo of Port Stanley runway after the Black Buck raids. The string of bomb craters can be seen between red lines.
The Vulcan exhibited in the RAF Museum Cosford in the Cold War Hangar was the reserve aircraft for a number of the Black Buck raids – RAF Museum Cosford Vulcan
Before and during the bombing raids, great thought was put into how Argentine radars could be silenced. There were two main types in operation:
- Westinghouse TPS-43, two of which were in the Port Stanley area. These were used for the early warning of Royal Navy Sea Harrier, RAF Harrier and Vulcan operations and the tactical control of their own air operations (from the mainland and from the Islands themselves)
- Skyguard and other systems used to control anti-aircraft guns and missiles
Both of these added risk to the RN and RAF air operations. In addition, the TPS-43 units could help pinpoint where the RN aircraft carriers were, by tracking the Harriers and Sea Harriers to/from Hermes and Invincible.
A plan was required to try and put these radar units out of action. One key method is to use anti-radar guided missiles, which are specifically designed to neutralise this type of threat. The Martel missile used by the UK had an anti-radar version, so this was the initial proposal. Tests were undertaken using a Vulcan aircraft, but after a series of trials it was concluded that it was not feasible. There were concerns over the Martel’s ability to differentiate between the locations of the two Argentine TPS-43 units – one being located in the area of Port Stanley town and thus there was a risk to the civilian population. Also, the Martel did not handle the gun/missile guiding radar and could not be guaranteed to operate after a prolonged exposure to cold temperatures that would be experienced during a high-level transit to the Falklands.
Attention was then focussed on the American AGM-45 Shrike missile. These missiles came in two versions that catered for the TPS-43 and gun/missile radars and were only available from the US A loan of missile was arranged from the U.S. Air Force in Germany and trials were undertaken with a Vulcan, culminating with a test using a barge moored at sea, with a radar unit position on it (ironically a ‘Red Steer’ radar that is used on the Vulcan as a rear warning system). The trials were satisfactory and two Vulcans were fitted with a pylon on each wing that could hold two Shrikes each.
Black Buck 4 was planned for 28/29 May 1982. Because no bombs were carried two bomb bay additional fuel tanks could be fitted, which reduced the need for tanker support. On this occasion, however, one of the Victor tankers had a failure of their hose refuelling equipment, so the mission was aborted.
Black Buck 5 took place on 31 May 1982 with Vulcan XM597 led by Squadron Leader McDougall and his crew. Three runs over the target were made, so that the crew could identify the correct TPS-43 radar (making sure to avoid the one near Port Stanley town). Two missiles were launched at 6-7 miles out and the radar was identified as having stopped transmitting. Some shrapnel damaged one of the radar elements, but this was repaired quite quickly.
Black Buck 6
Black Buck 6 took place on 3 June 1982 with the same aircraft and crew. McDougall flew the Vulcan over the target area for 40 minutes hoping that the TPS-43 radar would be switched on and his crew could fire the Shrike missiles. This did not happen, so with fuel reserves dropping, the Vulcan’s Air Electronics Officer (AEO) fired two of the Shrikes configured for the Skyguard radar. They hit their target, knocking out that radar and killing four soldiers.
However, the Vulcan had big problems while attempting to refuel on the way back to Ascension. The refuelling probe on the Vulcan was broken and the Vulcan had to divert to Rio de Janeiro Brazil. The crew had to dispose of the secret codes and papers carried in the cockpit and put them into two metal containers. They depressurised the cockpit/cabin and opened the main entrance/exit hatch and threw the containers from 40,000 feet out into the South Atlantic. The crew then had great problems in closing the hatch and one of them had to hang head down, with a colleague holding onto his body, to be able to successfully close the hatch. They then had to jettison the two remaining Shrike missiles. Once they had checked that there were no fishing vessels in range, one missile was fired, but the other stayed on its pylon. A Mayday was declared and contact with the air traffic controllers at Rio International airport attempted. This was difficult because the crew’s voices were high pitched because of the depressurised cabin. The controller kept asking the AEO, who was handling communications, the aircraft’s origin, but this could not be revealed. In the end, as I understood it, Huddersfield was quoted as the origin (presumably one of the crew hailed from that town!) and the controller allowed the approach to the runway. The aircraft landed safely, but only with enough fuel for one more circuit of the airport.
The Brazilian authorities held the aircraft and crew for one week and were well treated. In fact, at a reception to commemorate the Queen’s birthday on 9 June, the Brazilian Chief of the Air Staff joined in raising a glass to Her Majesty! The crew flew the Vulcan back to Ascension on the 10 June.
Three years ago, I met two people who were involved in some way with to this mission. I was showing visitors the Vulcan cockpit and my first visitor that day revealed himself to be the Argentine Assistant Air Attaché, Mario Ortiz, who had an interest in the Vulcan and its anti-radar Falklands missions. He had a friend who was on the Falklands during the war, as part of the TPS-43 operation. He wanted to get in touch with Squadron Leader McDougall the pilot. By some luck (contacting the Scottish Museum where that Vulcan is displayed) I was able to pass an email onto Mario from McDougall. Mario sent me a photo of parts of a Shrike missile, as found on the Falklands.
Sometime later I was asked to show a Vulcan AEO and his family around our Vulcan. This was Rod Trevaskus who flew on Black Buck’s 5 and 6 and fired the missiles and handled the communications. He confirmed the story of the Brazilian diversion and kindly posed for this photo.
After the last Black Buck raid (7) and the surrender of the Argentine forces on the Falkland Islands, the Vulcan’s returned to the UK and soon afterwards the remaining squadrons disbanded. Six Vulcan’s were converted for AAR and these were operated by No. 50 Squadron until 1984. Two Vulcans, XH558 and XL426, were retained by the RAF as the Vulcan Display Flight, appearing at many air displays each year. XH558 retired in 1992. This Vulcan was sold and after years of work, XH558 returned to the air in 2007 and flew until 2015. Today the RAF Museum has two Vulcans on display. XM598 at our Midlands site and XL318 at the RAF Museum London.
To learn more about the Vulcan and in particular the interior, view Inside The Cockpit – Avro Vulcan B.2 – YouTube. I facilitated access to the London Vulcan for the Military Aviation History team and answered their questions.
2022 is the 70th anniversary of the Vulcan’s first flight and the 40th anniversary of the Falklands War. The RAF Museum will be commemorating these with a number of events, as well as activities such as the regular Cold War Tours and the Vulcan and the Cold War access tours.