The Avro Vulcan: Part 3
On 1 May 1982, Britain woke up with the message by the BBC World Service that the Royal Air Force has bombed Port Stanley airport on the Falklands, occupied by the Argentinians. An incredible feat knowing that the islands were thousands of miles from the nearest airfield. This blog post will explore how the Avro Vulcan, on the eve of its replacement, was tasked with a mission it was never intended for.
The V-bomber, a nuclear deterrent during the Cold War
The Avro Vulcan is one of the most iconic and loved aircraft in RAF history. Its elegant delta wing and tremendous roar made it a popular attraction on flight shows. Its origin lay in the aftermath of the Second World War when Specification B.35/46 asked for a strategic bomber which could fly fast, far and high. Well, that’s what the Vulcan delivered.
The Avro Vulcan could fly at a maximum speed of 1,039 km/h (646 mph), close to the speed of sound, and climb up to 17,000 m (55,000 ft). This made it virtually impossible to intercept. It had a range of 4,195 km (2,607 miles) but was later equipped with an inflight refuelling capability, allowing it to strike targets deep into the Soviet Union. It could be armed with a nuclear bomb or 21 conventional 1,000 pounds (454 kg) bombs.
The Vulcan had a crew of five people: two pilots, a navigator, a radar operator and an electronic warfare operator. The latter was quite a novel role, revealing another Vulcan strength. It was equipped with radar warning equipment and electronic jamming equipment which could disrupt the Soviet radar and guided anti-aircraft missiles.
Despite these electronics, during the 1960s Soviet missile defences were becoming more effective which led to the decision to pass on the nuclear deterrence role to the Royal Navy with submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles. That is still the case today.
Too young to retire, the RAF found a new role for the Vulcan. It would fly at low altitude, so low enemy radar could not pick them up, to attack military targets closer to the frontline, such as missile sites, rail facilities, bridges, runways and railway lines, whilst area targets were aircraft on airfields, airfield buildings, airfield fuel installations and bomb stores, supply dumps and armoured fighting vehicle concentrations. The weapon of choice was a brand-new weapon, the WE177 nuclear bomb. In this capacity the Vulcan remained in service throughout the 1970s while awaiting the arrival of its intended replacement, the Panavia Tornado.
The Falklands: too far for the Vulcan?
When the Falklands Conflict erupted in 1982, the Vulcans were only weeks away from being taken out of service. Realising that it was the only bomber capable of bombing the occupied Falkland Islands from the nearest British air base, the Vulcans were called upon a last time. In fact, it was also the first and only time the Vulcan were used in combat.
However, there was a problem. A big problem! The nearest RAF station to the Falklands is 6,529 km (3,889 miles) away at RAF Wideawake on Ascension Island. To get a fully armed Vulcan to the Falklands it would require several mid-air refuels. That would also require that the tankers refuelled each other so the Vulcan could be refuelled along the way. To make matters worse, the Vulcan crews had given up training for aerial refuelling after the switch to low altitude attacks a decade earlier.
Much of the refuelling equipment was no longer available. A frantic search for parts was started, combing out RAF stations, but even further away. A couple of old Vulcans had been donated to the Americans to put in their museums. It was quickly found out these still had the refuelling probes. What followed was very embarrassing. A small team of RAF technicians hurried across the Atlantic. They arrived in civilian clothes and went sneaking around USAF museums, surreptitiously removing the Vulcan probes. At the end of the war, the RAF got a signal from Castle AFB Museum congratulating the RAF on their success … and demanding the immediate return of stolen property!
Several Handley Page Victor tankers landed at Wideawake but it was hardly an ideal RAF station. Ascension had only a single runway, nestled in between extinct volcanoes and high ground. Lining the runway was gritty volcanic dust and pumice stone, which was all too happy to be ingested by the engine intakes.
Black Buck, the Vulcan sends a message
The night of 30 April / 1 May was to be a pivotal moment during the Falklands Campaign with a planned bombing raid by a single Vulcan bomber on the Argentinian-held airfield of Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands. Three sections of Victors were formed; Red, White and Blue, and five tankers for the return flight. A most complicated refuel plan was designed to ensure that all tankers in both outbound and inbound waves would have sufficient fuel to be able to return to Wideawake. Today, in all probability a computer programme would be used for the intricate calculations but in 1982, the plan was worked out with an electronic pocket calculator. With hindsight the diagram might appear to be an obvious solution but, at the time, it was a major innovation.
13 Victors and 2 Vulcans started their engines, ready for take off at night from the single runway. ‘The deafening sound of the mighty four-jets as they struggled to get airborne must have been a spectacular sight. Ascension has not seen anything like this before.’ (Bob Tuxford) White-4 soon found out their hose was jammed and Blue-3 as reserve aircraft took its place. Shortly after, the crew of the primary Vulcan aircraft XM598, now on display at the RAF Museum Midlands, reported that they had an issue with their pressurisation, and they too had to withdraw. The reserve Vulcan under Flight Lieutenant Withers took its place.
After an hour and 45 minutes the first fuel transfer took place. The Victors of Red and White sections paired up and refuelled each other. Half of the aircraft were fully loaded with around 50,000 lbs of fuel each, while the other half was left with enough fuel to return to Ascension. The tankers of Blue Section did the same and refuelled the Vulcan.
With a five-ship formation left the next refuelling took place in the early morning. All of these took place in complete radio silence, which required tremendous discipline and confidence in each other and their own skills.
During the third refuel bracket, the aircraft had to endure a violent thunderstorm. One of the Victor’s refuelling probe broke, and was unable to take on the required fuel. The only way around it would be to reverse the action, give the fuel back to the donor Victor, flown by Bob Tuxford who would then continue the mission. Although physically and mentally exhausted, he had to go through the same dire weather conditions and connect his probe with the refuelling basket. After several minutes ‘chasing the basket’, he finally made contact and the fuel started to transfer.
The actual fuel status started to deviate further from the detailed refuelling plan. By the time Box Tuxford’s crew refuelled the Vulcan for the final time, Martin Withers stated he had not received sufficient fuel. As no more fuel or tankers were available, this was a terrible disappointment as it meant the entire mission was now compromised.
Box Tuxford consulted with his crew if they should transfer more fuel to ensure the operation was a success, even if it meant it would jeopardise their own chances making it back to Ascension. They decided to do so, allowing Martin Withers’ Vulcan to push on.
The Vulcan reaches the Falklands
Withers approached the Islands at low level to avoid radar detection. He made the final approach at 10,000 feet (3,000 m) while the Vulcan’s electronic countermeasures defeated the radar systems controlling the defending Skyguard anti-aircraft cannons. Twenty-one bombs were dropped of which one hit the runway.
One bomb may seem a poor effort but it was what was expected. The decision was taken to attack across the runway in the hope that at least one would hit. If they had flown along the length of the runway, they could have hit it with most of the bombs. But if the bombs dropped just 6 feet to either side, none would have hit the runway.
After dropping the bombs, Withers immediately headed north to a planned rendezvous with a Victor some way off the Brazilian coast near Rio de Janeiro. As they passed the British Task Force, the crew signalled the code word ‘superfuse’ indicating a successful attack at 0746Z.
So it was that the RAF fired the opening salvo in the Falklands campaign by bombing Port Stanley airfield on 1 May.
For Black Buck 1 the Vulcan was airborne for 16 hours 2 minutes, the long slot tanker for 14 hours 5 minutes while the total Victor flight time was 105 hours 25 minutes. The outbound plus the inbound waves of Victors uplifted 244,000 imperial gallons, that is 1.1 million litres. The Vulcan received 7% of the total and 20% was transferred between the Victors. At the final outbound transfer, the fuel passed to the Vulcan had passed through five different tankers.
Although the airfield was only lightly damaged, the impact was tremendous, especially mentally and politically. It sent a very stark message to Argentina. If the RAF can reach the Falklands, then it can reach Buenos Aires. As a result, they moved their Mirage fighter jets to protect the capital instead, away from the Falklands. It also meant that the Argentinians did not base fast jets on the Islands, which significantly reduced their ability to conduct offensive missions against the Royal Navy Task Force.
Although the worth of the Black Buck operations had been proven , the ability to replay the Vulcan card was limited by a couple of crucial factors . Wideawake had only limited aircraft parking space. Using all tanker capacity to conduct Black Buck raids meant no other Vulcan, Nimrod and Hercules operations could be carried out.
More Black Bucks
A few days later Black Buck 2 was carried out , with the same 2 Vulcans targeting the airfield. Later in the campaign, further Black Buck sorties were flown to neutralise an Argentine surveillance radar, using Shrike missiles that had been provided at short notice from American stocks.
Scheduled for 16 May, Black Buck 3 was cancelled before take-off due to strong headwinds. Black Buck 4 was planned for 28/29 May with Vulcan XM598, now on display at our Midlands site, as the chosen aircraft. Because no bombs were carried two 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 with Vulcan XM597 with on board Squadron Leader McDougall and his crew, while our XM598 was the reserve Vulcan. 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 took place on 3 June with the same two Vulcans and their crews. 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 in 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 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.
From an RAF point of view, the Falklands Conflict and Operation Black Buck were totally unexpected. For decades it only prepared itself for a nuclear exchange with the Soviets, which meant that the Vulcan crews had led a very sheltered existence within an air force which wasn’t used to going to war. It is a testament to their skills that they, like all RAF personnel, were able to adapt so quickly.
Avro Vulcan XM598 is on display at the RAF Museum Midlands, but also the RAF Museum London has a Vulcan on display. What’s more, it’s accessible to the public via our special Cold War Experience Tours. Have a look at our website for further details.