Friday 24 May 2013 13:08 UTC
A section for pictures that we haven't used, and for some of the story behind the story.
In the October issue of FLYER, we're running a fantastic feature by Paul Mulcahy about his experiences taking the UK's only flying Vulcan through its final airworthiness flight in preparation for the 2010 display season. The piece also includes a fascinating account by Fl Lt Martin Withers his role as part of the Vulcan crew which bombed the airfield at Port Stanley in 1982 during the Falklands conflict.
Also involved in that operation was Vulcan Air Electronics Officer Barry Masefield. Here we run his superb account of the Vulcans lead up to and subsequent involvement in the conflict.
It was 0430 hours on 2nd April 1982 when 150 men of the Argentine Special Forces landed by helicopter at Mullet Creek, a small inlet some three miles to the south-west of the Falklands’ capital, Port Stanley. This was the beginning of the Argentine take-over of the Falkland Islands, an event which was to rock the British government to its heels. Its response was to dispatch a Royal Naval Task Force accompanied by the Parachute Regiment southwards to recapture the Falklands Islands. Back home preparations were being made to involve the Royal Air Force Strike Command Vulcan fleet in the hostilities that were to come.
The following article has been written from a personal perspective about the Vulcans lead up to and subsequent involvement in the conflict. Technical detail of equipments used and tactics involved have been deliberately omitted; they have been documented in great detail in many other publications.
For those who have not heard of me I was a Vulcan AEO (Air Electronics Officer) serving on 50 Squadron at RAF Waddington at the time. Like all of the crews at the base we had just returned from the Easter holiday and were all called into the Station briefing room for a briefing by the Station Commander about the situation unfolding in the South Atlantic. It had been decided that three crews were to be selected for specialist training in Air-Air refuelling techniques, something which hadn’t been done for about 20 years, and also to carry out low-level 1000lb live bomb attacks by day and night against bombing range targets in the north and west of Scotland in preparation for operations against as yet unknown targets in the South Atlantic. The crew qualifications needed for selection were that the Captain was to be a QFI, the Navigator Radar was to be a QBI (qualified bombing instructor), the Navigator Plotter was to hold at least a ‘B’ category and that the AEO was to be an Electronic Warfare Instructor. The crews were to be segregated from the rest of the station crews and placed under the command of Wing Commander Simon Baldwin as a separate unit.
Our crew, captained by Sqn. Ldr. John Reeves, held all the appropriate qualifications and we were selected along with crews captained by Flt. Lt. Martin Withers and Sqn. Ldr. Monty Montgomery. A fourth reserve crew captained by Sqn. Ldr. Neil McDougall was also nominated. To assist us with the air-air refuelling techniques we had assigned to each crew an AARI (air-air refuelling instructor) from the Victor Tanker OCU at RAF Marham. No particular priority was given to any of the three crews as to who would be selected to carry out the bombing raids in the South Atlantic, but the results of the AAR training and the training bomb drops on the Scottish bombing ranges would be part of the criteria.
Training began in earnest on the 14th April with our first flight refuelling sortie. Our AARI, Pete Standing, sadly no longer with us, had to adjust to the sleek aerodynamic qualities of the Vulcan and to try and position the aircraft astern of the Victor tanker with the correct closing speed without overshooting the refuelling hose. To see the Victor up ahead closing far too rapidly was an alarming experience and several times we sped past underneath it. However it wasn’t long before the pilots came to grips with the situation and good progress was made in training the Vulcan pilots in the skills of in-flight refuelling. The main problem emerging now was that the seals in the refuelling probes were not performing correctly and fuel spillage over the Vulcan nose from the refuelling hose was creating a problem for the pilots. The leaking fuel was covering the cockpit windows reducing visibility to virtually zero and, of equal concern, the strong smell of fumes from the fuel were also entering the cockpit causing me great anxiety about a potential cockpit fire caused by a stray spark from the masses of electronic equipment I was operating. Modifications were carried out and new seals were fitted which helped reduce but not fully cure the problem. The engineers were running out of seals and still the leakage problem wasn’t being fully resolved and time was becoming our enemy. So a world-wide search was made for refuelling probes still fitted to all the Vulcans which were acting as gate-guards and museum exhibits in order that their probes could be removed and flown back to the UK for our use if necessary. I recall that during one of the night time refuelling sorties there was a massive leak of fuel from the probe over the windscreen virtually blinding the pilots and their sight of the Victor was just a hazy blur of lights. Contact with the hose was broken but instead of pulling back behind the Victor our aircraft surged forward until we were directly underneath the Victor and the refuelling hose started to trail down our starboard side of the Vulcan until it nestled neatly into the engine intakes causing a big bang and a double engine flame out. A double engine failure is a concern at any time but at night with a co-pilot from a different type of aircraft sitting in the right hand seat and not experienced with Vulcan failures it really concentrated the mind!! At my request the Victor AEO transmitted a distress call whilst the captain and I sorted out the situation. There was a noticeable silence from the AARI as he watched a Christmas tree of lights illuminate before his eyes from all the associated electrical failures and he thought it best to say nothing and sit on his hands whilst the crew recovered the failed engines and electrics. After that incident the engineers made even more positive efforts to resolve the leak problems. The Vulcan and the Victor probes were both stripped alongside each other to check for comparison. The problem was eventually traced to be the omission of a shrim in the coupling system on the Vulcan probe and once all the couplings were fitted with the missing shrim I don’t recall there being too many more problems.
All Vulcan AEOs were highly trained in the recognition sounds of Soviet radar emitters and how to deal with them if necessary. Up until now all the radar detection and jamming equipments fitted to the Vulcan were designed and tuned to combat the Soviet radar threats but of course the Argentine military were using NATO radar equipments and these we had absolutely no defence against. Intensive training at the electronic warfare range at Spadeadam was introduced for the AEOs who had to learn to recognise the radar signatures of the Argentine forces. The anticipated Argentine radar systems had been programmed into the Spadeadam radar emitters and we flew evasive and jamming sorties against them whilst enroute to the bombing ranges laden with 21x 1000lb bombs. Because the Vulcan had no jammers which could combat the Argentine missile and gunnery radar threats the Westinghouse ALQ101 radar jamming pod, currently fitted and in use on the Buccaneer fleet, was fitted to the underside of the starboard wing. It was all turning out to be a very exciting time, hard work but exciting. Ultra low-level flying using the Terrain Following Radar continued by both day and night until all the pilots had total confidence in both the TFR system and in their own low-level flying abilities especially at night. Then the training stepped up a gear as the co-pilots were asked to wear night vision goggles to aid with the visual night-time low level flying thereby allowing us to fly even lower. The co-pilots had never used these before, the goggles weren’t the best quality and they produced glare and flare from the slightest stray light source such as stray light from the dimmed cockpit instrument lighting, also from lights on the ground and even from the moon and stars. It was a while before they got used to them but eventually they felt comfortable with wearing them. I recall one of the co pilots proudly describing at a night training sortie debrief how he had been looking the sheep in the eyes as he flew low level across the Cumbrian Fells. A bit of exaggeration on his part no doubt but it gives an idea of just how low were now flying at night.
All the training was coming together, the ultra low-level flying using the TFR and the night vision goggles, the in-flight refuelling, the 1000lb bombing, and the EW training at Spadeadam. The crews were comfortable with their results and the low-level training continued with our target in the South Atlantic still not known to us. Rumours were rife of course with Buenos Aires being the number one guess but no one really knew. Port Stanley airfield certainly hadn’t ever been mentioned to the crews.
On the 27th April, only two weeks from the start of the training, the 3 crews were all gathered into the briefing room for a Top Secret briefing. The Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) had arrived to brief us on our mission. It was to put the runway at Port Stanley airfield out of action to the Argentine fighter aircraft, which were a direct threat to our Task Force ships, by landing at least one bomb on the runway. It would be an impossibility to deny the runway to the transport aircraft which had a short landing and take-off ability but they were no direct threat to our RN Task Force anyway. The CAS had, that morning, been with the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who told him that not only was the mission of military importance it was also to be a political statement to the Argentines that we could attack their homeland if necessary. To this end the crews were, if possible, to be kept clear from any danger during the mission!! To achieve this of course we had to remain outside the range of any of the Argentine ground-air fire. This meant that we would now have to fly at medium height around 10,000 feet or above whilst bombing the target and rely on the forward throw of the bombs from height to enable them to reach their impact point on the runway. After the release of the bombs we would have to do a sharp turn and power-climb the Vulcan away from the defence forces. So much for all the intensive low-level training we had been practicing in the previous weeks!! We were then told that two crews would be flying south the following day to Wideawake airfield on Ascension Island to prepare for a bombing raid on Port Stanley airfield on the night of the 30th April. Our crew captained by Sqn. Ldr. John Reeves was chosen to be the primary crew to carry out the mission with Flt. Lt. Martin Withers’ crew acting as our airborne reserve should we encounter a problem with our aircraft resulting in us not being able to continue the mission. Sqn. Ldr. Monty Montgomery’s crew was to act as our mission briefing crew and would preposition immediately on Ascension Island in readiness for our arrival the next day. They flew out from Brize Norton that same evening. Sqn Ldr McDougall’s crew was to remain on standby at Waddington. The training phase was now over. At last we were to be on our way. Our target of the airfield at Port Stanley was known only to us and was, of course, classified as Top Secret.
The evening of the following day, having bid farewell to our families, we gathered again in the briefing room to prepare for the flight south to Ascension Island. We would be accompanied by a couple of Victor tankers who would refuel us en-route down to the north coast of Portugal before turning back to RAF Marham. The whole sortie was Top Secret and no-one in the Air Traffic world in London, except the senior controller, knew we were coming. The whole sortie was to be conducted in radio silence and it must be the only occasion in my aviation career when I’ve flown nearly 4000 miles without talking to a soul. It was the responsibility of the ATC controllers in London to ensure that we had free passage southwards even if it meant diverting the odd Boeing 747 from our route!! When we arrived at the Briefing Room the AOC No1 Group was there along with the AOC Strike Command and many other senior officers were gathered there to bid us good luck in our endeavours. We were to meet all of the assembled senior officers and then go for a pre-flight meal before starting our crew briefing. Any of you who have experienced pre-flight meals in the Aircrew Dining facility at RAF Waddington, affectionately known as ‘the feeder’, will be aware that you don’t ever leave the ‘feeder’ feeling hungry. This night was to be no exception and with so many dignitaries dining with us this was a chance for the chef to shine and we were served a meal fit for a king. I recall a meal of fillet steak and all the trimmings was on the menu. We were all tucking into the meal when it was noticed that the two co-pilots were missing. I was asked to go and find them to see what the problem was. What greeted me were two very pale and worried co-pilots who were going through their fuel calculations for the umpteenth time with the AARIs but still coming up with the same result. The fuel plan given to us by HQ No1 Group would not allow us to make it to Ascension Island with the allotted fuel load, the amount to be transferred from the Victors and with a full bomb load!!! Needless to say, after they presented themselves to their respective captains with this information the silence was deafening. The AOCs was less than impressed and from the thunderous look on his face it was obvious that someone’s head in the planning department at No 1 Group was going to roll. Nothing could be done at this late stage and after a meeting between the assembled senior officers it was decided that we should finish our meal, go home, and try again the following day with a revised fuel plan that would work. This we did, eventually arriving at Wideawake airfield on Ascension Island at day-break. The bombing mission was planned for the following night, the 30th April.
The mission take-off was to take place just before midnight with the pre-flight briefing to take place several hours before hand. Not much sleep was had during that day, most of us were pumping sufficient adrenalin around our bodies to last a lifetime. Ascension Island is only 400 miles south of the Equator and is unbelievably hot and even though we had been billeted half way up Green Mountain at the Two Boats settlement in order to take advantage of the cooler air we were all very uncomfortable. All external personal communications from the island were halted to protect the integrity of the mission. There had been recent sightings of a Soviet spy ship just off the coast and no risks were to be taken by allowing them to monitor any careless conversations carried out by phone to the UK. The Vulcan crews gathered for their own private briefing by the unit intelligence officer accompanied by an SAS officer who gave us details about code words and ‘safe houses’ to make for should we be shot down over the target area. Soon it was time for the combined Victor and Vulcan briefing. The number of aircrew totalled some 67 aircrew. This all took place in a very large marquee with very poor acoustics and so the briefing was carried out by the briefing officer using a bull horn which I’m sure the whole of the island could hear and probably the spy trawler off-shore too.
The mission involved the use of 11 Victors and 2 Vulcans using one of the most complex refuelling plans ever devised. Myself and Hugh Prior, the AEO on Martin Withers’ crew, decided that the complexity of the refuelling programme was more a pilot and navigator thing so we both took ourselves off for our own briefing on the tactical use of our electronic warfare equipments and for the latest update of the Argentine armaments and their locations from the SAS briefing officer. One of the simplest pieces of electronic warfare equipment we were given was a small tape recorder and a tape in Spanish to be used in the event of us being detected by the Argentine radars. The tape stated that we were an Argentine transport aircraft that had lost its radio receiving capability and was trying to land at Port Stanley airfield in an emergency. It also requested that the ground defence forces should not shoot at us as we approached the airfield. Sounds like a good ploy?!! It might well have worked but when I played the tape to my navigator, Jim Vinales, who is Gibraltarian and fluent in Spanish, he was alarmed to hear that the Spanish was perfectly grammatically correct. He said that no-one actually spoke the language that way and it would be obvious to any Argentine that heard it that it was a recording. He thought that it could be more of a danger than a help and so we decided not to use it.
After the main briefing was over between the Vulcan and Victor crews we then carried out our own bomber crew briefing. Hugh and I had discussed and decided our electronic warfare jamming policy. We decided that we would remain totally electronically silent and even though we might be illuminated by the Argentine airfield surveillance radar which was a low threat to us we would only use our jammers should we encounter a high-threat missile or gunnery radar. Using the broadband jammer against the low-threat airfield surveillance radar would initially give a blanket wipe-out of all the radar signals, including our own, which were received by the ground radar but as we got closer to the airfield eventually the jammer would act as a beacon thereby pointing out to the defence forces exactly what direction we were coming from. However, if we encountered a high-threat gunnery or missile radar then the game was on and we would use every jammer and defensive device that we had. These included electronics jamming, Chaff radar decoys (small strips of aluminium foil cut to the wave-length of the enemy radars) and Infra- red decoy flares. We were absolutely confident after our trials with the Westinghouse jammer at Spadeadam that the jammer would perform as advertised. It was an ‘off-set’ jammer which meant that if any radar pulse from the ground was detected by the jammer it would be re-transmitted back to the ground radar but would give the impression on the radar screen that we were about 5 miles from where we actually were. Any gun or missile using that radar targeting information would then be firing in totally the wrong direction. We also had another problem to contend with. Hugh and I had both served in the Maritime arm of the RAF and had worked with the Royal Navy on numerous exercises. We knew that if any unidentified aircraft flew inside the ship’s MEZ (missile engagement zone) then it was RN policy to shoot first and ask questions later. Ships at sea are very vulnerable to aircraft attack and their self-defence policy is borne out of many bitter previous experiences. I sought from the resident Intelligence Officer the whereabouts of the RN Task Force which we knew were in the vicinity of the Falklands but no-one who he contacted was prepared to give us the Task Force position. (Another self-defence ploy). We were acutely aware that once we got a long way south we would have to continuously monitor our radar detection monitors to see if we could detect any of the Task Force ship’s radars. The last thing we wanted to do was stumble on the Task Force and risk being shot down so it was vital that we kept them at arm’s length. The whole mission was to be conducted in radio silence with the only transmission from the Vulcan being a half-hourly changing IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) coded signal which any friendly force with the appropriate equipment and complimentary codes could decipher and deduce that we were friendly. This was the only way we could indicate to the Task Force that we were friendly.
Although the temperature was in the high 70s we still had to put on our rubber immersion suits with our woollen ‘grow-bag’ underneath. Later on we were going to be flying over waters that would be cold enough to kill in only a few minutes if were unfortunate to end up in them without the right protection. We proceeded to our respective aircraft confident that we were totally capable of carrying out a successful mission but the nerves were still jangling and the adrenalin still pumping. However, once inside the aircraft we were so busy that soon the nerves were calmed and we treated it just like any other sortie and got on with the job. Communications whilst still on the ground were to be kept to an absolute minimum to avoid giving the game away to any potential snooper but there was still a lot of unnecessary chatter on the radios. All was going well, our Pre-Taxi checks were carried out but as the captain went to close his DV window, a small triangular window which could be opened on the ground for ventilation, he found great difficulty in closing it and seating the window in its mounting. This potentially could be a major problem but he elected to carry on anyway and hope that once airborne the seal would reseat itself and allow the aircraft to pressurise. It wasn’t to be and after many attempts to try stuffing his flying jacket in the leak it soon became apparent that our aircraft was going nowhere at high level that night. I had worked out that at high level flight virtually unpressurised we had enough oxygen to last for about 5 hours and with a potential 15 hour sortie ahead of us it was obvious that we wouldn’t be able to continue with the mission. A radio call was made to Martin Withers to let him know of the situation and that he was now the primary bomber. I’m told that it went a bit quiet on his aircraft for a while but being the professionals they were Martin just said ‘It looks like we’ve got a job of work to do’ and they proceeded southwards to complete their bombing mission. Meanwhile on our aircraft there was a feeling of intense disappointment. All that remained for us to do was to burn off our fuel to get down to landing weight and land the aircraft and get it repaired ready for the next bombing sortie whenever that may be. Martin and his crew carried out their mission successfully and for that he deservedly received the Distinguished Flying Cross and his crew were all mentioned in dispatches.
Our turn was to come a few days later on the 3rd of May when once again we were chosen as the primary crew to carry out the next bombing mission on the same target. Everything proceeded normally and with the benefit of hindsight from the previous mission the fuel plan was modified and improved. Now that the element of surprise that we could attack so far south had been lost it was vital that communications between the aircraft were once again kept to an absolute minimum to avoid alerting the Argentines that we were coming. This time all the aircraft got airborne successfully in absolute radio silence and we were on our way.
During the briefing I noticed that our routing was to take us very close to the anticipated position of the Task Force and that was of major concern to me. Once again I sought unsuccessfully the exact position of the Task Force.
At a point some two hundred miles short of the Falkland Islands we descended to ultra low level for the start of our run-in over the sea to the target area. Already I could hear on my radar warning receiver the search radars from our naval ships searching for possible enemy aircraft but we had no option but to continue our path towards them. Using my radar warning receiver I could give bearings of the various radars to the navigator and by using three separate bearing lines he was able to plot a rough position of the ship. It was rough and ready but the best we could do in the circumstances, our own bombing radar of course was switched to standby to avoid alerting the enemy, so we couldn’t use it to plot our ships. I hoped that my IFF would do its job and indicate to the Task Force that I was friendly and hopefully defuse the situation. More and more I could hear missile and gun fire control radars being switched on and being aimed in our direction. We continued to weave our way through the fleet eventually emerging unscathed. At a point approximately twenty miles from the target we climbed to sixteen thousand feet for our run in to the target. The enemy radars seemed to be switched off until shortly before the final run in when I could hear the airfield search radar switch on. I had already made a decision that, provided only the airfield search radar was being used, I would not use the appropriate radar jammer to jam it. It was no direct threat to us and by using my jammer it would have acted like a beacon indicating our direction of approach. Only if the radars from the guns and missiles were heard would I start jamming but there was no sign of them being used to locate us. At the appropriate range the bomb doors were opened and the bombs dropped. I made an attempt to count the explosions but it was virtually impossible to hear anything above the roar of the Olympus 301 engines as they were put to full throttle to enable us to climb up to high level whilst turning northwards. The Nav. Radar switched on his radar to sector scan the Task Force, this was pre-arranged so that they would know we had completed our bombing raid and were on our way home. My radar warning receiver then went into overload from all the gun and missile radars being directed towards us from the ships. Fortunately we were well outside their armament range and so they presented no threat to us.
Having carried out the raid successfully it was my job to transmit the codeword ‘Superfuse’ on the HF radio back to base to let them know we had dropped the bombs, were on our way home, and would be requiring a Victor to top us up. The journey northward off the coast of Argentina was not without incident, for some unknown reason there was heavy electrical interference that occasionally manifested itself by giving indications on the radar warning receiver that we had a fighter on our tail. Using the periscope and the tail warning receiver it became apparent after several scares that it was just electrical interference and was nothing to worry about. After several hours flying northwards we eventually spotted a Nimrod which was on patrol waiting for us and ready to escort us back to Ascension Island. Soon after that the most welcome sight of our Victor tanker hove into view and he successfully topped us up with sufficient fuel to get us home.
We landed 14hours 45 minutes after take-off feeling quite elated that we had done the job we had been tasked with. Once the de-brief was over we retired to the bar for a few well earned beers and a sleep. There were to be several more successful sorties involving the Vulcan aircraft using air/ground missiles against the Argentine search radars and also further bombing missions, each one full of incident but that’s a story for another time.
© B J Masefield
To get hold of a copy of the October issue of FLYER, visit your local WHSmiths, call Charlotte on 01225 481440 or go to http://shop.flyer.co.uk
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