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A Royal Air Force Avro Vulcan strategic bomber. (Sgt. David S. Nolan, US Air Force)

Air War in the Falklands

Grand miscalculations, unknown odds, miserable weather, vast distances—and unlikely adversaries

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The RAF sent six GR.3s, and later four more. Air Chief of Staff Sir Peter Squire, then commanding 1 (Fighter) Squadron at Wittering, says it was assumed that the Royal Navy would lose one Sea Harrier a day. “We were going down as attrition replacements,” he adds.

As the 809 Squadron and the GR.3s were fitted for combat, the search for a transporter for them began. There was only Atlantic Conveyor, a commercial container ship. “Ship came in on a Friday,” Gedge says. “We walked around. We cut up all the ventilator things, measured the flight deck. She had a 92-foot beam. We left the foremast in place, 32 feet high, to use as a guide in hover and vertical descent.”

The carrier task force rendezvoused at Ascension Island with a second armada from the Mediterranean, and on April 18 the full battle group, commanded by Admiral John “Sandy” Woodward, turned toward the south Atlantic. The group’s destination, some 4,000 miles away, was an exclusionary zone 400 miles in diameter, centered on the Falklands. They would not arrive until April 30.

Most of the Argentine navy was already at sea, and on April 29, the aircraft carrier 25th de Mayo took up station north of the exclusionary zone, while the old World War II-era cruiser General Belgrano patrolled to the southwest. In Buenos Aires, air force commanders brooded over how to hang onto what the navy had “recovered.” They had more than ten times the combat aircraft of the British battle group, including 16 Dassault Mirage III supersonic interceptors. The navy had the formidable combination of the Dassault Super Etendard and the Exocet sea-skimming anti-ship missile, though they had only a handful of the latter, which were then embargoed by France.

But this force wasn’t quite what it seemed. “Most of our planes took part in Vietnam,” says Lt. Colonel Carlos Rinke, at the time a 26-year-old lieutenant in Grupo 5 de Caza, referring to the Skyhawks. The Israeli-built Mirage V, also called the Dagger, was fast and well maintained but had no aerial refueling system, electronic countermeasures, or inertial navigation system. Argentina’s pilots were long on ability and courage, but years of isolation had deprived them of priceless experience. They had practiced combat only against themselves, and the air force had never trained to fight at sea.

The first shots of the air war were fired on April 25, when a British Wessex helicopter near South Georgia put two 250-pound depth charges next to the submarine Santa Fe near Grytviken. More British helicopters joined the fight, and soon the flaming sub beached itself. The Argentine garrison surrendered to British commandos, and the Union Jack was restored.

At the RAF Waddington base, five Avro Vulcan B.2s, all on their way to retirement, were instead readied for war. Having abandoned air-to-air refueling a decade earlier, the RAF had to reacquire lost skills. “We were told ‘You’re going up on Monday to learn air-to-air refueling,’ ” recalls Martin Withers, then a flight lieutenant. “The probe’s on the end of the nose, below you. When you start taking fuel on, it’s like being in a car wash.”

But there was not much time to rehearse. At mid-morning on May 1 at Wideawake, the U.S. air base on Ascension Island, 11 Victor tankers took off a minute apart, followed by a pair of fully armed Vulcans. The first of the flights code-named Black Buck, this deployment was also the first time Vulcans had been used in anger in 25 years of service and, at the time, the longest bombing mission ever attempted. Mechanical failures caused a Vulcan and a Victor to drop out, leaving only Withers’ Vulcan and 10 tankers. As the flock pushed across the sea, Victors topped off Victors and turned back, while the remaining tankers fueled the sole Vulcan. An hour from the islands, the last tanker filled the Vulcan and banked for home, flying on fumes.

It was an odd mission for a Vulcan. “We were a big lurching thing to go in and drop conventional bombs on a sophisticated enemy,” Withers says. The Vulcan released 21 bombs on a line that angled southwesterly across the Port Stanley runway; the first bomb cratered the runway almost in the center; the rest missed. Even today, the perception of a lot of effort producing little result gets a rise out of Wing Commander Neil McDougall, the senior Vulcan pilot at the time. “Martin’s bomb!” he sniffs. “He could only have hit it with one,” given the spacing between bombs. “If you tried to bomb straight up the runway and you’re just 50 feet aside, you miss.” Sure enough, a second Black Buck raid two days later stitched 21 craters parallel to the runway. Withers’ single hit dug a diabolical hole, producing a great upheaval of asphalt crust.

Invincible began rotating her Sea Harriers through combat air patrol (CAP) west of the fleet that same day. By mid-morning, the radar officer was reporting echoes closing fast. Lieutenant Paul Barton, flying CAP, painted six Mirages at about 35,000 feet, but the six declined to come down to fight, and the Sea Harriers would not be lured up to where the French fighter was most dangerous. As it would so often in this war, low fuel ended the dance.

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