Air War in the Falklands

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

A Royal Air Force Avro Vulcan strategic bomber. (Sgt. David S. Nolan, US Air Force)
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IN DECEMBER 1981, AN ARGENTINE SCRAP METAL salvage team landed on the island of South Georgia, a dependency of the British Falkland Islands, and ran up the Argentine flag. HMS Endurance immediately brought 21 Royal Marines from East Falkland to eject the intruders, with harumphing all around. No one thought this was the beginning of a war.

As Argentina urged the United Nations to review the case of the Malvinas, the name by which the Falklands are known in much of Latin America, Operation Rosario, a plan to invade and capture the islands, took form in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires. Argentina’s claim, centuries old but fanned by nationalism since the Juan Peron era, would be vindicated; half the world away, the British would do nothing. Or so went the thinking in Argentina.

Neither of the combatants was prepared for a winter war in the far south Atlantic, and the sudden, unexpected conflict, though brief, was both improvised and lethal: In just two months of hostilities, 891 men died, 132 aircraft were lost, and 11 ships were sunk. Fought hundreds of miles from the nearest mainland, the war was decided in the air, and 20 years later, the pilots still remember every violent minute.

Argentina invaded the Falklands’ capital, Port Stanley, early on Friday, April 2. Before noon, the small detachment of Royal Marines had surrendered, and the Argentine colors fluttered over Government House. But before night had fallen on occupied Port Stanley, Operation Corporate, the British counterthrust, was under way.

The carriers Hermes and Invincible, originally scheduled to be sold, had been alerted on April 1, when the invasion appeared imminent. A day later, two squadrons of Sea Harriers met the carriers at Portsmouth—Lieutenant Commander Andrew Auld’s 800 Squadron was assigned to Hermes, while Lieutenant Commander Nigel “Sharkey” Ward’s 801 Squadron was assigned to Invincible.

With the passing of the last conventional carrier, HMS Ark Royal, the Royal Navy had adopted a version of the Royal Air Force’s Harrier GR.3 vertical-takeoff attack fighter. Hermes and Invincible, originally built with traditional decks, were modified by the addition of a bulbous ramp at the bow. By accelerating along the deck and up the ramp, the Harriers seemed to jump into the air, and they could carry a greater load than when they took off straight up.

The Sea Harrier differed from the RAF’s GR.3 in having extensive corrosion-proofing, a cockpit that was raised to provide the pilot with a better view, and a multi-mode radar called Blue Fox, which could search for targets in the air or on the sea. The airplane was unusual, its capability a mystery. One squadron might report excellent results with the radar and navigation systems, while another found them unreliable. A comparative newborn, the aircraft had never been in a real fight in the demanding maritime environment.

But British forces train with a rigor exemplified by high scores against superior aircraft in competitions. “We had fought the Sea Harrier against every airplane in the western world,” says Tim Gedge, then a lieutenant commander. And the British had adopted the new U.S.-built AIM-9L Sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missile, with a new wide-angle sensor to improve off-boresight engagement.

“We decided to take eight aircraft but had only six pilots,” Gedge recalls. “We did a troll of the RAF. We needed people who’d actually flown a Harrier but also had single-seat fighter experience.…The RAF identified two. We phoned them on Friday in Germany, in a bar” and gave them the good news: “They were going to war with the Royal Navy.”

The staff at Whitehall were not as confident as the pilots, Gedge says. “I was told by [Ministry of Defence] people that attrition of Sea Harriers would be so great that all of them would be lost in the first few days of the war. I kept this to myself.” Gedge was on the beach as the task force sailed out of Portsmouth on April 5. That afternoon, his mood was brightened by orders to build a new squadron—809—with aircraft coming from the factory.


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