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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“We took off with 7,500 liters of fuel,” recalls Colonel Miguel Callejo, then an air force lieutenant. “Two bombs. Maximum weight was..pasado [exceeded].” They had radio navigation for 15 minutes, radar for another 15, then they were down to compass and clock.

Major General Horacio Mir Gonzalez, then a captain, says they flew from bases in the south. “Rio Grande, in Fireland [Tierra del Fuego]. We flew one hour, 45, 48 minutes until the islands, then operational descent and attack. If we were lucky enough to return, another 45 minutes. Two hours minimum. We returned with fuel reserves like...”—he makes a zero with a finger and thumb.

A pair of Pucará twin turboprops attacked but were turned back by Ardent. Sharkey Ward, on CAP, fell in behind Major Juan Tomba’s airplane and peppered it with 30-mm Aden cannon fire. The first pass shot off an aileron, the second riddled the right engine, and the third ignited the left engine. “He stayed with it for three passes,” Ward recalls. “After he went down I was singing his praises.” Much later, Tomba was captured at Goose Green, where “we needed an interpreter,” Ward continues. “Tomba at first refused. Then he heard he was a bit of a hero around the British fleet and became a first-rate interpreter, a huge help.” Neill Thomas and Lieutenant Commander Mike Blissett, on CAP, picked up four inbound Skyhawks. Each Sea Harrier destroyed one and might have downed more but for low fuel.

Still the Argentines kept coming. Gonzalez was in a flight of four, at very low level: “I was the leader. We came over the hill. In front of me, more than 10, 13 frigates! Transport ships. What will I do? I see one frigate, release one bomb, flew very low level between ships.” One of the four was brought down by Lieutenant Commander Rob Frederiksen.

Now six Skyhawks swept in on Argonaut, putting two thousand-pound bombs into her hull. Neither exploded—they were later defused—but they caused heavy internal damage. Then Gonzalez’s three Daggers went after Ardent, catching the ship at an angle that blanked out all but her small-caliber guns. She caught a thousand-pound bomb astern; two other bombs bracketed the hull but didn’t explode. Grupo 5 Skyhawks ran in, aiming for the beachhead—and also poor Ardent, which took two more bombs. Three Daggers strafed Brilliant but were picked off by 801 Squadron’s Ward and Steven Thomas.

Three Argentine Navy Skyhawks attacked the crippled Ardent, this time with vane-retarded Snake Eye 500-pounders, most of which struck the ship and exploded. Listing badly and afire, the frigate was abandoned. It sank later that day.

The 800 Squadron CAP spotted the A-4s and went after them; none survived. With only four operational Skyhawks left, the Argentine navy would fly one more mission before leaving Bomb Alley to the air force. By the end of the day, Argentina had lost five Skyhawks, five Daggers, and two Pucarás, nine of them to Sea Harriers. The British had lost Jeff Glover’s GR.3 and two helicopters to ground fire.

Contrary to expectations, the Sea Harriers and GR.3s proved effective and durable. “We flew nearly 1,500 missions, with 98 percent serviceability,” says Gedge. The hapless Argentine pilots were running on nothing but courage—and the tender care of the ground crews, who spent freezing nights resuscitating the riddled aircraft.

The Sea Harriers were stretched to their range limits. Neill Thomas says that because they could land vertically, Harriers didn’t need much fuel in reserve. “As we went on,” he says, “we began getting shorter and shorter on fuel. You got used to it.” To which Gedge adds, “You know you’re going to land the first time. Landing allowance is about 400 pounds.” By comparison, he notes, the figure for the F-14 is about two and a half tons.

The crews were also learning how to nurse the aircraft in harsh conditions. Gedge recalls putting “a thin cling film on the navigation stuff in the cockpit” to keep salt water out. At night, Sidewinder missiles were dried out in the bread oven. They also improvised some countermeasures: “We didn’t have a chaff dispenser,” recalls Rob Frederiksen, “so someone came up with putting the stuff in the air brakes.”


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