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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Ahead of them, the carriers, with a thinned escort, covered Atlantic Conveyor, which was en route to San Carlos Water. Since the first Exocet attack, the RAF had developed a ruse: Four Lynx helicopters with electronic decoys would position themselves to lure the Exocet toward an imaginary target. With the helicopters hovering at 100 feet, the sea skimmer would pass harmlessly below them.

Forty miles northwest of Hermes, the Super Etendards popped up and swept the ships with their radar, which the British immediately detected. Again picking the first target they saw, the Argentine pilots launched their missiles more than 20 miles out, then veered away, outrunning the Sea Harrier CAP. The ships launched chaff and turned to bring their weaponry to bear on the Exocets.

One of the missiles evidently dropped into the sea. The other, momentarily bamboozled, flew past the carriers until its small internal radar found Atlantic Conveyor. The missile drove well into the hull before exploding, igniting tons of fuel. Abandoned and left to burn, the transport sank several days later, taking with her much of the materiel that had been intended for the ground war just beginning.

Before the attack, crews aboard Conveyor had been feverishly “blading up” two of the RAF Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, which had been partly disassembled and covered for the crossing. One was completed and both were scheduled to enter service the next day. “They were test flying that Chinook when the ship was hit,” recalls Anthony Stables, who commanded the heavy-lift squadron and watched as “three Chinooks, all support, spares, blades, tools—everything” were lost. “We then had 75 people, one Chinook. No equipment. No armament. No fuel. Absolutely nothing. Put an end to my war, really.”

The surviving Chinook—call sign Bravo November—carried troops and howitzers and tons of everything else in impossible wintry weather. During one whiteout, the big tandem-rotor helicopter caromed off a stream bed and somehow kept flying. Later it ferried 81 fully armed troops, then went back for 75 more. None of that is in the owner’s manual.

The U.S.-built Shrike missile, which homes on radars, would be employed to take out the Port Stanley radars. Two Vulcans were fitted with the weapons in May, and the missions fell to Neil McDougall. The first aborted, but two days later, on May 30, the missiles managed to silence one of the radars, but only for a day. A mission on June 2 carried four Shrikes and was destined for an excellent adventure.

After loitering for about 40 minutes and hearing nothing, McDougall eased the Vulcan down toward the runway, causing one of the anti-aircraft units to turn its radar on. Two Shrikes destroyed the battery and its crew. Still the Vulcan lingered, but the Argentines kept radar silence. McDougall finally headed north to meet his Victor. His aircraft had just started taking on fuel when the tip of the Vulcan’s refueling probe broke off. The crew would have to divert to Brazil.

“Our lords and masters had designated an airfield in northern Brazil,” says McDougall. “The crew had a bit of a chat. A jungle airstrip—too easy to disappear there.” McDougall’s crew feared that the Brazilians, to avoid a political mess, might arrange for the Vulcan to vanish. The crew quietly decided to head for Rio de Janeiro—and high visibility.

Brazilian fighters rose to meet the Vulcan, urging McDougall toward the northern field. But his remaining fuel wouldn’t buy even a single go-around; he had to land. At 20,000 feet, the Vulcan was cleared for a straight-in approach to Rio about six miles from the runway—a 30-degree glide angle. McDougall, who’d been flying Vulcans for 20 years, put the huge delta-wing bomber into a steep spiral, emerging on the glide slope a mile and a half from the threshold but still making 300 knots. Pulling the nose well up, he slowed to 150 knots, dropped the wheels, and delivered a perfect landing without touching the braking parachute. “We were interned for a week,” McDougall says. “We got a message one night: Refuel and get out of here in the morning; no restrictions, but do it before they change their minds.” They left and landed at Ascension.

Near the end of May, with only one Exocet left, the Argentine military devised a final gambit to sink a British carrier. Two Super Etendards, one armed and one unarmed, would stalk the fleet, accompanied by four air force A-4C Skyhawks. The Skyhawks would follow the Supers to the fleet and the Exocet to the ships.


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