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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On the early afternoon of May 30 this odd flock took off from Rio Grande. Two KC-130 tankers met them offshore and topped them off. The group flew on for another 190 miles, putting the aircraft southeast of where they believed the carriers lay. Then they descended through thick cloud and heavy rain for a long run in at 50 feet. British radar saw them coming, but lost them briefly until alerted by the Super Etendards’ radar sweep. Having acquired a target presumed to be Invincible, they fired their single Exocet and turned away. For the Supers, the Falklands War was over.

But not for the Skyhawks. Launched some 24 miles from the presumed target, the Exocet quickly left the jets behind. Waiting for the aircraft were HMS Avenger and Exeter, one of them almost certainly the big target the Super Etendard pilot had seen. As the Skyhawks swept in, Sea Darts from Exeter destroyed two of them. The two survivors continued the run, each missing with two 500-pound bombs, then sped away to meet a Hercules tanker. One of them was later marked with a ship silhouette labeled “Invincible.” Despite compelling evidence that no British ship—certainly not a carrier—was hit by anything that day, no one in Argentina believes the attack failed. This is the conflict’s Grassy Knoll, a source of never-ending conspiracy theory. One former Grupo 4 Skyhawk pilot, Guillermo A. Martinez, now a lieutenant colonel, had studied the matter: “When does Invincible return home? September. The war ends in June,” he says, knowingly. “Not even nuclear ships stay out so long.”

By early June, ground targets were becoming scarce, and little apparent threat was left in the Argentine air force. Troops were assembling at Fitzroy, not 20 miles southwest of Port Stanley. The end was in sight—a perfect moment for another demonstration of Murphy’s Law.

Under cover of poor weather, two landing ships had anchored in Fitzroy Bay and begun to unload. The bad weather lifted, leaving both in bright sunshine. They were consequently spotted by Argentine troops. Back at San Carlos, meanwhile, a Harrier landed hard. The aircraft was wrecked, and worse, the metal plates on a newly installed forward refueling base were twisted. The pad would be out of service for several crucial hours, cutting the Sea Harriers’ ability to refuel and, in turn, their time on CAP.

Though they had no inkling of the problems the British were having, the Argentine high command chose this moment to pull out the stops: six Daggers, eight Skyhawks, and even two Mirage IIIs. The Daggers went after HMS Plymouth, hit her with four bombs, none of which exploded, then ran for home. As for the Skyhawks, Carlos Rinke recalls they continued with five airplanes. The five kept low and the formation split to go after the landing ships. Against little anti-aircraft fire, the pilots let their bombs go high enough to arm, and three hit one landing ship, starting a conflagration. The sister ship was also hit and set afire. The attack killed 50 and injured 57—the largest number of British casualties produced by a single action in this war.

As he approached Rio Gallegos, Rinke says, “We saw other planes were taking off. We talked with those pilots on the radio. We said it was a very easy target. We didn’t realize the carrier had sent two Harriers at that moment.”

The four newcomers rushed toward the smoke billowing up from Fitzroy Bay and toward a small landing craft that was being watched by two Sea Harriers on CAP. RAF Flight Lieutenant David Morgan hit two of them with Sidewinders, then pulled straight up to let his wingman, Lieutenant David Smith, take a shot, which destroyed a third Skyhawk. The encounter brought Morgan’s tally to four, the most of any British pilot in the war.


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