Barry Masefield, former XH558 Air Electronics Officer, relives his experiences back in 1982.
This article first appeared in a special 20th Anniversary edition of ‘The Vulcan’ Magazine in May 2002.
It was 04.30 hours on 2nd April 1982, when 150 men of the Argentine Special Forces landed by helicopter at Mullet Creek, a small inlet some three miles to the south-west of the Falklands’ capital, Port Stanley. This was the beginning of the Argentinian take-over of the Falkland Islands, an event which was to rock the British government to its heels. Its response was to dispatch a Royal Naval Task Force accompanied by the Parachute Regiment southwards to capture the Falklands Islands. Back home, preparations were being made to involve the Royal Air Force Strike Command Vulcan fleet in the hostilities that were to come.
The following article has been written from a personal perspective about the Vulcans lead up to and subsequent involvement in the conflict. Technical details of equipment used and tactics involved have been deliberately omitted, for they have been documented in great detail in many other publications.
For those who have not heard of me, I was an AEO (Air Electronics Officer) on 50 Squadron at RAF Waddington. At the time, like all of crews at the base, we had just returned from the Easter holiday and were all called into the Station briefing room for a briefing by the Station Commander about the situation unfolding in the South Atlantic. It had been decided that three crews were to be selected for specialist training in Air-to-Air refuelling techniques, something which hadn’t been done for some number of years, and also to carry out low-level 1000lb live bomb attacks by day and night against targets in the north and west of Scotland in preparation for operations against as yet unknown targets in the South Atlantic.
The crew qualifications needed for selection were that the Captain was to be a QFI (Qualified Flying Instructor), the Navigator Radar was to be a QBI (Qualified Bombing Instructor), the Navigator Plotter was to hold at least a ‘B’ category and that the AEO was to be an Electronic Warfare Instructor. The crews were to be segregated from the rest of the station crews and placed under the command of Wing Commander Simon Baldwin as a separate unit.
Our crew captained by Sqn. Ldr. John Reeves held all the appropriate qualifications and we were selected along with crews captained by Fit. Lt. Martin Withers and Sqn. Ldr. Monty Montgomery. A fourth reserve crew captained by Sqn. Ldr. Neil McDougall was also nominated. To assist us with the air-air refuelling techniques we had assigned to each crew an AARI (Air-Air Refuelling Instructor) from the Victor OCU at RAF Marham. No particular priority was given to any of the three crews as to who would be selected to carry out the bombing raids in the South Atlantic, but the results of the training drops on the Scottish ranges would be one of the criteria.
Training began in earnest on the 14th April with our first flight refuelling sortie which was fairly alarming to say the least. The AARI had to adjust to the sleek aerodynamic qualities of the Vulcan and to try and position the aircraft astern of the Victor tanker with the correct closing speed without overshooting the refuelling hose. To see the Victor up ahead closing rapidly was an experience and several times we sped past underneath it. However it wasn’t long before the pilots came to grips with the situation and good progress was made in training the Vulcan pilots in the skills of in-flight refuelling.
The main problem emerging now was that the seals in the refuelling probes were not performing correctly and fuel spillage from the refuelling hose was creating a problem for the pilots. The leaking fuel was covering the cockpit windows reducing visibility to virtually zero and of equal concern the fumes from the fuel were also entering the cockpit causing great anxiety about a potential cockpit fire. Modifications were carried out and new seals were fitted which helped reduce the problem. The engineers were running out of seals and a world-wide search was made for refuelling probes still fitted to the Vulcans acting as gate guards and museum exhibits so that their probes could be removed and flown back to the UK for our use if necessary. I recall that during one of the night time refuelling sorties, there was a massive leak of fuel from the probe over the windscreen, virtually blinding the pilots and their sight of the Victor was just a hazy blur of lights. Contact with the hose was broken but instead of pulling back behind the Victor our aircraft surged forward until we were directly underneath the Victor and the refuelling hose started to trail down the starboard side of the Vulcan until it nestled neatly into the engine intakes, causing a big bang and a double engine flame out.
A double engine failure is a concern at any time but at night with a co-pilot from a different type of aircraft sitting in the right hand seat and not experienced with Vulcan failures, it really concentrated the mind!! The Victor AEO transmitted a distress call on my behalf whilst the captain and I sorted out the situation. There was a noticeable silence from the AARI as he watched a Christmas tree of lights illuminate before his eyes from all the associated electrical failures and he thought it best to say nothing whilst the crew recovered the engines and electrics. After that incident the engineers made positive efforts to resolve the leak problems and I don’t recall there being too many problems after that alarming event.
Training at the electronic warfare range at Spadeadam was introduced for the AEO. The anticipated Argentine radar systems had been programmed into the Spadeadam emitters and we flew evasive and jamming sorties against them whilst enroute to the bombing ranges laden with 21x 1000lb bombs. A new jammer equipment unit, the Westinghouse ALQ101 pod, then currently fitted and in use on the Buccaneer fleet, was fitted to the underside of the wing to enable the AEO to fight the EW threat from the Argentine missile and gunnery systems. It was turning out to be a very exciting time; hard work but exciting. The training continued by day and night using the Terrain Following Radar at very low level until the pilots became totally confident with the system and their ability, and then the training stepped up a gear as the co-pilots were asked to wear night vision goggles to aid with the visual night-time low level flying. The copilots had never used these before, the goggles weren’t the best quality and produced glare and flare from the slightest light source from the cockpit instrument lighting, also from lights on the ground and even from the moon and stars. It was a while before they got used to them, but eventually they felt comfortable with wearing them.
All the training was coming together, the ultra low-level flying using the TFR, the in-flight refuelling, the 1000lb bombing, and the EW training at Spadeadam. The crews were comfortable with their results and the low-level training continued with the final target in the South Atlantic still unknown. Rumours were rife, of course, with Buenos Aires being the number one guess, but no one really knew; and Port Stanley airfield certainly hadn’t ever been mentioned.
The task explained:
On the 27 April, only two weeks from the start of the training, we were all gathered into the briefing room for a Top Secret briefing. We were told that the following day we would be flying south to Wideawake airfield on Ascension Island to prepare for a bombing raid on Port Stanley airfield on the night of the 30th April. Sqn. Ldr. John Reeves’ crew was chosen to be the primary crew to carry out the mission with Fit. Lt. Martin Withers’ crew acting as our reserve should we encounter a problem necessitating our not being able to continue the mission. Sqn. Ldr. Monty Montgomery’s crew was to act as our mission briefing crew and would preposition on Ascension Island in readiness for our arrival the next day. At last we were on our way, with our target known only to us and of course – classified as Top Secret.
The Chief of the Air Staff had arrived to brief us on our mission which was to put the runway at Port Stanley airfield out of action to the Argentine fighter aircraft, which were a direct threat to our Task Force ships, by landing at least one bomb on the runway. It was almost an impossibility to deny the runway to the transport aircraft which had a short landing and take off ability. The CAS had that morning been with the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who told him that not only was the mission of military importance it was also to be a political statement to the Argentinians that we could attack their homeland if necessary. To this end the crews were to be kept from any danger if possible during the mission!! To achieve this of course, we had to remain outside the range of any of the Argentine ground-air fire which meant that we would have to fly at medium height around 10,000 feet whilst bombing the target.
So much for all the intensive low-level training we had been practicing in the previous weeks.
The following day, having bid farewell to our loved ones, we gathered yet again in the briefing room to prepare for the journey south. The AOC No. 1 Group was there with the AOC Strike Command and many other senior officers to bid us good luck in our endeavours. Any of you who have experienced pre-flight meals at RAF Waddington will be aware that you don’t leave the ‘feeder’, as it was affectionately known, hungry. This night was to be no exception, with so many dignitaries dining with us we were served a meal fit for a king. A meal of fillet steak comes to mind. There were some who thought it was like the Last Supper, which was an unfortunate analogy. Whilst we were all tucking into the meal, it was noticed that the two co-pilots were missing. I was asked to go and find them to see what the problem was. What greeted me were two very pale and worried co-pilots who were going through their fuel calculations for the umpteenth time but still coming up with the same result. The fuel plan given to us would not allow us to make it to Ascension Island with a full bomb load!!!
Needless to say, after they presented themselves to their respective captains with this information the silence was deafening. The AOCs were less than impressed and it was obvious that someone’s head in the planning department was going to roll. Nothing could be done at this late stage and it was decided that we should finish our meal, go home, and try again the following day with a revised fuel plan which would work. This we did, eventually arriving at Wideawake airfield with the bombing mission planned for the following night, the 30th April.
Over to Wideawake on Ascension Island:
The mission take-off was to take place just before midnight with the pre-flight briefing to take place several hours beforehand. Not much sleep was had during that day as most of us were pumping sufficient adrenalin around our bodies to last a lifetime. It was also unbelievably hot even though we had been billeted half way up Green Mountain at Two Boats to take advantage of the cooler air. All external personal communications from the island were halted to protect the integrity of the mission as there had been sightings off the coast recently of a Soviet spy trawler and no risks were to be taken by allowing them to monitor any careless conversations by phone to the UK.
The Vulcan crews gathered for their own private briefing by the unit intelligence officer and by the SAS who gave us details about code words and ‘safe houses’ to make for should we be shot down. Soon it was time for the combined Victor and Vulcan briefing. This took place in a very large marquee with very poor acoustics and so the briefing was carried out by the briefing officer using a bull horn which I’m sure the whole of the island could hear and probably any spy trawler off shore.
The mission involved the use of 11 Victors and 2 Vulcans and used one of the most complex, refuelling plans ever devised. I and Hugh Prior, the AEO on Martin Withers crew, decided that the complexity of the refuelling programme was more a pilot and navigator thing, so we both took ourselves off for our own briefing on the tactical use of our electronic warfare equipment and for the latest update from the SAS of the Argentinian armaments and their locations. One of the simplest pieces of electronic warfare equipment we were given was a small tape recorder and a tape in Spanish to be used should we be illuminated by the Argentine radars. The tape stated that we were an Argentine transport aircraft that had lost its radio receiving capability and was lost, but was trying to land at Port Stanley airfield so please do not shoot at us as we approach the airfield. Sounds like a good ploy!!
It might well have worked, but when I played the tape to my navigator, Jim Vinales, who is a Gibraltarian and fluent in Spanish, he was alarmed to hear that the Spanish was so grammatically correct that no-one actually spoke the language that way. He thought that it could be a danger rather than a help and so we decided not to use it.
The briefing over, we proceeded to our respective aircraft confident that we were totally capable of carrying out a successful mission, but the nerves were still jangling and the adrenalin still pumping. However, once inside the aircraft, we were so busy that soon the nerves were calmed and we treated it just like any other sortie and got on with the job. Communications were to be kept to an absolute minimum to avoid giving the game away to any potential snooper, but there was still a lot of chatter on die radios. All was going well; the pre-taxi checks were carried out, but as the captain went to close his DV window he noticed that one of the seals had split. This potentially could be a major problem, but he elected to carry on anyway and hope that once airborne the seal would reseat itself and allow the aircraft to pressurise. It wasn’t to be and after many attempts to try stuffing his flying jacket in the leak it soon became apparent that our aircraft was going nowhere that night. A radio call was made to Martin Withers to let him know of the situation and that he was now the primary bomber. I hear that it went a bit quiet on his aircraft for a while, but being the professionals they were Martin just said ‘It looks like we’ve got a job of work to do’ and they proceeded southwards to complete their mission.
Meanwhile, on our aircraft there was a intense feeling of disappointment. All that remained for us to do was to burn off our fuel to get down to landing weight and land the aircraft and get it repaired for the next bombing sortie. Martin and his crew carried out their mission successfully and for that he deservedly received the Distinguished Flying Cross and his crew were mentioned in dispatches.
Now it was our turn:
Our turn was to come a few days later on the 3rd of May when once again, we were chosen as the primary crew to carry out the next bombing mission on the same target. Everything proceeded normally and with the benefit of hindsight from the previous mission, the fuel plan was modified and improved. Now that the element of surprise that we could attack so far south had been lost, it was vital that communications between the aircraft were once again kept to an absolute minimum to avoid alerting the Argentinians that we were coming. This time all the aircraft got airborne successfully in absolute radio silence and we were on our way.
During the briefing I noticed that our routing was to take us very close to the Task Force and that was of major concern to me. Having spent seventeen years working with the Royal Navy I was only too aware that in times of tension it was the Navy’s policy that if any unidentified aircraft came within their missile engagement zone they would shoot first and ask questions afterwards. My attempts to find out whether the Task Force knew that we were coming were unsuccessful, and so we got airborne still not knowing, but desperately hoping that they were aware. Our flight south continued with no real problems except for some turbulence during the refuelling from the Victors.
At a point some two hundred miles short of the Falkland Islands we descended to ultra low level for the start of our run in over the sea to the target area. Already I could hear on my radar warning receiver the search radars from our navy ships looking for possible enemy aircraft, but we had no option but to continue our path towards them. Using my radar warning receiver, I could give bearings of the various radars to the navigator and by using three separate bearing lines he was able to plot a rough position of the ship. It was rough and ready, but the best we could do in the circumstances, our radar of course, was switched to standby to avoid alerting the enemy, so we couldn’t use it to plot our ships. We continued to weave our way through the fleet emerging unscathed and at a point approximately twenty miles from the target we climbed to sixteen thousand feet for our run in to the target. The enemy radars seemed to be switched off until shortly before the final run in, when I could hear the airfield search radar switch on. I had already made a decision that provided only the airfield search radar was being used I would not use the appropriate jammer to jam it, as it was no threat to us and by using my jammer it would have acted like a beacon indicating our direction of approach. Only if the radars from the guns and missiles were heard would I start jamming, but there was no sign of them being used to locate us.
At the appropriate range, the bomb doors were opened and the bombs dropped. I made an attempt to count the explosions but it was virtually impossible to hear anything above the roar of the Olympus engines as they were put to full throttle to enable us to climb up to high level turning northwards. The Nav. Radar switched on his radar to sector scan the Task Force, as this was pre-arranged so that they would know we had completed our bombing raid and were on our way home. My radar warning receiver then went into overload from all the gun and missile radars being directed towards us from the ships. Fortunately we were well outside their armament range and so they presented no threat to us.
Having carried out the raid successfully, it was my job to transmit the codeword ‘Superfuse’ on the HF radio back to base to let them know we had dropped the bombs, were on our way home, and would be requiring a Victor to top us up. The journey northward off the coast of Argentina was not without incident. For some unknown reason, there was heavy electrical interference which occasionally manifested itself by giving indications on the radar warning receiver that we had a fighter on our tail. I don’t think I’ve seen knuckles quite so white as those of the Navs each time the RWR lit up. Using the periscope and the tail warning receiver, it became apparent after several scares that it was just electrical interference and was nothing to worry about.
After several hours flying northwards, we eventually spotted the Nimrod which was on patrol waiting for us and ready to escort us back to Ascension Island. Soon after that, the most welcome sight of our Victor tanker hove into view and he successfully topped us up with sufficient fuel to get us home.
We landed 14 hours 45 minutes after take-off feeling quite elated that we had done the job we had been tasked with. Shortly after the de-brief, we retired to the bar for a few well earned beers and a decent night’s sleep. There were several more sorties involving the Vulcan aircraft using air/ground missiles against the Argentinians and also further bombing missions; all full of incident, but that’s another story.
Reflections By John Reeve, Aircraft Captain
“I was very impressed when I read Barry’s article. I could not believe how much he had remembered – he must have been taking notes at the time -and how much I had forgotten.
In particular, I had forgotten the “Spanish tape” which apparently sounded more like Jeeves explaining something to Bertie Wooster than a seriously worried pilot with an engine failure.
What I do remember however, is the sheer professionalism of all the aircrew and engineers involved in Black Buck as people tackled jobs and faced situations that had never been expected, and all coped magnificently.
Looking back, I find that I did over 30 years in the RAF, but I have never been so proud to be a part of it as during the Falklands. However, the one thing I will never forget is that window seal and if anybody has the address of the firm concerned, I would be grateful if they could pass it on; I would still like a word with their quality control department.”