It had been 30 years in the making but finally on Sunday May 20th SAMA (South Atlantic Medal Association) ‘unveiled’ the memorial wall at the National Memorial Arboretum dedicated to the fallen from the Falklands War in 1982. Many thousands of invited guests were there to witness this very poignant event. As most of you will know and have seen on the BBC News Channel we, the last remaining flying Vulcan, were graciously invited to help mark the event by completing a fly-over as the memorial was being ‘unveiled’. This was a poignant moment, not just for all the people who had been invited to attend the ceremony, but for the Vulcan crew too. Each and every one of us on the crew that day had participated either in the engineering, the planning or the flying of the Black Buck bombing missions.
I was having lunch with a friend yesterday and he mentioned that he had been watching the Memorial event on the BBC News Channel and was dismayed that every time the Vulcan appears on the TV or in the newspapers the commentator or writer always mentions that the aircraft is being flown by ……… but never ever mentions that it is a multi-crew aircraft and certainly never gives a mention of the other crew members. He asked me why this is. I had to tell him that it is a fact of life that when the media are making their commentaries it is usual that only the Captain of a crew gets the plaudits and the rest of the crew get no mention at all. We ex-military veterans accept this and take it as a given and don’t get too upset by it. It has always been that way and will probably always continue to be that way. However, to address the concerns of my friend and anyone else who may have the same concerns as he I would like to, on this one occasion, give credit to others who are part of the VTTS team who made the whole Black Buck episode become a victorious reality.
Most of you will know that our Crew Chief, Taff Stone, has been working with Vulcan aircraft for more years than he cares to remember. In fact Taff was part of the Station Engineering team at RAF Waddington when the Argentines invaded The Falklands back in April 1982 and he was one of the very skilful technicians who, over a single weekend, installed the Carousel navigation equipment into the Vulcan. Without this essential navigation equipment it would have been almost an impossibility to find the Falkland Islands after a 4000 mile transit just using basic navigational techniques coupled with star shots using the sextant. As the whole Falklands scenario was gathering speed Taff and his technicians were then told that the Vulcan was to be fitted with an electronic radar jamming system which we had ‘borrowed’ from the RAF’s Buccaneer aircraft. Once again, over the period of another single weekend, Taff and his engineer colleagues had to identify strong points in the wings that had been used for mounting the Skybolt missile many years previously. Once found they then had to manufacture a suitable pylon mounting system to hang the jamming pod onto. Having completed this they then had to feed the cables from the jammer unit through the wings into the cockpit and connect them up to a control unit mounted in and above the AEO position. This was an incredible feat of skilful engineering and the result was a credit to the quality of the engineers we had at RAF Waddington at that time. But Taff and his colleagues weren’t finished just yet.
As days passed it became apparent that the Vulcan also needed to be fitted with an anti-radar missile system to combat the deadly radar controlled 35mm Oerlikon gunnery systems that the Argentines had installed to defend both Port Stanley town and the airfield close by. Had we been targeted by the associated gunnery targeting radar and had been in range then these guns would have completely shredded the Vulcan. We had strong hopes that the new electronic jammer that Taff had installed would jam the gunnery radars but ideally it would be to our advantage if we could also destroy the radars with the missiles fitted under our wings. Once again Taff and his team were given the task of fitting the missile system with, yet again, just a weekend in which to do it. It goes without saying that he and his team were well up to the task and completed the installation ready for us AEOs to trial it on the Monday. Very rarely do we hear Taff talk about that period in his life but he has now come up with his own presentation of the engineering that went on behind the scenes which ensured the success of the Black Buck missions. Those of you have heard his presentation will be astounded at what went on at that time and in his own Welsh humour he makes it sound as if it was just another day at the office when we all know that without his and his colleague’s engineering skills I wouldn’t be writing this article today.
Very rarely do we fly with a navigator on board but on Sunday we needed to be over the Memorial on time right to the second. To achieve this we ‘unwrapped’ Andy Marson, our team navigator, dusted him off and got him airborne. Andy, as many of you will know, flew on the BBMF Lancaster and Dakota for 7 years and was also a Tornado navigator. He’s used to appearing over a target point accurate to the second and that was just what we needed on Sunday. What a lot of you don’t know, because he rarely mentions it, was that he was a member of the mission planning team for the Black Buck missions working in the Operation Wing at RAF Marham. He was also the navigator who flew the Vulcan to trial the new Carousel navigation system that Taff and his team had just installed. Fortunately the system worked adequately and after landing at Waddington the aircraft system was only a ½ mile adrift of its actual location. It was also he who came up with the simple but ingenious solution to the problem of the fact that we had no maps of the South Atlantic for the navigators to use. His solution – why not use a Mercator map of the North Atlantic but just turn it upside down? Because of the scaling of that particular type of map all the dimensions, North and South, East and West would be the same and the map would have no idea that it was being used upside down. Simple but ingenious and it worked. Andy also helped with planning the bombing run to the target to ensure that the Vulcan would be in the right place at the right height to avoid being shot down. Again, a vital member of the Black Buck team.
Our co-pilot on Sunday was Bill Perrins. Bill, as many of you will be aware, is a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 Captain but he was also a Tornado F3 fighter pilot at the latter end of his RAF career. Bill tends to fly the North America and Caribbean routes so who knows, some of you may well have been flown to your holiday destination by him if you flew with Virgin Atlantic. You will probably be aware that back in 1982 he was also co-pilot to Alastair (Monty) Montgomery who was captain of one of the 3 crews to be selected for the Black Buck bombing missions. (There was a 4th crew captained by Sqn Ldr Neil McDougall who specialised in the missile Black Buck raids using the missiles I mentioned earlier). Monty’s crew, including Bill, having completed all their training with the other 2 bombing crews were sent down to Ascension Island to act as our Vulcan operations team. It was essential that we had a team down there who knew exactly how the Vulcan operated and could fight our corner with the other operations teams should there ever be a need. Bill and the rest of Monty’s crew were instrumental in ensuring that everything ran on rails for us, without them and their expertise life would have been a lot more difficult. Although Bill was acting mainly in the operations support role he did have the opportunity to get airborne as the reserve Vulcan on several of the Black Buck raids. He was also part of the crew on the reserve Vulcan to Neil McDougall for Neil’s infamous missile raid which resulted in Neil McD. diverting to Rio de Janeiro. Neil, as many of you will recall was awarded a DFC for his bravery. The full story of that is only just emerging after 30 years and it has still yet to be told in its entirety.
Finally, I come on to Martin Withers who was our captain on Sunday. There’s not much more I can write about Martin which hasn’t already been written. What I do know was that to achieve the permission to fly over the assembled guests at the Memorial last Sunday required many hours of work writing a Safety Case to allay any fears should something very unlikely go awry with the aircraft. Although he won’t admit to it I know that Sunday was a very special occasion for him as indeed it was to the rest of our crew that day.
Finally, I come on to me. You all know what I did during the Falklands War so I shan’t repeat it again. Just to say that it was a great honour back in 1982 to be selected to be with Sqn Ldr John Reeve as the primary Vulcan crew on Black Buck One but unfortunately, things didn’t go our way that night resulting in Martin Withers and his crew flying the mission in its entirety. Martin, as we all know, was quite rightly awarded a DFC with the rest of his crew being awarded a Mentioned In Dispatches accolade.
So that was the crew last Sunday. For each and every one of us in our own way it was a special day. We each had our own memories of that time back in 1982 as did everyone assembled on the ground at the Memorial. A lot of the guests on that day had tragically lost someone dear to them during that war. Fortunately, all of us associated with the Vulcan element of that War suffered no losses. I have met many Falkland Islanders since the war who were living on the Falklands at the time of the wa,r and also numerous ex military personnel who served down in the South Atlantic, both on the ground and at sea in the Royal Navy, and every one of them has said to me that without the Black Buck bombing and missile missions The Falklands War may well have turned out very differently and they remain forever grateful to the Vulcan force for their part in securing victory.
It is not often one is involved with a cause that was so justly right and had to be fought and so I would like to dedicate this article to all those who fell in The Falklands war and also to their families whose losses will never be assuaged.
© Barry Masefield