Can an RAF pilot live on the grassroots?

Yesterday - The most daring flight in history: «Not even Monty Python would have pulled it off like that»

The most daring flight in history: "Not even Monty Python would have pulled it off like that"

It was a suicide mission 35 years ago: to send an old bomber halfway around the world with far too little kerosene. To land a single hit on a distant island. The pilot says: "Not even Monty Python would have pulled it off like that."

The pilot admits: "I didn't even love the idea of ​​having to do this." All he and his crew had at their disposal was a delta wing bomber that had actually already been retired: the Avro Vulcan, which the Royal Air Force (RAF) used from 1956 to 1984. This meant they had to fly halfway around the world at the end of April 1982. To the Falkland Islands, which Argentina had just occupied.

But the fuel wasn't going anywhere. To do this, the crew learned techniques that had not been used since the Second World War. It would have been the longest bomber mission in history at the time, provided the men returned safely.

Radio BBC announced on April 2, 1982 at six in the morning: "The Falkland Islands have been occupied by Argentine forces." Military bases have been put on alert.


the Argentine military leadership started a war with Great Britain. Apple of contention: sovereignty over the Falkland Islands in the Atlantic. The British Army was vastly superior and emerged victorious on June 14, after two and a half months. Great Britain mourned 258 victims, Argentina 648. In the South American country, the outcome of the war led to the overthrow of the military junta and the restoration of the democratic system.

A British task force began without delay to prepare for the reconquest of the islands. At the Royal Air Force base in Waddington, however, no one believed that they would also be used. Lieutenant Colonel and RAF pilot Simon Baldwin * says: «It was not in our dreams that we would think of action.

The former nuclear weapons squadron was faced with its dissolution, not with war. It would have gone another three months, then bulldozers would have crushed the once proud Vulcan fleet.

Behind the scenes, however, the then head of the RAF, Michael Beetham *, presented Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with a bold - no rather a crazy plan: to send a Vulcan bomber more than 13,000 kilometers to the Falklands. There he was supposed to destroy the airfield in Port Stanley, the capital of the islands.

This would make it impossible for the Argentines from now on, argued Beetham, to use Port Stanley as a base to attack the British navy from there (for the actual military benefit of the action, see box).

Not exactly pointless, but militarily irrelevant

The Vulcan flight, retold in the big article, was the first in a series called "Black Buck" during the Falklands War 35 years ago. A total of seven such long-distance flights were carried out, each time following the pattern of Black Buck 1. Almost every time there were similar difficulties. Most had to turn back early.

Only one and a half long-distance flights were really successful: besides Black Buck 1 (half) especially Black Buck 6. This flight was also similarly adventurous; the crew ended up in Brazil at the end and was temporarily detained. Without the improvisational talent and the willingness of the crews to take risks - characterized by many as "very British" - more flights would have been unsuccessful or even have ended in disaster.

The military use of the flights was almost insignificant. Only Black Buck 1 resulted in Argentina withdrawing parts of the air force from the south to secure the mainland - which resulted in fewer attacks on the British fleet. Psychologically, the effect was greater, especially at the beginning of the war: the Argentines were completely surprised by the RAF's ability to attack. Margaret Thatcher succeeded, not least thanks to this risk, in convincing the population of the war. (mad)

Sorry for the dead seagulls

The idea seemed captivating. There was, of course, a catch: the Vulcan itself. During the Cold War, once a dreaded delta in the sky, within two minutes in the air, with a range to the heart of the Soviet Union, the machine had long since shown old age. When they looked inside, veteran pilots would say: "Oh, we already had such a thing in Berlin in 1944." The bombing mechanism consisted of wheels, screws and chains - nothing electronic.

But then came the emergency order. Speed ​​was of the essence: the airstrip at Port Stanley had to be destroyed before the English warships appeared off the islands. That meant: three weeks to prepare, an impossible thing for the Vulcan. Flight Lieutenant Martin Withers * says: “The machine was inadequate, and the crew also showed defects. Thousands of miles over the sea - we were neither equipped nor trained for that. "

On the way, the British island of Ascension could be used as a base halfway. The volcanic rock belongs to the British overseas territory of St. Helena. But that still meant a scenic flight to the Falklands and back of 8,000 miles, double the Vulcan range. The only solution to the problem: the bomber had to be refilled with fuel while in the air. But what does one mean - multiple times!

Nobody had tried a single tank of gas in the sky in twenty years; the system was blocked. There was only one man in the crew who had ever taken part in the maneuver and he said: "Bad, dangerous as hell."

Nevertheless, engineers were now feverishly trying to get the pumps going again. They apparently found a key part of this in the soldiers' lounge, a piece of metal with nozzles, degraded as an ashtray. Wing Commander Simon Baldwin * grins: "What a great start!"

Baldwin lived on bacon sandwiches and pipe tobacco in those weeks. “We didn't think long,” he says, “we had to get things going. We didn't have the time for anything else. "

He sent the team to Scotland for training; it had been ten years since she dropped conventional bombs. The Royal Bird Protection Authority protested. Baldwin grins again: "We apologized about the dead seagulls, but we were preparing for a war."

The runway at Port Stanley wasn't long. Precision was less important with nuclear bombs, accuracy not guaranteed with the Vulcan. In addition, the Argentinian, ultra-modern air defense, partly from British production, was already operational in Port Stanley.

The Vulcan crew were instructed to write down their last will. Should they be captured and questioned in front of Argentine cameras, they should, among other things, touch their noses to the left as a secret sign when they lied, which amused the men.

Complicated plan calculated on a five-pound calculator

They had less joy in the fact that the originally secret action was now made public by the army than as a warning to the Argentines: We are coming! Even the plan to refuel the planes halfway through has been divulged. On April 26, the head of the RAF gave the green light to the Waddington base.

The squadron leader, John Reeve *, was supposed to fly the crate, flight lieutenant Martin Withers was his substitute. The men said goodbye to their wives and families. Eight hours later, the Vulcans landed on Ascension, the busiest airfield in the world overnight. In the evening, the crew celebrated their 50th birthday.

Withers' birthday: “We had a few drinks. And then we dumped a few more. " They went to bed at half past two in the morning. "The next day we had a little hangover," says Withers.

No fewer than eleven Handley Victor tankers were sent on April 30th to refuel the only Vulcan several times, there and back. Half of the tankers had to refuel the other on the way, one of which supplied the Vulcan with fuel. The procedure was repeated until the Vulcan was alone. That had never been played through before.

The complicated plan was calculated on a five-pound calculator bought at the discount store. Crew members who didn't understand everything asked the boss. "Don't worry, I'll buckle the plan," he said, crossing his fingers behind his back. Nor was it clear to anyone how much fuel it ultimately needed. If the fuel wasn't enough, the cold South Atlantic became a grave.

Plugged the leak with sandwich cellophane

When it started, the Withers helmet microphone was not working. The navigator was facing the wrong map, not the South Atlantic. So he just flipped over a map of the northern hemisphere and took the Azores as the Falklands. There was a whistle at a window; the machine did not build up the necessary cabin pressure.

The result would have been deathly cold and too little oxygen. Reeve tried to seal the hole with cellophane from his sandwich. Four minutes after take-off, he had to turn around, cursing, back to base. The replacement Vulcan with Withers took over the job. But there was no longer a second option.

Withers had to refuel the machine four times during the eight hours of the night up to the Falklands. It used far more fuel than calculated. More than two hours before the finish line, with two tanks to go, the team got caught in a storm. Refilling was due in the event of major turbulence.

“Christ, this is difficult,” radioed the pilot in the tanker, Bob Tuxford *, who later became a highly decorated man too. The miracle worked. But according to calculations, the fuel from Tuxford's tanker only lasted 600 kilometers from the rescue base. After a brief consultation with his team, Tuxford flew on: "We pressed on."

The last tank filling took place six and a half hours after the start. Without a full filling, Tuxford had to disconnect. Wither in the Vulcan got quite upset about it and even broke the radio silence to ask what was going on? He was faced with the dilemma of his life: continue or call off his mission?

Withers went deeper so as not to get caught on the Argentine radar. The navigator struggled to determine the exact position. The on-board radar would have provided information, with the risk of being discovered by the enemy. There was nothing to be seen on the radar. But then the islands finally appeared, a mile from where the crew believed they were. Only now she was also receiving bearing signals from enemy radar.

In the end, your own people fired

Six minutes were missing to the finish. Withers pulled the machine up steeply. Because of the ancient bomb bay, it was difficult to determine the exact time of the release. 21 bombs were dropped every half a second. Flab fire started. As the Vulcan rose sideways to avoid the fire, the crew below saw the detonations of their bombs. They didn't know whether they had hit. They were safe, but now faced the unsafe way back. Would the kerosene be enough?

It was May 1st, seven in the morning. Where was the tanker? Then the Vulcan got into heavy flabfire - from its own warships! A radio message with the code word «Superfuse» ended the danger; in the Vulcan the mood suddenly changed. When the tanker finally came into view, it was finally liberating. A member of the crew inserted a cassette: “Chariots of fire” by Vangelis, the world-famous melody from the film of the same name. After landing in Ascension, there was canned beer.

24 hours after the bombs were released, the Vulcan crew heard that the very first of their 21 bombs had punched a large hole in the runway. "That was our signal," says RAF boss Beetham: "The Argentines saw that if we can do that, we can do a lot more." For the Vulcan bomber, the Falklands were the first and last action of war. Today it is a museum piece on the air base in Waddington.

* The quotes from those involved in this article are based on a TV documentary by Alastair McGowen and Christopher Spencer for British Channel 4.