Victorious Black Buck
Gary Parsons looks at the other heroes of the 'Black Buck' missions of the Falkland Islands conflict, the crews of the Victor tankers, in particular that piloted by 55 Squadron's Sqn Ldr Bob Tuxford
Much has been written about the Black Buck missions over the last twenty-five years, mostly focussing on the achievements of Martin Withers and the crew of Vulcan B2 XM607 on that famous first raid. But, perhaps the real heroes of that night were Bob Tuxford and his crew of Victor K2 XL189, without whose decision to press on the raid would have been aborted.
Five of the personnel involved in that first raid met again recently at RAF Waddington under the wings of gate guardian Vulcan B2 XM607 as part of the Government's 'Falklands 25' commemorations, including Bob Tuxford. Long since retired from the air force, the passing of time was reflected in their faces, all now nearing their pensions - most were in their mid-thirties or early forties at the time of the mission, contrasting with the fresh-faced young men in their twenties who would have set off from airfields such as Waddington in the Second World War.
But there the contrast ends; for as much the young men of Bomber Command flew into the night on long and arduous missions, not knowing if they would get back, so did the slightly older men of Strike Command's tanker force some forty years later. Their courage was the same; Bob Tuxford takes up the story.
"It certainly brings a few memories back", said Bob Tuxford, standing under the tail of the Vulcan he trailed over the South Atlantic in May 1982. "We did a number of work-up sorties before leaving for Ascension - we had an inclination of what was ahead, but I think it's fair to say no-one expected to be launching eighteen-ship sorties and assisting a Vulcan to drop the hardware. It was a massive operation."
"We were taken aback with the logistical aspects - air-to-air refuelling was our business, but normally escorting fighters around the world in much reduced numbers. The tanking support for this mission took eighteen individual Victor sorties - a very complicated operation, but one we thought absolutely achievable."
"We had a fuel planning cell at 1 Group that looked after the tanker force. Mostly ex-navigators, their business was to produce fuel plans - Black Buck was just a variation on a theme. We saw the plan for the very first time on the evening of 30 April, but it was our experience using formation procedures that allowed us to run with it quickly. Martin Withers has acknowledged that the plan was mind-boggling to him - he had Dick Russell with him in the cockpit to bring some air-to-air refuelling expertise into the Vulcan crews." (The Vulcan crews had just twelve days in which to hone their refuelling skills.)
"I flew over fourteen hours that night - I went through every emotion from excitement in the launch phase to worry in the early stages. Much of the 'excitement' for me came in the sixth and seventh hours when I was refuelling one of the other tankers, Victor K2 XH669 piloted by Steve Biglands, which broke its probe in my basket. That necessitated changing places, and receiving back the fuel we'd just passed in pretty shocking weather - the degree of difficulty at that stage was as hard as anything I'd had to deal with before. Despite a shortage of fuel in the whole formation, I was able to give the final offload to the Vulcan, which then went onto the Falklands, albeit with less fuel reserves than hoped. As I 'turned the corner', it was seven hours back to Ascension and we had five hours worth of fuel. I didn't have any options to divert; there was no option but the South Atlantic. We were very focussed at that point, not sure if the Vulcan could finish the job, but once we'd intercepted the code word that indicated the job was done we went from a subdued state to an elated one and then concentrated efforts on recovery, which would require another tanker - the original plan hadn't allowed for such a contingency so I was relying on their knowledge at Ascension on how the plan had gone and the fact the formation was short of fuel, so they would launch additional recovery aircraft, which indeed they did."
"The Vulcan crews were not very familiar with air-to-air refuelling operations - the managers at the Vulcan bases did not have the best available information to them on the fuel consumption rates the aircraft would endure, especially fully laden, and undertaking multiple formation changes. So, the figures were not as accurate, in retrospect, as we would have liked. A number of things also went significantly wrong - Steve Biglands's unfortunate breaking of the probe being the biggest. We were flying in towering cumulous clouds, at night, your visual references for formatting on the aircraft in front are reduced, therefore with the turbulence, the distracting lightning, St Elmo's Fire all around the cockpit windows, the whole process of achieving a stable contact and maintaining it for long enough to get the fuel on becomes much more difficult. On approaching the Falklands, the whole formation had burnt a lot more fuel than had been planned - unfortunately, that ended up with me, the final tanker, some twenty thousand pounds short."
"There is a weak link on the front end of the probe that is designed to shear if too much lateral force is put upon it - one of two things can happen; the probe tip can lodge inside the coupling of the basket, which would render it useless, or the tip breaks off and falls into the sea, if it doesn't enter the engine intakes. At this point, I wasn't aware whether I would be able to use the centre HDU again, but everything premised on my ability to change places with Steve Biglands and take back the fuel we had just given him. If I couldn't do that, then it didn't matter my hose may be damaged. So, I took back the fuel, so I had enough to go on with the mission - then we had to decide if the hose would be satisfactory. We brought Withers's Vulcan behind, they visibly inspected it but that wasn't quite confirmatory enough, so we made a small additional transfer of about 5,000 lbs. That demonstrated how flexible this whole refuelling plan was - we were effectively making it up as we went along. Once I knew he could take on fuel, we could then continue with the mission."
"If we hadn't been able to transfer to Withers, the mission would have been aborted. I had grounds for aborting the mission somewhat earlier, as I was prejudicing my own recovery as I wasn't sure we could get another tanker on the way home; I hasten to add I discussed the options available with my crew, and each of the other four members came back and said 'Let's press on, and get the job done'. That was in the full knowledge that we would be two hours short of fuel in getting back to Ascension, about six hundred miles south."
"We gave the Vulcan sufficient time to effect the mission and my AO, Mick Beer, intercepted the codeword 'Polo' designed to communicate the mission had been a success. I was then able to make arrangements for my own recovery. Two Victors were scrambled from Ascension - they were from the recovery wave of six tankers for the mission to bring the Vulcan back post-strike; the six aircraft were required to provide two Victors at the RV in case of problems. Fortunately, Gerry Price, the Station Commander from RAF Marham who was running the air bridge at Ascension made the decision to divert two of the Victors to assist us. Another of our tanker crews, Alan Skelton, had developed a fuel leak and also required assistance. They met us three hours south of Ascension when we had about an hour's fuel left."
"I'm very proud, both for my crew and the whole of the tanker force. Any one of those eighteen tankers failing would mean the mission failing - pretty much the whole of 1 Group's tanker force was on the island and it was thanks to some pretty skilful flying from every pilot that enabled the whole plan to be accomplished. It was very much more than a simple bombing mission - the Argentines then knew we could attack them on the mainland."
For his efforts in the mission, Bob was awarded the Air Force Cross. He joined the ETPS in 1983, flying in the test world until 1987 when he left the RAF. He now flies for Monarch Airlines on rather more mundane routes!