Home | Airshows | The Hangar | Nostalgia | Links

The Falklands legacy

Mick Britton looks at the developments in aircraft that resulted from the 1982 conflict. Pictures by the author unless credited otherwise

So it's twenty-five years since our little spot of 'argy-bargy' in the South Atlantic - there's the flypast over London planned for June and doubtless we'll be getting repeats of that series Channel Four produced some years ago and newspaper article raking over the ashes. However, what was most interesting for me as an aircraft enthusiast about the conflict was not its background or prosecution as much as its legacy in terms of the impetus it gave to the development of our military aircraft, affecting everything from their colour schemes through to their equipment, operating methods and distribution via changes to the military doctrine and force structure. All of these provide tangible evidence of the effects of the war. Some of them now seem to be part of the natural order of things, whilst others have proved more transient and followed the conflict into the history books and museums.

Undoubtedly the main effect of the conflict upon British military aviation was the tremendous boost it gave to aircraft development, particularly those types actually employed upon 'Operation Corporate', the code name of the military campaign to recover the Falkland Islands. Under emergency powers, funding was suddenly found for development programmes previously excluded from Defence budgets. With the urgency of the situation grasped by politicians, the military and private contractors' normal timescales for development programmes were collapsed from a matters of years to weeks as normal procedures and working hours went out of the window to be replaced by improvisation, 'can do' attitudes and twenty-four/seven working. For the first time since the Second World War, there was a national sense of common purpose best exemplified in the Tyneside shipyard where workers literally worked themselves out of their jobs to complete a new aircraft carrier, HMS Illustrious, ahead of schedule (there being nothing else in the firm's order book), a sacrifice commemorated in the Robert Wyatt song 'Shipbuilding'. Down at Portsmouth, work had just commenced on refitting one of the two existing carriers, HMS Hermes, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered a Navy Task force to set sail to retake the Falklands - it sailed on 5 April within three days (after the Sea Harriers of 800 NAS had flown on) with a large complement of workmen still aboard.

The aircraft types that benefited from these Herculean efforts were principally both Harrier variants, the Gazelle, Chinook and Sea King helicopters, together with the Hercules, Nimrod and Vulcan (although in the latter case the effort was largely devoted to the restoration of long neglected equipment, principally the refuelling probes which, on those aircraft still carrying them, had seized up through a prolonged period of disuse).

Refuelling the key

Given the geographical location of the Falkland Islands, air to air refuelling (AAR) was the key to the air war and victory was always more likely to go the side with the better AAR capability. With a large tanker force consisting of twenty-two Handley Page Victors against Argentina's couple of Hercules tankers, Britain had a definite edge in this department. Furthermore its two combat types deployed in theatre, the Vulcan and Harrier, possessed refuelling probes, even if in the case of the former they were robbed from museum pieces! A problem lay in the fact that two other types that were likely to have crucial roles in Operation Corporate, the Hercules and Nimrod (the RAF's principal transport and maritime patrol types), did not. However, work was soon in hand to remedy these deficiencies - British Aerospace's (BAe) Manchester Division received instructions to design and fit probes to the Nimrod fleet on 14 April and Marshall Aerospace of Cambridge received similar instructions in respect of the Hercules the next day. The probes were taken from RAF stocks, being mostly removed from de-commissioned Vulcans, plus some new ones intended for the VC10 tankers that were then under construction. The Nimrod probing programme exemplifies the collapsing of development schedules, BAe Woodford taking just a fortnight to complete the initial installation, thereby enabling the first 'wet' prod to be made on 30 April. The second aircraft with machine-produced parts was rolled out only two days later and service clearance for the kit was obtained on 5 May. An initial batch of sixteen aircraft was modified and designated Nimrod MR Mk2P (for probe). To compensate for the effect of the probe on its handling characteristics a small ventral fin was added beneath the tail along with small finlets that are often mistaken for radio aerials above and below the tailplanes.

After an encounter between a Nimrod and an Argentinean Air Force Boeing 707 engaged in shadowing the Task Force, in which neither aircraft possessed the necessary means to attack the other, the decision was taken to arm the Nimrods with Sidewinder missiles. These utilised existing underwing hard points that had originally been incorporated into the design with a view to allowing the carriage of Martell anti-ship missiles. BAe Manchester was once again employed to design and fit suitable wing pylons to carry a pair of Sidewinders plus the associated wiring and cockpit controls. Again, this was rapidly expedited, the system being test flown on 26 May, cleared for service only two days later to enter service at the end of the month. A period of less than a week from the test flight of an aircraft weapons system to its service entry is really quite astonishing!

New talons for the Harrier

During the previous month the Harrier GR3s of 1 Squadron had been the subject of a similar crash-development programme to arm them with Sidewinders. It is hard to imagine strike aircraft being sent into combat without any means of self-defence in air combat but previously financial constraints had restricted their use by mud-movers to the Buccaneers of RAF Germany on the basis of their tasking with the deep penetration role. Exploration of the practicalities of adapting the Harrier GR3s to carry Sidewinders commenced at Boscombe Down on 24 April and the first trial fitting took place just four days later. Firing trials took place at Aberporth on 30 April and service clearance was obtained on 30 May. Although in the event the RAF Harriers did not use them operationally in the Falklands (though they did whilst engaged in mixed air defence patrols with Sea Harriers after their recovery) this is another example of how an aircraft's capabilities were extended. Sidewinder adaptation kits were subsequently ordered for the entire RAF Harrier fleet. This development programme, by BAe Kingston, culminated with the twin racks that enabled pairs of Sidewinders to be carried under each wing, but this was not achieved until after the cessation of hostilities and the principal beneficiary was the Sea Harrier (SHAR). After this, the RAF adopted the tactic of including one or two Sidewinder-armed aircraft in each Harrier formation; known as 'Stingers', these could deliver a nasty surprise to unsuspecting interceptors! Other improvements to the Harrier to emerge from the conflict were larger drop tanks (of 190 gallons capacity), together with the installation of chaff and flare dispensers. The initial six aircraft deployed to the Task Force had bundles of chaff wedged in the airbrake and bomb release mechanisms! In short order a proper dispenser was designed, which fitted into the air brake cavity and forty of these were produced and sent south. BAe Kingston also helped develop the Ferranti INS, which equipped the GR3 for its carrier-borne strike role. Last, but not least, it must be mentioned that the Harriers became the first British strike aircraft to deliver the Paveway Laser Guided Bomb, with which they destroyed an Argentinean gun position on the penultimate day of the conflict.

Vulcan K2 - the stop-gap tanker

The other aircraft employed in the strike role during the Falklands War was, of course, the Vulcan and a comprehensive account of the first 'Black Buck' mission mounted against Port Stanley can be found in the recently published book 'Vulcan 607' by Rowland White (Bantam Press) - Jeremy Clarkson is spot on in recommending it as a "rollicking good read". However, for the Vulcan as a bomber the Falklands War was truly its swansong - over half the force had already been disbanded prior to the conflict. Operation Corporate earned the Vulcan a short stay of execution as a bomber, however the tanker support that was required to mount just a single aircraft strike on Stanley was truly phenomenal - ten Victors, almost half the RAF tanker fleet. Small wonder that approximately seventy percent of that fleet was deployed to Ascension Island. Even with USAF KC-135s taking over part of the RAF's NATO tanker commitment, the need for a stop-gap addition to the tanker force was obvious. Although work was underway on the conversion of nine VC10s into tankers, the maiden flight of the first of these was still some way off at the start of the conflict - what was needed was a 'quick fix' solution, preferably by adapting an existing aircraft. Fortunately suitable aircraft were already on hand in the shape of the retired Vulcans, which already possessed bomb bays with a useful 96,000 litre capacity and required relatively little modification to the tanker role, apart from the installation of fuel tanks.

The main deficiency was the lack of a means for transferring the fuel to another aircraft, but this was remedied by grafting a metal box-like fairing under the tail to house a Hose Drum Unit (HDU). The result was an (almost) instant single point tanker, the modification taking BAe Woodford less than a month to produce, test and deliver the first aircraft to Waddington for use by a reprieved 50 Squadron. A total of six aircraft were modified and successfully filled the tanker gap for a couple of years until they were finally retired in 1984 when the VC10 tankers entered service.

Another type converted into tanker configuration was the Hercules, Marshall Aerospace taking just eight days to develop the C-130 Mk 1 (K), which, after evaluation, was delivered to Lyneham on 5 July. All four aircraft ordered were delivered before the end of the month and commenced operations on the Ascension - Port Stanley air bridge to supply the newly-established Falklands Garrison. Two more were ordered the next year and the six aircraft formed the pillars of a Hercules air bridge until wide-bodied jet transports were able to take over the route upon completion of the new Mount Pleasant air base in 1985.

A longer-term solution to both the tanker and transport gap problems was the acquisition of new aircraft in the form of six Lockheed TriStars that British Airways had put up for disposal. Marshall Aerospace was contracted to convert them to single-point tankers by installing new HDUs in the rear fuselage. These would not be pure tankers, but tanker-transports similar to the USAF's KC-10A Extender and thus a most useful addition to the RAF's inventory.

New carrier-based AEW

Another successful conversion, this time for the carrier-borne Airborne Early Warning (AEW) role, was the Westland Sea King, fitted with the Thorn - EMI Searchwater radar similar to that developed for the Nimrod. This was housed externally in a side-mounted radome attached to a movable arm that swung upwards and backwards through ninety degrees for storage when on the ground. Taking eleven weeks, this was one of the longer development programmes to arise out of the conflict, and a classic case of 'shutting the door after the horse had bolted' in terms of the ship losses suffered by the Navy from Argentinean air attacks. The need for a replacement for the venerable Fairey Gannet had long been recognised by the Navy ever since the last conventional carrier, HMS Ark Royal, was decommissioned, but room had never been found for it in the Defence Budget until ships were being sent to the bottom of the sea on a seemingly daily basis. Nevertheless, it must have been comforting to the sailors on those ships that remained on station after the cessation of hostilities to know that AEW cover was once again available, two of the new Sea King AEW Mk 2s being embarked on HMS Illustrious, which sailed to relieve HMS Invincible on 2 August 1982.

Thus far it has been modifications to RAF and Naval aircraft which have been outlined, but the Army also deserves mention for the speed with which 70 Aircraft Workshop REME modified sixteen Gazelles to carry SNEB rockets and also installed armour plate, radio altimeter, folding main rotor head for shipboard stowage, IFF transponder and smoke dispenser.

New fighting colours and units

In some cases the changes to the appearance of aircraft types brought about by the Falklands War were not attributable solely to the new equipment fits developed for them but also to new colour schemes that were applied. For Naval aircraft in particular, the war brought about a permanent colour change - ever since the sixties, carrier-borne aircraft had worn a standard colour scheme of blue-grey upper surfaces with white lower surfaces and lettering, and brightly-coloured markings. The SHAR entered service in this scheme but during the journey south was given a more menacing appearance by the application of an overall dark sea grey colour with black lettering (no unit markings) and two-tone roundels, causing the Argentinean pilots to christen it 'La Muerte Negra', which means 'Black Death', a wholly appropriate title in view of the toll of them which it took (twenty confirmed kills). A similar colour scheme was applied to the RAF Sea Kings of 202 Squadron, which was deployed to perform SAR duties after the Islands were recovered. This was due to the fact that as there was no formal end to hostilities, the area technically remained a war zone although it would appear from a recent photo of Falklands-based Sea King in RAF News that this practice has now ceased.

The first dedicated air defence unit to be deployed to the South Atlantic was 29 Squadron, a number of whose Phantoms left their Coningsby base for Ascension on 24 May before assuming responsibility for air defence of the Falklands from Stanley Airport. They were subsequently relieved by Wattisham's 23 Squadron, which remained in residence until its reformation as a Tornado F3 unit at RAF Leeming in 1988, incorporating the Falklands crest (a sheep and a ship on a sea) into its squadron markings. At that time they were succeeded by a resurrected 1435 Flight, which had previously defended Malta in the Second World War, initially equipped with only a trio of Sea Gladiators named Faith, Hope and Charity, reputedly left in packing cases by an East bound carrier.

The transfer of a Phantom Squadron to the Islands depleted the UK (and NATO's) air defences, leading to the emergency purchase of twelve reconditioned F-4Js from surplus US Navy stocks. 74 (Tiger) Squadron, formerly one of the RAF's crack fighter squadrons, was reformed to operate them from RAF Wattisham. As cheap and cheerful stop gap interceptors they provided sterling service suffering only a single loss until their retirement from service in 1991 when surplus FGR2s became available as the rundown of the Phantom force gathered pace. The F-4Js were readily distinguishable from the FGR2s by the lack of a fin-mounted receiver and the duck-egg blue tinge to the air defence grey camouflage on certain aircraft (from the first batch), which derived from the Americans' applying a slightly different shade of paint.

Two other RAF squadrons to be reformed as a direct consequence of the Falklands War were 78 Squadron, which remains the Garrison helicopter support unit, operating a mix of Chinooks and Sea Kings, and 216 Squadron that operates the TriStars previously referred to, from Brize Norton. Four Naval Air Squadrons were also reformed, namely 809 as a SHAR reinforcement unit (which does not seem to have actually operated as a squadron, having been split between the two Carrier Air Groups when it arrived in theatre - and whose aircraft seem to have been painted a lighter shade of grey) along with 825, 847 and 848 NAS, which were all helicopter units. After the end of the conflict these were, of course, joined by 849 NAS, which operates the above-mentioned Sea King AEW2s.

1435 Flight today

RAF Mount Pleasant

The main legacy of the War in concrete terms (literally) was the construction of a new air base to act as an air head for reinforcement of the Islands. Opened on 12 May 1985, it is capable of taking wide-bodied jets like TriStars and Boeing 747s. Resident flying units include 78 Squadron and 1435 Flight (which today operates four Tornado F3s coded F (Faith), H (Hope), C (Charity) and D (Desperation)) and operates a round-the-clock Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) mission. There is also 1312 Flight, formed out of the Hercules C-130K tanker detachment that previously operated the air bridge mentioned above and currently operates a single VC10 tanker and single Hercules. Whilst its primary role is to provide tanker support to the interceptor force it has several secondary roles including maritime reconnaissance, SAR and casevac.

Whilst the war and its aftermath, particularly the construction of RAF Mount Pleasant and the maintenance of the resident Garrison, represents a considerable expense to the British taxpayer, some small recompense was provided by the spoils of war in the form of captured Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns and their Skyguard radars. Two Volunteer Reserve Squadrons, 2729 and 2890, were formed at Waddington to operate them and regularly participated in big Air Defence Exercises like 'Elder Forest' for the next decade. However, they have since fallen victim to Defence cuts, as has the Navy, which according to a recent Times article currently comprises just seventy-odd ships, only some forty-three of which are actually in service. It would appear to be in an even worse state than it was before the Falklands War and certainly incapable of mounting a similar-sized Task Force should the need ever arise again! (The parlous state of the Navy was once again in the news more recently in the wake of the Navy hostages debacle with Iran.)

Twenty-five years on, whilst Argentina may currently have a more stable and democratic Government that is apparently resolved to find a diplomatic solution to its claim on the Islands, the Governor of the Falklands, Alan Huckle, has been reported as stating that the Islanders still feel "under threat" of invasion from Argentina. Perhaps this provides the context to another recent report in Aircraft Illustrated magazine speculating upon the possibility of 1435 Flight being re-equipped with Typhoon before some of the designated UK squadrons to counter the possible threat posed by the putative re-equipment plans of the Argentinean Air Force, which is apparently currently exploring the purchase of Mirage 2000s from France. There can be little doubt that the question 'What if?' hinted at by the Governor is also exercising military minds. This has already been explored in fiction by two British authors from military backgrounds - Chris Ryan in 'Land of Fire' and John Nicholl in 'Exclusion Zone', both of which can be recommended as thoroughly entertaining reads and relate 'Falklands Two' scenarios that seem quite plausible (John's first-hand knowledge of the Falklands obviously derives from a tour during his time as an F3 Navigator as only those who have actually served on 1435 Flight would know about the legendary cat called 'Rambo' - RIP).

Finally, it is disappointing to note that in this anniversary year it is apparently beyond the RAF's resources to field a Harrier display aircraft. As I recall there definitely was one during the actual year of the war, even if it was imported from RAF Germany. It would appear that the 'can do' attitude that won back the Islands has also been consigned to 'the dustbin of history'.


Home | Airshows | The Hangar | Nostalgia | Links