2nd April 1982 saw the start of the most remote conflict that the UK was involved in. It all started with the amphibious landings by Argentinian forces on the Falklands Islands with other forces taking over South Georgia the next day. The VC10 played a very important but often overlooked role in this conflict.
At the start of the conflict, 10 Squadron was the sole RAF squadron operating VC10s and it had thirteen VC10 C1s on its strength. Commanded by Wg Cdr O.G. 'Gerry' Bunn MBE (later Gp Cpt Gerry Bunn CBE), the main transport tasks of the squadron involved regular routes to Washington, Belize, Akrotiri and other active overseas bases as needed. This was not the only transport capacity available to the RAF, there were also 54 Hercules airframes available in a pooled fleet within the Lyneham Transport Wing. Both fleets would play an important role in the upcoming months.
The main challenge that the UK faced at the start of the conflict was a logistical one: how to move men and material from their bases across 6,800 nautical miles of ocean to the scene of the landings? At that point the 10 Squadron VC10s were not fitted with refuelling probes and because of this a non-stop flight to the conflict area (using in-flight refuelling) was not an option. Fortunately, there was a staging post that could be used: Ascension Island, a volcanic island just south of the equator and almost half way between Africa and Brazil. From the mid-1960s on the Americans expanded the facilities on the island, including Wideawake airfield, and this quickly became the focal point for the long range bombing missions and support flights that would culminate in the islands being freed of Argentinian forces after a ten week battle.
A lot has been written about the Black Buck raids that saw Vulcan bombers fly the long 8,000 nautical miles round trip from Ascension to the Falklands, either dropping conventional bombs or taking out radar stations with Shrike anti-radiation missiles. VC10s played a small part in these raids as they supplied the navigation equipment that enabled these raids. The Vulcans had not used their refuelling equipment for years, but this was a case of reactivating the installed subsystem. Equally, if not more, pressing was the fact that they did not have long-range navigation equipment fitted. The supporting Victor tankers did have Carousel INS units fitted but the Vulcans did not, until someone remembered that there were a lot of Super VC10s parked at RAF Abingdon with those same INS units on board. These Inertial Navigation Systems enabled the aircraft to be fully independant of any external radio stations and allowed it to navigate over long distances, referring to its internal gyroscopes to determine its position. After a trial fit at RAF Marham followed by a test flight, more INS systems were taken from the stored Super VC10s and hastily fitted to the five bombers that would be used during CORPORATE. The coloured buttons on the grey control boxes were a distinct contrast to the otherwise black panels of the navigation station in the back of the Vulcans. The larger box with the gyros was strapped down in the bomb-aimer's prone position down in the nose below the pilot's seats. Thanks to this repurposed equipment the five Vulcans, supported by a fleet of eleven Victor tankers for each single trip, were able to hit their targets and force the Argentinian Air Force to move their fast jets back to the mainland.
The VC10 was to play a much larger role in supporting the activities from Ascension Island by providing a virtual motorway down to Wideawake airfield alongside the Hercules fleet and several chartered civil aircraft. Within days of the Argentinian landings, the number of flights heading south increased significantly, starting out with XV106 flying from Brize Norton to Montevideo, Uruguay via Ascension Island on April 3rd to collect Rex Hunt, the Governor of the Falkland Islands, and the captured Royal Marines from NP8901. This group had been flown to the Uruguayan capital on that same day by Argentine transport aircraft. XV106 returned to Brize the next day, arriving during the morning of 5 April. Later that day XV109 flew from Brize Norton to Wideawake, returning the following day from what was to be the first of many trips on that route. The number of flights increased steadily to as much as four or five daily flights, routing via Dakar (Senegal) or Banjul (Gambia).
Operations at Wideawake airfield were sometimes hampered by its single 10,000 feet runway and a limited amount of parking space. On 18 April 1982 XV102 was parked in front of a chartered BA 707 and as it taxied out the four Conways pushed the steps positioned at the 707's forward passenger door into its wing, damaging the leading edge. The 707 was patched up and later flew back to Heathrow to complete its task and so that it could be fully repaired.
On 21 April two 10 Squadron VC10s, operating as Ascot 2830 and 2831, flew what was labeled as a route training flight from Brize to Washington, continuing to March Air Force Base in California the next day and then to Easter Island in the Pacific. They were carrying the advance party for Operation FOLKLORE, some 40 tons of equipment, spares and personnel, that was planned to use Canberra PR9s from a Chilean airfield to provide a reconnaissance capability down south. In the end, the operation was called off as operating the Canberras from Chili was deemed too risky and the diplomatic and political fallout would have been severe had the operation been exposed.
As the build up continued, some of 10 Squadron's other tasks had to be scaled down but the regular service to Washington was actually increased from twice weekly to an average of four times weekly. Some of these flights were very much linked to the Falklands conflict, such as the trip on 23 April when XV108 carried Foreign Secretary Francis Pym to the US capital for last ditch talks with the US Secretary of State, Alexander Haig. VC10s also flew to Pope AFB (XV102 on 23 May, XR807 on 14 May) and Wurtsmith AFB (XV103 on 5 June) but the record does not show the purpose of these trips.
The nature of the flights changed when the VC10s started to carry inhabitants from the Falklands back from Montevideo, followed by Royal Marines from South Georgia and other captured personnel and commandos. A visual indication of the job being carried out was provided by the large Red Cross markings carried by several VC10s during the conflict. The first such flight carried captured Argentine prisoners from Ascension to Montevideo after the recapture of South Georgia but later flights would carry survivors and wounded from several of the actions fought on or around the Falkland Islands. Any aeromedical evacuation flight to or from Uruguay was supervised by the Red Cross and this led to the large markings on the forward fuselage and the underside of the wings. Several VC10s would carry these markings throughout the months that the conflict lasted.
The 10 Squadron fleet would continue to ply the airways between the UK and Ascension Island while the Hercules fleet would cover the part to and from Stanley airport once the airfield was available again. The role of 10 Squadron became more visible after three survey vessels, 'Hecla', 'Hydra' and 'Herald', started a shuttle service as ambulance ships between the Falklands and Uruguay with the VC10s providing onward transportation to the UK. The VC10 could be fitted out for aeromedical evacuation and this capability was used on many of these flights. One of the little things that made a difference was that any flight carrying wounded or casualties from the conflict would be met by a honour guard at Brize.
After the ceasefire on 14 June the ambulance flights continued but over time more and more returning soldiers were gathering on Ascension Island and carrying them back to the UK became the main part of the squadron's job, alongside a chartered DC-10 from Caledonian Airways, until the tasking started to move towards normal again by late July of 1982. 10 Squadron had not seen the last of the South Atlantic though as the by now established route to Ascension would remain on the tasking list for many years afterwards. In 1987 the first direct flights to the Falklands were organised to demonstrate that this would enable supplies to be delivered to the outpost within a day if needed.
A Spot of Bother
Richard King was involved with some of the evacuation flights and one of these was the inspiration for a write up that he titled 'A Spot of Bother'. This story was part of a display at the Solway Aviation Museum to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the Falklands War until the display was taken down in October 2022. The museum and Richard King have allowed me to add it to this page. There is plenty more to explore though, so do visit the museum!
On the afternoon of 5 June 1982, the 10 Squadron VC10 crew, of which I was the co-pilot and which was captained by Flt Lt Brian Wheeler, arrived at Dakar Airport in Senegal, from our nearby hotel, to fly the round trip from Dakar to Ascension Island and back. The Falkland Island troubles had been the main focus of our lives since the Argentinians had invaded the islands earlier in April. As part of the logistic supply to the Ascension Island base, we flew daily trips there from RAF Brize Norton in the UK via Dakar. Because of the distance involved we slipped crews at Dakar to maintain a regular non-stop service of up to three or four aircraft a day. Accommodation at Ascension was very limited so the three-hour each way sectors from Dakar, coupled with a 1½ hour turn-round at Ascension was well within our crew duty time limits and the accommodation problem was solved by the numerous crews flying the route all staying in hotels in Dakar. Banjul in the Gambia was also used for a short period during the conflict, until the RAF used up all their fuel.
The VC10 XV105 taxied in and the crew which had brought the aircraft from the UK disembarked. The captain, Flt Lt Robbie Robinson, a close friend of mine from Kenyan schooldays in Nairobi, took Brian aside and was deep in conversation with him for a few minutes. The rest of our crew thought that he was merely briefing Brian on the cargo and other relatively mundane aspects of his flight out. This transpired not to be the case.
In fact, Brian was being told that we were not just going to Ascension and back but were now being tasked with taking the aircraft further south to Montevideo in Uruguay in order to fly a “Red Cross Flight” back from there. Wounded sailors who had been injured by the sinking of the Royal Navy ships HMS Sheffield and HMS Coventry, together with Army casualties from Goose Green had been evacuated from the area by the hospital ship (I forget whether it was the Uganda or Canberra) and taken to a military hospital in Montevideo. Robbie’s crew left the airport for their hotel and Brian told us the news. We had been told there would be charts and documents left in a green document bag on the flight deck for our unanticipated crossing of the South Atlantic. They were nowhere to be found. It later materialised that they had simply been left behind at Brize Norton. The Navigator and I went across to the Air Traffic Control Tower at Dakar where the flight plan would have to be filed. The usual procedure was for us to fly on civilian air routes using recognised airways depicted on civilian air charts. However, with no charts though, we would have a problem trying to ascertain which civilian ATC (air traffic control) agency we would have to be in contact with, whilst over the ocean. On the wall of the Flight Planning Office in Dakar we saw a fly-splattered American Air Force Atlantic chart that must have been at least 10 years old. A quick trip for me back to the aircraft ensued, returning with with a bag of the most vile-tasting coffee brand that was sometimes put into our in-flight rations. The age of bartering in Africa still lived. We handed over the coffee to the flight-planning clerk and swapped it for the out-of-date chart. Luckily aircraft, even in the ‘80s, utilised a computer flight-planning system that produced a document from the Jeppesen Company in San Francisco which was sent to our handling agents by telex and it was known as the Jetplan. This contained all the route tracks, distances, leg-times, fuel burns, planned altitudes and a host of other information necessary for a safe flight. Our handling agent now produced our Jetplan, sent via telex from our HQ at Upavon in the UK, meaning that we now had just enough paper-work to allow us to legally get airborne.
Unfortunately, though, there was also the outstanding omission of a big red cross painted on either side of the aircraft’s nose. There hadn’t been enough time in the UK to get this done before the aircraft had been tasked for the flight. Apparently, it had been decided that because all of our flight from Ascension onwards would be in the dark, it would make sense to paint the red crosses on the nose once we landed in Uruguay, while we were resting before the flight home and before our casualty load boarded. - Our ground engineer wouldn’t be resting much or doing any sightseeing when we arrived in Uruguay.
We landed uneventfully at Ascension and off-loaded the outbound passengers who had been on the aircraft from the UK, together with their baggage. An hour and a half later, having refuelled, we left Runway 14 at Ascension and climbed up into the dark Atlantic night heading south-west. It is common practice for all ‘non-combatant aircraft’, for want of a better phrase, to utilise civilian air traffic control radio frequencies when transiting through civilian airspace. We conformed to this procedure and passed our position reports on the HF long-range radio to Dakar and later to Recife and Porto Alegre in Brazil. It is common for many air traffic agencies to work the same frequencies on an HF wireless network and it was not uncommon for an aircraft to be heard calling and reporting to an agency that we were not required to be in contact with. HF coms was an acquired art.
As we neared the South American coast, some 500 miles or so out to sea, I called Porto Alegre one more time to pass a position report. No answer. There was a great deal of static noise but no Recife to be heard. I repeated my call. Still no answer. Then, from out of the dark night, came a voice so loud and clear that I thought he was sitting next to me. “Go ahead. Ascot 2645. This is Buenos Aires. I will relay your position to Porto Alegre.” But Buenos Aires is in Argentina..... Hang on ! - We were fighting a war against Argentina. I pretended I had not heard him and we ignored the generosity of our enemy’s friendly civilian air traffic controller. We kept a very close watch on our weather radar after that in case we were approached by any unwanted visitors although our equipment was not really designed to pick up other aircraft. Eventually we came within range and into contact with Montevideo on the clearer and shorter-range VHF radio for our position reporting. But our troubles had only just started.
It must have been about midnight, local time in Uruguay. The lady operating the radio frequency advised us quite simply that we could not land in Montevideo because visibility there was down to about 50 metres in thick fog. Unlike today’s Category 3B zero feet and 75 metres visibility automatic-landing procedures, which are taken as the norm in low- visibility conditions, in the 1960s designed VC10, we had to be able to see to land with a minimum visibility of about 600 metres. The only solution was to divert. Where to? There are relatively few airfields in Uruguay suitable for long-range airliners such as the VC10. In our somewhat rudimentary flight planning back in the Dakar office with the aid of our ‘bartered’ chart, we had chosen to use an airfield near Montevideo called Maldonado as our preferred ‘alternate’ or diversion airfield. It was situated on the coast of Uruguay about 100 miles south-east of the capital, Montevideo. We notified our charming friend on the radio that we would go there. Her reply gave us the impression that she was somewhat amused. Her words were to the effect, “I don’t think so for two reasons. One is that they have thick fog also and the second is that they have no runway lights.” Hmmmmm.....!! She was determined to make up for this though by saying, “You will divert to Durazno”. Having never heard of Durazno before, we embarrassingly asked her where it was. After telling us that it was approximately 150 kilometres north-west of Montevideo, she then proceeded to tell us all the aviation details about it, which we couldn’t thank her enough for. Remember that we had no charts on board. We later landed there being thankful that Uruguay is predominantly flat with no mountains to worry us and, just as we turned off the runway, the fog came down there as well. The only other suitable airfield within our fuel reserves would have been Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, with whom we were at war.......not a good idea, we thought.
By now it was about 01:30 in the morning and it turned out that Durazno was a relatively small training airfield for the Uruguayan Air Force. It was smaller than our own RAF Cranwell. A hangar we walked through did appear to have a considerable number of Pucara aircraft, which we knew were also flown by the Argentinians. In spite of the unearthly hour and our un-announced arrival, we were met by the only two officers on the base who spoke English. One was a major and the other a junior lieutenant. I forget all the minor details about the next hour or so but the outcome was that we were despatched to a small hotel in the nearby town of Durazno where we spent minimum rest. It had been decided that our poor ground engineer would remain at the airfield, though, in order to paint our missing Red Crosses on the aircraft in preparation for our flight, later that afternoon, to Montevideo.
The next morning at about nine o’clock, I awoke in the basic room of the hotel and found an armed guard outside my door. I was however allowed to go to the small room that passed as the hotel restaurant and in dribs and drabs the rest of the crew arrived for breakfast. I use the word ‘breakfast’ loosely; it comprised just cream crackers and jam, with no butter as I recall. The engineer and I decided to see a bit of the town and surprisingly, in spite of our overnight guards, we were nevertheless allowed to venture out of the hotel on our own. It was a sunny Sunday morning yet the town was almost deserted. I recall noticing the numerous heavily-pruned plane trees or their South-American equivalents, as we walked along the streets. There wasn’t much else of note. An hour or so later we were on the bus back to the airfield and were met there by our ground engineer.
During the night he told us that he had been frequently interrupted in his painting of the Red Cross by messengers telling him to go the 200 yards or so to the Operations Room where there had been telephone calls for him. These calls had been from the British Embassy in Montevideo. They kept being cut off. One of them had asked him to check the aircraft’s manifests. These are the documents that list all passengers’ names and details of the freight being carried on board. We had no passengers but loads of stretchers and medical equipment in our holds. It is not in a ground engineer’s remit to understand the finer details of aircraft documentation and he had spent much of his valuable time searching our Loadmaster’s paperwork left on board to find what the Embassy meant; to no avail.
When the VC10 had been designed in the 1960’s it had been anticipated that all refuelling would be carried out by pressure hoses being attached to refuelling points underneath the wing. Fuel was then forced into the tanks under pressure from airport refuelling trucks designed for the purpose. Durazno had none of these pressure-refuelling trucks. How were we to refuel in order to reach Montevideo? The Vickers’ designers had however foreseen this possibility and had positioned over-wing refuelling points above each tank in the upper surface of each wing. The procedure should have been simple; undo the 20 or so screws holding down each cap and just pour fuel into each tank by a hose from any refuelling tanker even if it didn’t have pressure assist to help. Unfortunately, this system had never, in the twenty or so years of aircraft in service, been used. The screws in each tank were totally encrusted with paint and every tank’s screws except one, the outer transfer tank in our right wing, refused to budge. Instead of a normal pressure refuel taking about 20 minutes, it took forever to fill this small tank by hand pump and even longer to then pump that fuel into the aircraft’s appropriate main tanks so as to maintain a balance in both wing’s tanks for safe flight. By four in the afternoon the task was completed and we took off for Montevideo.
Our arrival there was met by what seemed to be a very large number of people. Most significant were armed personnel and guard dogs. Nevertheless, we started to off-load seats from upstairs and replace them with stretchers from the holds, in readiness for our wounded passengers. I believe that some of the British Embassy staff were also present. After a while the attitude of the assembled throng seemed to change and we were advised to refrain from unloading the rear hold. The Daily Mail later reported that “In spite of vigorous protests from the crew, the Uruguayans insisted on off-loading the hold.” In today’s jargon we could accuse the Mail of giving out ‘fake news’. In reality, faced with armed guards and Doberman or Alsatian dogs, we readily agreed to allow anyone to continue the back-breaking work of unloading.
A box containing the personal effects of an RAF officer passenger who had left the aircraft at Ascension Island was found in the rear hold. In the box were certain items of RAF spares that were required for Harrier aircraft which were playing such a major role flying off ships in the UK Task Force close to the Falklands. Un-manifested the spares should never have been secreted in personal baggage in the first place and should, in any case, have been off- loaded at Ascension. But how had anyone in Uruguay got to hear of this? Was the Embassy communications system tapped or hacked into? Had anyone been listening-in to the calls to our ground engineer when he had been cut off so many times at Durazno whilst trying to paint the Red Crosses during the previous night? We never did find out, nor indeed to whom the box belonged.
By 18:00 hours local time we were ready to accept our passengers and all 56 stretchers were occupied by the wounded that had been brought from the military hospital. As the sun set, we took off for the six-hour night-flight to Ascension where on arrival, our crew became passengers for the final sector home to Brize Norton.
I recall going back to the passenger cabin and chatting to some of them. They all knew that our crew had had a few problems during the previous 24 hours, delaying their departure from Montevideo. One young sailor on a stretcher, with wounds to his head, even offered for me to use his stretcher for a quick nap: I declined his kind offer. Sat in three of the more normal aircraft seats were three, walking-wounded soldiers who had been injured at Goose Green. One had his arm in a sling and a dressing on his shoulder. I asked what had caused his wounds. He appeared most embarrassed and, just muttering under his breath, wouldn’t tell me. His mates next to him however insisted that I pull rank and order him to explain all: he had been making use of a temporary toilet facility that had been rigged up near his camp. It consisted of two forked sticks and a pole stretched between them to use as a seat. Below the pole was a ten-foot drop where the excrement fell. In the middle of the night, quietly contemplating life and performing, whilst balanced on the pole with his trousers round his ankles, he had been the target of an Argentinian sniper and had been hit in the shoulder by a bullet. Although not very seriously hurt, the impact had sent him reeling backwards down the drop into the ‘you know what’. Foul-smelling and covered in the proverbial, his mates had then refused to pull him out until they could find both the sniper and a rope with which to haul him out, even though he claimed he was bleeding to death in the meantime.
A walking-wounded visitor to the flight–deck was a naval lieutenant-commander, who I think was the First Lieutenant from HMS Sheffield. Hit by an Exocet missile the ship had been caught up in flames. His face was one big scab where his anti-flash mask had not covered him. Ugh. He was however, so ‘normal’ and open in his recall of the devastating event and a thoroughly nice fellow who expressed his deep gratitude for all that our RAF Aeromedical team were doing on board. There was no inter-service rivalry aboard Ascot 2645 that night. Everyone, including ourselves, was just grateful to be going home.
Back in the UK stories abounded that Mrs T had been personally involved with our escapade and that the British Embassy communications system in Uruguay may have been compromised. Who was the mystery RAF officer whose kit had contained bits for the Harriers? Would our friendly Argentinian ATC operator have really relayed our position to Montevideo or his own fighter aircraft instead? - I can’t say because we were never told.
A ceasefire came a few days later on the 14 June 1982, but Operation Corporate continued.
Sources: Vulcan 607, Rowland White (2006), Harrier 809, Rowland White (2020), Falklands - The Air War, Burden, Draper et al (1986), Richard King. With thanks to Stephanie Lawton at Solway Aviation Museum.