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Operation CORPORATE - The Falklands War and the VC10

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.



The control box for a Delco Carousel INS system as fitted to the BA Super VC10s. A much bigger box contained the gyros and associated hardware.
Photo J. Hieminga

Part of the crew stations and panels in the back of a Vulcan.
Photo J. Hieminga

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.


XV101 taking off from the single runway at Ascension Island.
Photo Crown Copyright / collection J. Hieminga

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.


A trial fit of the stretchers used for aeromedical flights.
Photo copyright BAE Systems via J. Quick

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 may 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 Pacific 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 is currently being used as part of a display at the Solway Aviation Museum to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the Falklands War. This will be in place until October 2022. Afterwards, I will add 'A Spot of Bother' to this page. If you cannot wait until then, you will have to visit the museum to read it. They also organised a very interesting line-up of speakers over several Saturday afternoons to share their accounts from forty years ago.


XV107 showing off the Red Cross markings on the fuselage side during what looks like an open day in June 1982.
Photo collection J. Hieminga

Another photo of the Red Cross markings on XV107.
Photo collection J. Hieminga

 

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.

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