The other day I was exchanging memories of a happy RAF career when the subject of Operation Hydraulic arose. This sent me scurrying to my archive for photographic evidence. A friend had
lent me a small camera for the trip and this proved to be the beginning of a most rewarding hobby thereafter.
Operation Hydraulic was the codename for an operation to deploy 13 Lightning Mk6 aircraft of No 74 Squadron from their base at Leuchars, Fife, to RAF Tengah in Singapore. The 14th aircraft, a
2-seater, was sent by sea. No 74 had been the first RAF front line Squadron to operate the Lightning, the RAF's first supersonic fighter, and in 1966 had been re-equipped with the F6 version
which could be fitted with additional over wing fuel tanks to extend its unrefuelled range. Nevertheless, for the deployment to Singapore, air-to-air refuelling would be necessary, particularly
on the long oceanic transits.
The deployment was scheduled for June 1967. At the time, the RAF's air-to-air refuelling assets comprised 3 squadrons (55, 57 and 214) of converted Handley Page Victor B Mk1 and BMk 1A
bombers. The tanker variant was designated BK Mk 1/1A. Several of the conversions had 3 refuelling points: one on each wing for fighter type aircraft, and one on the centre-line (at the
rear of the the old bomb bay) which could be used to refuel large receivers, particularly other tankers). However, at the time, few of the Victor crews were qualified to receive fuel from
The refuelling task was both complex and potentially complicated. The Lightning was incapable of independent navigation over long distances and therefore must be accompanied by at least one
tanker for the entire way. Each Lightning must always have sufficient fuel on board to make an emergency diversion to an alternative airfield in the event of a technical malfunction or
failure to receive the required amount of fuel from the tanker. I cannot remember the exact construct but the deployment was arranged in "waves" with a number of Victor Tankers escorting 2 or 4
Lightnings over each leg. There were 4 legs: Marham/Lechars to Akrotiri (Cyprus), Akrotiri to Masirah (Oman), Masirah to Gan (an atoll in the Indian Ocean), and Gan to Tengah Singapore
(Butterworth in Penang for the Victors).
And so it was on 4 June 1967, Victor K1A XH588, Captain Flt Lt Eddie Smeeth, Co-Pilot Fg Off John Brown, Navigator Plotter Flt Lt Dennis Maunders, Navigator Radar Flt Lt Bill Bowen, Air Electronics
Officer Flt Lt Rick West, and a flying engineer, trussed on the 6th cokpit seat, set off on Wave 1 of the first stage of the deployment to Akrotiri. Several challenges lay ahead: firstly,
all the Victors which had taken-off independently had to find each other at height and become a single formation, secondly, the formation of Victors had to rendezvous with the formation of Lightnings
which had left Leuchars earlier. Finally, the whole formation of Victors and Lightnings had to set course cross France, refuelling as we went and overcoming the diplomatic hurdles and
restrictions that our French and Italian friends had put in the way.
This is what it looked like on climb out from Marham on 4 June:
And this is how it looked as the tankers joined up:
As far as I can remember, we all reached Akrotiri without major alarm and here we all are, apart from the photographer, after landing. Note the empty demijohn of Cyprus Sherry in the
forground. Although the intention would have been to replenish it, I think this also shows an early example of environmentally responsible re-cycling.
Our arrival at Akrotiri on 4th June would have been early in the Cyprus day – there was a 2-hour time difference for a start but the principal reason was that we had set off from home
base at Marham very early in the day.
The Victor was a wonderfully designed aircraft, well ahead of its time, but its four Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire engines, at only about 11,000 pounds of thrust each, rather let it
down. Not because of unreliability – the good old Sapphire just did not generate enough thrust to make the take off a kick up the backside
experience. Worse, the hotter it became outside, the less thrust was developed. Even running the engine
jet pipe momentarily, a little hotter than generally permitted did little to improve performance and, on certain days, as the outside temperature climbed, we had to reduce our fuel load in order
to get off the ground safely. Accordingly, all take-offs were usually planned for the coolest time of the day, just before dawn.
The criteria for getting off the ground safely were not as comprehensive as modern-day transport aircraft where critical take off speed calculations allow airlines to maximise their payload
whilst still being able to cope with the loss of an engine at some stage during the take-off run. In the Victor, the calculation was
simple: starting from rest and then accelerating under maximum thrust, how fast can I go before, if I need to abort my take-off and stop in
emergency, I can still manage to bring the aircraft to a stop in the remaining runway without running off the end? This is called the “stop
speed.” The other speed of great interest was the “rotation speed,” or the speed at which the aircraft can leave the ground and fly. Somewhere, in the middle, was the "Go Speed," or the speed above which a succesfull take-off could be continued following the loss of an engine. I really
cannot remember how we calculated this, or even if we did (we did Ed.). The rotation speed depends upon the weight of the loaded aircraft – the higher the take-off weight, the higher the
speed at which the aircraft can fly. If you try to fly below the rotation speed you will stay on the ground, so you just have to grit your teeth and
watch the airspeed indicator slowly creep upwards and hope that you reach the rotation speed before you run out of runway. As I said, I am not sure
of the extent to which we considered what would be the minimum speed from which we could successfully continue the take off after one of the engines had failed, these esoterics being the preserve
of Transport Command and their, then, shiny VC10 aircraft. I was to learn the dark arts of Scheduled Performance planning in later life – at the
time, ignorance was decidedly bliss. So where does the stop speed come in? Well, for safety reasons, it
would be potentially dangerous to continue accelerating towards rotation speed when you had already gone past the speed from which you could successfully stop in emergency. In these circumstances, the take-off weight must be reduced until the two numbers balanced. My memory is hazy but
I think we could operate, to some extent and with the authorisation of "Group Headquarters" at Bawtry, in the “black hole” in which neither a continued take off nor successful stop could be
accomplished. We certainly needed to, given the ground temperatures we would encounter henceforward on the operation, but that was why we received
“Flying Pay,” I suppose!
All this meant a departure from Akrotiri before the heat of the day – just about dawn, in fact, which meant a very early alarm call.
Meantime, Akrotiri was blessed with a beautiful and well-appointed Officers’ Mess but it would have been quite against the rules to have pitched up at the bar in a sweaty flying suit.
Dress standards applied, particularly for visiting aircrew, which made packing a case for carriage in an aircraft that was not designed to carry cases, a bit of a trick sometimes. Sleeping accommodation, for visitors in transit, was provided in many deceptively similar tin huts, helpfully labelled, for example, “Block 100,” or “Block
101,” which was visible by day but a little tricky to make out at night when stumbling back from the Mess itself. RAF Akrotiri and, within it, the Officers’ Mess bar, was situated at centre of
RAF world-wide deployment. Apart from being home to Near East Air Forces in the Mediterranean, it was also an essential staging post for Aden and the
Gulf, Far East Air Forces in Gan, Colombo, Malaysia and Singapore, Hong Kong, Nepal, and other far-spread locations. Alongside flying operations, a
great deal of intelligence gathering went on. It was the sort of place where you could pretty well guarantee to bump into the other half of the RAF
that you had missed at the last Farnborough Air Show. The bar itself was large and air-conditioned.
Although, later in my career, I was to find cheaper alcohol in the Azores, in Akrotiri you could buy a round of brandy-sours and still have plenty of change from half a crown. I don’t remember seeing anything of our “customers,” the 74 Sqn aircrew and I assume that they were taken care of by their pals on the resident Lightning
Squadron, No 29 (or was it No 56 by then)?
There was an abundance of recreational facilities in and around the Sovereign Base Area which were very well enjoyed by the locals. So much so that
the working day at Akrotiri finished at lunchtime, just in time for a siesta, sailing, and swimming. Visitors got the impression that the local
lotus-eaters resented their presence – their tiresome demands for fuel, provisions, transport, and logistics appeared to interfere with the station routine. The station routine became known as the “Akrotiri Window.” All visitors to Akrotiri had to arrive and depart breakfast and lunch otherwise they would find the
window firmly slammed in their faces. This meant that anyone transiting through from UK would have to leave home base very early in order to arrive
at Akrotiri and depart again, refuelled, before the window closed.
So, for the tanker crews, departure procedure on June 6th would have begun very early because not all the aircraft would be continuing to the next staging airfield – some, designated
“Whirlers” would accompany the main formation for an hour or so, giving away all their fuel before recovering back to Cyprus leaving the other tankers to continue with the Lightnings. Of course,
the Whirlers would need to be back on the ground before the window closed!
Clanking white-painted 32-seater buses would have picked their way through the labyrinth of accommodation blocks collecting crews, their personal luggage, flying kit and flying bags, before
taking everyone to flight planning (not so much as a cup of tea yet). Flight planning completed, breakfast was provided in the transit feeding
facility. Fried eggs dripping in bright green olive oil, compo ration sausages and streaky bacon fat – the complete antidote to copious brandy-sour
and Kokinelli, the local red wine extraordinaire (also useful for cleaning carburettors).
We were designated as one of the Whirlers today but there was no question of leaving our personal kit behind for a return later in the day because that may not happen – roles within a formation
could change rapidly and those planned to make a quick return could find themselves going all the way, so you needed to have all your personal kit with you. In fact, not on this operation but the following year, one pilot on 214 Squadron made it all the way to Singapore having originally been scheduled for a Marham
Whirler. He was still in his cold-weather immersion suit when he arrived in Singapore, by the way.
We got airborne as planned with luggage which, by this stage, would have included a soaking wet towel from the morning shower, transit accommodation being pretty basic. Later we landed after a 3 hour and 20-minute sortie, out a bit and back. We would hope to advance eastwards the
After landing, we signed the aircraft in to the waiting ground crew. On this operation, engineers from the respective squadrons had been deployed at
the staging points down route. Whilst each aircrew was qualified to conduct basic turn-around checks on the aircraft, had we been on our own, we
would have had to summon help from home had anything serious gone wrong. As it was, we were grateful not to have to re-pack the tail braking
parachute into the, apparently, impossibly small space provided in the rear cone of the fuselage. Such an operation was a 2 or 3-man job which,
amongst other things involved jumping on the packed chute (12 feet or so above the hard concrete) in order to close the retaining hatch. Packing the
chute was hard graft in temperate climes, but during the Akrotiri midday, when temperatures on the pan would have exceeded 40 degrees centigrade, was a feat indeed. We left our engineers to it, refuelling, and replenishing and attending to minor defects. I am thoroughly ashamed
to say, due to my callow inexperience at the time, I failed to fully appreciate the incredible hard work conducted by the groundcrew to keep us flying. I hope, after 50 years, if any of you are reading, you will accept my belated and heartfelt thanks for keeping me safe and effective in the air, then and
The white 32-seater made its early morning journey in reverse, depositing our crew at the accommodation hut. Unpack and shower (hang the wet towel out to dry) and then make ones’ way over to the
Mess. The piercing sun, incessant screech of crickets, and sweet scent of the jasmine trees surrounding the entrance are still fresh in my memory.
And so to the bar for a few drinks before lunch. Afterwards, a stroll in the heat across the sports field to a small parade of shops and the NAAFI. There was nothing worth buying in the NAAFI but
a small shop sold soft suede boots which were ideal in the environment and very comfortable to fly in. Homeward bound aircraft would take advantage of the fruit shop, proprietor Dinos, I think,
who would deliver crates for fruit right to departing aircraft on the pan. Then back to the mess to while away the time to dinner or a bit of sun worshipping outside the block.
The familiar routine began again in darkness the following day June 6th and we arrived at XH588 just as the sun was rising. The temperature began to climb rapidly. The cockpit could be
shaded from the sun using the zip up screens that would have been used to shield the crew from the flash of the nuclear weapon going off. The Victor was fitted with a connection that allowed a
ground air conditioning unit to be hooked up to the aircraft system to provide cool air for the cockpit until the aircraft systems became available after engine start. There was no aircraft
system that could be run on the ground to provide conditioning or electrics before engine start. The ground cooling connection was more bother than it was worth so, normally, the cooler hose was
simply routed through the open aircraft door – fine until the door had to be closed for engine start, about 20 minutes before take-off and when aircraft cabin conditioning could be switched on
and glorious cool air flooded the cockpit (unless the co-pilot over-cooked it, in which case the whole cockpit would rapidly cloud over). There were fewer ground condition units than tankers
requiring them and I can’t remember whether we were lucky enough to have one. Meantime, there was only the natural ventilation from each pilot’s
direct vision window which could be opened an inch or two on the ground.
When cleared for take off, we would have crawled on to the runway with the outside wheel as close to the threshold as we dare and then a tight turn on to the centre line rolling only so far
forwards to ensure that the nose wheel was straight. Full thrust against the brakes then off for a 55 second ground roll. In the clear blue skies the Victors would have had no difficulty forming
up with the whirler leading. The Lightnings would have adjusted their take off time and followed the tanker track to arrive at the top of climb rendezvous just astern the formation.
The tanker is responsible for ensuring that each Lightning always has enough fuel to divert to a suitable airfield on emergency. The closer the alternate airfield, the less fuel required. As
alternate airfields become further away, the more fuel must be carried and the more frequent each refill. The flight plan would contain the route to be flown and the geographic points at which
refuelling must take place. The refuelling areas were called “brackets.” For the Lightning we normally refuelled to full and it was important not to
break refuelling contact until the geographic end of the bracket was reached otherwise the refuelling plan would be compromised. After refuelling, the fighters would relax their formation and
dutifully follow the leader until warned to prepare for the next bracket. Such was the routine in the cruise and there would be several planned brackets on the way to Masirah.
Between brackets there would be time for lunch in the tanker. Flight rations would have been provided for each crew. I think we would have been provided with sandwiches, biscuits, an orange to
peel, and a cold drink. In the Victor we could remove our oxygen mask and eat normally but fighter aircrew, without the luxury of a pressurised cabin, would have to briefly lift their mask and
ingest a morsel. Their flight rations were carefully prepared in bite size chunks. Sometimes flight catering got their aircraft mixed up.
Our “chicks,” the Lightning Mk 6 with overwing tanks looked like this:
Whilst the overwings greatly extended range and, hence, flexibility of route planning there was one important safeguard to observe. If there was any
malfunction in the fuel feed from the overwing tanks into the main engine system then, for diversion planning purposes, the whole of the contents of the overwings must be considered
unusable. This meant that the planning for diversion must be based on internal fuel only. Since
suitable diversion airfields (some places were prohibited for political reasons) were infrequent and often inconveniently off track this meant that the fighter must be refuelled more frequently
in order to keep his internal fuel above that required. All this meant that the overall formation fuel consumption increased (whilst using the
throttle to manoeuvre into and hold the refuelling position on the hose, the fuel consumption increased considerably and, as the receiver became heavier, this problem became worse).
This is how the whole formation would have been arranged during a refuelling bracket. This photograph is not of HYDRAULIC, of course, but of a contemporary deployment of another squadron:
About half way to Masirah, after the whirler had departed back to Akrotiri, one of our chicks reported that one of his underwing tanks was venting fuel to atmosphere so we began the emergency
procedure outline above. Perhaps I should mention that if one of the Lightnings had encountered a serious problem that required a diversion then not
only would a tanker accompany him all the way there but, most likely, the whole formation would divert. So, this was quite a big deal. Nevertheless, we pressed on as the formation fuel state sank below the line. All the brackets were adjusted to
accommodate the new circumstances and the revised fuel figures showed that we could just about make it to destination with minimum fuel remaining.
And so it was, nearly 5 hours after take-off from Akrotiri, that the 7000 feet (or so, I forget exactly) runway at Masirah was sighted. The tanker
fuel state was perilously close to the absolute minimum and we could really have done with landing immediately. Although 4 or 5 thousand ponds of
fuel sounds a lot, when it is spread between the thirty odd fuel cells distributed throughout the Victor wings, fuselage, and bomb bay then it becomes almost fumes. Nevertheless, the Lightnings must land first, being, “short range.” Unfortunately, our friend with the venting overwing was too heavy (with the unaccountable
fuel in his overwings) to land so he decided to beat up the airfield in full re-heat for 5 or 10 minutes to burn off surplus fuel. We watched
helplessly from above as the fuel gauges inched lower. Eventually, Lightnings clear of the runway, we made our approach and landed
safely. Here we are touching down, breathing a small sigh of relief that our fuel had held out and looking forward to hitting the bar asap!
Masirah was a hot and desolate place but, in context, regarded as more bearable than Khormaksar (Aden) but not as pleasant as Salalah to the South in Oman. There has been a UK military
presence on Masirah since the 1930s when it was used to support flying boats. Later a permanent airfield was established which was leased from the
Sultan. The BBC had a relay station there and, I dare say, GCHQ had some business interest in that.
As with Akrotiri, ground crew had been pre-deployed and were there to greet us. Accommodation was in an Officers’ mess, a small permanent building
with a table in the hall which seemed to serve as a registry and post office. There was a dining room and a bar which had a patio and door
marked TV Room. Opening the door afforded a good view of the desert outside (see picture above). The
patio was paved in a chequered pattern and one could play a game of draughts using cans of Tennants (Anne’s Day) as chequers. Winning or losing was
of no consequence since local rules seemed to stipulate that you either drank what you won or drank what you lost. Accommodation was in ubiquitous
“Twynham Huts” – described by the Minister of War in 1959 as “for temporary use in the field and in emergency conditions.” Several to a hut with no
air conditioning and only a fan to keep the hot and humid air stirring, it was not a place in which a good night’s sleep, before yet another dawn departure, was likely. A game or two of draughts before bed helped. Actually, the operation schedule gave us 24 hours on the ground at
Masirah and we were able to take advantage of the recreational facilities provided. There was a golf course adjacent with oil-bound sand to make up
the “greens.” There was also a small swimming pool. Local rules warned against swimming in the sea
because of the danger of sea snakes, stingrays, sharks, and numerous other aquatic hazards. Rick, our AEO, pointed out that the swimming pool was a
relatively recent addition and that swimming in the sea had been normal beforehand. Wild life enthusiasts could watch the turtles and I very much
regret not having joined one those expeditions at the time.
In what seemed the middle of the night, I packed my wet towel in my suitcase and we began pre-flight preparation for a dawn departure. The Masirah
runway was only about 7000 feet long. Compared to the 9000 feet at Akrotiri, this was a considerable operational disadvantage since fuel loads would
be much reduced. There was some “discussion” about take-off safety margins, which was, at the time, above my pay grade. We went, anyway, and, as I said before, that was why we got Flying Pay! Eddie, my Captain, wisely chose to handle
the take off himself during which we used every available foot of the shimmering runway. Once airborne, with the undercarriage and flaps up, the
Victor accelerated nicely and with cool air coursing the cockpit, the heat and excitement of the take off was soon behind us.
Navigation aids, even in the Victor, were sparse. Importantly, there was no long-range fixing aid, apart from the astronomical sextant, such as Loran
and no short range VOR. Navigation relied upon the ground position being calculated from heading and true airspeed modified by drift and ground speed
obtained from the Doppler “Green Satin.” Fixes could be obtained from the Navigation Bombing System radar provided there was something to identify
within range so this was pretty useless over the sea. Position lines could be obtained from the good old radio compass and, comfortingly, ground
transmitters were pretty powerful in those days. That said, our Navigators were highly skilled and were quite capable of achieving less than a
10-mile error after flying for 3 or 4 hours with nothing other than Doppler drift and the odd star shot to help them.
As far as I recall, refuelling went according to the route brief – there were no air traffic restrictions or weather hazards to interfere with the refuelling plan. As explained, the refuelling
plan is designed to ensure that the receiver always has enough fuel to fly to a diversion airfield on route in the event of a malfunction or failure to take on fuel according to the plan.
Sometimes, however, in those days, because of the short range of the receivers, the vast distances covered and the lack of friendly diversions
en-route, refuelling plans contained critical areas where receiver aircraft, temporarily, fell below their minimum diversion fuel. That said, the refuelling procedure was laconically mechanical
and began 8 minutes before the planned bracket (the point at which it was planned for the receiver to be in contact with the tanker and fuel flowing from tanker to chick), with a warning for the
receivers to close formation ready for refuelling. Fuel was dispensed through two Flight Refuelling Mk 20B refuelling pods, one under each wing of
the tanker. The pod contained a hydraulically powered drum on which was stored the refuelling hose and the basket receptacle. When ready to refuel, the hose could be “trailed” by releasing the brake on the drum and allowing the drogue to pull out with the help of the
airstream. The hose was then cunningly balanced against the airstream by the hydraulic motor trying, but not quite succeeding, to wind the hose back
in. Once the hose was at its full trail position it would be safe to call each receiver astern the respective hoses. At this stage, an amber light in the rear of the pod would indicate that the hose had reached its full trail position but a red light, adjacent, would warn the
receiver not to make contact yet. As the bracket approached, the flying pilot would call on the RT, “ready for contact” and instruct the refuelling
operator, the Navigator Radar, to extinguish the red light. The receiver, after acknowledging, would make his approach to the hose. All receiver aircraft had slightly different refuelling characteristics but the basic principle was the same – fly a steady constant line up the reference point
of the hose and the aircraft at a steady speed until “contact” is made. Avoid the temptation to fix on the basket and chase it at the last minute
since this can lead to over controlling, oscillation and worse. If you miss, drop back, re stabilise, and try again. In the heat of the operational moment and with the end of the bracket approaching with the possibility of a diversion looming this advice is essential but
sometimes hard to follow! A successful refuelling contact involved flying one’s probe into the basket at a walking-pace over-take. The tip of the probe would mate with the receptacle forming a mechanical lock (which could be overcome with sufficient force for withdrawal) which allowed
respective valves to pass fuel between tanker and receiver (the receiver would have already readied his refuelling system to receive fuel whilst the tanker would have configured his to
dispense). The amber light would still be on at this stage and, before fuel could flow, the receiver would have to open the pod refuelling valve by
pushing about 8 feet of hose back on to the pod drum. At this point, the amber light would change to green and fuel would be flowing. Phew, all round! It was then just a matter of the receiver aircraft sitting in a constant comfortable position on
the hose until the required fuel state was reached. The fuel transfer rate was about 1000 pounds per minute, limited by the hydraulically powered
fuel pump in the pod and the receiver’s capacity to receive. As I said, flying in refuelling formation on the tanker varied in difficulty between
aircraft. Downwash from the tanker wingtips affected both lateral and longitudinal trim during the approach to contact. The refuelling probe was offset and the tip out of view on approach, hence the importance of flying a steady approach on references (imagine your first attempts
at parallel parking until your driving instructor showed you how to do it “by numbers”)!
The receivers would fill up in 5 or 6 minutes but, to maintain the integrity of the refuelling plan, would be held in contact until the geographic end of the bracket.
This procedure was followed 3 or four times on the relatively short 4-hour flight to Gan. The RAF base at Gan is situated on Addu Atoll to the South
of the Indian sub-continent at about Longitude 73°East. Almost on the equator, it
was rumoured that geostrophic force was so confused at that latitude that the direction of the vortex created by water leaving a basin down the plug hole, would be determined by the fickleness of
the geostrophic force at that moment. Originally exploited as a covert RN refuelling base, Gan was late taken over by the RAF and figured prominently
as an important staging post for aircraft to the Far East up until 1976. Sitting majestically 6 feet above sea-level, Gan boasted an 8500 feet runway
and a wind direction that changed twice a year with the passage of the Intertropical Front.
The Operation schedule, mercifully, afforded our crew a day off in Gan before the next leg.
The airfield of Gan in the Maldive Islands was located on the
southern edge, about 6 o’clock, of the atoll and was surrounded by the associated technical, administrative, and domestic accommodation.
sandy beach was seldom more than a few paces away and beautiful coral reefs a short swim from the shore.
There was air-conditioned accommodation for
aircrew at Gan but, whilst it had originally been constructed to keep V Force crews (at that time, of course, guardians of the National independent nuclear deterrent) in top condition in transit, it
had been taken over by VC10 crews who considered it their rightful domicile, given the hardship they endured on their world-wide operations.
And so it
was fan cooled huts for us but, unlike Masirah, the tropical climate was much less humid and very pleasant, indeed.
The whole Gan operation was supported by hundreds of locally employed civilians who sailed to and from the airfield daily from outlying parts of the atoll.
There were no women on the permanent staff and those in transit, on the scheduled VC10, were much admired by the locals who usually found something they needed to be doing in the area reserved for
transit passengers whenever the schedule passed through.
We passed the time, blissfully, on the beach, swimming, and diving.
Some of our number made the boat trip to Hithadoo, about 10 o’clock on the circumference of the atoll, some receiving severe sunburn injuries for their
When we retreated from the sun it was to the bar where alcoholic beverages were, again, incredibly cheap.
Indeed, a measure of gin was free; the upturned gin bottle and optic was covered with black tape so that the contents of the bottle were invisible – the person who
bought the last shot paid for the whole bottle.
Whilst alcohol was cheap, the NAAFI monopoly ensured that staples such as Roses Lime Juice were
After lunch, we returned to the beach for a short while. Tim Fear, a fellow pilot, had been harvesting sea urchins from the reef, perhaps as a
souvenir. A couple that were too small or otherwise unsuitable he had left, half concealed, in the sand. A perfect trap for the unwary and I recall spending the rest of the afternoon in the medical centre whilst one of the locally employed orderlies painstakingly
removed the sea urchin spikes from my foot.
In the evening, there was a film show in the open-air cinema. The local population of fruit bats used the illumination for flying practice,
continually dive-bombing the flickering screen.
By this time, we had begun to socialise with the 74 Squadron chaps. That evening, after the film we were sitting chatting when one of the pilots
asked, “so, where are we going tomorrow?” I recall replying that they were going to Tengah (their destination) in Singapore but that we would be
landing at Butterworth, in the north of the Malaysian peninsula, opposite the Island of Penang. Mulling over my answer, the Lightning pilot reached
into one of his flying suit map pockets and produced a small piece of paper. Unfolding the paper revealed that it was the centre-fold of the Readers
Digest on which was the printed a map of “The World.” Locating southern India and Singapore was relatively straightforward and the precision of the
“fix” seemed to satisfy the pilots curiosity. In retrospect, of course, this merely reinforced the Lightning’s dependence upon the tanker for
navigation – so long as the Lightnings could keep in contact with the tankers and take fuel when required, they would reach Singapore. In the middle
of the ocean, all he would have to worry about would be his next refuelling contact so why concern himself with extraneous geography?
Actually, some search and rescue plans had been made and Shackleton maritime aircraft were to patrol the route whilst the fighter waves passed over.
The Victor was equipped with a multi-seat dinghy for sea survival. This would have been launched, following a (successful) ditching. Nobody seriously expected a ditching, never mind a successful one. Each crew member, additionally, was strapped to
a single-seat dinghy pack which would have accompanied the crew out of the aircraft and could be inflated on hitting the water after the parachute descent. The pilots’ dinghies formed part of their ejection seat-pack. Rear crew, also sat on their dinghies but, in their
case, they were faced with added evacuation complication of finding their way to the aircraft door, opening it, and baling out manually. Other things
being equal, an individual could probably survive for a couple of days in a single-seat dinghy before running out of water and suffering dehydration.
With the floor and canopy inflated and a sea anchor deployed he survivor could occupy himself readying various location aids whilst waiting for rescue. First, we had a short-range radio locator beacon called SARAH. This was stowed in the bright yellow “Mae West”
life jacket. There was no point in setting this off straight away since the battery had only a limited life. On the other hand, forgetting to switch it on later, perhaps due to mental confusion, could be fatal. There were
some flares to attract attention, a heliograph to play with, and a sachet of green dye, fluorescein, to stain the water and further advertise one’s presence. To pass the time, some fishing hooks and a line were provided together with a helpful pamphlet titled “Sea Survival.” There would have been a little water, in sachets, but in tropical climes that would not have lasted long. Rainfall
could be collected from the canopy, if it rained, but there was no other way of replenishing fresh water. Food didn’t matter. Of course, the Shackleton was not equipped to pluck us from the sea. However, vitally, it could find and mark the
position and drop further supplies to aid survival until surface rescue. The supplies were arranged in what was known as “Lindholme
Gear.” Lindholme Gear comprised five containers joined together by floating rope. The containers
contained food and water, long-range radio equipment, location aids, medical supplies, and a more salubrious dinghy. The gear would be dropped
adjacent to the survivor and here my memory fails me! With my sea anchor deployed, would the gear drift on to us or was I required to pull in my sea
anchor and drift on to the gear? I’m sure I would have known the correct answer at the time!
Weather would be another crucial factor on this final leg. In those pre-computer and weather satellite days weather forecasting still relied very
heavily on actual observations. Unfortunately, in the Indian Ocean, relevant observations were few and far between so Canberra aircraft from
Singapore surveyed the route for us in advance. At that time of year, the Intertropical Front (or Intertropical Convergence Zone) would have been
well to the North. But this did not mean it would be plain sailing to the South. Tropical thunderstorms
could spring up anywhere, their towering anvils reaching high into the forties or even fifty thousand feet. There was no way one could overfly them,
particularly if it was necessary to flight refuel at the same time. The huge downdrafts from isolated storms could trigger adjacent storms and before
one knew it the whole sky was filthy, dark, icy, and turbulent and lit up with sheets and flashes of lightning. Such weather was best avoided and the
Victor could help itself a little. The H2S radar could be used to plot the centres of storms and from this a pathway to avoid the worst of the
weather followed. There was a limit to the extent of deviation to avoid the weather since, as usual, fuel was critical.
It was a lovely morning when we left Gan but that changed quickly. Just as we approached the most critical part of the leg (I think our diversion
would have been Colombo, Ceylon, a long way to the North) the weather closed in. I think there were 2 tankers and two pairs of Lightings in the
formation. Since transfer between the tankers was not contemplated, it was vital for the whole formation to remain in touch. As the weather deteriorated, it was necessary for us, as the No 2 tanker, to maintain close formation on the leader (the charming, talented, and highly
experienced Jock Carroll as I remember). Had refuelling not been required, we could have sat more comfortably in trail using the H2S to maintain station. But this would have put us beyond visual range and we may never have found each other again, safely. Similarly,
the Lightning could have relaxed and maintained station using his AI Radar but, again, this would have involved a time-consuming approach to visual when the bracket approached so probably better
to stay in close formation. So there we were, for at least a couple of hours, bouncing along in close formation, Eddie grimly hanging on to Jock
Carroll ahead, proceeding in the general direction of the Malay peninsula.
Here is the pilot of "Juliet" not going very far away!
Which left the small matter of refuelling to be accomplished. I have previously explained the procedure and, for this oceanic leg, where diversion
airfields would have been at extreme range, refuelling brackets would have been quite close together (another reason for not straying too far from the tanker). So, in still air, the refuelling basket flies straight and true whilst in turbulence, it doesn’t. This means that it is vital to keep the approach to contact
smooth and not to chase the bouncing basket. This means that several approaches may be needed before a successful contact is achieved. The danger of lunging at the last second is that contact might be made at an awkward angle with the probe splitting the spokes of the refuelling
drogue. A “spokes” contact was potentially very dangerous. Here is a picture, 20 years later, of the
same hazard being demonstrated, in text book fashion, by a Tornado pilot:
Apart from writing-off that refuelling point for the duration, bits of the damaged drogue could be ingested by the receiver’s engine causing, potentially, catastrophic damage. Since there was no way of determining what collateral damage might have been done, procedure required the formation to divert, immediately, to the nearest
suitable airfield. On the other hand, even in contact, a thrashing hose could cause the receiver to lose contact or, worse, tear off the probe and
render the refuelling system useless. Such were some of the hazards we faced and such was the skill of the Lightning pilots and the performance of
the Lightning which was capable of refuelling at the sort of altitudes we had required to avoid the worst of the weather, that we emerged into clear air later, roughly on course and with enough
fuel to reach our respective destinations. Phew!
To illustrate some of the above, here is a picture, behind the centre hose of a Victor K2 (of a later vintage) showing the the refuelling hose and basket. The wing hoses, from the Mk 20B
Pods, worked in the same way. This is the sort of position from which an approach to contact would be commenced. The spoked arrangement of the basket can be seen. The rim is
made of canvas and the small impregnated circles are actually small lights that would glow in the dark to assist refuelling at night. The hose disappears back on to the drum via a serving
carriage whose function was to wind the hose evenly on to the drum. Movement of the serving carriage could be observed by the receiving pilot and was a very useful reference for judging
fore and aft position and for sensing any movement in the same plane. Note also the 3 coloured lights positioned on the rear face of the Hose Drum Unit for controlling the refuelling operation.
We accompanied the Lightnings to within unrefuelled range of Singapore and then turned back to Butterworth where we landed, as they say “without further incident” after 4 hours and 10 minutes in
the air. It had seemed an awful lot longer!
Butterworth was the home of a detachment from the Royal Australian Air Force where they had been since “Confrontation.” Rick, our AEO and my roommate, had lots of friends there and knowing the
ropes set about leading me astray, a plot in which I was a willing accomplice. The oriental wonder of the ferry trip across the straits to Penang and a haircut at “Vincents” are a couple of my
abiding memories. Looking back at this picture of Georgetown I felt, as Graham Greene observed in Travels With My Aunt, “hopelessly abroad!”
It was the Station Summer Ball to which Rick had wangled an invitation so I must have gone to bed early. My alarm the following morning was the
vision, through the mosquito net, of an Officer peeling off a tropical Mess Dress and climbing, seamlessly, into a green flying suit. And then we
were off home, with mission accomplished. Another dawn take off the following day and back to Gan. My
Log Book shows that we had 24 hours on the ground at Gan on the way back which would have been very pleasant but I would rather have spent it in Penang!
Three days later we arrived back at Marham in a remarkable run of serviceability in Victor K1A XH588.
At home on leave, the Morpeth Herald, the local
paper, printed a small article about their local lad.
The stark statistics of the mission scarcely do justice to the excitement of the achievement
but I am happy to have recorded some of the highlights.
Here are two reports by crews directly involved in the raid.
The first is by Victor Captain, Dick Russell, who flew on the attacking Vulcan in the RHS as Receiver expert.
The second is by Bob Tuxford, who captained the Victor tanker which accompanied the Vulcan for the longest distance
Bob and Dick don't mention sweaty hands but reading their reports and seeing the video "Falklands' most Daring Raid" which follows, I can well imagine that they, along with a few others had
We appreciate the "horses' mouth" reports, thank Dick and Bob very much for providing them and can only comment "Good Show"
Operation Black Buck 1 - night 30th April / 1st May 1982
the Vulcan perspective
This is all well documented in the book Vulcan 607.
Briefly, I returned from my tour in Germany in 1981, got current on the Victor 2 again as a QFI but not as an AARI. (AIr to Air Refueling Instructors trained
Victor Crews in the receiver role, Ed)
In 1982 the probability of a Falklands conflict was on the horizon and the re training of Victor pilots back to air to air refuelling started in earnest . One sortie got me current both Day and
Night - and the next day a Canberra took me to Waddington to help train three Vulcan crews. On arrival I found that I would be with Martin Withers.
Over the next 10 days or so Martin and the two other crews converted to Air to Air Refuelling .
The three of us AARIs came back to Marham to be told that we were now part of the Vulcan crews for whatever might happen, so it was back to Waddington again...
On April the 29th Martin and I with his crew and with the Copilot on the 6th seat flew to Ascension Island in company with another Vulcan, taking on fuel off the coast of Spain. That night,
since it was my 50th birthday on the 30th, we celebrated as it turned midnight with a beer or two...
Next morning, rising late we were told to attend a briefing about 1300 for what turned out to be Black Buck 1.
Nice birthday pressie!! On arrival we found the dozen or so Victor crews had already been planning for some hours...
So picking up with the buzz we try to fathom out what part we will play. Our crew is to fly the reserve Vulcan.
Planning complete, some 12 Victors and 2 Vulcans took off at night, I was in the copilot's seat - with Peter Taylor, the usual Copilot - on the 6th seat ( he and l would change seats for
the bombing run should we be required, some 6 hours later).
In the climb, the primary Vulcan went unserviceable, so now we are the only Vulcan with a 21000 lb bomb load and going to Port Stanley...
Finding our tanker so far ahead at night in radio silence proved very difficult, but was achieved with the breaking of the silence and asking for a Very cartridge (signal flare, Ed) to be fired from our tanker.
And finding our way from tanker to tanker for our refuelling brackets proved nerve racking to say the least, not helped by two large electrical storms in which one tanker broke his probe and the
last tanker - which would now be giving us our fuel performing heroics within the storm changing roles with the Victor that had broken his probe.
All through the last 5 hours or so the Vulcan had been using fuel much faster than planned - so both the final outbound Victor and our Vulcan were short.
The Victor gave us a transfer which left him with insufficient fuel to get back, and we were some 8000 lbs short, so that if our recovery tanker should not make the RV off the coast of
Brazil on our return leg, we would have insufficient fuel to make landfall in Brazil.
Peter and I changed seats for the bombing task - which has been well reported elsewhere - and using up our precious fuel at a high rate.
The bombing run completed, we turned
and climbed to cruise level, I went back to the Copilot's seat, Martin went to the 6th seat and Peter went to Martin's seat. This was the situation for the next 3 hours or
An hour prior to the RV off the coast of
Brazi,l Martin got back up front again. Within minutes we started to hear a Nimrod calling us saying that he had us on his radar and some thirty minutes later we heard our recovery tanker, asking
us to transmit; this was the start of a tanker - tanker type RV, the sort that we practised back home. Nothing was seen even though we were close until suddenly our tanker rolled out about a mile
ahead with his hose trailed. By this time we had rather less fuel then necessary to make the coast of Brazil some 400 miles to the west.
Martin closed up and made a good approach,he plugged in but immediately, as the fuel started to flow it leaked out in a fine spray, partially obscuring the tanker and hose. Having had this
problem during the training phase I knew if we broke contact it would be about 20 minutes before the screen cleared sufficiently to make another approach and all this time we were heading away
from land. I took control,and with a little commentary from Bob Wright who had come up the ladder to watch I managed to stay in contact and take on about 30000 lbs. Once refuelling was completed
we broke contact, moved out to starboard for the 3 1/2 hour transit back to Ascension.
Luck was both with the final outbound Victor and with us - with Ascension scrambling yet another Victor for the returning tanker and the friendly Nimrod tracking us and our final tanker for
the RV off the coast of Brazil... Everyone made it home.
During the transit home we heard on our short wave radio on BBC World service that "a Vulcan had bombed Port Stanley airfield..."
With many thanks to Dick Russell for this report
Operation Black Buck 1 - night 30th April / 1st May 1982
the Victor tanker perspective
I was posted onto 55 Sqn on 1st April 1982. Having flown the Victor K2 tanker for the previous 18 months as pilot Leader on 57 Sqn, my transition to Flight Commander was a baptism of fire. Over
the next couple of weeks, I would be tasked to fly the aircraft in a new low-level role, sporting F95 cameras in a nose rig in the former bomb aimer’s compartment, to give us a
photo-reconnaissance (PR) capability. Also, a number of ex-27 Sqn Nav Radars appeared during that fortnight to be integrated into the selected three crews to convert us to the role of maritime
radar reconnaissance (MRR). Preparations at RAF Marham, the home of the tanker force, were frenetic to say the least. By the 18th April, the first of five crews were deployed to the South
Atlantic at the start of a new chapter in the history of air-to-air refuelling (AAR).
As the door was opened for the first time in over nine hours, the cockpit filled with a searing heat from the sun-baked tarmac below. With aching joints, I negotiated the crew ladder to extricate
myself from the cramped confines of the Victor’s cabin. As we savoured a cold beer, we were in awe of the forbidding landscape that was littered with barren volcanoes, dotted around our new
forward operating base of Wideawake Auxiliary Airfield, Ascension Island (ASI).
Over the next 24 hours, the five tanker crews mucked in with the incumbent RAF detachment personnel and erected the tents that were to form the operations complex. During the afternoon, the
second wave of Victor tankers arrived in sequence from RAF Marham. This brought the number of K2s to a total of nine, just less than half of the UK’s Tanker Force. On 20 April 1982, less than 48
hours after my own arrival, the first formation of tankers launched into the South Atlantic sky. The mission was intended as an intelligence gathering opportunity using our newly acquired MRR
skills. Two more similar operations were launched at 48-hr intervals to gather much-needed intelligence for the advanced Task Force intent on regaining the South Georgia Islands. From an AAR
point of view, the three MRR missions created the opportunity to develop the blueprint for all future air operations conducted from ASI.
On the night of 30 April 1982, No. 1 Group’s tanker crews assembled for the first time along side two Vulcan crews for Operation Black Buck 1. The aim: to bomb the runway at the
Argentinian-occupied airfield of Port Stanley on East Falkland Island. The side walls of the briefing tent flapped vigorously as solitary light bulbs hanging from flexes danced in the balmy night
breeze. As the sheer enormity of the task unfolded, the complicated refuelling plan was extraordinary even by the standards of the seasoned tanker crews. At this stage, there were no less than
thirteen Victor tankers on the ramp at ASI, and all serviceable aircraft would be needed to provide the in-flight refuelling support for a single Vulcan bomber. Eleven K2s in three sections, Red,
White, and Blue would be needed to provide the fuel through successive cascading refuelling brackets in order to get the bomber to the cast-off point around 400 nm north of the Falklands. A
further seven tankers would plan to launch around 6 hours after the initial outbound wave take-offs to provide two hoses at the so-called Rio Rendezvous, to recover the returning Vulcan to
Two hours later, the night air was awash with the deafening noise of Conway and Olympus engines. Within minutes, one of the Victors suffered an engine winding down, necessitating one of the
ground reserve aircraft to fall in line and take its place in the start sequence. At 45-second intervals, the heavily laden 4-jets took to the runway and laboriously staggered into the air. The
carefully-choreographed plan quickly gave way to disarray as the lead tanker in Red section discovered their centreline hose could not be trailed. As if to deliberately test our Ops Controller’s
flexibility, the primary Vulcan, ‘Blue 2’, reluctantly announced his intention to abort as the aircraft failed to pressurise during the climb. Undaunted by these early set-backs, Flt Lt Steve
‘Biggles’ Biglands eased across from Blue Section to replace the unserviceable formation leader as ‘White 4’. Flt Lt Martin Withers in the airborne reserve bomber half-heartedly took on the
mantle of Primary Vulcan, as the prospect of his early return to the bar was scuppered.
At Bracket 1 after two hours in formation, the four tankers in Red and White Sections paired up and mutually transferred their fuel whilst the remaining tanker in Blue Section refuelled the
replacement ‘Blue 2’. Adding to the difficulty of refuelling and formation changes at night, all procedures were undertaken in radio silence to protect the anonymity of the formation. Little did
I know therefore that a fuel crisis of significant proportion was rapidly developing as the four aircraft which had offloaded their fuel at Bracket 1 returned to base desperately short of fuel. I
was to find out later that each aircraft had to land in turn and ‘stack’ at the end of the single runway as there was insufficient time to backtrack the length of the runway to clear it for the
following aircraft. The potential for a motorway pile-up of momentous proportion was narrowly avoided. However, it became obvious to the operations staff at that point that there were some
shortcomings in the ambitious fuel plan!
After carefully sequenced refuellings at Bracket 2 around four hours after take-off, the remaining four tankers of Red and White Sections shared their fuel, and the Vulcan was topped up once
more. After the refuellings, Allan Skelton as ‘Red 4’ turned for home. Before long, his crew faced another disturbing development as their aircraft was found to be losing fuel through a
significant fuel leak. Unaware of this latest crisis, as ‘White 2’, I assumed the role of formation leader for the first time that night and my Plotter John Keeble took over the navigation. Along
with Steve Biglands as ‘White 4’ on my wing, and Martin Withers as ‘Blue 2’ in tow, we continued, obliviously, southbound towards the third refuelling bracket.
Around 40 Degrees South, the proverbial hit the fan. Weather activity in the form of towering cumulus clouds enveloped the remaining three aircraft, unseen by us as our radars remained switched
off. The pitch-black sky was temporarily illuminated with blinding flashes of lightning, and eerily, St Elmo’s Fire danced erratically around my cockpit windows. According to ‘Sod’s Law’, the
turbulence was at its most active just as Biggles lined up astern my centre hose to take his fuel. As the basket flailed wildly on the end of the 80-foot hose, the receiver aircraft repeatably
tried to make contact. Biggles finally achieved a good contact and, mercifully, fuel started to flow. However, half way through the scheduled offload, my Nav Radar, Ernie Wallis could see through
the periscope that the aircraft behind had become unstable. As waves developed along the length of the hose, the dynamic loads caused the receiver’s probe tip to separate at the design weak-link.
Disaster loomed as no further fuel could be transferred to that stricken aircraft. In a desperate attempt to keep the show on the road, I broke radio silence and suggested to Biggles we change
places to allow me to take the fuel back. With considerable difficulty, I moved astern Biggles’ rapidly trailed hose and mentally prepared myself to take on fuel, unexpectedly, for the third time
that night. Glyn Rees, my CoPilot, hastily set about preparing the fuel tray to configure the tanks to accept the unscheduled fuel uplift. Conditions at this point had not improved. Both tankers
must have looked like bucking broncos to the Vulcan pilots desperately trying to maintain visual contact in echelon starboard. After a number of missed approaches, I was aware my flying was
getting somewhat erratic, and I was feeling the tiring effects of six hours of close formation flying and two previous maximum onloads of fuel. I made a deliberate attempt to calm down my control
inputs and was rewarded finally to establish a latched contact. With just a few thousand pounds of Avtur received, I then had no option but to drop back and separate due to what were still
impossible if not dangerous conditions. Miraculously, just at that moment, the clouds dissipated, the turbulence subsided, and the star-lit sky offered up a distinct horizon once more. I was able
to make one final contact with relative ease and resume the fuel uplift.
I was well-aware of the fact that Steve Biglands would not be able to take on any more fuel on his return to the Island because of his damaged probe. Accordingly, I broke radio silence briefly to
convey to Biggles that he must keep a suitable reserve of fuel for his return transit. A short while afterwards, I was offered the flashing lights on the HDU to indicate that I had been given all
the fuel that he had to offer. I dropped back and cleared my leader to turn left immediately to return to base. There was time finally to take a moment and reflect on the somewhat chaotic
activity of the last half hour. It quickly became apparent that we were well short of the fuel on board that was detailed in the fuel plan. However, of greater concern to me, was the potential
damage to my basket encountered during Biggles’ broken probe incident. Before any consideration could be given to the onward plan, if my hose and basket combination had been compromised, I might
not have been able to transfer any further fuel to the Vulcan. Accordingly, I cleared Withers astern to assess the serviceability of my refuelling equipment. Unable to decide unequivocally
whether or not the basket was serviceable, there was no option but to suggest a contact. In clear weather conditions, the Vulcan had no problem making what looked like a normally latched contact.
To make certain, we then passed a nominal 5,000lbs in a test transfer to prove the respective refuelling systems. With that hurdle overcome, we pressed on towards the rapidly approaching final
At this stage of the mission, I was forced to take stock of the predicament in which we found ourselves. On the one hand, it was conceivable that I could have turned the formation back towards
our safe haven of Ascension Island while sufficient fuel remained in the formation. However, after so many crews had pushed themselves to the limit to get us to that point, I was predisposed to
completing the task, despite the dwindling fuel reserves. However, I could only press on with the approval and support of my crew. On asking them individually for their views, to a man, they
cited that as we had got that far, we might as well finish the job! Without further discussion, we set about deciding what fuel we could spare to give the Vulcan at Bracket 4, whilst keeping a
sufficient amount to get close enough to Ascension Island to seek out a Terminal Airborne Tanker. Although this had not been specified as a possibility because of the limited number of airframes,
I did have confidence that the Air Head Commander on the island, Gp Capt Jeremy Price and his Ops Staff would be looking out for our interests. Woefully shy of the planned fuel on board by this
stage, we nevertheless gave the bomber a final fuel transfer, and after some reluctance to leave us, Martin Withers turned his Vulcan towards the target, and the rest as they say is history.
Needless to say, the next four hours were a mixture of thoughtful reflection and anticipated expectations. Barely an hour after we had despatched the bomber, my AEO Mike Beer excitedly announced
over the crew intercom “SUPERFUSE”. This was the codeword for the successful completion of the bombing run against Port Stanley. I can say there was a moment of pure euphoria in the cockpit while
we punched the air with our fists and metaphorically patted each other on the back at what we felt we had helped to achieve. Furthermore, my faith in the Tanker Force was fully justified when,
three hours later, that famous crescent wing eased into view over a cloudless South Atlantic sky. Captained by OC 55 Sqn, Wg Cdr Colin Seymour had been despatched towards us after operations had
received confirmation of our predicament. Still 3 hours flying time from Wideawake Airfield, XL189’s fuel gauges showed barely one hour’s fuel left in our tanks! The success of that final contact
could have potentially jeopardized any follow-up operations mounted by the RAF from Ascension Island in support of the South Atlantic Task Force. However, despite the pressure of that final prod,
I was not going to take any chances. My first approach missed, and the probe gently slid by the basket at the 3 o’clock position – in what I like to think of my best ever missed contact. I was
absolutely calm as I gently eased the aircraft back to the pre-contact position for a second approach. As my probe tip entered the basket, it barely touched the spokes as the tip nestled
centrally inside the reception coupling and a satisfying ‘clunk’ was heard. After pushing in a few feet of hose, the green lights illuminated indicating that fuel was flowing into the tanks. Once
sufficient fuel had been onloaded, the remaining flight was uneventful to a final landing on Ascension after some 14 hours and 5 minutes in the air.
Thanks a lot Bob Tuxford for this report