This is one of those posts that started out as a quick follow up to the Atlantic Conveyor and San Carlos Harrier FOB posts I wrote a while ago and thought a nicely rounded trilogy would be finalised with information about the runway at Stanley Airport post conflict, how it was used by Harriers, Phantoms and other types before Mount Pleasant was opened.
But, as soon as you start writing about that famous runway at Stanley one simply cannot ignore the Black Buck Vulcan raids so before you know it, the research list has ballooned and no one is reading Think Defence because I haven’t posted anything in over a week.
It was just too tempting a subject to resist so apologies for the lack of posting recently.
Many articles, books and documentaries have been produced on Black Buck but very little exists that looks at the runway, instead most of the material tends to focus on the Vulcan and fail to see it from the runways perspective!
The runway at Stanley Airport is about more than just Black Buck though, after the surrender of the Argentine forces it played a vital role in the defence of the islands at a time when the threat was still elevated.
Until the airport at Mount Pleasant was completed it was the only air link to Ascension Island and beyond to the UK.
As I mentioned above, things rapidly expanded so instead of a single post, this is a trilogy within the trilogy!
- British Attacks on the Airport at Stanley
As it became obvious that Argentina was going to invade, the runway at Stanley Airport was blocked with oil drums and over 30 vehicles.
Operation Virgin del Rosario started in the late evening of April 1st 1982 when Argentine special forces landed at Mullet Creek. Follow on forces were to land a short while later and to the North of Stanley, after a special forces team landed from the submarine Sante Fe, the main force came ashore at Yorke Bay, pushing through the sand dunes and on to the airport
The airport was captured without resistance and the ‘La Estación Aeronaval’ established with the Argentine flag raisedThe occupying force then quickly set about reinforcing the Islands from both land and sea.
One of the first tasks was to change the sign at the airport.
After the surrender of the Royal Marines they were flown to Montevideo by an Argentine Air Force C130 that had landed at the airport.
Fokker F28 Fellowship jet airliners, C130 Hercules, Boeing 737, Lockheed Electra and BAC 1-11 aircraft were also used to fly in weapons, vehicles, supplies and personnel.
Both sides knew the airport had immense strategic potential
When looking at Black Buck and operations around the airport we have to be very careful in separating what we know now, with the benefit of over 30 years of 20:20 hindsight and the internet, and what was known by British force planners and intelligence teams in 1982.
The recently released documents shed some light on what the prevailing view was at the time.
Key to decision making was a SECRET intelligence briefing document produced on the 7th April 1982.
There are three key passages that I have extracted below;
Airfield Development by Argentine Engineers. Argentine Air Force Engineers constructed a temporary airstrip 4000 ft long 50 ft wide in 1971 near Rookery Bay between Port Stanley and the existing airfield. This airstrip was surfaced with US AM2 aluminium surfacing expedient which was lifted and removed from the Falkland Islands in 1978. With the engineer plant available on East Falkland, augmented by extra plant which is known to be in transit from Argentina, the Air Force Engineers could level and surface a completely new airstrip on a suitable site like the one previously used at Rookery Bay. Alternatively, in 2 to 3 weeks it is estimated that the existing airfield could be extended to 6000 ft maximum if a surfacing expedient such as the US AM2 was imported. We have no knowledge of Argentine ability to provide bulk refuelling facilities on shore. There are several sites near the airport where an LST could beach, and this could be one way of bringing in a large quantity of fuel in drums or tanks. Even if they have no dracones and pillow tanks they could very quickly set up a significant reserve of aviation fuel near the airport
Argentine Air Force Air Transport Operations from Stanley. If pressed, the Argentine Air Force should be able to operate C130 Hercules into Stanley Airport carrying a maximum payload of 17000kg. In addition the Fokker F27 and F28s could fly in fully laden. All this assumes that the aircraft do not refuel at Stanley and that they arrive from the nearest mainland base. Because there is no perimeter track and the apron is restricted, the number of sorties will be limited. They should have no difficulty however in unloading and clearing a minimum of say 12 aircraft per day, which could give an inward airlift in the order of 200 tons of stored per day.
Argentine Offensive/Defensive Air Operations. The Argentine Mirage III, Mirage V and their A4 Skyhawks could operate from Stanley Airport with almost full payloads to defend the Island. The limited parking area would again be a problem. If the Argentine Air Force Engineers chose to improve this, however, there is no reason why, say, 4 of these fighter aircraft could not operate from Stanley. The factor most likely to limit the sortie rate is that of fuel supply. With forward planning and the engineer work described above it must therefore be assumed that the Argentine Air Force could give themselves at least some air cover
I have reproduced this lengthy passage because it puts into context the planning for subsequent operations.
Clearly there was an expectation that Stanley Airport could and probably would be used for fast jet operations.
And so would have evolved the case for the Vulcan Black Buck raids that were to commence on May 1st
On the 22th of April Rear Admiral Woodward requested plans on how the Sea Harriers could be used to interdict Port Stanley Airport and this prompted more serious consideration of earlier discussions about the use of the soon to be withdrawn Vulcans.
Initial plans had considered a light bomb load to reduce the tanking and fuel requirement but after tests on Garvie Island this was revised to the full 21 thousand pound bombs.
In the following days there was considerable debate about the merit of the Vulcans, their potential for other tasks, comparisons with the Sea Harrier and the political implications of launching offensive operations of the US base at Ascension.
These debates eventually concluded, Sea Harriers were too important for air defence and not best suited to runway denial were the main decisive points in the debate.
British Attacks on the Airport at Stanley
The chronology of the Black Buck raids on Stanley Airport and the surrounding area are well known, I am not going to repeat the many excellent resources available on-line but instead have a look at some of the controversial issues that have arisen since, for scene setting though…
Black Buck I was intended to cut the runway
Naval gunfire and Sea Harrier strikes also added to the destruction.
The runway was intended to be attacked at a very specific angle from a very specific height, the reason being simple maths, to maximise the potential for a bomb to hit the runway given a known release rate.
There is some uncertainty about the intended target of Black Buck 2, the RAF maintain that it was intended to deny Argentine forces the ability to lengthen the runway by cratering the Eastern end of the runway but in the Official History of the Falklands Campaign Volume II, Laurence Freedman stated [on Black Buck 2]
but the higher altitude adopted, to stay clear of Argentine Roland surface-to-air missiles, meant that the attack itself was less successful
He also added that there was frustration about the bombs missing the runway.
I don’t know what the intended target was, the two sources seem to contradict each other and it is entirely logical to believe that an obvious target was the runway but equally logical to believe that preventing lengthening was an equally valid objective. There is no scope for lengthening to the East.
Black Buck 7 was intended to destroy stores and troops in the open; it is the one that attracts criticism on fusing errors. The point here is that war is waged with machines, not by machines and in a very human endeavour replete with human error, something all three services are more than familiar with. Others would also suffer fusing errors.
The others were intended to destroy the air defence radars so I am not going to cover these specifically.
On the claims and counter claims…
The RAF pushed it through for their own ends
Some have postulated that in a blatant act of self-interest the RAF rode roughshod over everyone in order to get in on the action and demonstrate that they could take an active role in the conflict, thus proving their continuing relevance, budget justification and to get a load of medals to boot.
If you are of such a mind that this is easily believed then it is entirely plausible, but the evidence just doesn’t support the thesis.
One of the main concerns of the Task Force commanders and others was its vulnerability to air attack and the finite number of Sea Harriers. Operating in the South Atlantic at a high tempo would inevitably mean non-combat aircraft losses and this was before the effect of combat was taken into account.
It was recognised early on that should the Argentine forces establish fast jet operations from Stanley the Task Force would be at severe risk.
The Exocet armed Super Etendard was viewed as the highest threat and one which would not be operable from Stanley but other aircraft were not discounted and despite vigorous efforts by MI6 to stop anyone with an Exocet selling them to Argentina there was some uncertainty about the risk, the queue of countries lining up to sell Exocet’s to Argentina was not a short one.
Therefore, a maximum effort joint operation was planned to put the runway and airport out of bounds for the very capable Skyhawk’s and Mirages. Into this mix the RAF, Chief of the Air Staff and acting Chief of the Defence Staff Michael Beetham suggested that Vulcan’s could be used as well although it has been reported that he stated a minimum of 25 sorties would be needed to completely deny the runway.
Black Buck was therefore clearly an RAF suggestion but then why wouldn’t it be, it’s an RAF aircraft after all.
The general dismissal of this so called attempt at muscling in is bemusing because surely all three services wanted to get stuck in in any way they could. There were several accounts of soldiers trying to stowaway on the troop ships, the general desire was to get involved and in seeing an account of the RAF suggesting a Vulcan strike or a soldier trying to sneak aboard the Canberra seem entirely in keeping with the best traditions of the services.
If the RAF pushed Black Buck, even against a perceived low probability of success, so bloody what?
It would not have proceeded unless the Royal Navy Task Force Commander (Sir John Fieldhouse) agreed with the plan, Admiral Fieldhouse was a thoroughly modern thinker and understood that the whole operation must be a joint one to succeed.
Those that criticise the RAF tend to aggregate around the dark blue spectrum but in making claims of RAF show-boating perhaps they might like to read the The Official History of the Falklands Campaign: Vol. II: War and Diplomacy by Lawrence Freedman;
Henry Leach was seen was seen to have seized the opportunity to demonstrate the Royal Navy’s continued worth to the United Kingdom
The Chief of the Defence Staff, a relatively new appointment at the time, was Admiral Sir Terence Lewin and he later described how the Chiefs of Staff meetings had ‘a tendency towards post-operational arguments’
Or future cake slices if one is being uncharitable
It seems to me that despite the obvious main task at hand, there was a degree of post conflict resource grabbing and outright rivalry from all three services.
It should be obvious that the tanking plan would have had to have been planned some time in advance and the Black Bucks would not have proceeded if there were other priorities, C130 supply flights of Nimrod for example.
The assembled Admirals, Generals and Air Marshall’s saw BOTH the tactical AND strategic potential of the raids and agreed to them.
It Missed the Runway
The degree of damage done to the runway is one of the most controversial issues regarding Black Buck
Much of the commentary, even by those who were there, suffers from being ill informed about the civil engineering aspects of runway construction and repair. It is not uncommon to read about the craters being casually filled and the runway being back in business ten minutes later.
Did the Black Buck I bomb hit the runway centreline or clip the edge?
Post raid photographic reconnaissance by the Sea Harriers was required to provide a counter to potential Argentine propaganda that the RAF was indiscriminately bombing civilians and to assess damage but was made difficult by cloud cover, a lack of training and interpretation facilities, it did happen though.
According to the Official History of the Falklands Campaign Vol. II
Visual assessment, however, was ‘long scar 250m long 70m wide across the airfield straddling centre of runway north-east-southwest with three apparent craters one on runway, and one each side’. Follow up Sea Harrier raids, which destroyed the two Falkland Islands aircraft that had been captured by the Argentines, were also difficult to assess due to bad weather, but the ‘general observation was area devastated’.
The day after Rear Admiral Woodward submitted the following report
Vulcan attack made single crater with first bomb halfway down runway just south of centre, remaining bombs landed over to SW over 1000m run without further damage. 3×1000-lb retard bombs laid down by one SHAR during suppression attack all hit runway centre line causing damage over 150m in area of Vulcan hit. Other damage done in stores and dispersal area at west end of runway by cluster bombs
There are many photos on-line but most of them are low quality, their origins and time of taking uncertain, have orientation/scale differences or have been subject to image enhancement.
For reference, the airport today
I have taken those that are readily available and adjusted scale and rotation using the diagonal roadway to the West of the terminal building as a datum line.
For reference and comparison the originals as found on-line are below (in no particular order)
These images would have been taken at different times
You can click to enlarge these and see for yourself.
There is certainly evidence to suggest a crater on the runway but is it a filled in crater or is it one of the decoy craters that Argentine forces used to confuse us?
From the image, it is impossible to tell so other evidence must be investigated.
Lt Col Ewen Southby-Tailyour, in his book, Reasons in Writing: A Commando’s View of the Falklands War, stated that he was unable to find ‘any sign of their vaunted crater’
Writing in the Telegraph;
RAF hit the target
Sir – Ewen Southby-Tailyour (Letters, May 5) is wrong in his description of the damage to the Stanley runway.
As Commander, Royal Engineers, I was responsible for its repair immediately after the surrender. There was one large crater caused by a 1,000lb bomb from the RAF Vulcan raid, and four smaller craters resulting from earlier Harrier attacks. (The Argentines had also created dummy craters to confuse our aerial reconnaissance.) Repairing the large crater and the large area of runway took about two weeks and 1,000 square metres of captured Argentine runway matting.
Lt Col Southby-Tailyour is, however, correct in stating that Argentine aircraft were able to continue to use the runway, despite the bombing raids, by temporarily backfilling the craters. This, perhaps, is why his “recce” did not spot the true extent of the damage.
Writing in RAF News in April 2002, Air Commodore John Davis said;
This rogue crater required a succession of repairs amid what soon became high intensity air operations.
An Institute of Civil Engineers Paper called Military Engineering in the Falkland Islands 1982-83 by Major General G. B. Sinclair, Brigadier F. G. Barton and Lt Colonel L. J. Kennedy, all Royal Engineer officers, stated in the section of the recovery phase;
The first task was to carry out a reconnaissance of the airfield and, in spite of it being a gigantic prisoner-of-war compound, this was started on 17 June. There was a single large crater on the runway caused by a 1000lb bomb dropped by an RAF Vulcan, as well as other smaller craters and hundreds of scabs caused by rockets and cannon fire.
A plan was devised to repair the northern half of the runway first, thus avoiding the Vulcan crater in order that Hercules could land as early as possible. The craters had already been filled by the Argentines and work was limited to cutting out soft patches and heaved pavement areas around the craters and filling with waste from the old quarry. In addition the asphalt surface was cut back to a size to accommodate aluminium panels left behind by the Argentines which provided a good surface.
The northern half of the runway was repaired in three days and the first Hercules landed on 24 June right on schedule. The remaining repairs to the airport runway, including the large Vulcan crater, took longer but all emergency repairs were completed by the end of June.
This diary account from one of the MB339 aircrew discusses the impact (amongst other things) of the airstrikes.
Con el Capitán Anselmi salimos en el jeep; en la plataforma ya encontramos muchas esquirlas y colas de granadas tipo Beluga. Por la pista fuimos hacia los aviones, y con sorpresa descubrimos que sólo una bomba habla hecho impacto en el centro de la pista, costado sur; el resto se encontraba bien, sucia pero bien.
Unfortunately I have to rely on Google translate
With Captain Anselmi left in the jeep, on the platform already found many shrapnel grenades and type queues Beluga. On the track went into the aircraft, and with surprise discovered that fact speaks only impact a bomb in the center of the track, south side, the rest was all right, but rather dirty.
This is obviously limited but it suggests fragments (possibly from the cluster bombs dropped by the Harriers) and a single large crater in the south side of the runway.
There have been other images produced that claim hits or misses
The image below is is from the immediate post conflict period, the Pucara’s have been moved into a single location, made safe and made ready for disposal.
Parallel to the runway is what looks like another short runway, this is in fact an operating strip made from aluminium matting that was used for interim Harrier operations. In the picture, above that is a square patch of bare earth on the runway, this is the repair in progress. The asphalt has been cut back to expose the underlying and adjacent sub base ready for packing and reinforcement.
However, if you look at the placement, the square patch is on the North side of the runway
I am not sure when the image below was taken but it shows what also looks like a repair in progress
But this one is in the wrong place, at the Eastern end of the runway and on the Zona Militar thread linked to above the user Drupi confirms this one as a decoy.
This image might be a good contender
Finally, I found these photos with some interesting labels
Like a dummy, I can’t remember where I found them but worth posting regardless
Game set and match perhaps?
There is a lot of contradictory and confusing evidence but on balance I think that Black Buck I created a significant crater in the runway, on the south side, somewhere in the middle and Harrier strikes also hit the runway but did much less damage.
Redeployment of Argentine Air Force aircraft post raid
This is one of these enduring stories that has been turned into fact but the documentary evidence is quite slender.
The Junta would no doubt have been quite shocked by Black Buck and one could easily appreciate the impact upon them, the British had just demonstrated the ability to reach out from incredible distances against what they thought was a heavily defended location.
They might have equally dismissed them as a stunt and no threat to the Argentine mainland.
Anecdotal evidence online suggests that some personnel and aircraft from 8 Grupo Mirage were relocated but this was for a limited duration and affected only a small number of aircraft.
Further, although the timing would suggest cause and effect it could equally have been from a change in tactics, a review of their effectiveness against the Sea Harrier or even a lack of drop tanks (I have read online all these suggestions)
I think after a short period of shock, military and political logic would have prevailed and the Junta would have come to the conclusion that Vulcan attacks against the mainland would be unlikely.
This is one claim that is the hardest to back up with evidence and consequently, I tend to think it was, and is, over exaggerated.
However, I am certain that the realisation that the RAF could reach that far would have created a range of practical countermeasures that would have taken time and resources. Not huge or even significant in the grand scheme of things but still a positive effect.
The Argentine Forces never intended to use the runway for fast jets
The recently released intelligence briefing is somewhat contradicted by the Institute of Civil Engineers paper by the Royal Engineers officers, Sinclair, Barton and Kennedy;
On the one hand we have
The Argentine Mirage III, Mirage V and their A4 Skyhawks could operate from Stanley Airport with almost full payloads to defend the Island
And on the other,
The Air Staff were therefore advised that the Argentines would be able to operate lightly loaded Hercules transports from the airport but not fast jets
It could be that the intelligence document suggests that the Argentine forces could operate the aircraft ONLY IF they carried out the appropriate engineering works, or not, it’s not that clear.
How the Royal Engineers clear statement was interpreted, how it made its way through the intelligence analysis process and how ultimately it came to be completely contradicted in the intelligence document is not clear.
Perhaps it was an evil RAF conspiracy that saw it ignored!
This point to differing opinions, opinions formed hastily and a general degree of uncertainty which has been one of the defining characteristics of armed conflict for thousands of years. With the speed of response it is not surprising therefore that there are differences and contradictions.
Whatever the circumstances, the Task Force planners took the line that it was at least possible, recognising the potential threat and resolving to do something about it regardless of either actual Argentine intent or capability.
Besides the issue of the seemingly conflicting statements there are three interesting issues that arise;
- Did the Argentine forces consider using Stanley Airport for fast jets?
- Was AM2 matting available at Stanley or not?
- Would the runway support fast jets, with or without AM2?
In a paper for the USAF Air University, Argentina’s Tactical Aircraft Employment in the Falkland Islands War, Gabriel Green USAF stated;
While maintenance worked on the modification, the pilots worked on employment options. This included practice of short-field take off and landings to determine if sustained operations from the 4100-foot runway at Port Stanley were feasible. They learned it would only be suitable for emergency landings
In another paper, The Falklands 20 Years On, Phillip Grove, stated
More importantly Argentina had no intention of using fast combat aircraft from the runway following tests earlier in April
Quoting Anderson in a US Naval Postgraduate School paper called The Falklands War Understanding the Power of Context in Shaping Argentine Strategic Decisions, Scott Nietzel stated
Argentina had ample supplies of steel matting and enough time to ship it Stanley, but when Air Force engineers studied the practicalities they decided it would be too difficult to sustain high performance jet aircraft from such a primitive airfield
Scott also goes on to argue that it was a complete lack of inter-service cooperation and joint decision making that caused the Argentine forces to make so many strategic blunders including the failure to better exploit the runway at Port Stanley Airport.
Citing Arquilla and Rasmussen he wrote;
Some evidence exists that the FAA refused to base out of the islands because it would have come under some degree of Navy operational control. Indeed Admiral Carlos Busser, who led the invasion, points out the FAA pilots rebelled at this notion, even to the point of refusing instruction from naval aviators in how to attack ships at sea
Wiki states that A4 Skyhawks and S-2 trackers were deployed to Stanley in order to conduct a recce although the cited document seems to only mention the S2’s, perhaps they meant this…An operational diary; reproduced here, mentions S2’s but again, no Skyhawks. This operational diary also states that because of the runway length only the T-34 and MB339’s were operable from Port Stanley.
S2 Trackers did operate from Port Stanley
And so did the MB339
I have also read that only basic plans were made to improve the facilities at Port Stanley because the Argentine leadership didn’t think the UK would respond militarily.
The Argentine Air Force (FAA) also planned a mission against RN ships at South Georgia on the 26th April using Canberra bombers. Although it was aborted due to unsuitable conditions at South Georgia the mission had planned to use Port Stanley as a refuelling point.
So back to the question of intent, perhaps there were discussions and debates or the idea just fell through the numerous tactical and strategic cracks but crucially, there was enough evidence of intent AND evidence of some low level activity by the Argentine Air Force Engineers to improve the facilities that it was entirely plausible for British forces to react, if for no reason than ‘just in case’
The second question I posed was about the presence of AM2 (or other) surface expedient materials.
The intelligence briefing reproduced above stated that Argentine AM2 matting was used for runway construction at Rookery Bay but was subsequently withdrawn back to mainland Argentina. It also suggests that it was on the way back to the Falkland Islands.
The Institute of Civil Engineers paper by the Royal Engineers officers, Sinclair, Barton and Kennedy said;
In addition the asphalt surface was cut back to a size to accommodate aluminium panels left behind by the Argentines which provided a good surface.
The picture below shows a damaged Fokker F28 at Port Stanley Airport with what looks very much like AM2 panels being used.
The image in the previous section of the MB339 also shows what looks like AM2 style aluminium panels in use for a taxiway and the image below from immediately post invasion shows what looks very much like AM2 panels at the bottom of the image
A quote from an Argentine PPRUNE forum user (Marcantilan) who was at Port Stanley during the occupation stated;
Later on the Aluminium things for the runway show up at the airport but were used to stretch the area were airplanes park to unload their cargo , and many more just went to be used to reinforce protection fox holes .
This would suggest that there was indeed AM2 matting at Port Stanley Airport, either left there from the previous construction or transported during the occupation.
Another quote from the zonamilitar site (user Drupi on this thread;
En la cabecera oeste se colocaron algunas, pero cuando comenzaron los ataques se dejaron los trabajos, muchos de estos paneles se usaron para reforzar las posiciones. A dos de ellos les debo mi vida ya que pararon una esquirla que iba justo a mi cabeza en la noche del 29 de mayo.
In the western end some of them (the plates) were placed but when the raids started, works were abandoned, many of them were used to reinforce the positions. Thank to two of them I´m alive at the moment, as they stopped shrapnel direct right on my head in the night of 29th may”.
Finally, another source suggests a 200m extension was completed (although this sounds rather large and may well be a spelling error) using matting that was both bought from the mainland and left over from a previous construction.
The 1st Air Brigade Construction Group was stationed at Port Stanley did make some improvements but it seems that the AM2 (or other matting) that was there was not utilised beyond aircraft parking augmentation and perhaps a very short runway extension. It is also evident that stocks of AM2 were not adequately controlled because they were used for general purpose construction materials and to reinforce field fortifications used by the defending security detail.
Other sources suggest that a large stock of AM2 was loaded aboard the Argentine vessel Cordoba but it never reached the Islands because by the time it was ready to sail, surface transport to the islands was impossible due to the arrival of the British Task Force.
If this is the case it would demonstrate some intent and maybe the limited improvements were due to the realisation that no more materials would be arriving so improvement opportunities were taken as far as they could.
Whatever the reason, if there was intent, it was not followed through which leads on to the next question of potential.
Even lengthening and strengthening the runway would still leave the rest of the facilities needing to be improved, especially bulk fuel handling. But even if the Airport was used as a simple forward arming and refuelling point for Argentine aircraft it could still have tipped the strategic balance.
When we talk about fast jet operations we mean Skyhawk, Mirage or even Super E’s, not the Aermacchi MB339A’s that were indeed a fast jet and were operated from Port Stanley Airport. Fokker F28 and Boeing 737 are also fast jets’ of sorts although obviously not a combat aircraft but they were flown from the runway at Port Stanley as well.
The same diary as above about MB339 operations from Port Stanley states they deployed to the airport on the 23rd of April, only a few days before Black Buck I and the follow up Harrier/NGS attacks, it mentions ‘aluminium planks’ used to support the aircraft.
There are two main factors that limit operation of jet combat aircraft like the A4 Skyhawk or Mirage III from a given location and that is runway length and load bearing strength.
The Comando de Aviación Naval Argentina – COAN (Argentine Naval Aviation) operated Aermacchi MB.339A, McDonnell Douglass A-4Q (B) Skyhawk and Dassault Super Etendard, Grumman S-2E Tracker, Beechcraft T-34 Mentor, Fokker F28 and Lockheed L-188 Electra.
From photographs and other documents we know that of these, all but the Super Etendard and A-4Q Skyhawks operated from the runway at Port Stanley Airport.
The Fuerza Aérea Argentina (FAA) or Aerolienas between them operated C-130H Hercules, Boeing 737, Boeing 707, Fokker F28, Fokker F27, English Electric Canberra, Learjet 35A-L, FMA IA 58 Pucara, McDonnell Douglass A-4C Skyhawk, McDonnell Douglass A-4P (B) Skyhawk, IAI Dagger and Dassault Mirage IIIE.
From photographs and other documents we know that of these, all but the Canberra, Skyhawks, Daggers, Boeing 707 and Mirages operated from the runway at Port Stanley Airport.
Of the Skyhawks, all were the B versions except the C, the P and Q being designations specific to Argentina, even though they were the B variant.
The specification sheet here is for an A4-D which had a slightly more powerful engine than those in Argentine service but it is still good for comparison and has a number of flight and load profiles. The data sheet shows that an A-4D can take off at sea level with zero head wind, two 150 gallon drop tanks and two 1050lb stores in 3,050 feet in a sea level delivery profile.
A number of other profiles and wind conditions are shown but most of them are within the 4,100 feet runway length at Port Stanley. Landing distances are also within the length of the runway.
Weather conditions, especially crosswind an, wet runway conditions, landing aids availability, the slightly lower power output of the Argentine A4’s and other factors might still have made it not possible, there is always more to something like this than a simple table but this information would have been available to UK planners.
If the A4’s were operated from Port Stanley their range would have put the carriers under threat to a degree that in order to withdraw further East, the range to the Islands would have meant little or no cover over potential British landing areas, i.e. the amphibious force would have been without combat air cover and had to rely on missiles and guns fired from ships or ground locations.
I am not going to say it would be possible or not, as I said, there are many factors to consider but It is easy to see, even with the benefit of hindsight, why this was such a concern to the Task Force.
The Super Etendard and Mirage III would be a different matter and so would the difference between wartime and non-wartime conditions.
So from this, the runway length, at least for the A4, becomes a ‘possible’
Most people who have looked at this online have tended to concentrate on runway length as the single determinant of fast jet operability but runway strength is equally important.
From the intelligence report reproduced above the runway at Port Stanley Airport was a minimum of LCN 16 and up to LCN 30 in places, unhelpfully, it doesn’t specify which places. The RE paper repeats this but doesn’t shed much more light on the subject except that in planning for post conflict operations from Port Stanley Airport, the RAF specified Phantoms and Buccaneers who’s LCN was 45.
i.e. much higher than 16
The Phantom and Buccaneer were much heavier than the Skyhawk and other Argentine aircraft but weight is not the only factor in matching runway LCN’s with aircraft.
This where we have to delve into the fiendishly complex subject of runway loading and strength indicators, like the MLC bridging system there have been a number of methods developed to make matching aircraft to runways easier.
There is the ICAO LCN, British LCN/LCG, CBR and Shell PDM methods to name but four. The ICAO method established a set of rules for Type 2 Prepared Asphalt Runways and Type 3 Prepared Concrete Runways that matches aircraft to runways. LCN ranges are then associated with a Load Classification Group. The ICAO then modified the system in 1990 and introduced a new one called the Aircraft Classification Number (ACN) and the Pavement Classification Number (PCN), for a particular aircraft to operate without restriction at a given location the two must match or the ACN must not exceed the PCN. The numbers are further qualified by the type of subgrade and pavement.
The British LCN/LCG method is based on the first version of the ICAO LCN which did not include the differences between flexible and rigid surfaces, i.e. asphalt and concrete.
I assume that the LCN figures reported in the intelligence briefing and Institute of Civil Engineers report uses the British LCN/LCG method.
Boeing have a very good description of the British LCN/LCG system here
The document makes the point that because of the lack of distinction between pavement types the system is not considered to be highly precise.
The briefing says the runway was designed for the Fokker F27/F28 with a minimum LCN of 25, the Inst of Civil Engineers paper says 16. This could be a simple error or a description of the same thing but using a different method. Another table online says the Fokker F27 has an LCN of 19.
We can use a comparison with the C130H, which we know operated from the unimproved runway, a number of different sources state the LCN for the C130 is 37 on asphalt.
Again, this points to some uncertainty and doesn’t help with the search for Skyhawk, Mirage or Super Etendard loading data.
I have not been able to find the LCN/LCG or ACN for any of these aircraft which is not surprising given their age but I will end this section with a very crude analysis.
The ACN for a C130 at 170,000 pounds and based on a flexible surface (Category B) is 32
The ACN for a Fokker F28 Fellowship at 65,000 pounds and based on a flexible surface (Category B) is 17
We know both these operated from Port Stanley Airport (although not at what weight, which is important)
The ACN for an F-16 at 37,500 pounds and based on a flexible pavement (Category B) is 33.
The A4 Skyhawk maximum take-off weight was roughly 24,000 pounds and the tire size is only slightly smaller
There is an awful lot of guesswork here because of missing data but it’s interesting to compare the figures and guess whether the runway at Port Stanley would have supported the high tire pressure A4’s or Mirages.
The airport today has its Pavement Classification Number defined as 14 FCXT which is 14 / FLEXIBLE / SUBGRADE CATEGORY C (LOW) / MAX TIRE PRESSURE 217 PSI / TECHNICAL EVALUATION
This means that the 737-100 at ACN 26 is off the menu and so is the BAC-111 Series 400 at 27, the Fokker F28 at 20, Hercules C-130 at 37 and Lockheed L188 Electra at 33, yet we know all these operated at Port Stanley in 1982. Either the runway has deteriorated, something is amiss or I am off at the deep end.
Until I can find specific LCN information (any helpers out there) I am not sure I can offer an opinion either way.
Harriers would have done a better job
Another claim is that instead of the Vulcan raids, the Sea Harriers and Harrier GR.3’s would have made a better job.
The first of this issue to look at a better job of what exactly.
If you go back to the beginning, Black Buck had many layers, it was to deny Argentine fast jets (Super Etendard, Skyhawk and Mirage) the opportunity to operate from Port Stanley but it there was also a number of other layers, strategic and psychological.
Even in a world where Sea Harriers and Harriers were in infinite supply it is doubtful they would had the same impact as the Vulcan strikes.
After Black Buck I a flight of 9 Sea Harriers of 800 Naval Air Squadron attacked Port Stanley Airport with 1,000 pound and cluster bombs. Considerable damage was caused to facilities and stores and to follow this we threw in some naval gunfire from HMS Alacrity, Glamorgan and Arrow. A FIGAS Islander was destroyed by one of the Sea Harriers cluster bombs.
In combination, this was devastating, the point being it was a combination, and something that I think is sometimes lost in the arguments. This was a big punch, delivered early and left the Argentine occupiers and political leadership on the mainland under no illusion that the point for a settlement had passed, they had a fight on their hands.
On the 3rd a Skyvan was destroyed at the airport by naval gunfire and later that night, Black Buck 2 delivered another load of 21 thousand pounders.
The lethality of the Argentine ground based air defences was confirmed when a Sea Harrier was shot down whilst attacking Goose Green. On the 6th, the number of Sea Harriers available to the Task Force was reduced to 17 when two Sea Harriers collided in heavy fog, this bad weather would characterise this early period. Another Sea Harrier attack was scheduled on the 9th but was aborted due to fog. On the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th Sea Harriers attacked Port Stanley Airport sometimes as part of their Combat Air Patrol, but without effect, more harassment whilst passing I have read it referred to.
On the 18th the Harrier GR.3’s joined from the Atlantic Conveyor. On the 23rd another Sea Harrier attack on Port Stanley Airport was marred by the accidental loss of a Sea Harrier.
The 24th would see the first Sea Harrier and Harrier GR.3a attack on Port Stanley Airport. But fusing issues meant that those that hit the runway failed to detonate.The 25th saw another attack;
At midday a mission was tasked as a six aircraft attack on the runway at Port Stanley Airfield. Each pair of GR.3s was led by a Sea Harrier. The 1(F) pilots flying the mission were Wg Cdr Squire, Sqn Ldr Pook, Sqn Ldr Harris, and Flt Lt Rochfort. The attack was carried out with the GR.3s formatting on Sea Harriers in loose vic formation for simultaneous release of bombs. Following the release of his weapons Sqn Ldr Pook climbed into the airfield overhead to observe ‘fall of shot’. Bombs from the first three aircraft were seen to impact on the West end of the airfield whilst those from the second wave fell approximately 100 yards north of the Eastern threshold. Whilst in the overhead, Sqn Ldr Pook was locked up by Roland and saw the missile in flight. It peaked at about 15,000ft – some distance below him. He also saw a Tiger Cat launched against the second wave; this too fell short.
Sqn Ldr Harris and Flt Lt Hare later carried out a further similar mission to drop free-fall 1,000lb bombs against Port Stanley Airfield runway from a level delivery at 20,000ft. The bombs were dropped singly, but aiming for this method of delivery is imprecise, the fall of only 3 bombs being seen and these fell in Yorke Bay. Harris and Hare both saw AAA and Roland fired during the attacks but their aircraft remained out of range.
Sqn Ldr Harris flew a final late singleton mission to carry out a further medium-level bombing of Port Stanley Airfield runway but owing to the weather, this was changed to 30-degree loft. All 3 bombs fell short of their target.
As the conflict progressed the focus of air operations switched to supporting the land elements and no concerted efforts were made against the airport until the 31st of May when in a reaction to a sighting of ‘swept wing aircraft’ i.e. Super Etendard, at Port Stanley Airport another combined Sea Harrier and Harrier GR.3a mission was completed. Post raid analysis suggested that these were decoys but subsequently, this was revised to the MB339a’s
On the 1st of June a Sea Harrier is shot down by a Roland missile near Port Stanley. By the 11th, the date of another Sea Harrier attack on Port Stanley Airport, the Argentine air threat had more or less diminished.
What this shows is that a number of attacks by Harriers were made but most of them had limited effects as they were during high level transit to their CAP stations and the more direct attacks were no doubt risky.
What I think many fail to appreciate is at the time, the Sea Harrier was in short and a very finite supply. Task Force commanders recognised this and at a number of points quite rightly sought to conserve them, understanding that until the landings were complete, the centre of gravity for UK forces was their carriers.
It also illustrates the differences in training and equipment fit for different types of bombing profile.
Swings and roundabouts meant that in order to take advantage of the one type of equipment the aircraft would be exposed to missiles, chose another method and accuracy suffers, chose another and the threat now becomes AAA.
In order to create the necessary ‘heave’ under the runway the bombs would have to be launched from medium to high altitude, the same altitude that would have put them in the risk envelope for the Roland missiles and radar controlled 35mm automatic cannons and reduced accuracy. Using cluster bombs, retarded bombs and rockets would have put them directly into the danger zone for the numerous automatic cannons and small arms.
It has been said that Task Force commanders refused to send Sea Harriers on toss bombing raids which were arguably the only profile that could produce the necessary accuracy and ‘heave’ to completely deny the runway but surely that was the correct decision.
Sea Harriers were especially precious and their main job was air defence, not flying down the throat of radar guided 35mm automatic cannons and Roland missiles so whether they could have done a better job is not the point really.
The runway continued to be used so the raids were a failure
In some respects this is correct, the runway was in continual (more or less) use for the duration of the conflict.
But night time supply runs and operating a Skyhawk is completely a different thing.
I actually wonder whether crater from Black Buck I was repaired properly at all because in accounts from the C130 crew that undoubtedly performed miracles in sneaking in and out of Port Stanley they mention that the runway was reduced in width, less than 20m.
A good report, sorry, in Spanish again, on C130 operations from Port Stanley is here
It records how one Hercules was lost to a Sea Harrier but it was not a transport flight, instead a recce type.
The supply flights, not just Hercules but Electra’s and Fokker F-28’s as well, managed to move over 500 tonnes of supplies and many personnel, the last flight being on the 13th of June.
As impressive and courageous as these supply flights were, crucial in many respects, they did not have the potential to change the outcome.
If the mission was to completely deny the use of Port Stanley Airport then yes, in isolation, the Black Buck raids were a failure.
But they were intended to deny Port Stanley Airport to fast jets, in that, one could reasonably say they were a success even if not wholly responsible for this situation.
The damage done to and at the airport by naval gunfire, Harrier and Vulcan strikes was significant, especially to the windows
The conflict ended with this
To start the conclusion this is a good quote from Islander Tony Chater about the first nigh time Vulcan raid, Black Buck 1
“The whole house shook, as though there had been an earthquake. There was terrific jubilation. From then on, we felt confident the British forces would come to our rescue”
Putting the superb airmanship and engineering ingenuity to one side (they are a given) the controversy surrounding the Black Buck runway denial raids have obscured a couple of important factors.
First, the runway really was of massive strategic importance. It was a blunder on a grand scale by the Argentine forces to fail to plan properly for its exploitation and implement in a meaningful manner. They had the time, they had the materials and they certainly had enough intelligence. Some put this failure down to only involving the FAA at the last minute, perhaps this is true, I don’t know. Maybe it just wasn’t feasible or too marginal to do but in failing to use the location for both defensive and offensive combat aircraft the Argentine forces suffered the tyranny of distance that is familiar to all that operate combat aircraft. Their loss was our gain and we knew full well that the campaign would be very different if we did not put even the smallest of a possibility that they might, completely beyond doubt, this is what drove the opening attacks on the airport, risk reduction.
Second, efforts to deny the runway to Argentine fast jets were a JOINT effort. Naval gunfire, Sea Harriers and the Vulcans all combined to produce something that was greater than the sum of its parts. It was a grand opening display by the old empire, had an air of panache, displayed deadly intent and showed just who the big dog on the park was. It was a bravura feat of arms that was designed not only to have the practical effect of denying the runway at Port Stanley to Argentine fast jets but also to send a message to the Junta that the time for negotiation had passed and Great Britain was about to smash its back doors in (to coin a phrase!)
Subsequent attacks by Harriers (both flavours), Vulcan’s and naval gunfire failed to completely close the airport but although those that made the supply flights were extremely brave and skilful they had no chance of altering the final outcome, the ongoing attacks ensured that any lingering hopes of operating an effective combat aircraft presence from the airport were snuffed out.
It is also clear that very little is clear.
Some of those nagging questions about Argentine forces intent to operate fast jets from Port Stanley and whether they and it had the capacity to do so remain tantalisingly ambiguous.
Confusing and contradictory testimony and documented evidence creates a vacuum into which opinions are drawn into.
This post is no different in that regards.
What is a shame though is that acrimony, principally between some parts of the RN/FAA and RAF, has been allowed to grow. So much so now that opinions seem to have entrenched and it is self evident that this has forced each side to distort, embellish or downplay the reality.
The Black Buck raids were neither hero or villain, there were positive outcomes but there were equally failures.
I see them as part of a larger jigsaw and I hope this is how they are judged.
RAF Historical Society, Journal No 30
Air War in the Falklands, 1982
US Department of the Navy, Falkland Islands Lessons Learned
Falklands Aftermath: Picking up the Pieces, Edward Fursdon
Air Scene UK
Vulcan to the Sky
Argentina’s Tactical Aircraft Employment in the Falkland Islands War, Gabriel Green USAF
The Falklands War Understanding the Power of Context in Shaping Argentine Strategic Decisions
Radar Malvinas (a great site with lots of information)
Zona Militar (an Argentine military forum that is serious, not at all jingoistic and a fantastic resource, including many posts where veterans from both sides discuss the conflict. Where I have quoted from this site it is done so from a difficult position, I don’t speak Spanish but would recommend readers go there and have a look, there are many excellent contributors and I would like to say thank you to a number of selected forum members whose comments helped me a great deal in researching some of the specific points)
PPRUNE, ARRSE, Fighter Control and Military Photos discussion forums
Images; many of the images in these posts, especially those from the Argentine perspective, seem to float around the internet on forums and image sharing sites so it is difficult to properly attribute, where possible and if the source is on Flickr, I have attributed. Elsewhere, please accept my thanks in advance to the photographers and if you are the original owner please let me know if you want it removed or properly attributed. I normally err on the side of caution with images but in this case because I think its an important subject, I have been a little less careful.