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!
Planning for the Aftermath
When it became clear that victory would be achieved the state of the runway at Port Stanley Airport became an issue of serious planning, it would be central to any post surrender defence of the islands.
In May 1982, 50 Field Squadron Royal Engineers was given the task of creating an expeditionary airfield at Port Stanley, expectations were of course that the Task Force would prevail.
The requirement was for a main runway that would be 6,100 feet long and having an LCN of 45 in order to accommodate fully loaded and fuelled Phantom’s. In addition to the main runway was a requirement for five Rotary Hydraulic Arrestor Gear (RHAG) sets, sufficient power provision, extensive parking apron, dispersal areas with shelters, roadways, engineering shelters and bulk fuel facilities with a ship to shore pipeline.
Experience with the dispersed air locations in support of the Harrier GR.3 force in Germany was vital but it also demonstrated to the design team that the UK did not have enough equipment, much of the existing UK expeditionary airfield equipment and stores went down with the Atlantic Conveyor.
The US AM2 aluminium matting system was the answer to the runway problem.
In Washington, the Air Attaché (Air Vice-Marshal Ron Dick) was despatched to obtain a large quantity of AM2 aluminium matting, arrestor gear and other supplies. The United States were exceptionally cooperative and opened up their war stocks.
The Scale of the Problem
Although Argentina had accepted the Instrument of Ceasefire they only recognised this locally, there was no wider recognise the cessation of hostilities so although they were down for the count the British government recognised that the nature of the unfinished business needed sensible and sturdy consolidation.
The fighting had been done, it was now time to consolidate and prevent a rematch.
Unfortunately, the scale of the other problems facing both the victorious military forces and civilian inhabitants of the Falkland Islands were immense, there were many priorities, every single one of them number one.
Disposal of war litter, getting the defeated Argentine forces home safe and well, restoring damaged or destroyed utilities, keeping everyone fed and watered, rotating British forces out of theatre, satisfying the demands of the world’s media and basically getting the islanders back to some semblance of normality all competed with rehabilitating the airport.
That said, commanders were entirely focussed on the airport facilities, it might have been competing with other resource demands but it was generally beating them as well. Unlike the Argentine forces, we recognised the strategic value of air defence from the islands.
Almost immediately after the cessation of hostilities some of the myths about the Argentine forces were completely debunked.
They were not short of most things, there were ample rations, ammunition and equipment, it was just poorly distributed which meant there were many local shortages, especially of food outside Port Stanley. Their equipment in many cases was superb, in part, much better than that enjoyed by British forces. Defensive positions were well sited and constructed, they had made excellent use of visual deceptions and the radar and ECM equipment were not only extensive but exceptionally well operated as well.
Equally, the worst excesses of the occupying force were laid bare.
A simply vast quantity and variety of mines had been laid and not just in out of the way locations. The hazard to civilians (especially children) and service personnel was enormous. On June 14th Major Roddy McDonald, the OC of 59 Independent Squadron Royal Engineers managed to track down the Argentine chief engineer, one Lt. Col Dorago, in order to assess the scale of the mine problem. Other personnel from 59 joined in, a warning was broadcast on local radio and through the military chain of command and fourteen selected Argentine volunteers were utilised to complete the recce.
By the end of the day the full realisation of the scale of the Argentine mining efforts had become apparent.
It was staggering.
They simply did not know how many or where mines had been laid, records were incomplete or incorrect, markers had been removed and mines had shifted in deep sand. The problem was made worse because the Argentine chain of command allowed almost any unit to lay mines, marines, artillery and all manner of infantry units, not just the professional combat engineers. After a number of casualties the clearance effort changed to one of ‘marking only’
The POW volunteer force of Argentine combat engineers expanded, formed a close working relationship with British forces and received special privileges and pay not enjoyed by other POW’s. A joint guard of honour and bugler were provided for the burials of Argentine soldiers discovered during the clearance operations and in thanks for the rapid medevac and treatment of an injured Argentine member of the demining team they paid for and cooked a barbecue for British members of the team and OC of 9 Parachute Squadron RE.
The area around the airport had been extensively mined, especially to the North where an amphibious landing was expected.
An equally huge problem was that of unexploded munitions of every kind. Everything from small arms ammunition to napalm canisters to anti-aircraft missiles to flares were strewn around the area, half opened and often poorly accounted for.
Even ‘dumdum’ small arms ammunition was found and additions to a large stock of SA-7 MANPAD missiles fresh off the plane from Col. Gadaffi.
There was a lot of sympathy for the lot of the prisoners of war but that understandably evaporated when scale of booby trapping became known.
Argentine forces had deliberately set many booby traps in the latter stages of the conflict in civilian houses and places of business. These were often linked to attractive items like binoculars and many of the discarded munitions were also booby trapped. Water supply in Port Stanley was always a problem and what seems like an act of vindictiveness, Argentine forces even turned all the taps on in houses they occupied and opened fire hydrants.
Most people tend to think these acts were carried out by a minority. the majority simply wanting to go home.
Unexploded and discarded munitions were everywhere, the airport being no different, where in addition to Argentine mines and munitions there were unexploded British bombs and cluster bomblets to deal with.
Repatriating Argentine personnel and maintaining good order was made worse by the gulf between their officers and other ranks, a gulf generally speaking, filled with a deep dislike bordering on hatred. This was plainly a result of the huge difference in the way they were both treated; officers had different rations packs for example, including whiskey and cigarettes. Many (although not all) enlisted personnel were conscripts, simply unprepared for intense operations against the professional British soldiers, not equipped for the changeable weather and even worse, completely misled about the islanders wish to be ‘liberated’. The Globe Store was burned down by Argentine soldiers because they thought it was where their officers were accommodated and officers were allowed to retain their side arms because without them, many might have not made it home.
There was even a tale, recounted in Edward Fursdons book, of a group of conscripts that were a sixth form class of students who with their teacher visited an Army barracks as a day trip. Upon arrival they were ‘enlisted’ and soon found themselves in ‘Las Malvinas’Many of these prisoners were accommodated at the airport, it was an obvious place, easily contained, safe, yet surrounded by their own mines and with only one means of access (before Boxer Bridge was built by 25 Field Squadron Royal Engineers in 1983)
All of these problems were joined by another set of nightmares at the airport.
During the conflict, the runway was cratered by 5 bombs.
The first and deepest was from Black Buck I
The others were much shallower and from retarded bombs dropped by the Sea Harriers/Harrier GR.3a’s.
This string of images shows Argentine photos of the craters made by attacks before the cessation of hostilities
There were also over 1,000 shallow scabs from rockets, BL 755 bomblets, 4.5” shells and cannon fire
The place was basically a mess, littered with the detritus of war, a FOD nightmare and in some need of serious repairs.
1 Troop of 59 Commando Squadron Royal Engineers properly filled in three craters and about 500 of the scabs on the Northern half of the runway which allowed the first RAF Hercules to land on the 24th of June 1982. The repairs were made by using magnesium phosphate cement called Bostik 276 and a stockpile of AM2 (or other) matting that had been by Argentine Air Force Engineers at the airport during the occupation.
The Harrier GR3 detachment armed with Sidewinders went ashore to Port Stanley Airport on the 4th of July and operated in the air defence role. A take-off strip was installed adjacent to the main runway using the same matting.
The repair of other half of the runway which included the large Vulcan crater took more than 1,000 square meters of AM2 and was completed by 11 Field Squadron Royal Engineers. Repairing a cratered runway requires much more than filling and levelling.
From the end of hostilities until the first RAF Hercules landing was a grand total of 10 days which given the materials available and conditions was a magnificent but generally unrecognised achievement.
Not widely known is that in order to create a drainage culvert, the engineers used a pair of empty Exocet missile containers.
In addition to the runway the airport support facilities were enhanced greatly and the sign was changed as well
These temporary repairs accommodated 77 Hercules and many hundreds of Harrier landings before the runway was closed for a more permanent repair and extension on the 15th of August.Additional Harriers were flown down by Hercules.
RAF Stanley – Construction
Once the immediate repairs had been made, the runway extension and completion of facilities to support a small force of Phantoms was next.
A unique problem was that the place was a working airbase, any extension would have to absolutely minimise operations.
In the ‘Planning for the Aftermath’ section I described how 50 Squadron RE was tasked with picking up the next phase of enhancing the facilities at the airport in order to accommodate the heavy Phantoms until a decision on a more permanent facility could be made.
Preparations included sending a team of instructors to the US to learn how to lay AM2, compiling a comprehensive equipment and store list and assembling the lot ready for shipping.
Getting everything off the transport ships and to the airport was another formidable problem to solve.
In total, there was over 9,000 tonnes of materials to move South and not wanting the repeat the error of the Atlantic Conveyor eggs and baskets scenario they split them between the MV Strathewe and MV Cedarbank.
MV Cedar Bank collected all the AM2 matting and arrestor gear from USMC war stocks on the east coast of the USA and transported it to the UK.
Loaded at Berth 107 at Southampton Docks the MV Strathewe set sail on the morning of the 28th of June 1982.
The 17,000 tonne MV Strathewe arrived at Port Stanley on the evening of the 17th of July at moorings provided by the MV Wimpey Seahorse. Naval Party 2150 and members of 11 Field Squadron Royal Engineers provided the labour for offloading together with the Composite Port Squadron of the Royal Corps of Transport and was complete on the 5th of August. The MV Strathewe also carried two 150 tonne RCL’s (L105 Arromanches & L106 Antwerp) and the heavy stone crushing equipment needed for the runway sub base.
The Cedar Bank was unloaded during the same time frame.
Because Port Stanley had no permanent berthing facilities suitable for such large ships they both had to be offloaded whilst at anchor in Port William Sound. Making this task more difficult was the weather and the shortage of equipment and suitable slipways.
Enter the RCL and mexeflote
The importance of the mexeflotes and their 17 Port Regiment RCT operators cannot be overstated, without their efforts the materials required to construct the facilities at the airport would have taken an immeasurable amount of time longer than required.
With a journey time between the ship and B slipway in Port Stanley Harbour of between 30 and 40 minutes the maximum weights would have to be exploited. AM2 and construction plant is heavy and even the mexeflote was seen to struggle on occasions. Slipway B was the only useable slipway for heavy stores and had to be repaired and reinforced by the sappers before use. One particularly challenging load was the pair of 45 tonne rock crushers required at the Mary Hill quarry near the airport, the operation had to be carried out at night because they would not fit under the overhead power and telephone wires in Port Stanley, the wires were temporarily lifted as the equipment was very slowly pushed and pulled into place by a recovery vehicle and Combat Engineer Tractor.
A great deal of stone aggregate was needed to provide a sub base for the AM2 matting. This was obtained from the quarry near the airport at Mary Hill, the source of quartzite for the original runway. Due to the quantities required for the extension the quarry needed some additional development and the resultant rock extracted was harder than expected which resulted in some problems with the crushing equipment as wear rates exceeded the expected.
Blasting operations would often shower the runway with small rocks and dislodge the AM2 matting which needed clearance and repair.
60 Field Support Squadron Royal Engineers would eventually provide over 25,000 tonnes of crushed rock for the construction activity.
The new runway was to be 2,000 feet longer, at 6,100 feet and was to have a single uniform layer of AM2, all, obviously, at a single height. The extension was at the West end of the runway, where Black Buck 2 had dropped its stick of bombs in order to stop the Argentine forces extending the runway!
AM2 is a 12 or 6 feet by 2 feet interlocking aluminium sandwich construction ‘plank’ that fits together to form a single surface. 4,700 tonnes were used at Port Stanley at a cost of £10 million.
The official US description is;
a AM2 Aluminum Mat The AM2 is an extruded aluminum mat with a solid top and bottom. The panel is 12 feet long and 2 feet wide requiring a placing area of 24 square feet The panel is extruded in 6061 alloy aluminum and tempered to the T6 condition. The panels coated with antiskid compound weigh approximately 6.3 pounds per square foot. The connectors consist of overlap and underlap connections on the ends and hinge joint connections on the sides. The side connectors are integral parts of the basic panel extrusions. The panels can be placed at the rate of 573 square feet per man hour The AM2 mat qualifies as a medium duty mat based on performance but not on weight. The AM2 is packaged in bundles containing 11 standard length panels 2 half-length panels and 13 locking bars. In computing material requirements N (equation 17 1) is rounded up to the nearest half panel and a waste factor of 10 percent for new panels and 15 percent for recovered panels is used
The area to the West of the runway would be used for the extension but it had a high water table, was peaty and at a different level to the main runway. New techniques including the use of geotextiles such as the Tensar Stabilisation Grid and Terram textile layers were used to great effect.
The key factor in planning the resurfacing and extension was to minimise disruption to air operations. As much preparation as possible therefore was carried out before, lest Argentina take advantage in the gap in air cover from the Harriers, although cover was available from the Fleet Air Arm. Despite this cover, speed was of the essence because Hercules flights were being heavily utilised.
Part of the preparations included practising the best techniques, team size and how the install rate could be best supported by the stores delivery transport and handling equipment.
The last C130 Hercules departed on the 15th of August and the runway was closed for refurbishment.
The multiple teams swung into action, eight troops of 26 men, Royal Engineers, infantry from the 1st Battalion The Queen’s Own Highlanders and even the odd sailor and airman for good measure. Two teams were on the go at any one time, working three on nine off shifts. Wind was a major problem and if a panels grip was lost in high winds the result could be fatal. Competition, intense rivalry and the odd side bet characterised this phase so much so that it was reported in bad weather, the teams had to be ordered to stop.
The RAF Hercules would still fly in this period, instead of landing they would air drop supplies at Seal Point and even used the snatch method to pick up sacks of outbound mail.
From the Lyneham Village site
In this period, the Hercules maintained a regular service to airdrop supplies and also to collect mail, using the snatch method developed at short notice during June/July at the Joint Air Transport Establishment based at Brize Norton. The equipment in the aircraft comprises a grappling hook trailed on 150 ft (45,6 m) of nylon rope, and a pair of powered winches used to wind the rope, hook and mail bag back onto the aircraft after the snatch. Ground equipment comprises two poles 22 ft (6,7 m) tall and 50 ft (15,2 m) apart, with a loop of nylon rope slung between and the mail bag (up to 100 lb/45 kg in weight) attached to this loop by another 150 ft (45.6 m) length of rope. The poles are set up so that the rope between is at right angles to the wind, and DZ (Drop Zone) markers are set up at 300 ft (91 m) and 600 ft (183 m) distance on the approach. Trailing the grappling hook, the Hercules flies at 50 ft (15.2 in) above ground level to snatch the bag. About 30 snatches were made in this way before sufficient length of runway was again available at Port Stanley,
Two days ahead of the scheduled completion date, the complete runway was ready on the 27th of August.
The first Hercules landing on the new billiard table smooth surface was completed the day after.
I like the image below, not sure when it was taken, but it is reportedly at RAF Stanley
In the last post I looked at the changing nature of the sign on the front of the control tower.
Upon completion of the runway the Royal Engineers proudly erected a suitably painted sign (sign writing being an RE trade) proudly announcing the opening of Holdfast Airport.
It wouldn’t last long of course, after a Vulcan sized sense of humour failure, the RAF replaced it with one saying RAF Stanley!
Members of the RAF movement squadron arrived and painted the tower green, with 3” brushes.
RAF Stanley it was to be, until 1985 when Mount Pleasant opened.
RAF Stanley – The Next Few Years
The first Phantom squadron was 29, from RAF Conningsby, replaced later by 23 Squadron. 18 Squadron, who had been operating Chinooks since the conflict continued to use RAF Stanley.
29 Squadron, with three F4 Phantom FGR2’s, took over the Quick Reaction Alert task at Ascension Island from the Harriers of 1 Squadron on the 25th of May.
With the completion of the extended runway at RAF Stanley the first Phantom from 29 Squadron located at Ascension arrived on the 17th of October. Seven other Phantoms were to follow in short order although in the interim, the Harriers would soldier on
Hercules refuelling tankers would also have to play a significant role in operations at RAF Stanley
Sea Harriers were also frequent visitors although more so during the early period
Back to Stanley Airport
The base at Mount Pleasant was opened by HRH Prince Andrew on the 12th of May 1985, costing £420 million it was itself a significant engineering challenge, completed in difficult conditions to an ambitious timescale.
The airport at Stanley was back to 4,100 feet, if one looks at an aerial view, the un-surfaced extension is obvious
The runway was then completely resurfaced.
Until replaced with the service from Chile to Mount Pleasant a regular service by Aerovias DAP used Twin Otters on a two week schedule.
A large repair to the runway was made in 2010 requiring 20,000 tonnes of specialist sand to be shipped from the UK
The Airport today
And that all important sign
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 in this series)
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.