Edited & updated version of article originally published at LAAHS.COM by Rowland White.
In the early 1980s, as the Cold War entered its last decade, the focus of Britain’s defence posture was clear. The threat lay to the East against the massed ranks of the Warsaw Pact forces. Since the post-war withdrawal from empire, just a few global commitments remained. Places like Belize in Central America, where the RAF maintained a small Harrier force to deter Guatemalan aggression, and the Falkland Islands – 8000 miles from the UK, but barely 300 from Argentina, and the military dictatorship that maintained Las Malvinas rightfully belonged to them.
These overseas flashpoints were regularly discussed in Whitehall, but for years, whenever the question of the Falklands was raised the answer was the same. Britain’s Defence Chiefs maintained that, without substantial and unforthcoming investment, this remote South Atlantic outpost would have to remain essentially undefended. And so, when, on April 2 1982, Argentina invaded, the Chiefs were faced with a nearly overwhelming logistical and military challenge.
One of the stranger episodes – and there were many – of the unique war that followed was the unscheduled arrival of a twenty year-old British Vulcan bomber at Rio de Janeiro’s Galeao International Airport just before lunchtime on the 3rd of June.
Editors: Diplomatic fallout from this incident was extensive and understandably so; the Avro Vulcan Strategic Bomber, whilst flying conventional sorties during the Malvinas/Falklands conflict, was principally part of Britain’s RAF’s ageing ‘V-Force’ nuclear deterrent, and although officially there were no atomic weapons carried by these aircraft during the conflict, the Vulcan’s default WE.177 devices were aboard Royal Navy ships and aircraft carriers, classified as ‘Nuclear Depth-Charges’, and had been present on the Malvinas/Falkland islands for some time.
The Brazilian Military Government and FAB could not have been sure that the RAF bomber wasn’t carrying an atomic device as it approached Rio de Janeiro in distress.
Years later, Ali Magoudi – therapist to former French President Francois Mitterand claimed that Margaret Thatcher had demanded de-activation codes for French-made Argentine Exocet missiles which were causing terrible damage to her Royal Navy Taskforce. Mitterand refused, citing that such betrayal of a client would ruin France’s Arms Industry. Thatcher is then alleged, in desperation, to have threatened use of an atomic weapon on an Argentine city unless the codes were handed over, with plans already in place to station a Polaris Missile-carrying submarine within range of the Argentine mainland.
Brasil, as is the case with most South American nations, supported Argentina’s sovereign claim to Las Malvinas and still does. In addition, during the conflict Brasil was providing secret logistical support to its neighbour, in a chain involving Cuba and the Soviet Union.
With the Vulcan interned in Rio de Janeiro, Thatcher’s government were furious, claiming that Brazil were aiding Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi in the arms trade. This sparked fears that the Malvinas/Falklands conflict could be further internationalised.
In Brasilia, British ambassador William Harding and US ambassador Anthony Motley were more concerned with the missile it was carrying than the plane itself, the AGM-45 Shrike. It was a new NATO technology, designed to compete with the Soviet S-75 air-to-ground system. Harding and Motley insisted on securing the missile in a “closed” and “sealed” location – Foreign Minister Guerreiro said in a top-secret memorandum to President Figueiredo.
The British government threatened “serious consequences.” which Guerreiro considered “disproportional”, reminding the U.K. Ambassador that the Brazilian position was not “strictly neutral”.
And tensions persist beneath the surface today, former Argentine Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman insisted that British military presence in the region must be of concern to Brasil. He added “South America is a zone of peace. The only extra-regional power with an important military presence is that of Great Britain, which has military bases from Ascension – between Africa and Brasil – to the Falkland Islands and Antarctica. The most important point is that the Falklands have a soldier for every 2.5 civilians. They have the same weapons used in Afghanistan and Iraq, refuse to say whether their submarines are capable of carrying nuclear weapons or if they carry such weapons, fire missiles without informing the International Maritime Organization, as occurred in 2010.”
What follows is an account of the events on that day in 1982, derived from interviews conducted with the pilots themselves by Rowland White.
As he flew the Nimrod MR2 over the mid-Atlantic a few hundred miles off the Brazilian coast, Wing Commander David Emerson, her captain, could reflect on a job well done. Behind him, in the main cabin of the big maritime patrol plane, his radar operator had successfully shepherded two old V-bombers together for their final rendez-vous using his jet’s new Searchwater radar. The rest was routine. The Vulcan just had to take on fuel from the Victor tanker one last time then all three crews could turn north-east for home – and a cold beer in Ascension Island’s Exiles Club.
Then, through his headset, he heard the tell tale click of an RT transmit button. ‘Oh shit …’ began the message. Emerson believed the call was coming from the Vulcan. It didn’t and instead must have been made from the Handley Page tanker ahead of her.
On board the delta-winged bomber, Squadron Leader Neil McDougall had been at the controls for over twelve hours. In the skies above East Falkland, 2500 miles to the south, he’d been tasked with destroying the powerful Argentine search radars. But the enemy hadn’t played ball, switching off their radars at the first sign of the British attack. McDougall had teased and taunted the Argentine air defences into revealing themselves for forty minutes, but multiple passes at 16,000 feet had failed to lure the enemy radar crews. He decided to try to pull them onto the punch. Bloody stupid idea, he thought as he took the bomber out east before he turned and settled into long finals for Stanley airfield. No commander in his right mind, he figured, is going to allow an aircraft to descend on to his runway. He was right. When the bomber’s Radar Warning Receiver picked up the tell-tale pulse of a Skyguard fire-control radar, his crew had their target. So too, though, did the airfield’s defenders and flak zipped around the night sky like a swarm of lethal fireflies. McDougall’s crew fired two missiles from the twin-pylon below the Vulcan’s starboard wing before the captain turned north. My mother didn’t breed heroes, he thought, as he took the bomber out of range of the triple A.
Now, four hours later, they were supposed to be out of trouble.
Then, in clear, smooth skies, with a jarring thump, the refuelling probe connecting them to the life-saving fuel aboard the Victor tanker sheered off. McDougall had been flying level, of that he was sure. So the probe hadn’t ripped off because of a change in pitch, but maybe, he thought, he’d drifted to the left a bit. It could just have been that an old probe was worn out, but whatever the cause, the effect was the same: Without the probe, the Vulcan couldn’t fill her tanks with fuel. And without more fuel, there was no way home.
‘That’s [them] for Rio…’ continued the radio transmission. As Wg Cdr Emerson listened in aboard the Nimrod, Neil McDougall gently manouevred away from the Victor and rolled his jet away towards Brazil. The sang froid over from the tanker crew conveyed little sense of the trouble the Vulcan was now in. Co-pilot Flying Officer Chris Lackman was responsible for monitoring their fuel consumption. He ran through his calculations quickly and his assessment was blunt: Not only was the safety of Ascension Island, their operating base, out of reach, they barely had the fuel they needed to make it to Brazil, their only possible diversion.
Throughout the long flight, McDougall, Lackman and Navigator Plotter Flt Lt Barry Smith had monitored the fuel inside the Vulcan’s 14 tanks with care. That they had been getting low over the Falklands hadn’t bothered McDougall at all. It was only what he expected. On the flight back north, Lackman had transferred fuel around to make sure that what they had, they could get at. What they hadn’t bargained on, though, was a leak in the bomb bay tank. Every time they pumped fuel between the 1 and 7 tanks to adjust the jet’s centre of gravity they were losing more.
Just making landfall at all would be touch and go, but the prospect of flying an armed British warplane into a busy civilian airport posed further problems. Two live Westinghouse AGM-45 Shrike anti-radar missiles still hung off the big bomber’s port wing. Before even attempting the dash for safety, they had to be disposed of. And that meant firing them.
McDougall asked his Navigator Radar, Flt Lt Dave Castle, to scan the surface of the ocean in front of them in search of any shipping in harm’s way. Had luck been on the bomber crew’s side they might have been able to jettison their missiles and continue west without changing track. But not today. Castle reported contacts ahead and, reluctantly, McDougall turned off his heading and out to sea. Then he pushed the Vulcan’s nose over into a steep forty degree dive.
‘It’s a hang up – can’t get rid of it’
And, with the whole missile installation jury-rigged at RAF Waddington only days before, there was nothing any of them could do about it. McDougall pulled the bomber out of the descent and swung back towards Rio. But if their fuel state had been tight at the moment the probe broke it was even more perilous now. If they carried on as they were, they simply weren’t going to make it.
There was only one option: To climb. Their remaining fuel would take them further through the thinner air at altitude than down at 20,000 feet. High up, they’d have a chance. But to get there, McDougall, drawing on long experience, knew that what he had to do ran counter to every instinct. He pushed the throttles levers of his four 301 series Rolls-Royce Olympus engines forward to the stops. Maximum power, maximum fuel burn. Getting as high as possible as quickly as possible, offered the best chance of saving his aircraft. As the note from the engines rose inside the crew compartment, he pulled back on the stick and raised the nose, asking for a heading and ETA for Rio from his crew.
At the top of the climb McDougall settled into the cruise that he hoped would nurse them to safety and told Flt. Lt. Brian Gardner – the reserve pilot onboard for the marathon mission – to gather together all the classified documents. Codes, targeting information, VHF, UHF and TACAN frequencies and call signs; escape and evasion maps and flightplans all had to be disposed of. Gardner grabbed the old tin box containing their rations, emptied it of food and refilled it. The tricky bit was going to be getting rid of it.
Discounting the two Martin-Baker Mk 3 ejection seats for the pilots, there’s only one way in and out of a Vulcan cockpit: Through the hydraulically operated crew entry hatch under the jet’s nose, on the floor of the cabin. But at 40,000 feet, with the air pressure outside a tiny fraction of that in the cockpit, opening it would be like popping the cork of a warm champagne bottle. Before they could jettison the ration tin they had to equalize the pressure inside and out, but this held its own dangers. Mount Everest is 29,000 feet high. Climbers take weeks to acclimatize to the lack of oxygen at that level. Now a third as high again, the Vulcan’s six-man crew would lose consciousness rapidly without breathing pure oxygen through masks. But, unable to descend because of their fuel state, they were flying near the limit of the height they could safely breath the pressurized gas. Any higher and tight pressure jerkins – essentially partial space suits – would be vital to keep their chests from rupturing. That equipment was not aboard. Finally, there was the cold; up on the fringes of the tropopause, the temperature could hover for days around minus 40 degrees centigrade.
All told, opening the crew hatch at 40,000 feet had little to recommend it.
Despite being an experienced Vulcan captain himself, Gardner had been strapped downstairs in the jumpseat for the last twelve hours. Detached from proceedings, not required by McDougall to share in the flying, he must have wondered just what on earth am I even doing here?
Now though, as all six crewmen checked their oxygen masks, he was about to do something he’d never done before. With the cabin depressurized, McDougall throttled back as far as he dared; in the high, thin air, the bomber’s stall speed was higher than at low altitude – the margin for error was slim and the throttles needed careful handling. Gardner placed the tin ration box on the inside of the crew hatch, sat back on the jump seat and pulled his harness back on. Then he reached forward to activate the door. With an initial lurch it swung smoothly down into the slipstream, powered by two small pneumatic rams. The freezing outside air roared past with the noise of hurricane, eddying and spilling into the compromised security of the cabin. Through the 3’ by 6’ hole in the floor, nothing but seven and half miles of sky separated Gardner from the Atlantic below. Gravity soon took hold and before the hatch had travelled through its full arc he saw the battered old tin – weighed down with two heavy steel undercarriage ground-locks – drop before being snatched away by the airstream.
Gardner pulled the lever to shut the hatch. Never designed to close at speed and altitude, though, the heavy door hinged upwards before refusing to seal. Its failure to do so meant it was impossible to repressurize the cabin. Still unable to descend to a less hostile flight level and have any hope of reaching Rio, however, the Vulcan crew had no choice other than to fly on at height. Their oxygen masks remained clasped firmly to their faces and while thick immersion suits and thermal underwear kept the worst of the bitter cold at bay, it was like sitting in meat locker.
A further thought compounded their discomfort. The Shrike missile that had refused to budge was a mis-fire. The bomber would land, if it landed, with a live anti-radar missile hanging off the wing; a missile they’d attempted to fire. There was no way of knowing for sure what it would do. But everyone knows that you never return to a lighted firework.
Sitting on the port side of the jet’s crew compartment, facing backwards, the AEO Rod Trevaskus, made the call. Over an international distress frequency, he called Brazilian Air Traffic Control to declare the fuel emergency.
Mayday, Mayday, Mayday he began, describing the bomber only as ‘four-jet military aircraft’ in an attempt to disguise its identity, and gave their position. ‘We’re short on fuel and inbound to Rio.’
Communication was difficult. Each word spoken by the Vulcan crew had to be forced out against the pressurized oxygen pumped in through their masks. The strain made them sound like six Donald Ducks. And there was still the fierce noise from the airflow around the unsealed crew hatch to contend with. But even as the Brazilian Air Traffic Controller struggled to understand Trevaskus’s distorted speech, he had noticed that the AEO had failed to reveal both what he was flying in and where he was flying from.
The controller tried again and, in heavily accented English, asked once more who they were and where they came from. He wasn’t fluent though and, didn’t, McDougall felt, quite grasp what was going on.
All the same, uncertainty over an unidentified military aircraft approaching the city was not something that sat easily with those charged with his nation’s defence. At Santa Cruz Air Force Base, two Northrop F-5 fighters of the Força Aérea Brasileira, armed with AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles, scrambled into the air and were vectored towards the position given by Rod Trevaskus in his first ‘Mayday’ transmission. The interceptor pilots poured on the coals and, afterburners blazing orange, they climbed east into the morning sky, in pursuit of their unidentified quarry.
While McDougall concentrated on nursing the empty Vulcan to the ground, Trevaskus continued to stall for time.
On board the Nimrod, as it shadowed the Vulcan’s progress towards the mainland, Wing Commander David Henderson heard every word of the increasingly tense communication. As he listened in, his radio operators relayed news of the unfolding crisis via Ascension back to the UK. The transmissions set in motion a frantic diplomatic scramble.
McDougall and his crew continued inbound to Rio at altitude, unaware of the new danger posed by the two fighters racing towards them. Throttling back, the bomber captain cruised down to 20,000 feet, the lowest he was prepared to descend without committing to a landing; the lowest he could go and give his backseaters a reasonable chance of survival when the four thirsty turbojets sucked the tanks dry and flamed out.
Then, with barely half an hour to run, a different, more confident voice crackled through the crew’s headsets in an accent that suggested the speaker’s English had been learnt in America. By now Gardner had also managed to seal the crew hatch again. These were minor consolations to a crew wondering would happen to them in Brazil, a country, like Argentina, still governed by its military. The Black Buck crews had already taken a unanimous decision not to use their official diversion airfield, a remote military strip in the North East of Brazil. If, they reasoned, they landed at Rio international airport, thousands of people would see them land – including British tourists, perhaps. Then no one can claim we’ve crashed and disappeared, they thought.
Flying at just below the speed of sound, the two Brazilian fighters closed in on the position relayed by their controller. But as the lethal brace bore down on where they expected to find their target, she was nowhere to be seen. By directing them to the coordinates of the Mayday, rather than on an intercept vector, the Air Force fighter controller had made a fundamental mistake. The F-5 pilots quickly realized the error and turned west to continue their hunt for the intruder, but they’d lost too much ground. As they accelerated to supersonic speeds in pursuit, she was already over Rio Bay.
As the Vulcan crossed the Brazilian coast, the American accented voice of Rio Air Traffic Control spoke again, giving them priority clearance on the duty runway. McDougall refused it. To line up for an approach meant he’d have to fly a circuit over Rio and he was by no means certain he had that luxury. ‘I don’t have sufficient fuel to guarantee I can fly over the city’ McDougall told him.
‘Do you see the runway straight ahead of you?’
‘If you’re critically short of fuel you’re clear to land on it.’
They were. McDougall’s gauges told him he didn’t have the fuel necessary to abort and go round. He and Lackman both knew that if they didn’t get the jet down first time round, they would crash. What McDougall did next, though, looked from the ground as if that was exactly what was happening.
Just six miles out, but still four miles high, the veteran captain eased his throttles back to idle, extended the airbrakes and lowered the undercarriage. Three greens. Then he stood the old bomber on her wing, pulling her into a hard spiralling descent. Winding round in a tight corkscrew like a sycamore seed falling from a tree, he bled off 19,000 feet of altitude in barely a minute and half. Pulling 2G at over 65 degrees of bank he controlled the rapid descent with precise, instinctive stick inputs that drew on muscle memory accrued over more than twenty years of flying Vulcans. As he lowered the nose to keep the big jet from stalling he kept pulling, keeping the spiral tight for as long as he dared, trying to judge when to roll out to land. Leave it too late and there was danger of being too low, facing the wrong way and losing the airfield all together. Too high and at least there would still be room for manouevre. Just a mile and a half from the threshold, he rolled the wings level along the runway centreline. Too high. To bring her in, he was going to have to fly a manoeuvre he’d not attempted since it nearly killed the man who’d first taught him how to do it.
Cut the power on a Vulcan, keep pulling the nose up and, without any warning of an incipient stall, at around 90 knots she’ll just sink from the sky, dropping flat and fast like a pancake. The only way out of this superstall is to pile on the power. If the engines cough at all it can be fatal. After a very close shave, McDougall’s old instructor at the Vulcan OCU, a Flight Sergeant and Master Pilot known as ‘Biggles’, had tracked down every Vulcan pilot he’d ever taught and told them personally never to do it again.
Now, after last trying it twenty years earlier, McDougall was flying the superstall again, mushing off speed and height as he made his approach to the disused runway. Pre-landing checks? he asked himself and concluded: If the gear’s down the checks are done! It certainly wasn’t by the book, but it was all that was needed – most of the books had, in any case, been thrown out of the bottom of the plane. He just had to get her on the ground. Quickly.
Three quarters of mile out, when it looked certain that this strange looking camouflaged jet would continue unchecked her terrifying and apparently terminal sink into the rough ground of the runway undershoot, McDougall pushed the throttles forward, anticipating the life-saving surge of thrust. There was a momentary lag as the turbines spooled up then the four Olympus engines gripped the air, powering the bomber out of her dangerous semi-stall. Flying again, at 250 feet up at 135 knots, he was perfectly set up on short finals. And he brought her in, meeting the tarmac at a regulation 125 knots, the seventy-ton bomber bounced gently on the four-wheel bogies of the main undercarriage.
As the Vulcan rolled down the runway, the two Brazilian air force fighters sent to intercept her streaked through the Galaeo overhead. It looked for all the world as if they were simply heralding XM597’s dramatic arrival with a fly past.
The military vehicles that swarmed round her as she bowed to a halt on a taxiway looked insignificant in her presence. In the company of the identikit airliners that commuted in and out of Galeao, this exotic, warlike creature seemed entirely alien. Television pictures were soon beamed around the world. Most viewers would have been intrigued by the incongruity of the scene. Some probably thought that the jet’s unique appearance was vaguely familiar. A few might even have known they were looking at an Avro Vulcan bomber – for perhaps the first time since the jet’s star turn in the James Bond film Thunderball. But all were catching their first, unexpected glimpse of the Royal Air Force’s exceptional contribution to a war being fought 8000 miles from home.
McDougall shut down the Vulcan’s engines just after 11:00AM local time. He and his crew unbuckled and gathered their belongings in silence. Drained and uncertain. Carefully climbing down to the ground, the long-suffering V-bomber captain could reflect on a peculiar few months. He and his wife Elizabeth had suffered a housefire. He’d endured a pointless ten-hour journey to Ascension only to be sent straight back to the UK aboard the plane he’d just arrived on. He’d flown Martel missile trials in the UK that the Boscombe Down test pilot in the co-pilot’s seat had feared might blow them out of the sky. On top of that, just a few hours earlier, soldiers had been trying to kill him with heavy calibre cannon shells. Then there was this – an unscheduled stopover in Rio. There were three priorities. McDougall wanted to phone his wife to let her know where he was and let her know he was safe. He was confident that she’d be typically unfazed by it all. Next he had to organise his crew into shifts to mount a 24-hour guard on the jet – the silver lining, he quickly realised, was that during his watch he could pass the time playing the bagpipe shanter he always carried with him in the flight deck. Might keep the snakes away, he thought. But most of all, McDougall knew that, as a matter of urgency, he had to tell his hosts that leaving the Vulcan sitting on the hot tarmac with a ten-foot long, mis-fired anti-radiation missile pointing straight at the control tower radars probably wasn’t a very good idea.
Sqn. Ldr. McDougall was awarded the DFC for the leadership and flying skill he demonstrated in bringing XM597 safely into Rio. His crew, once the diplomatic wrangle caused by their unexpected, heavily armed arrival had been unravelled, were taken for a night on the town by their Força Aérea Brasileira counterparts. It included a visit to the legendary Copacabana nightclub. They finally departed for Ascension Island on June 10th.
The live Shrike Missile, helpfully identified by the Brazilians as a self-defence ‘Sidewinder’ in order that its presence was somehow less controversial, was made safe by McDougall and his crew using instructions faxed out from Waddington. They were designed to be foolproof. Step one began, recalls one of XM597’s crew, along the lines of stand with the sharp end pointing to your left. It was just as well the guidance was followed to the letter, though. When the big anti-radar missile was finally lowered on to the gurney provided by the Brazilians, the metal trolley collapsed under its weight…
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