The most daring bombing mission since World War II

In April 1982, Argentina invaded the the falkland islands without warning, sending the British Army in shock for a response. The British Royal Air Force quickly dusted off its soon to retire long-range bombers and enacts a hasty plan called Operation Black Buck.

The plan called for a series of bombardment missions that accompanied the naval task force’s efforts to retake the islands. The Royal Air Force’s missions were considered the most daring since World War II’s Operation Chastise – the so-called Dambusters Raid – in which bombs jumped on the water to hit Nazi targets.

Port Stanley Airport in the Falkland Islands, pictured in the background, was the target of one of the most daring bombing missions in history – Operation Black Buck. In 1982, Martin Withers, center, launched the first of the operation’s missions. Composed by Coffee or Die Magazine.

The British RAF met at Wideawake airfield on Ascension Island in the mid-Atlantic to finalize mission details ahead of launch. Each Vulcan Long Range Bomber demanded that 11 Victor tankers fly 16 hours non-stop to reach their target: the Argentine-held Port Stanley airport, located about 3,900 miles away.

At 10:30 p.m. on April 30, 1982, two Vulcan Bombers followed by 22 Victor tankers took off from their staging point, heading for the Falkland Islands. Shortly after takeoff, one of the Vulcan bombers encountered a serious problem. The cabin failed to pressurize and the bomber had to return to base. The remaining Vulcan – flown by British RAF Flight Lieutenant Martin Withers and his four-man crew – continued on its own, refueling at every checkpoint along its flight path.

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British Royal Air Force Vulcan bombers flew a total of seven sorties against Argentine forces during Operation Black Buck, the first attack of the 1982 Falklands War. Screenshot via YouTube.

As Withers positioned his bomber for the last resupply checkpoint before reaching the target, the tankers Vulcans and Victor ran through an electrical storm, jeopardizing the entire operation. Victor tanker pilots struggled with their controls as they battled turbulence. The white flashes made aerial refueling much more dangerous than on a typical sunny day. Despite the turbulence, the supply tubes of two Victors connected momentarily, but the bouncing aircraft sheared off the Victor’s supply tube intended to make the final supply for the Vulcan.

“We’re running out of fuel, but we’ve come this far, I’m not coming back now,” The tourniquet communicated by radiodetermined to carry out the mission.

The undamaged Victor from the electrical storm incident, piloted by Squadron Leader Bob Tuxford, moved in to complete the refueling process.

“We flew low over the sea to stay hidden under their radar,” Withers told Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage. “We had to stop to do the bomb attack at 10,000 feet.”

The next morning, traveling at a speed of six miles per minute, Withers flew his Vulcan bomber over his target and released the payload. Of Withers’ 21 1,000-pound bombs, 16 exploded and only one hit the airstrip directly, knocking the runway out of service.

“We managed to put a bomb on the runway, which meant that the Argentines could not use this runway for their planes to land and refuel if they wanted to attack our ships”, Withers later recalled.

Then, dangerously low on fuel, Withers circled just outside Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and flew to the final rendezvous point before returning home.

Withers described Tuxford’s Victor as “the finest spectacle in the world”.

Victor K.2 of No. 55 Squadron Royal Air Force in 1985; note deployed supply drugs. Photo Wikimedia Commons.

The pilots flew 16 hours and 3,900 miles to return home on a trip that required seven additional refuelings.

Operation Black Buck continued through May and June 1982, and the pilots flew seven sorties in total. At that time, the bombing mission was the longest combat bombing run in military history. The record stood until American B-2 bombers flew a 35 hour, 14,000 mile mission during Desert Storm. This record was broken shortly after 9/11, when B-2 bombers exceeded 70 flight hours over Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.

“It was certainly very strange to participate in the first attack”, Withers reflected while describing the unusual mission. “Very kind of cold-blooded […] ours was the first attack of the conflict.

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