When the Falklands Conflict began Argentina seemingly had a massive advantage in the skies. They had over 100 aircraft of varying types. Some could operate from the Argentinian mainland and others could operate from airstrips on the Falklands themselves. Meanwhile, the British Task Force initially had only 20 Sea Harriers which could fit on its two aircraft carriers, HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible. It was up to them to protect the Task Force at sea as well as the troops on the ground, but to many that seemed like an impossible task.

In this 3rd episode of our Falklands series IWM Curator Paris Agar examines the conflict in the air. Just how big was the Argentinian advantage? How did each side change their strategy? And how did British pilots beat the odds and take control of the skies? To answer those questions and more, Paris takes an in-depth look at the aircraft of the Falklands Conflict including the Vulcan, Pucará, Wessex and Harrier.

How British Harriers beat the odds

When the Falklands Conflict began it seemed like Argentina had a massive advantage in the skies. They had over 100 aircraft of varying types. Some could operate from the Argentinian mainland and others could operate from airstrips on the Falklands themselves.  

Meanwhile the British Task Force was initially restricted to the just 20 Sea Harriers which could fit on its two aircraft carriers. It was up to them to protect the Task Force at sea as well as the troops on the ground. To many that seemed like an impossible task. 

In this 3rd episode of our Falklands series, we’re going to examine the conflict in the air. Just how big was the Argentinian advantage? How did each side change their strategy? And how did British pilots beat the odds and take control of the skies? 

On paper, Argentina had air supremacy over the Falkland Islands. Britain would need a superb, high performance, fixed wing fighter aircraft if there was to be any attempt to counter the Argentinian advantage. It was the aircraft behind me, the Harrier, and its naval cousin the Sea Harrier, upon which British hopes were placed, but we’ll take a closer look at that later on.  

As the British Task Force made its way to the South Atlantic, the Argentinians began setting up defences on the islands with men and supplies continually flown in. The main airport was at Stanley, the Falklands capital, with other smaller airfields at Goose Green and Pebble Island. Stanley was the only hard all-weather runway on the Falklands, but it was still not long enough for Argentina’s fast jets which remained on the mainland.  

The Argentinian Air Force had Dassault Mirage IIIs, IAI Daggers, Douglas A4 Skyhawks and even English Electric Canberras, purchased from the British in the 1970s. The supersonic Mirages and Daggers were a serious threat but flying from the Argentinian mainland put them at the limits of their fuel range. 

The Argentinian Navy had an aircraft carrier, the Veinticinco de Mayo, which was also equipped with Skyhawks. While from the mainland they flew the Dassault-Breguet Super Étendard which could be equipped with the feared Exocet anti-ship missile, five of which were known to be in Argentina’s armoury.  

The Argentinians also had a number of smaller light attack aircraft based on airfields on the Falklands, as well as IA-58 Pucaras, like the one behind me. It was a two-seat, low-wing, twin-turboprop, ground-attack and counter-insurgency aircraft. It had two cannons, four machine guns, and bombs and rockets could be attached to three external hardpoints. It was low performance, in comparison to the Mirage especially, but it was manoeuvrable and could take-off from short, rough airfields – perfect for the Falklands. However, as the aircraft was primarily made for ground attack, it struggled in an air-to-air combat role. This aircraft joined Grupo Aerea Tres de Ataque, or ‘Attack Group 3’, at Port Stanley on 29 May 1982, piloted by First Lieutenant Ayerdi. It carried out various armed escort missions for Chinook helicopters and, on 10 June was involved in an attack on Mount Kent on East Falkland.    

In the face of all these Argentinian aircraft it was crucial that Britain established air superiority before attempting to land ground troops on the Falklands. The first step was eliminating the Island’s most important airfield at Stanley. Denying its use would not only demonstrate Britain’s will to fight for the Falklands, but also force a change of strategy for the Argentinians. But pulling off that raid would be a very difficult job. A bomber would have to fly over 3,800 miles from Ascension Island to Stanley with multiple air to air refuelling manoeuvres on the way, damage the runway enough to deny its use, and then fly all the way back to Ascension. 

This was the aircraft they chose for the job, the Avro Vulcan B2. A jet-powered, high-altitude strategic bomber designed to carry Britain's nuclear weapons during the Cold War. The Vulcan had two defining characteristics which were suddenly in demand. iIs long-range capability which could be extended through refuelling, and its ability to carry 21 x 1000lb bombs. This particular Vulcan was delivered to IWM Duxford just one month before the Falklands Conflict began, by a pilot called Martin Withers. The Ministry of Defence actually asked if they could have the aircraft back, but the museum managed to persuade them otherwise. One thing they probably did take was the fuel probe and for very good reason.  At the time, the Vulcan raid on Port Stanley would become the longest-range bombing mission in the history of aerial warfare, codenamed the ‘Black Buck’ raid.  

Just before midnight on 30 April 1982 2 Vulcan bombers and 11 Victor tankers took off from Wideawake airfield on Ascension Island. Almost immediately the lead Vulcan suffered a technical difficulty that meant the reserve Vulcan, XM607 flown by Martin Withers, had to take over instead. Over the next 8 hours the Victor Tankers completed a complex sequence of fuel transfers to the Vulcan, and to each other. This process was not without its issues, but on the morning of May 1st they reached the target. The Vulcan crew dropped its payload of 21 x 1000lb bombs from 10,000 feet. One bomb   cratered the runway, and the others caused further damage to the airfield. A few hours later, Sea Harriers from HMS Hermes followed up with more attacks on the airstrips at Stanley and Goose Green. Later still, XM607 arrived safely back at Ascension after 16 hours in the air. 

The Black Buck raid on 1 May would be the first of seven Black Buck raids over the course of May and June 1982. The short-term and long-term success of these raids is still debated, with contention as to whether the cost of resources, in terms of the number of aircraft and amount of fuel used for instance, alongside the risk involved for the people in the air and on the ground, could ever be justified when assessing the arguably limited impact of the missions.   

But while its physical impact is debated, its tactical impact is clear. The raid on 1 May demonstrated that the Royal Air Force had the range to bomb airfields in the Falklands, and therefore had the potential to reach mainland Argentina. 

In response to that threat, Argentina decided to hold more of its fast jets back to protetc the mainland. The following day things got worse when the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano was sunk by the submarine HMS Conqueror. This forced the Argentinian Navy, including the Veinticinco de Mayo, to largely withdraw to port. The Argentinian surface fleet would play no further role in the rest of the conflict. 

In the first air to air battles over the Falklands the British refused to climb to the Mirage's optimal altitude and vice versa. When they eventually engaged the Argentinians lost two Mirages and a Canberra, all shot down by British Sea Harriers. 

Unable to refuel in the air, Argentinian Mirage and Dagger pilots were constantly aware of their fuel gauges and were restricted in their use of their supersonic speed. They also lacked training in comparison to British pilots, more prepared for a war with Chile than fighting over the South Atlantic. Finally, Argentinian aircrews struggled to service the aircraft with spare parts.  

Timothy Gedge - Commander 809 Squadron: "That first day was was absolutely crucial in the extent that it was it almost set the pattern for all subsequent operations it gave us enormous confidence looked at from the other way around I think the uh demoralizing effect on the Argentine air force must have been colossal um now that pattern happily I'm glad to say continued they decided they would retain a number of aircraft in defence of their airfields ashore had they actually committed more aircraft to deal with the combat air patrol over the landing area perhaps it would have been different."

From this point onwards Argentina essentially tried to avoid air to air combat with the Harriers, using Mirages as decoys to draw them off while their Daggers and Skyhawks attack the fleet. It seemed Argentina’s air power wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. 

That was until the 4th of May when HMS Sheffield came under attack from a pair of Argentinian Super Etendards. It was hit by one of two Exocet missiles and later sank, for the British this was a stark warning.  

The loss of an aircraft carrier to an Exocet would end any chance of success for the British Task Force As a consequence, the British carriers predominantly remained well out of their range to the east of the Falklands for the remainder of the conflict. However, by increasing the distance they had to fly this reduced the amount of time the Harriers could spend over the islands, leaving ships and ground forces more exposed. 

On the 21st of May, the first British landings began on the Falklands. To minimise the still considerable air threat, the British chose to land at San Carlos on East Falkland. It was hoped that the hills around the bay would provide sheltered waters from air attack, but that that didn’t stop the Argentinians from trying. 

British ships were attacked by Pucaras, Skyhawks, Mirages and Daggers over the next few days, but it was the Skyhawks that would become the most feared silhouette as the British forces could see the aircraft’s impressive manoeuvrability against the sky from the ships below.   

Few Argentinian pilots had even been trained in low-level flying, and fewer still in the ability to undertake attacks on ships in open water. Having flown for hours from mainland Argentina they only had the chance to engage in a few attacks before heading home again. But despite all of that they still managed to achieve significant damage, all the while under fire themselves from the ships below, and from Sea Harriers.  

Richard Elliot - Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers: "We persuaded the flight commanders it'd be a good idea to stay on the ship of course we never realized that that was the biggest mistake of our lives because everybody on the shore was watching the ships getting hit they used to break the masts the aerials of the ship the pilots as they were flying so low."

Peter Richens - 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment: "We thought at first that the Argentinian air force were mad but as time went on we changed our views drastically they were very professional and the way they conducted their business".

William McAlester - 40 Commando, Royal Marines: "They came down San Carlos water the first one just got blown straight out the sky three missiles hit it. Their pilots were possibly some of the bravest men over the whole campaign I mean if everything they dropped had gone off would still be down there fighting now".

PARIS: Fortunately for the British, many of the Argentinian bombs failed to explode due to problems with the setting of their fuses. Essentially, the aircraft were flown at a height lower than the fuses had been set so the bombs hit their target before they had been set to explode. If there hadn’t been this issue with the bomb fuses, the losses at San Carlos Water would have been catastrophic and may have led to the failure of the Task Force.  

Still, British ships did suffer heavy losses. By 25 May 1982, three ships had sunk, and 8 more were damaged. However, the Argentinian decision to target the ships in the Falkland Sound meant that the ground forces were able to land unopposed. British troops were now just 50 miles from Port Stanley, and 13 miles from the Argentinian garrison at Darwin and Goose Green.   

Despite their successes at San Carlos, the Argentinian air forces were sustaining losses at an alarming rate, they couldn’t keep up these kinds of attacks for long. However, with a limited number of British aircraft there were inevitably gaps in the Harrier Combat Air Patrols. 

That’s exactly what happened on the 8th of June during the Fitzroy air attacks. As British troops were moved forward for attacks on the mountains around Port Stanley, Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram were attacked. Both ships were badly damaged by Argentinian Skyhawks killing 50 men and wounding a further 150. Argentinian air attacks on the same day sank a British landing craft, killing six men, and severely damaging HMS Plymouth. 

It was in moments like this that British helicopters became crucial, ferrying casualties to field hospitals or aboard ships. Since the sinking of the SS Atlantic Conveyor and the heavy lifting helicopters it was carrying, the remaining helicopters and their crews were operated at the limits of their capability. British forces were supported by a range of helicopters including one surviving Boeing Chinook and the Westland Gazelle, Sea King, Lynx, Wasp, Scout and Wessex.  

 Helicopters were the workhorses for the British forces during the Falklands Conflict. This Wessex helicopter behind me last flew on 8 December 1980, so did not serve during the Falklands Conflict. But the Wessex is probably best known for its exploits in the Falklands. They helped sink the Argentinian submarine Santa Fe and recapture South Georgia from Argentinian forces in April 1982. Towards the end of the conflict in June, a Wessex 5 fired two AS12 missiles at the Town Hall in Port Stanley with the aim of killing senior Argentinian commanders inside, but missed, hitting the police station instead. So, the Wessex had a crucial role that bookended the conflict.     

A week after Fitzroy, British troops would enter Stanley as the Argentinians surrendered. So just how did the British prevail? How did they overcome the odds in the air? The answer is the Harrier. 

One of the Harrier’s key features was its V/STOL capability which stands for vertical and short take-off and landing. It was this pioneering design feature that made it pretty much the only viable option for aerial combat in the Falklands. GR.3s were fitted with a Rolls-Royce Pegasus 103 turbofan engine and four nozzles, two either side of the aircraft, that could be rotated by the pilot. To achieve V/STOL, the pilot would switch the direction of the aircraft’s thrust by rotating its nozzles. The ability to take-off and land vertically would prove invaluable for when operating from the aircraft carriers, especially when the flight decks were already packed with other aircraft.  

The Harrier’s benefits were not just logistical, it was also an excellent combat aircraft. 

The Sea Harriers were primarily employed in air-to-air combat protecting the task force and ground troops. While the Harriers were slower than the Argentinian Mirages and Daggers, they had an important trick up their sleeve: the AIM 9L Sidewinder air-to-air missile. Previous air-to-air missiles could only be fired from directly behind the enemy, the Sidewinder worked regardless of their position giving British pilots a major advantage.  

Those pilots had been testing their dogfighting skills against the best NATO had to offer for many years, making them a formidable fighting force. Together their equipment and training allowed the British to dominate air-to-air battle. Of the 10 Harriers lost during the conflict, none were due to enemy aircraft. Argentina lost at least 30 in air combat alone.  

Nigel 'Sharkey' Ward - Commander 801 Naval Air Squadron: "I saw these two delta wing shapes low. I flew through them head-on thinking right we've got a fight here now at last. And as I got through the turn there was in the sky in front of me Steve firing the first missile. As it exploded a big gout of flame obscured the whole aircraft. But at that stage, Steve had already switched attention to a second Mirage which was some distance ahead fired the second sidewinder. And this was really driving my mind crazy at the time it was this wonderful thing to see you know this is happening it's terrific. But while I was thinking like that there was a third Dagger who was behind me, was firing his cannons at me. I then thought christ you know watch your six o'clock Sharky and I was still in the hard turn the whole time. When I looked around and there was this Mirage passing underneath me, beautiful colours in camouflage, all i had to do really was pull down hard and he didn't stand a chance because I got in behind him and fired my missile."

The initial 20 British Sea Harriers were joined by further Sea Harriers and Harrier GR.3s. The latter operated by No.1 Fighter Squadron, RAF, from the very unfamiliar surroundings of an aircraft carrier. It was thought that the GR.3s would be used as replacements for Sea Harrier losses. But the losses were so few that they ended up being predominantly tasked with their classic ground-attack role, striking Argentinian positions at Darwin and Goose Green and supporting British ground forces around Mount Kent and in the assault on Port Stanley.   

So that the GR.3s could operate from aircraft carriers modifications were required, and fast. Alterations were made to the GR.3 airframe and systems, including radar and navigation. It was even reported that holes were drilled in the airframe to allow sea water to run out! This Harrier GR.3 operated from a temporary landing strip established at San Carlos. This allowed it to respond more rapidly to attack missions if required and also freed up space on the aircraft carriers. This Harrier carried out attacks around Port Stanley and undertook a reconnaissance mission looking for ground-launched Exocet missiles. It attacked positions on Mount Harriet and narrowly escaped an Argentinian surface-to-air missile over Mount Longdon which exploded only 100ft above the cockpit. After the conflict, it was transferred back to the UK and has been at IWM Duxford since 1992. 

Wars aren't fought on paper. Argentina appeared to have an advantage in the skies over the Falklands, with superior numbers and closer supply lines. But in reality, the British advantage in training and technology made the fight far more even. Things could have gone much worse for the British had a carrier been lost or if landing forces had been hit at San Carlos. But instead, by the final weeks of the conflict, British Harriers and helicopters dominated the skies over the Falklands. 

Of course, the final battle for control would have to be waged on land. Make sure you subscribe so you don’t miss out penultimate episode exploring the battle for the Falklands on Land. 

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