F4s – and more Harrier GR3s Head South

In this second article, Mike details how RAF Phantom FGR2s and additional RAF Harrier GR3s were deployed from the UK to Ascension with the GR3s moving south to join the Task Force, assisted by Victor K2 tankers based at Marham and on Ascension.

Towards the end of May 1982 the military commanders decided to deploy additional GR3s to the Task Force. The force would comprise six fresh GR3s flown from the UK to Ascension and the three GR3s holding Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) on Ascension.

GR3 with Sidewinders

The first phase was to deploy three RAF Phantom FGR2s from No 29 Squadron, RAF Coningsby to free up the three GR3s remaining after MV Atlantic Conveyor departed on 7th May with the SHARs and GR3s. The F4s, better equipped for the air defence role, would provide a genuine all-weather 24 hour defence.

The second phase, codenamed Operation Bowsprit, was to fly the six GR3s from the UK to Ascension Island bringing the total to nine, with four continuing on to HMS Hermes using air to air refuelling by Victor K2 tankers. The remaining serviceable GR3s would be flown onto the container ship, MV Contender Bezeant, in Georgetown Harbour, be protectively bagged for transit and sailed south in similar fashion to MV Atlantic Conveyor previously in early May.

The Phantoms Arrive

F4 deployment route and plan

24th May. The first FGR2s (XV468 and XV464) deployed to Ascension. They were supported by Marham tankers, using a version of the now familiar UK to Ascension deployment refuelling plan. The UK primary Victor completed three F4 refuellings. A pair Victors launched from Ascension, one refuelled the other en route before returning to Wideawake. The UK and Ascension Victors rendezvoused at navigation point Lumpo, abeam Dakar. The F4s were handed over to the Ascension Victor and the UK one departed for Dakar. On the 25th May the F4s took over the air defence role and commenced QRA, thus providing a genuine all weather 24 hour readiness capability.

The changeover of duties. The GR3 fitted with 330 gallon fuel tanks for the transit, the F4s on QRA.

The three F4s on QRA. a Hercules C-130P and, in the distance, a Vulcan in support of Black Buck 5







26th May. A third, XV466, arrived. Whilst the refuelling plan was the same only one Ascension Victor was required to rendezvous at Lumpo and bring the F4 to Wideawake. Again the UK primary tanker departed for Dakar.

The Additional GR3s Deploy

The GR3 deployment was planned to take place over a four day period – two days UK to Ascension (29th and 30th May) and two days Ascension to HMS Hermes (1st and 2nd June). The route from the UK to Ascension and refuelling plan was the same as used in the first GR3 May deployment to Ascension. The GR3s fitted with 330 gallon ferry fuel tanks were able to make a direct transit in company with Victor tankers. Once again the limiting movement factor was the scarcity of UK based Victor tankers.

UK to Ascension. Three Victors from the UK, one from Ascension to lead the formation to Wideawake

These tankers used a shuttle plan based on Marham to Marham (called a whirler in tanker-speak) and Marham to Dakar to return and set up for the following day.

28th May. Six GR3s deployed forward from their base at RAF Wittering and prepositioned at RAF St Mawgan.

29th May. Four GR3s (XV778, XW767, XZ133 and XZ992) launched to rendezvous with three Victor tankers from RAF Marham overhead St Mawgan. Two of the Victors completed the initial refuellings to the GR3s and topped up the primary Victor over the sea off Lands End before returning to Marham. The primary Victor completed three more GR3 fuel transfers en route maintaining their fuel above the minimum for an emergency diversion. The formation made a rendezvous with an Ascension launched Victor north of the island to provide the final fuel transfers and the formation continued to Ascension. The UK primary tanker departed the formation for a quick turn around at Dakar and return to Marham to support the following days wave.

30th May. The last two GR3s (XV762 and XW924) followed, meeting the Marham tankers overhead St Mawgan and followed the same refuelling plan as the previous day. After the rendezvous in the South Atlantic, the primary Victor left the formation to land at Dakar and the Ascension tanker led the formation to land at Wideawake Airfield. This brought the total number of GR3s on Ascension to nine – six in this phase of Operation Bowsprit and the three that had been retained on the island from the early May deployment for air defence but now no longer needed in this role.

The GR3 Transit Ascension to HMS Hermes

First wave launch. One Victor rolling, three waiting their turn to enter the runway

The next phase to transit the Harriers from Ascension to HMS Hermes was scheduled for 1st and 2nd June 1982. The refuelling plan was more complicated as, unlike the previous leg with a plethora of suitable en-route diversions, there were no diversion airfields within GR3 range if an emergency occurred.



First GR3 rolling, four supporting Victors already airborne

A pair of GR3s prepped for the deployment to HMS Hermes- awaiting weather improvements in the task area







Ascension to the Falklands. Eight Victors to support two GR3s

1st June. Three GR3s launched in company with eight Victor tankers in two waves, each wave consisted of four tankers and a GR3. The third GR3 joined the second wave as an airborne spare and flew as far as the first refuelling bracket before returning to Ascension Island. The two GR3s, XV778 flown by Flight Lieutenant Mike Beech and XZ133 flown by Flight Lieutenant Murdo MacLoed were refuelled six times during the transit. The Victor formation refuelled themselves to leave tankers with a maximum fuel load of 123,000lbs after each transfer down route. The refuelling plan was produced by AAR Plans, HQ1 Group and modified by the AAR Planning Cell on Ascension is attached.

Operation Bowsprit refuelling plan carried by Victor tanker crews

This plan was issued to all Victor tankers in the formation and ground reserves as any unserviceabilites on start up or airborne would result in a formation shuffle.

The GR3s landed on HMS Hermes 3600 miles from Ascension after a flight time of 8 hours 20 minutes – the pilots completing their first Harrier deck landings. Search and rescue support was provided by a Nimrod Mk2P and a long range C-130 Hercules. The supply vessel RFA Engadine was in transit along the route south and was planned to be used as an emergency Harrier landing deck if refuelling problems were encountered beyond the return range to Ascension.


A line up of Victors preparing for Bowsprit

2nd June. The second launch was scheduled for 2nd June but was postponed due to poor weather in the Task Group area. It was rescheduled for 4th June – there were insufficient Victors available on 3rd June as twelve Victor sorties were needed in support of the Vulcan mission Black Buck 6 – a Vulcan Shrike missile attack on the radars on the Falkland Islands flown by Squadron Leader Neil MacDougal.

Flight line of Victor tankers shared with a USAF C-141 AND two C-130s

The deployment was rescheduled for the 4th June, but again postponed, then 6th June but again postponed – both due to poor landing weather at the Task Group position.



8th June. The formation finally launched on 8th June using the same refuelling plan. Flight Lieutenants Nick Gilchrist in XZ992 and Ross Boyens in XW919 landed on Hermes 7 hours 50 minutes after leaving Ascension. HMS Engadine was by now too far south to be used for an emergency deck landing. If either Harrier had had an in flight fuel emergency – broken probe for instance – out of return range to Ascension the Victors would accompany the Harrier to any known Task Force ship in transit and the pilot would eject. There was no mention of a situation of not finding a ship before fuel was exhausted – a real possibility.

The result – all four Harriers landed safely on HMS Hermes. Each GR3 pilot took on fuel from the Victor tankers on six occasions. The RAF Harrier GR3 deployment from the UK to HMS Hermes were the longest Harrier sorties flown to that date. A magnificent effort by the GR3 pilots.

Loading on Contender Bezeant. After the four GRs were flown to HMS Hermes, the remaining four serviceable aircraft (XV762, XW767, XW924 and XW129) were flown on to MV Contender Bezeant in Georgetown Harbour (similar to the MV Atlantic Conveyor plan previously) sailing for the Falkland Islands on 3rd June arriving off the Falkland Islands on the 10th June. The GR3s remained on board the ship held in reserve until they were flown off to Stanley Airfield on the 7th July to join the four GR3s disembarked from HMS Hermes on the 4th July. Unfortunately, XZ132, deployed to Ascension on 6th May, had suffered incurable fuel leaks whilst at Wideawake and eventually returned to the UK.

War Over – The Phantoms Return to RAF Coningsby

F4 approaching touchdown at Wideawake airfield – possibly from air combat training, loaded with air to air missiles

During their time on Ascension there were two noteworthy scrambles. Firstly, an uncommunicative low flying helicopter was intercepted, but proved to be friendly from a transiting Royal Navy warship. Secondly, on 11th July, Squadron Leader P R Morley intercepted a pair of nosy Bear Ds of the Soviet Naval Air Force snooping around HMS Hermes on her transit north to Portsmouth.

It was planned for the F4s to provide air defence of the Falkland Islands, however the runway needed to be extended, using 8ft by 2ft steel mats, and a landing arrestor gear installed, taking several months. On our first return from Ascension, the Tuxford crew broke up. Glyn and I recrewed with the new Flight Commander on 55 Squadron, Fred Tiernan. Bob Tux took over another 55 Squadron crew, remaining as Flight Commander. Both crews then returned to Ascension. My log book indicates on the 14th July our crew provided the F4s with some “prodding” practice in preparation for their return home, with Nimrods and Victors also taking the opportunity to attack us (sorry, honing their skills after all it is the sport of kings) in an area adjacent to Ascension under the control of our military radar unit, Bowler Radar. The three F4s then returned to RAF Coningsby over the 18th (XV484),19th (XV466) and 20th (XV468) of July.

The Phantoms Return for the Air Defence of the Falkland Islands

No 29 Squadron redeployed to Ascension – four F4s on 18th September and a further pair on the 8th October in anticipation of the Stanley runway becoming operational for their use. On 18th October the squadron commander, Wing Commander Ian MacFadyen, was in flight refuelled to the Falklands. The deployment was spread over the next three days moving a pair of F4s supported by eight Victor tankers each day. The refuelling plan is attached.

The tanker refuelling plan briefed and carried by all the Smelter crews

The final two F4s only arrived on Ascension on 22nd October and our crew, now back at Marham, provided the Marham whirler tanker support. They continued south on the 23rd October. Eventually, a force of nine aircraft deployed to the Falklands to provide air defence cover.

Tragically XV484, one of the first F4s to deploy to Ascension to provide air defence during the war and to Stanley in the aftermath crashed into Mount Usborne on 17th October during an air combat training mission. There were no survivors.

I am indebted to Bob Tuxford for recording his experiences as the formation leader covering both the F4 arrival at Ascension on the 8th October and also the initial wave onwards to Stanley – an operation codenamed Operation Smelter.

This completed a complex movement plan bolstering the UK offensive capability during the Falklands campaign and providing a deterrent in the aftermath. No 29 Squadron was the initial air defence force based at Stanley Airport becoming PhanDet and manned by the UK F4 crews on rotation. On the 30th March 1983 PhanDet was disbanded and replaced by the reformed No 23 Squadron, which had disbanded at RAF Coningsby on the same day. Subsequently, over the following years, the air defence baton passed to the Tornado F3 and then the Typhoon.