The Falklands War – Operation Bowsprit

Introduction – Setting the Scene

GR3 awaiting clearance to go behind the wing hose
HMS Invincible embarked the Sea Harriers (SHARs) of No 801 Squadron shortly after setting sail in early April 1982. Subsequently, the Task Force was augmented with additional SHARs and RAF Harrier GR3s. They were deployed direct from the UK to Ascension Island using air to air refuelling from RAF Marham based Victor K2 tankers. Eight SHARs were deployed from the UK to Ascension Island over the period 30th April to 2nd May 1982 and 9 Harrier GR3s were deployed over 3rd to 5th May 1982. The deployment plan was spread over the six days due to the limited number of UK based Victor tankers. The majority of the tanker assets (14 Victor tankers and 15 crews) were already on Ascension Island committed in support of the Vulcan bombing missions Black Bucks 1 and 2 on the 1st and 4th May 1982. The Harrier deployments used Marham based Victors which landed in Banjul in West Africa to turn round and refuel before returning to Marham to remount each subsequent day’s deployment.

GR3 landing on Atlantic Conveyor for the transit to the Task Group
The majority of the SHARs and the Harrier GR3s were then flown from Wideawake Airfield on to the Atlantic Conveyor in harbour before the vessel set sail south. On 18th May 1982 No 1(F) Squadron, commanded by Wing Commander Peter Squire, transferred from the Atlantic Conveyor to HMS Hermes to support the land forces.
Towards the end of May 1982 the Task Force Commander requested RAF Harrier GR3 reinforcements to be flown to HMS Hermes via Ascension Island to augment air support operations.  The operation to fly the RAF Harrier GR3s from the UK to HMS Hermes via Ascension Island using air to air refuelling was called Operation Bowsprit.

 Initial Deployment – UK to Wideawake Airfield, Ascension Island

The six Harriers were prepositioned at RAF St Mawgan. Three were deployed to Ascension using air to air refuelling on successive days, the 29th and 30th May 1982.  On each day the three Harriers were supported by three Victor tankers launched from RAF Marham.  Two of the Victors completed the initial refuellings to the Harriers and an accompanying Victor and returned to Marham.  The third Victor completed three more Harrier fuel transfers and departed the formation to land at Banjul, complete a quick turn round and return to Marham.  The formation of three Harriers then met a further Victor launched from Ascension Island to provide the final fuel transfers and accompany them to Ascension Island.

Wideawake to HMS Hermes – Operation Bowsprit

Each GR3 was supported by four Victor tankers to enable transit from Ascension to HMS Hermes
The next phase to transit the GR3s from Ascension to HMS Hermes was scheduled for 1st and 2nd June 1982. The refuelling plan was more complicated as there were no en-route diversion airfields within Harrier range if an emergency occurred. On 1st June 3 GR3s launched in company with eight Victor tankers. One GR3 was an airborne reserve to fly as far as the first refuelling bracket before returning to Ascension Island. 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 GR3 landing deck if refuelling problems were encountered beyond the return range to Ascension.

The fuel plan was the same for each GR3 deployment. This shows one formation of four Victors and a single GR3
There were two groups – each GR3 was supported by its own flight of 4 Victor tankers. The refuelling plan is attached. Each GR3 was 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 and calculated to return overhead Wideawake Airfield with 17,000lbs.

The second launch on 2nd June was postponed due to poor weather in the Task Group area. It was rescheduled for 4 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 Shrike missile attack on the radars on the Falkland Islands. The deployment was rescheduled to the 6th June but again postponed due to poor weather in the area of HMS Hermes. The transit finally launched on 8th June using the same refuelling plan. HMS Engadine was by now too far south to be used for an emergency deck landing. If either GR3 had had an in flight fuel emergency on the 8th June – a broken probe for instance – out of return range to Ascension the Victors would accompany the GR3 to any known Task Force ship in transit and the pilot would eject. There was no mention of the situation of not finding a ship before fuel was exhausted – a real possibility.

All four Harriers landed safely on HMS Hermes.   The RAF Harrier GR3 deployment from the UK to HMS Hermes were the longest Harrier sorties flown to that date.  Each leg – UK to Ascension and Ascension to HMS Hermes – were in excess of nine hours.  A magnificent effort by the RAF and the GR3 pilots especially.  The Victor tanker force once again providing the means for such a quick reinforcement.