Victor Support of Hercules Air Drops During the Falklands Conflict

Air drop stores clear of Hercules

A vital role in the conflict was to establish and maintain an “air bridge” to transport men and material over the 8000 miles between the UK and the Task Force. The movement of stores by sea was a slow process. Air support used the only viable staging base, Wideawake Airfield, Ascension Island, approximately half way between the UK and the Falkland Islands. The RAF used its transport workhorse, the C-130 Hercules. The first leg from the UK to Ascension Island was straight forward with en-route staging options.

Air drop of stores to HMS Cardiff

However, air support south of Ascension to the Task Group as it sailed south, and eventually to the forces ashore in the Falklands, would require extended range sorties to air drop men and supplies. Until Stanley Airfield was under UK control, these sorties would have to launch from and recover back to Ascension. The Hercules air supply missions would require air to air refuelling from Victor K2 tankers from Ascension.

In the early stages of the conflict RAF planners authorised fitting a refuelling probe and additional fuel tanks to the Hercules transport by Marshals Aerospace of Cambridge. There were two planned fits – carrying two or four internal 825 gallon fuel tanks in the cargo hold. Although the freight carrying capacity decreased due to the extra fuel weight and decreased space, the aircraft could extend its range significantly to support the naval Task Force in transit and forces ashore after invasion. The designation was Hercules LR2 and LR4. Marshalls also fitted airframe XV200 with a refuelling probe.

The Air to Air Refuelling School instructors from Marham conducted ground lectures to Lyneham aircrew over the period 27/28 April 1982 and the aircraft was scheduled to fly from Boscombe Down on 6 May to obtain necessary flight clearances prior to introduction to service. The clearances were conducted by Squadron Leaders John Brown and Tony Banfield, former Victor pilots but now test pilots on B Squadron, A&AEE, Boscombe Down for heavy aircraft clearance work. John Brown concentrated on the freighter clearances and Tony Banfield on the air to air refuelling. Each Hercules pilot required two day and one night conversion sorties.


The refuelling technique devised by Brown and Banfield was based on an old Victor technique called “tobogganing”. They concurrently explored the characteristics of the converted aircraft for certification and instructed Hercules pilots in the tobogganing technique. The speed difference between the Victor and Hercules posed problems in making and maintaining contact in straight and level flight. There was insufficient speed difference which would cause constant contact breaks and if the Victor speed became too low, the centre line hose would wind in.

Approach to contact

The Victor, with its centre line hose trailed, would join the Hercules on its starboard side at 24,000 feet.

The Hercules would be cleared astern the hose and the Victor commenced a gentle 800 foot a minute descent at 210-220 knots. The Hercules would then close from astern and using the visual cues on the underside of the tanker, make contact with the tankers centre line hose drogue which contained the refuelling valve. Refuelling would take place in the descent down to a minimum height of 5000 feet above the South Atlantic.

Steady and approaching to contact

However, the prime concern was to continue to refuel in clear weather relatively free of turbulence. The further south the refuellings occurred the greater the instance of clear air turbulence and the more disturbed the air appeared. Often the refuelling formation had to divert off track to east or west to avoid clouds and occasionally going below 5000 feet. This diversion or breaks in contact wasted time and precious fuel. Also any break in contact could result in both aircraft climbing back to higher altitude to start the toboggan again – again a penalty of wasted time and fuel.

Hercules in contact from the cockpit

A typical off load for a sortie requiring one mid air refuelling would be around 40,000lbs which meant maintaining contact for 20 minutes- 4000lbs/min transfer rate. Longer range sorties would be in flight refuelled twice, each transfer approximately 23,000lbs of fuel, maintaining contact for 10 to 15 minutes.

A major problem encountered by the Victor was in its centre line hose refuelling equipment- the Hose Drum Unit (HDU). The drogue was made of many small aerofoil sections to “fly” in the airstream and produce a stable target for the refuelling aircraft. The drogue fitted to the Victor HDU was termed “high speed”. Its size and characteristics were tuned to give a great deal of stability for high performance aircraft when making contact. At the lower speeds it would wind in of its own accord if it was hit hard during attempts to make contact or the speed decreased too low.

Much thought was given to fitting a less sensitive “intermediate” or even “low” speed drogue as was being fitted to the embryonic Hercules tanker at Marshals for future Hercules to Hercules fuel transfers. The disadvantage was that whilst the lower speed drogue was better for the Hercules contact it would not be suitable for higher speed contact. It was decided to keep all the Victors the same with the high speed drogue. However, the problem persisted at these low refuelling speeds and some sorties ended in an abort when the planned fuel transfer could not be completed.

The Rendezvous (RV) Procedure

The aircraft had to join in mid South Atlantic with no assistance available from any external agencies. They had to use their own navigation equipment- akin to a finding a needle in a haystack. At flight planning, the Hercules crew would calculate an RV position and time and pass to Tanker Ops then depart up to 2 hours before the Victor formation. The Victors would transit south at 35,000 feet at speed Mach .84 to the RV.

Victor-Victor refuelling en route

The number of Victors required would depend on how far south the Hercules task area was and the off load required. There could be one or two Victor-Victor fuel transfers en route dependant on the fuel plan. The final Victor, termed the Long Victor, would continue to the RV to refuel the Hercules. 10 minutes before the RV time the Long Victor would descend to 24,000 feet. The Hercules would cruise climb en route to 23,000 feet at the RV. The Victor would manoeuvre on to the Hercules track using

Fuel flowing in the descent from 23,000 feet

UHF DF RT calls from RV minus 40 minutes, checked at RV minus 20 minutes when the Air to Air Tacan was selected on to provide range information between aircraft. Additional DF calls may be requested at 2 minute intervals until the Victor was visual with the Hercules.

Then the Victor would trail the HDU and join the Hercules on the starboard side. When in position the Hercules would be cleared astern the HDU and the descent initiated.


Jim Wiggle was a copilot on Frank Milligan’s crew from 57 Squadron and vividly remembers:

Hercules in contact and taking fuel as seen from the Victor rear view periscope. Jim Wiggle

I’ll never forget the `needle-in-a-haystack’ feeling of trying to RV with the Herc’. You’d watch the air-to-air Tacan count down to nothing and still not be able to see the Herc’! Once you did get him then the tricky overtake & dive bit had to take place.

You just had to hope that if he got a rim the hose didn’t wind in because if it did we had to break-off, accelerate to stream it again and then start over. I seem to recall being told by the Herc’ pilot once that he couldn’t turn in contact and we musn’t go into cloud! Not easy descending from 20,000’+ over the South Atlantic down to maybe 5,000’. I think the profile was 500fpm and 235kts, quite fine margins too. The Victor was a bit of a pig on the profile as it wanted to accelerate all the time. By the time the Herc’ had gone astern and made contact we probably only had 20 minutes max.

After some experience on refuelling missions, the Hercules pilots requested an amended profile. Contact was to be made at 23,000 feet descending at 500 feet per minute at 230 knots- more shallow and slightly faster than taught in the UK. After refuelling, the Victor climbed and returned to Ascension at 41,000 feet. The Hercules continued on task.

Victor Refuelling Plans

The Hercules task area dictated the numbers of Victors required for support. The first missions were to task group ships in mid South Atlantic and required three Victors to support – 16-25 May. (24th May – only two Victors required as the air drop was not as far south as previous sorties). But soon the support needed four Victors due to the range of the Task Group from Ascension. Some missions were air drops on to the Falkland Islands and were supported by four Victor Tankers with two Victor-Victor fuel transfers en-route. The tankers were identified for planning as Short, Medium or Long slots.

  1. Two Victor Support Option: A pair of Victors would take off some time after Hercules launch to time to an agreed RV position. During the Victor transit some 850nm south of Ascension Tanker 1 would refuel tanker 2 and return to Wideawake. Tanker 1 would continue south for the RV datum following the overtake procedure outlined above meeting 1500nm south of Ascension. The Hercules would continue to task and recover to Ascension without any further refuelling.
  2. Three Victor Support Option: To increase the Hercules range of air drop, three Victors would take off in a stream timing to the same RV datum 1717nm south of Ascension. Tanker 3 would first refuel Tanker 1 868nm south of Ascension and return. Tanker 2 would give Tanker 1 a second refuel 1421nm south of Ascension and return. Tanker 1 would continue to the RV to overtake and refuel the Hercules 1813nm south. The Hercules continued to the task area and returned to Ascension without further refuelling.
  3. Four Victor Support Option: In order to achieve air drops on the Falkland Islands four Victors were required to launch in 2 waves. The refuelling plan called for the Hercules to be in flight refuelled twice en route to complete the air drop and return to Ascension without further refuelling. A single Victor launched first to complete the first Hercules refuelling 1100nm south of the island. The second Victor wave of three aircraft launched in a stream 20 minutes after the first launch. Their refuelling plan was similar to the three Victor support package, the refuelling positions being 900nm and 1475nm south of Ascension leaving a full Tanker 1 to overtake the Hercules 2000nm south of base. This was the most used plan.
  4. Redundancy: Two manned ground reserve aircraft were allocated using a cascade system earmarking Wave 2 aircraft/crews to be reserve for Wave 1.
  5. Multi Tasking: There were task days when dissimilar missions were tasked – Nimrod surveillance and Hercules support. The take off times were planned so that the cascade system made best use of the reserve aircraft/crews but resulted in tanker crews manning up with the refuelling plans for every position in every mission.

Selected Hercules Sorties

  1. 16 May. Victor Operation No 19, no allocated nickname, tasked under TransOp 607/82 but allocated Cadbury 1 by the Ascension Island AAR Planners (Cadbury and chocolate lorry associations- juvenile I know). This in house allocation continued on further Hercules sorties. Air drop using the three Victor refuelling plan. Hercules XV200, Captain Flight Lieutenant Harry Burgoyne, 47 Squadron. Take off 0245Z, flight time 24 hours 5 minutes, 6300nm round trip. Air drop of 1000lbs stores and 8 Special Forces to HMS Antelope in the TEZ. Captain awarded the AFC, the crew QCVSAs.
  2. 1 June. “Ursula”, Cadbury 8. Four Victor support. Hercules C1P XV179 air drop to HMS Penelope. Freight and personnel. Of note new CO 2 Para, Col D R Chaundler.
  3. The four Victor refuelling plan now used exclusively due to the Task Groups range. By 6 June Hercules sorties exceeded 24 hours endurance.
  4. The final “Cadbury” sortie took off at 0439Z on 14 June and was airborne when the Argentine forces surrendered at 2359Z.

The Aftermath
The Hercules refuelling sorties continued, even after the first aircraft landing on Stanley Airfield on 24 June 1982. The Victor was using up unanticipated fatigue due to the high all up weight take offs and hot climate. In order to extend its life, Marshalls were tasked to convert a limited number of C-130s into tankers, specifically to assist the air bridge supply route. For the next 3 years, the Hercules tanker, supported by a small detachment of Victor tankers maintained the transport air bridge until the final Victor returned to Marham on 10 June 1985. I was the AEO and thankful to be home.

Victor Support Sorties During the Conflict

Victor flying programme 21/22 May showing 17 Victor crews supporting a Nimrod surveillance mission and a Hercules air drop. Dave Davenall

Date 1982 Sortie Nickname AAR Plans Victor Support Duration
16 May TransOp 607/82 Cadbury 1 3 aircraft Tuxford flew 6 hours 10 minutes Long
22 May Julie Cadbury 2 3 aircraft
24 May Lara Cadbury 3 2 aircraft
25 May Mary Cadbury 4 3 aircraft
26 May Nora Cadbury 5 4 aircraft
28 May Olive Cadbury 6 4 aircraft
30 May Sally Cadbury 7 4 aircraft Tuxford flew 5 hours 45 minutes to RV2 Long
1 June Ursula Cadbury 8 4 aircraft
2 June Vera Cadbury 9 4 aircraft Tuxford 10 hours 15 minutes Long
4 June Wilma Cadbury 10 4 aircraft Aborted – HDU u/s
5 June Wilma 2 Cadbury 11 4 aircraft
6 June Xaviera Cadbury 12 4 aircraft
7 June Yvonne Cadbury 13 4 aircraft
9 June Zara Cadbury 14 4 aircraft Delayed t/off
10 June Alison Cadbury 15 4 aircraft
11 June Denise Cadbury 16 4 aircraft
Bertha 4 aircraft Cancelled
13 June Elaine Cadbury 17 4 aircraft
Freda Cadbury 18 4 aircraft Aborted
14 June Gina Cadbury 19 4 aircraft
Freda 2 Cadbury 20 4 aircraft