Vox Clamantis in Deserto - The F4 Phantom FGR2 (F-4M)
Vox Clamantis in Deserto

  Links to chapters:

29 Squadron, RAF Conningsby. The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II - FGR2
Growing Pains: Courtney: The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II - FGR2, 29 Sqn, RAF

Courtney's Journal - Man's Flight Through Life is Sustained by the Power of his Learning - The F4 Phantom FGR2 (F-4M)

On this page: 29 Squadron RAF Coningsby, QRA, Tu95 Bear, Ascension Island and The Falklands 1982
                      TEV Rangatira

29 Squadron, RAF Coningsby

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There is a story I have often told that is almost completely untrue. But I was never one to allow reality to get in the way of a good story, as I'm sure you've realized. by now. In fact, if you'll bear with me a moment, most tales worth telling are greatly improved by a respectable degree of light-hearted embellishment. Where, for example, would fishermen be without such linguistic and factual flexibility? Indeed, where would politicians find themselves without access to this type of moral manoeuvrability when it comes to compiling their manifestos? They might even be forced to resort to telling the truth. Anyway, back to the story. It goes like this:

My dad said to me,

'What do you want to be when you grow up, son?'

'I want to be a fighter pilot, dad.'

'Now come on, son, you know you can't do both!'

Perhaps there is something in being a fighter pilot that appeals to the adolescent in us all - you know, the dashing image, the girls, the champagne, the sports car, the outrageous moustache. However, despite all that, there comes a time when we all have to accept a change in our lifestyles. Maybe not growing-up as such, but the learning of lessons and the application of a degree of maturity.

So, having successfully completed the F-4 Phantom OCU, I joined 29 Squadron, known as "Triplex", at RAF Coningsby, operating The F4 Phantom FGR2 (F-4M). 29 Sqn had an interesting reputation in those days; it was not all good, but it was certainly widely known - I find the terms 'infamy' and 'notoriety' tend to spring to mind. If first prize in a competition was a night out with 29 Squadron, the second prize would have been two nights out with 29 Squadron! Click here for the 1981 squadron photograph, which, if nothing else, will show you just how big a Phantom squadron was - aircrew, groundcrew and support staff - I count about 153 people in the picture (although I get a different answer every time I try!).

Anyway, the prime order of business was to achieve Combat Ready (CR) or Operational status on the F4 Phantom. Although it is probably true to say that a pilot's training never ends, this milestone represents the end of the training machine and the beginning of productive service. Once CR, aircrew can undertake operational tasks such as, Quick Reaction Alert (QRA), participation in major exercises and even the real thing (going to war), in extremis.

The 29 Squadron F4 Phantom Combat Ready work-up is known as CONVEX (CONVersion EXercises). Whereas the Phantom OCU training focussed on flying the aircraft and basic air defence skills, CONVEX involved accruing the knowledge required to take on operational tasks in the F4 Phantom: Rules of Engagement, the NATO Alert System, Standard Operating Procedures, tactics, how the Air Defence System works, learning to lead larger, more operational formations, getting a meaningful instrument rating, being checked-out to go on QRA and, finally, the Tac Check, the sortie on which one's skills and knowledge in all the above are thoroughly tested. In part, the process involves building upon the foundations laid down by the F4 Phantom OCU and further developing the existing skills, but it also necessitates the learning of some new ones.

Air-to-Air Refuelling - The F4 Phantom  - The F4 Phantom FGR2 (F-4M)

Air-to-air refuelling in the F4 Phantom, 29 Sqn, RAF. F4 Phantom  - The F4 Phantom FGR2 (F-4M) Victor Tanker & 29 Sqn F4

Air-to-air refuelling (AAR) in the F4 Phantom  - The F4 Phantom FGR2 (F-4M)
Air-to-air refuelling in the F4 Phantom - the navigator's view of the probe as the pilot makes contact with the AAR drogue, trailed from a Victor Tanker

Victor Tanker. F4 Phantom FGR2 (F-4M)

F4 Phantom FGR2
F4 Phantom FGR2

Air-to-Air Refueling

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Probably the most unusual of those new skills, to the novice, was tanking (Air-to-Air Refuelling or AAR). It is, to coin a phrase, a bit like riding a bike inasmuch as it's easy once you know how and, hopefully, you never forget. You will, perhaps, have heard astounding descriptions of the dangers of linking two aircraft together at 300 miles per hour. Actually, the speed makes no odds. As long as you and the tanker aircraft (at this time, the Victor Tanker) both possess roughly similar velocities, it's all OK. As a brief and amusing aside, many years later (1994), I was helping to host the Armed Forces Minister (Nicholas Soames) on an overseas, operational detachment. We were preparing to go out on a mission and he was asking us questions about the content of the sortie.

'This air-to-air refuelling', he enquired, 'how fast will you be flying when you're taking fuel?'

I told him, in round figures and he then asked,

'And how fast will the tanker aircraft be going?'

And this man was responsible for the defence of our country! His aide, realizing the Minister's obvious gaff, stepped in and bailed him out. I promise you that is absolutely true.

F4 Phantom Air-to-air refuelling (AAR)
Courtney & Mick Martin air-to-air refuelling (AAR) in a 29 Squadron F4 Phantom FGR2

Anyway, derring-do apart, tanking (air-to-air refuelling or AAR) can be a bit of a black art. Trying to manoeuvre a probe (which, in the case of the Phantom, is not comfortably in the pilot's field of view) into a basket some 18” across without looking at it or chasing it. The problem is, you see, that the basket is on the end of a long, flexible hose and tends to be bounced about by turbulence and is pushed around by the airflow around the receiver's (the aircraft receiving the fuel from the Victor Tanker) nose. In short, the thing you're trying to connect with, doesn't always cooperate. Also, it's quite hard, especially to begin with, to make control inputs small enough to take out any error or movement of the basket without over doing it. A small perceived error of alignment between the basket and the probe in the last second prior to 'contact' has often been known to induce a pilot to make a sudden, 'last ditch' correction in an attempt to secure a successful link-up. The result is likely to be a movement on the controls far greater than is actually required. In other words, one can tend to over-control...   ...sometimes grossly. To make things more interesting, we also do this at night or in heavy cloud and severe turbulence. Just for fun, you understand. Approach to contact with the drogue had to be fast enough to ensure that the probe actually locked into the hose to allow fuel to flow, but not so fast that the probe could damage the spokes (see the picture to the left) or the rim. I have seen probes (not mine, I hasten to add) go right through the spokes; I've seen drogues break and shed bits of metal down the Phantom's right engine - not good.

The Victor Tanker

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Let's turn to the tanker aircraft for a moment. The RAF's AAR fleet at the time was equipped with Victor tankers, first flown in 1952 and entered service with the RAF as a strategic nuclear bomber in 1957 as part of the V-Force. In 1964 Handley Page was contracted to convert 10 of the RAF's remaining Victor B1 and 14 of its B1As into probe-and-drogue flight-refuelling tankers for the RAF. The Victor tankers were fitted with a Mk 20B flight refuelling pod, effectively huge hydraulically powered reels with some 85 feet of hose each, under each wing to refuel fast jets (delivering about 540 kg or 1,200 lbs of aviation fuel per minute). These could be used simultaneously. A Mk 17 flight refuelling hose drum unit in the rear of the bomb bay could deliver 1,800 kg (4,000 lbs) of fuel per minute and was used for refuelling any probe-equipped aircraft. Two extra fuel tanks were fitted in the remainder of the bomb bay and the latest variant of the Victor Tanker could carry approximately 41,300 kg (91,000 lbs) of fuel. This was a superb tanker - stable, reliable and the crews really knew what they were doing, but she was old and so the Victor Tanker was retired from RAF service in October 1993.

Victor Tanker showing the wing and centreline refuelling stations.
Victor Tanker of 55 Squadron showing the wing and centreline (retracted) refuelling stations.

Combat Ready

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Anyway, despite the horror stories everyone wants to tell you about such things when you are about to step into the unknown, learning to do AAR went fine and I was declared Combat Ready late in 1980. I was crewed up with a very capable and pleasant navigator named Pete. He was quite a senior flight lieutenant with a good deal of experience on the F4 Phantom. He was to be my 'mentor' for my early days on 29 Squadron. It was certainly good news to be flying as part of a crew rather than as a student flying with an instructor. A constituted crew is a team. More than that, in fact. A bond of trust is formed and each member learns how the other thinks. However, it is sometimes easy to assume too much.

Whilst the vast majority of each squadron’s F4 Phantoms were ‘single-stickers’ (with flying controls only in the front cockpit) there were a few ‘twin-stickers’. These were modified to take a duplicate set of flying controls in the rear cockpit. It was, basically for training purposes so that an instructor in the rear seat could fly the aircraft. The control stick could be, and usually was, removed for various good reasons, which I won’t bore you with right now. However, occasionally we’d fly as a crew in a twin-sticker with the stick in the back. On such occasions, it seemed, it was traditional for a pilot to allow his nav to do some flying. Well, one night, we’d been practising intercepts out over the North Sea, and were on our way home to Coningsby when Pete, wishing to remind me that he had a control column in the back, thumped the stick in his cockpit. Feeling the jolt through mine gave me the hint so I let him take control to fly an instrument approach, assuming that he’d seen hundreds of these in the F4 Phantom and would, therefore, be perfectly capable of doing it himself.

Actually, I was half-right. He had seen hundreds, but really didn’t have a clue how to fly one, which, if you think about it, is hardly surprising. I guess it was a function of always having flown with instructors who were supposed to know how to do anything I could. Pete had bags of skill and experience, but none as a pilot. Of course, it seemed obvious afterwards but, at the time, my only response to hearing ATC saying ‘27, you are dangerously below the glide-path’ was to encourage Pete to add power. In retrospect some hasty corrective action was called for. In truth, it never was ‘dangerous’ at all because it was a clear night and I could see what was going on, but it was still a good lesson to learn. Don’t assume anything when it comes to flying; if you do, you may live to regret it, unless you’re unlucky as well as stupid.

As a result of this and a number of similar, minor incidents, I adopted a philosophy concerning luck and learning, which I might take a moment to share with you. I have since used it to explain to students of my own how to treat situations where mistakes were made, risks taken, safety jeopardized or where things just didn’t go as expected. I explain it thus: We each have two imaginary bags: one for luck and the other for experience. At birth the luck one is (hopefully) full and the experience one is (obviously) empty. Every time we make a mistake or have a close call and get away with it, we use some of the contents of the luck bag. On each such occasion, it’s up to us whether we put anything back in the experience bag, but eventually the luck bag will be empty. If we haven’t managed to fill the experience bag by then, we’re in big trouble.

I learnt a lot of lessons in those early days on the F4 Phantom, but then I had a lot to learn. At least I was willing to learn. I certainly used to make my flight commander work for his living. He and I did not, for some considerable time, see eye to eye. I don’t think I ever deliberately wound him up but, on the other hand, I don’t recall going too far out of my way to defuse the situation. We certainly did have a few disagreements - usually the sort of one-sided disagreement where I would stand smartly at attention in front of his desk whilst giving him a jolly good listening to. I have to say that, eventually, I learned that his heart was in the right place and all we needed to do was to get in step with each other; actually I needed to get in step with him. Having so done, we got on fine and I now hold him in high regard. Actually, what he ultimately taught me was to pay attention to detail. It’s no good having most of your stuff right if you persistently overlook the little details. I suppose it was all about being more mature. Some years later I wrote a short passage in my diary:

I’m wondering when we start, finish and learn about growing up. At 16 I thought I knew it all. At 18 I knew that I knew it all. Now I know this never happens. We had all just better make sure that as the years roll by (and by God they do!) we’re growing wiser at least as fast as we’re growing older. These are the real growing pains.

Dot centred. F4 Phantom Radar Display - The F4 Phantom FGR2 (F-4M)
Target locked, dot centred, full circle expansion. F4 Phantom radar.



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In the last chapter I described a little about how we flew intercepts on the OCU and I promised to tell about how we did it in the F4 Phantom on the front line. Now's the time. The techniques for this and the profiles varied hugely over the years and there were a number of ways of doing it; this is just one way of skinning this particular feline. This is the procedure at night or in cloud and assumes that we have been ordered to destroy the target and that we cannot see it visually. We must rely solely on the radar. If we can see him, it's a very different fight.

My nav operates the Phantom's radar in PD search mode, scanning for targets. Remember that PD search indicates closing velocity on the scope and not range, so once a target is detected my nav commands the radar to lock to it in order to determine its range and to get a collision dot on the scope. With Sparrow (semi-active air-to-air missile) selected, I manoeuvre the Phantom to centre the dot in order to establish a collision with the target. I note the target azimuth, multiply that by 2 and subtract that from 180 to get the TCA and, therefore, target heading - simple! Now I pull lead on the target by turning in the direction target to dot in an effort to get onto the target's centreline (onto a 180 x 0). We note the target range and closing velocity in miles per minute and I start my stopwatch and count down the estimated range to my nav - 'stopwatch ranging'. Meanwhile, my nav breaks lock and returns to search mode for loads of good reasons, mainly looking for other targets and to avoid alerting the target that he is one. My back-seater keeps painting the target and we watch for changes in the target's movement which would indicate a manoeuvre (either navigation turns or manoeuvres to try to evade us). We adjust our altitude, heading and speed to continue to counter his moves and to position ourselves for our first shot. Once we're on the target's centreline, we turn back towards it to put it on the nose.

My nav may take occasional 'sample' locks just to confirm the target's altitude, heading and speed. As I estimate that the target is approaching missile launch range, my nav re-locks to the target ("locks him up") to confirm the range and so that the radar can be used to guide the semi-active radar missile (Sparrow or Skyflash). The radar scope now displays a circle, called the Allowable Steering Error Circle (ASE Circle). At this closer range, the 'dot' now indicates missile steering information rather than target collision. I need to make sure the dot is inside the circle before firing a Fox 1 - ideally the dot should be as close to the centre as possible. Firing a Fox 1 with the dot centred theoretically gives the missile the least work to do in order to navigate to the target and, therefore, the best chance of getting there.

The ASE circle slowly expands as we close the range to the target. As we approach optimum launch range the circle reaches its maximum size - this is about 60% of the missile's maximum aerodynamic range (0.6 RA). At this range I centre the dot and squeeze the trigger to launch a Fox 1. It takes about 2 seconds from trigger squeeze to missile launch. The radar's continuous wave (CW) illuminator is activated to guide the missile(s) to the target, the missile has to wake up, quickly retune itself to the aircraft's CW radar frequency, start up its own internal power source and receive a load of information about the target from the radar. The missile is ejected, after which the motor lights and the wings unlock to allow it to guide to the target. We need to maintain lock on the target and CW illumination for the missile's time of flight.


A Skyflash, F4 Phantom FGR2 (F-4M)
Fox 1 - launched by Courtney from an F4 Phantom

After the missile(s) has launched, we break away from the target. When it reaches 40° off the centreline, we rapidly reverse the turn to roll out behind the target. Before the fighter reaches the target's beam (side on) my nav needs to re-lock into pulse mode; the radar will not be able to see the target on the beam in PD as the MBC notch will blank it out. I select Sidewinder and I either centre the aiming dot or slave the missile's seeker head to the radar (Sidewinder Expanded Acquisition Mode or 'SEAM') for the missile to "see" the target - this won't work in cloud so a stern Fox 1 would be the preferred option if the target is obscured.

When the Sidewinder does see the target (the heat from its engines) , we can hear the Sidewinder 'growl' or 'tone'- the sound of the seeker head tracking the target. At this point I can uncage the missile's seeker head so that the missile can track the target itself. Once in range, the I launch the missile (Fox 2). We don't fire a second one because if the first one misses, there is a chance that the second will simply track and follow the first and miss as well.

Fox 2
Fox 2

The next option is the Phantom's massive gun, but we do need to be visual with the target to employ that beastie! All being well, the radar will break lock now as the target disintegrates. "Splash one bogie". I would just add that for QRA, our regular operational job in the F4 Phantom, we would normally want to fly a stern intercept to a VID (Visual IDentification) so the procedure would be much more like the academic intercept I explained in Chapter 5.

The Flag

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29 Squadron Life - F4 Phantom FGR2 (F-4M)


The Flag flies high on the masthead,
We'll drink to the glory of the Reich.
No longer will we tremble,
At England's military might.

So give to me your hand, Fraulein.
Your lily-white hand, Fraulein
For tonight we march against England,
England's, England's island shores, island shores, island shores,
Sieg Heil!

And if I fall in battle
And sink to the bottom of the sea
(Big splash!)
Remember this, my Fraulein,
My blood was shed for thee!

So give to me your hand, Fraulein.
Your lily-white hand, Fraulein
For tonight we march against England,
England's, England's island shores, island shores, island shores,
Sieg Heil!


Meanwhile, on 29 Squadron, we were busy with our round of overseas detachments. Fortunately they were virtually all to somewhere nice. Each year we had to go to Cyprus for air-to-air gunnery training. Cyprus, with all its troubles, is a wonderful island and it gave us an excellent opportunity for the Squadron to deploy 'en masse'. We would normally have at least one detachment each year to Decimomannu in Sardinia, a trip to Norway and a squadron exchange with another NATO squadron somewhere in Europe. These offered excellent training, each bringing its own experiences. It was also party time and, with a squadron like ours, there was quite a lot of this.

We also had an excellent male voice choir (so we thought) although I must admit that our repertoire wasn't exactly out of Hymns Ancient and Modern. Mind you, we did a pretty mean Sloop John B, an outstanding rendition of a famous old German Navy song called The Flag (left) and a questionable version of My Rhubarb Refuses to Rise, a lovely old hymn. Most of our singing was, not surprisingly, done in various bars and places of ill repute around the world. Of course, we would also put up a rousing chorus or two after dining-in nights.


FGR2F4 Phantom FGR2 (F-4M) Cockpit
The 'office'. This is the main instrument panel in the front cockpit of
the RAF's F-4 Phantom. The unit at the top is the gun sight and radar
display. Below that in the centre are the main flight instruments. To the
left of those are the weapons controls and to the right of them are the
engine instruments. This layout is more or less common to all western jets; later generation cockpits tend to be "glass", using electronic displays.
Click on the photograph for a larger view of both F4 Phantom cockpits.

Dining-In Nights

How to stop a boring speech

Operation Pink Rabbit - 29 Squadron, RAF Conningsby - F4 Phantom

Meter reading medium - Courtney flying the F4 Phantom

Dining In Nights

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Talking of dining-in nights, I've always found them to be great fun as long as the after-dinner speeches are reasonably concise or, if not, reasonably funny. However, this is not always the case. Fortunately, there are ways of dealing with such eventualities. Here are a couple that I employed during my youth.

Whilst on 29 Squadron, I signed-up for a Station Dining-In Night at which we were to say farewell to a Senior Engineering Officer. He had, shall we say, a reputation for being somewhat uninteresting and long-winded. As he was the senior departing guest, he was bound to have to make a speech and that was bound to be boring with a capital BORE. We, the young 'shags' on 29 Squadron, decided that it was up to us to brighten up an otherwise dull event. We hit upon a solution and swung into action in order to prepare for Operation Pink Rabbit.

By the evening of the dinner, everything was in place and awaiting the execute signal from the Senior Flying Officer. The departing engineer rose to his feet and began his dissertation. As expected it was tedious and plodding. Actually, that was the good bit. It wasn't long before he got onto the tearful bit about how wonderful his chaps had been and how he didn't want to go and so on. Anyway, the signal was given and we sprang into action. One young JP (Junior Pilot) was pre-positioned by one of the large sash windows in the Officers' Mess Dining Room. He threw open the window and stood back. In rushed a small, somewhat startled, baby pig wearing a mop cap and a 29 Squadron T-shirt with a helium balloon tied to his tail.

Not surprisingly, this caused a bit of a stir amongst the diners. The little chap trotted proudly around the room, investigating the various titbits that were being surreptitiously dropped under the tables for him. He was having a wonderful time and was on his best behaviour. According to one of the OCU navs, however, he was being a bit too quiet for the ambience of the occasion. He (the nav) decided to strike up a conversation with him (the pig). This encouraged the little porker to start squealing. This, naturally, caused a significant amount of jocularity around the dining room - all except the speaker who was still droning on about the last two years of his life, totally failing to notice that he was no longer commanding the total attention of his audience. The fact that he continued to plough-on through his interminable monologue, oblivious to the fact that no one was listening any more, made the whole affair even more humorous. The stifled giggles turned into unstifled ones, which, in turn, became hearty chortles, which, as is so often the way, eventually became raucous laughter.

Eventually, either through the desire to restore some degree of decorum to the proceedings or through a sense of pity for the poor speaker, the PMC (President of the Mess Committee - the bloke in charge at such occasions) rose to his feet and banged his gavel, commanding silence. The riot gradually abated. There was silence apart from Porky who was busy snuffling his way through one gentleman's port. The PMC ordered 'Twenty-nine Squadron, catch that pig!' You know when you've said the wrong thing, don't you? What happened next can only be described as a comedy classic from the Keystone Cops. Twenty officers of assorted ranks in single file chasing the piglet who, realising that he was about to be down-graded from top-table to sty, was weaving his way through the mess furniture. The laughter was, again, riotous. This went on for fully five minutes until one of the flight commanders managed a flying rugby tackle and captured the creature. Strangely enough, the surname of the flight commander in question was Trotter. The end result of all that was that 29 Squadron was 'invited' to leave the dinner and were banned, by the Station Commander, from ever mentioning the pig again - hence the term 'pink rabbit.'

That, perhaps, was the 'not very subtle' approach to demolishing boring speeches. The one I preferred occurred to me half way through a really long and equally tedious rendition some months later. It was getting late and the bar was in grave danger of not being open by the time the orator finished. I decided that a tactful hint was required. Fortunately I was seated right next to the door that lead from the dining room to the kitchen. Unfortunately tact was not one of my fortes in those days. Unseen, I slipped from the room and began my search for the piece of equipment I required for my heroic task. I found it; the vacuum cleaner. I plugged it in, switched it on and burst into the dining room and, ignoring the proceedings totally, proceeded to Hoover the room. Once again, the speaker failed to take the hint so I turned my attention to the area around him. I had to move him aside to do the bit around his chair, which seemed to shut him up. Unfortunately, his prolonged and dreary speech was replaced by a shorter, more direct monologue that went something along the lines of, 'Courtnage, my office, nine o'clock, Monday morning.' Still, at least the speaker got the hint. Flying Officer Courtnage reported, as ordered, and had another of those acidic, one-way conversations. All this new-found maturity was wonderful!

UK Air Defence -  The F4 Phantom FGR2 (F-4M)

F-111 (Aardvark)
USAF F-111

Meter reading high


UK Air Defence

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We participated regularly in a number of major flying exercises. Among these was Elder Forest, held early each year and designed to test the UK Air Defence system. RAF and USAF strike/attack aircraft played the enemy - the Soviets - and we defended against them in the classic East-West scenario. SPETSNAZ (Soviet Special Forces) would try to infiltrate the bases (not real ones for exercise purposes), the bad guys would attack the UK and we would, effectively, go to war – well, pretend war. Some 200 aircraft would play and things would escalate rapidly from 'increased tension', through conventional war to chemical and nuclear attacks. Big toys for big boys.

Each quarter, when we were not deployed, 29 Squadron would play in Exercise Mallet Blow. This was designed to train RAF and NATO ground attack crews and was held in the north of England. We would provide air defence against them, which not only provided realistic training for them, but also gave us a great deal of value in defending against multiple, low level attackers.

It was during one of these that I was in my F4 Phantom chasing down a USAF F-111, looking to close the range between us in order to take a simulated Sidewinder shot and claim an exercise 'kill'. He was low and very fast but my mighty Phantom was catching him. As we streaked across the Haltwhistle valley, my nav shouted "Check Speed!" I noticed, to my horror, that the burners had been lit too long and our mighty F4 had accelerated through Mach one - we were supersonic at low level, 'booming' the local villages. There was going to be hell to pay for this one. I slowed down and hauled off my target. Well, after I'd shot him anyway.

By the time I got back to RAF Coningsby, the complaints were rolling in. Fortunately, very fortunately, just before I went and confessed to my sin, I found out that the F-111 pilot had, bloody decently I thought, admitted that he had 'dropped a boom' whilst trying to escape an unidentified RAF fighter. I decided that the best policy at this point was to keep quiet. I'd rather be lucky than good! If you were in the Haltwhistle valley that day, I apologize unreservedly; it wasn't intentional and so easy to do.

F4 Phantom Hot Topic Warning - The Falklands War 1982

Tu95 Bear
Soviet Tu95 Bear, long range patrol aircraft intercepted by UK QRA

RAF F4 Phantom QRA (Quick Reaction Alert)

Tu95 Bear Door Numbers - F4 Phantom QRA
Tu95 Bear Door Numbers

USSR - F4 Phantom QRA CCCP

Quick Reaction Alert (QRA)

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Then came some other news, the full significance of which was not immediately apparent. In 1981 a new military Junta in Buenos Aires decided that the return of the Malvinas (The Falkland Islands to us) to Argentinean control was a high priority. I only mention it because this might have a bearing on the story very soon. Anyway, at the time there was little evidence to the Junta that the British government was anxious to hold on to the colony. The population was less than 2,000 and slowly ebbing, as was the local economy, based largely on the export of wool. Although the islanders were strongly opposed any transfer of sovereignty to Argentina, Britain had been reluctant to deny their right to self-determination or to devote major resources to the development or the protection of the islands. Still, there wasn't too much to worry about for two reasons really: (a) nobody really knew where the Falklands were and (b) there was a garrison of Royal Marines on the islands to take care of things. Now you already know the outcome of that particular story, but I shall say nothing more about it for now in order to occasion feelings of tension and apprehension and to give this chapter the exciting attributes of an Ian Flemming novel. We shall return to that bit later.

In those days of the Cold War, the Soviet Union possessed a powerful war machine. This included a huge nuclear arsenal facing the USA's 7,000 megatons of destructive power (the equivalent of half-a-million times the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima) and the nuclear weapons of other good guyssuch as the UK and France. Soviet long-range aircraft would frequently probe the UK's airspace, watching and testing the RAF's responses. As part of the counter to that, we maintained the QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) Interceptor Force. I shall describe QRA to you in a bit more detail in the next chapter, but will introduce you to it here.

Every hour of every day of the year, there were armed strike and fighter aircraft ready to respond to the threat of war or intrusion. In the UK, Northern and Southern QRA, or 'Q' as it is normally called, was manned. 29 Squadron took its turn to hold Southern Q, ready to scramble to intercept and repel the long-range Soviet bombers, the Russian 'Bears' of which I intercepted 6 during my time at Coningsby. This was a deadly game of cat and mouse.

Air Defence radar sites around the country would scan the skies for possible intruders. The Norwegians and the American based in Iceland would feed details of radar contacts, which they held, into our system. When it looked like one might enter the UK Air Defence Region (UK ADR) either Northern Q, at Leuchars, or Southern Q would be scrambled to intercept them, more often than not, in the very small hours of the morning. Our communications link to the Sector Operations Centre was 'telebrief' and it was via this that the scramble message would come:

'This is Neatishead with a scramble message for Southern QRA. Vector 080, climb flight level two-five-zero, contact Neatishead fighter stud five-eight, scramble, scramble, scramble, acknowledge'.

We were on ten minutes readiness, which meant that from that instruction we had ten minutes to dress, run to the jet, get everything spun-up, taxi and get airborne. There wasn't much time left over to answer a call of nature, finish dinner, wake up or whatever else one happened to be doing or needing to do at the time. Once airborne we would head off in pursuit of our quarry to intercept and identify them.

Part of that identification process involved reading the Soviet aircraft's registration number. On western aircraft, that would be an easy matter of reading the number off the tail, fuselage or wings. The Soviets, however, only painted a two-digit number on the nose wheel doors, underneath the aircraft - for this reason, they were known as door numbers (see left). The only way to read the door number was to get right up underneath the aircraft, bearing in mind that this was usually at night, so that the nav could read the numbers through a night vision scope. Flying the Phantom so close to the under-side of the mighty Bear was an exciting pastime. It was nothing more than a black, unlit shadow in the dark, northern sky, but the noise of its engines was a deafening roar, even inside the Phantom, not known as a quiet environment.

As if this wasn't thrilling enough already, the Russians had a few tricks they would use to spice up our lives. As we were closing in on them, they would shine their huge spotlight in our eyes to dazzle us. A friend of mine had a sonar buoy dropped on him. A sonobuoy is a large, heavy cylindrical device that maritime patrol aircraft drop into the sea to aid them in the search for submerged submarines. Fortunately it only just caught the tail of his jet leaving a large fluorescent scrape mark, but had it hit the fuselage or cockpit area it would have given him some serious, if not terminal, grief.

One night, my nav and I were in our Phantom, underneath a Bear, cautiously moving into position for my back-seater to read the door number. I was having a hard time getting there as the Bear kept manoeuvring, presumably to make life difficult, and the weather was far from friendly. Having been clinging onto this silhouette in the sky for so long, I began to get an uneasy feeling that everything wasn't as it should be. For the last ten minutes or so, I had been staring at nothing other than the Bear (I really couldn't look away from him due to his proximity, his continual manoeuvres and the fact that it was pitch black) and my nav had been staring through his night vision scope trying desperately to read the numbers so that we could get the hell out of there. I had to back off (down actually) for a moment to check our height. Having started this game at around 7,000 feet, we were now at 150 feet and going down. Those lovely, fluffy gentlemen in the Bear, knowing that we would be working hard to follow their turns, had been gently descending in the hope of wiping us out on a cold, hard, dark sea.

Most often, in the daylight, the Russian crews would wave a friendly greeting and prepare to take our picture; they were as interested in the F4 Phantom as we were in the Tu95 Bear. Now, if you've ever seen a Bear, you would have noticed, near the back of the aircraft, below the tail, there is a window. There is, in fact, one on each side (see photograph below).

Tupolev Tu-95 Bear - RAF F4 Phantom QRA
Tu-95K-22, NATO codename "Bear G", is a rebuild of the 1960s "Bear B/C. This Bear was photographed from an F4 Phantom on QRA".
Note the windows below the tail (close-up later).



In order to take a picture of our F4 Phantom, one of the Bear's crewman would have to position a massive camera, on a cart or something, in the window appropriate to the side on which we were flying. He would have to hook it up to the power supply, aim it, focus it and...   ...just as he was about to take his happy snap, we'd move to the other side. He, presumably muttering some Marxist curse, would have to start all over again. We could have hours of fun with that guy.

Above all, however, despite the hazardous and occasionally light-hearted side of it, this was real operational work and I was proud to be a part of it.

There is a link at the bottom of this page to a BBC TV Nationwide documentary on the F4 Phantom, which includes some good footage on QRA, made in 1979. This is Part One of the documentary, Part Two is included in the next chapter where I shall explain more about QRA. First a little about the Tu95 Bear.

Tupolev Tu-95 Bear

Tupolev Tu-95 Bear

Tupolev Tu-95 Bear

Tupolev Tu-95 "Bear"

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"Bear" is the NATO codename for the Tupolev Tu-95 (Туполев Ту–95) and its derivatives (see below). It is a four-engine turboprop, strategic bomber and missile launch platform, which had its first flight in 1952 and entered service with the former Soviet Union in 1956. Even in Russia, it is commonly known by its NATO designation. It is the fastest propeller-driven aircraft in history, it also remains the only turboprop-powered strategic bomber in operational use. Its distinctively swept-back wings are at 35 degrees, a very sharp angle by the standards of propeller-driven aircraft, and justified by its operating speeds and altitudes. The Tu-95 Bear generally has a crew of 10.

There were numerous Tu-95 variants, the principal ones listed here:

Model Description
A Tu-95/Tu-95M - Basic variant of the long-range strategic bomber and the only model of the aircraft never fitted with a nose refuelling probe.
B Tu-95K/Tu-95KD - Designed to carry the Raduga Kh-20 air-to-surface missile. The Tu-95KD aircraft were the first to be outfitted with nose refuelling probes.
C Tu-95KM - Modified and upgraded versions of the Tu-95K, most notable for their enhanced reconnaissance systems. These were in turn converted into Bear Gs.
D Tu-95RTs (Razvedchik Tseleukazatel) - Variant of the Bear A, redesigned for maritime reconnaissance and targeting and electronic intelligence for service in the Soviet Naval Aviation.
E Tu-95MR - Bear A modified for photo-reconnaissance and produced for Soviet Naval Aviation.
F Tu-142 - Maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare derivative of Tu-95.
G Tu-95K22 - Conversions of the older Bear bombers, reconfigured to carry the Raduga Kh-22 missile and incorporating modern avionics.
H Tu-95MS/Tu-95MS6/Tu-95MS16 - Completely new cruise missile carrier platform based on the Tu-142 airframe carrying the Raduga Kh-55.
J Tu-142MR - Submarine communication relay aircraft.
T Tu-95U Uchebnyy - Training variant, modified from surviving Bear As but all now retired.

There was also an airliner version of the Bear (Tu-114), an airborne early warning variant (Tu-126) and even an experimental, nuclear powered prototype, the Tu-95LaL or Tu-119. It is expected that the Bear will remain in service with the Russian Air Force until 2040.

Tu-95 Bear engines - RAF F4 Phantom QRA
The Tu95 Bear Engines. Taken on QRA

Tu-95 Bear Engine

Tu-95 Bear Flight Deck
Tupolev Tu-95 'Bear' Cockpit.

Depending on the variant, the Bear can carry up to 15,000 kg (33,000 lbs) of air-to-surface missiles, including the Raduga Kh-20, Kh-22 and Kh-55. Typically it is armed with one or two 23mm tail guns. Other leading particulars are:

Length 46.2 m (151 ft 6 in) Max take-off weight 188,000 kg (414,500 lbs)
Wingspan 50.10 m (164 ft 5 in) Maximum speed 510 knots (920 km/h)
Height 12.12 m (39 ft 9 in) Range 8,100 nm (15,000 km, 9,400 mi)
Empty weight 90,000 kg (198,000 lbs) Service ceiling 45,000 ft (13,716 m)

All models of Bears have massively powerful engines - four Kuznetsov NK-12M engines, each driving contra-rotating propellers and producing some 14,800 shaft horse power. That's a meaningless number without a point of reference. So, by comparison, the C130's engines put out about 4,500 shaft horse power - about one third the power. Our intelligence chaps were always very interested in these and we went through a phase on QRA of taking all sorts of interesting pictures and measurements of them to try to work out how much power they produce and how they do it.

The engine was actually developed, not by Russians, but by a team of German prisoners, mainly ex-Junkers engineers, during the late 1940s. They were imprisoned at Upravlencheskiy on the Volga River in Western Russia. As I write this (and, I suspect for long afterwards) the NK-12 is the most powerful turboprop engine ever built - by a long, long way. That is what makes the Tu-95 Bear the fastest propeller-driven aircraft ever.


  Tu-95 Bear Tail Gun - RAF F4 Phantom QRA
Most Tu-95 models have very accurate, very effective
twin 23mm tail guns. And we approach from behind!

Tu-95 Bear Rear Crew
Tu-95 Bear taken during a QRA sortie. This picture shows the tail gunner and the
camera operator, who is photographing us. Tail guns are normally pointed upwards
like this during intercepts to show no hostile intent on their part.

The Tu-95LaL (Летающая Атомная Лаборатория) and Tu-119 Nuclear Powered Aircraft

Let's just go back to the Tu-95LaL (Letayushchaya Atomnaya Laboratoriya meaning Flying Atomic Laboratory) and Tu-119 for a moment, just because this was such a ridiculous and, frankly, daring concept. A nuclear powered aircraft! The idea was that if they could power an aircraft by nuclear power, it could stay airborne almost indefinitely, without the need to refuel. So they installed a small nuclear reactor into the bomb bay of a Tu-95M, just aft of the trailing edge of the wings, to power the inboard two engines - the outboard engines were conventionally powered in this flying laboratory. The Tu-95LaL was the development version of the Tu-119.

One of the problems with taking a nuclear reactor airborne is that of weight. A nuclear reactor is a heavy piece of kit and most of that weight is its radiation shielding. So, the nuclear reactor in the Tu-95LaL had minimal shielding and the main purpose of its experimental flights was to determine how effective this shielding was at protecting the crew. Test pilots must have been falling over themselves to volunteer for that job! Anyway, it was claimed that it was capable of staying airborne for two days - or until the crew succumbed to the effects of the radiation. After 34 flights in 1961, they seemed to think that the results were promising and worth pressing ahead with the programme.

Tu-119, Tu-95LaL Nuclear Powered Aircraft
The Tupolev Tu-95LaL, nuclear powered, experimental bomber, fore-runner of the Tu-119.
The bulge above the centre fuselage was to fit in the top of the reactor.

When I explain how the system worked, you will quickly understand how wacky this plan was - apart from the obvious problem with irradiating the crew! The nuclear powered engines in the Tu95LaL worked by direct cycle power transfer. Air entered through the engine intake and the compressor section of the gas turbine (jet) engines. It was then piped to the reactor core where it was heated, also acting as the reactor coolant (what if they needed to shut an engine down?). The hot air was then ducted back though the turbine section of the engines to drive the propellers and compressors and then ejected through the jet pipes. The Tu-119 was to use a similar system, but with a heat exchanger between the engines and the reactor. See below.

Tupolev Tu-119, Tu-95LaL Nuclear Powered Aircraft
Tu-95LaL/Tu-119. This drawing shows the ducts (black lines) that carry high pressure air to the reactor and hot,
high pressure air back to the engine turbine. The reactor core replaces the combustion chambers of conventional engines.

However, the development of Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles rendered the project obsolete and the Soviet nuclear powered bomber project was abandoned (in 1966) before the Tu-119 was built, which was probably a good thing. It was expensive, dangerous to the crew and would have been disastrous if there were ever a crash or a malfunction of the high-pressure, hot air ducts. The Americans toyed with a similar project, culminating in the Convair X-6 (below). This too was cancelled, but not before it cost US$7 billion.

Convair NB-36H Nuclear Test Aircraft, serial number 51-5712, The Crusader.

Courtney: NATO squadron exchange between 29 Sqn McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II (FGR2) and 2MFG1 F-104 Starfighters of the German Navy

Squadron Exchange and how I almost died. Courtney on 29 Squadron flying the F4 Phantom FGR2 (F-4M)

F-104 Starfighter
German Navy F104 Starfighter

Actually, this wasn't the only time I
almost died; just the time only I time
I realized!

Meter reading high

A Close Call

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One of our annual events was, as I mentioned, a squadron exchange. This entailed half of our squadron detaching, with jets and groundcrew, to another NATO squadron and half of their squadron coming to us. This was a two week deployment during which we could work with another European nation's air force and enjoy some tactical and cultural interchange. One year I went off to Aalborg in Denmark; a wonderful couple of weeks led by my nav, Mick Martin, in appalling weather during which we saw more of the inside of various bars than the inside of the jets.

Another year we had an exchange with 2MFG1, a German Navy outfit who were flying the ageing Starfighter, the legendary F-104, also known as the 'widow maker' due to the number of pilots (especially German ones) it had killed. They were a pleasant bunch and, in time honoured fashion, we enjoyed some good flying against them and an enthusiastic social life. In fact, there were times when we were all as enthusiastic as newts. On this occasion, I was a member of the 'home team' hosting the Germans at RAF Coningsby. Their Squadron Boss had decided to bring with them a couple of their 2-stick F-104s, in the back of which he wanted we Brits to fly. It was during a particularly enthusiastic social gathering that the subject of a back seat ride cropped up in conversation and he invited me to go along and fly with him the following day. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

For the rest of the evening, we discussed all the places we could go and, as he was particularly interested in low flying, I was able to recommend some excellent valleys and mountain ranges through which we could fly. The most exciting one that sprang to mind was the A5 pass, which runs on the northern side of Snowdon and which is especially stimulating because of its depth, sheer sides and a particularly challenging 90° bend. I had been round the pass many times in a Hawk and even once in the F4, although, with its larger turning circle, that had been a bit of a tight squeeze. Warning!

The following morning, I was handed a helmet that was at least three sizes too big, a set of 'g' pants that would have fitted a Sumo wrestler and a torso harness that almost, but not quite, fitted my frame. Well, not to worry; as I said, I was indestructible. We climbed in and blasted off across the Lincolnshire countryside in our 'aluminum (sic) death tube'. When he first gave me control of the jet, I thought there must be something wrong with it. It would roll just fine, but pull on the stick and the nose would move, but the jet's direction didn't appear to change. It was very fast, very stable, but wouldn't turn for passion nor Lord Lucan's life assurance pay out. I realized that this aircraft was not built for going round corners, least of all the one in the middle of the A5 pass. Sensibly, I endeavoured to talk 'Fritz' out of attempting to take this piece of machinery around such a tight bend, especially as, once committed to it, there would be no safe escape route. 'No, no, it vill be all right, Courtney', he reassured me unreassuringly. He didn't realize how tight or enclosed this valley was. Further attempts to dissuade him from our chosen course were ineffective. Now I'm not one to panic easily, as you know, and I'm not given to jumping to conclusions, but I was getting the distinct impression that all was not well or, rather, all was not going to be well.

As we headed west, Snowdonia, shrouded in heavy, black, oily clouds, hoved into view. 'Oh, bugger,' I proclaimed, feigning disappointment. 'It's much too cloudy so we won't be able to go that way.' Unfortunately, the mantle of cloud merely hid from him the extent and topography of the underlying hard centre. Granite, millions of years old and hard as, well, granite, really. There was a letterbox shaped gap under the cloud tall enough, but only just, to fit an F-104 through. We were low and fast. In fact it was the sort of lowness and fastness that I would describe as 'bloody low' and 'bloody fast'. As we approached the corner, being mindful of the jet's less than average turn performance, I advised him to roll right and start pulling. When I say 'advised' I mean I advised him very loudly. 'No, no, ve are not at ze corner yet', he replied, still blissfully ignorant of the tight 90° bend that was rushing towards us. Then he realized. There was cloud above and rock on all sides. We both played briefly with the idea of pulling up, but the cloud hid the mountains above and we couldn't be sure whether there was room.

He rolled the aircraft violently 120° right and started to pull. Through the top of the canopy, all I could see was rock. Close. As we approached the edge where the valley drops away, I saw 20 or so mountain climbers with open mouths and wide eyes flash past my head. The aircraft shuddered under the force of the air trying vainly to alter our flight path as he hauled on the stick. It really didn't look like we were going to make it. Not even close. I thought of ejecting, but knew that there was nowhere to go. Over my head was solid granite and, besides, none of the kit I was wearing fitted properly. If the ejection wearing that stuff didn't kill me, slamming into a Welsh mountainside at the best part of 500 miles per hour surely would. The last thing I saw out of the top of the 104's canopy was the bottom of the valley, still skating past sideways as we approached the far valley wall, belly-up to it. It looked very much like we were going to slam into the wall of rock. Rock 1 : Starfighter 0.

For the only time in my life, I was absolutely certain that I was about to die. Surprisingly, I wasn't at all scared, nothing went into slow motion and the only thing that flashed before my eyes was the valley floor. Then, just as I knew it was coming, I realized that we were just about going to make it. As we rolled out of the turn, I could almost have reached out and touched the rock face, blurring past the left side of the jet. There was no conversation in the aircraft for a long while. We decided to look for somewhere straighter to fly and had a very pleasant and far less exciting time doing it. I have never met anyone else who has taken a 104 round the A5 pass and I now know why. If you've done this, contact me, I'd love to hear about it.

A Canberra of 100 Sqn
A Canberra of 100 Sqn. These guys
towed the banner for F4 Phantom
crews to shoot at.



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Soon 29 Squadron was bound for Cyprus again - RAF Akrotiri. Back to the land of Kokkinelli and Keo beer. Kokkinelli is a strong wine made from the second pressing of the year's grapes and the dregs from previous fermentations. While drinking it won't make you blind, it certainly won't improve your IQ. The purpose of the deployment was to get all our pilots qualified in air-to-air gunnery. This involved firing at a banner towed by a 100 Squadron Canberra. In the F4 Phantom, this required tight teamwork of pilot and navigator, precise flying, sound radar handling and the application of exactly the right technique. We fired bullets dipped in coloured paint – one colour for each crew firing on a particular banner. Each hit would register a coloured mark (as well as a hole) on the flag. After the sortie, the Canberra pilot would drop the flag back at RAF Akrotiri to be scored by the Squadron's Qualified Weapons Instructors (QWIs) according to the number of coloured holes. F4 QWIs were God.

The scoring of the flags was a time of momentous activity and great excitement. Each pilot needed two shoots of 15% or better to qualify. As the F4 Phantom gunsight required a bit of fudging to shoot a 180-knot target, this was a tricky and delicate event. Once qualified, we would shoot under more operational conditions - limited number of passes, more rounds to fire and generally tougher rules. The scores from these 'Op shoots' would also count towards an inter-squadron competition. Air-to-air gunnery in the F4 Phantom was fun!

While we're in Cyprus, I must mention an interesting stunt that I invented there and which has stayed with me over the years (strange how these things do). 'One-touch fan stopping' was an impressive, if not somewhat foolhardy pastime. The idea is to get a ceiling fan operating at full speed and stop it with one's head in one go. You may see people do this by slowly inserting their craniums into the blades, such that they stop the fan after several glancing blows, or by using the central hub to slow it down. These are neat party pieces but, from now on, you will know that they are the wimps' ways of doing it. My method involves sticking my entire head in instantly, so that just one blade cracks my forehead and stops the fan dead. However, this practice can seriously damage your consciousness so do not attempt it at home, kids.

The South Atlantic (Ascension Island and The Falklands), The Falklands War 1982

Rex Hunt - The Falklands War 1982
Rex Hunt
Governor of the Falkland Islands 1982

Stanley - The Falklands War 1982

War in the Falklands

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Meanwhile, in Argentina, (I told you we'd come back to this) the Junta embarked upon a concentrated, rigorous diplomatic assault resolved to regain the 'Malvinas'. If necessary, they were prepared to engage in military action during that autumn. In February of that year they held a round of inconclusive negotiations in New York, which should have rung a warning bell, but clearly did not. It seems that their internal affairs were in a bit of a mess and, so, some kind of military action would be just the thing to divert the public gaze away from the government.

In March 1982, some Argentine scrap metal merchants landed on the dependency of South Georgia. Britain suspected that the objective was to establish a permanent presence, and despatched a patrol ship, HMS Endurance, to remove the workers. In turn, Argentina assumed that London was taking the opportunity to reinforce the Falklands. Accordingly, on 26th March 1982, the Junta decided to bring forward the military option. At 7.30pm on 1st April 1982 Rex Hunt, Governor of the Falkland Islands made the following radio broadcast from the Falkland Islands Broadcasting Station:

I have an important announcement to make about the state of affairs between the British and Argentine Governments over the Falkland Islands dispute.

We have now sought an immediate emergency meeting of the Security Council on the grounds that there could be a situation which threatens international peace and security. I don't yet know whether it has been possible to arrange a meeting today, but our spokesman has been asked to make the following specific points. The Secretary General has today summoned the British and Argentine Permanent representatives to express his deep concern over the situation in the South Atlantic and has urged restraint on both sides. It is right that the Security Council should endorse and back up his approach.

We, for our part, have continued to make every possible effort to resolve the current problems by diplomatic means. The British Ambassador in Buenos Aires yesterday delivered a further message to the Argentine Government urging a negotiated settlement to current problems, and offering to send a senior emissary to Buenos Aires. The Argentine Foreign Minister had today responded to this approach in negative terms. He had declined to discuss further the problems occasioned by the illegal presence of Argentine nationals on South Georgia, and he had specifically stated that he no longer wished to use diplomatic channels to discuss the situation in South Georgia.

In addition to the Foreign Minister's unwillingness to pursue diplomatic exchanges, there is mounting evidence that the Argentine armed forces are preparing to invade the Falkland Islands. In these circumstances it is essential that the Security Council urge that there should be no resort to armed force and that diplomatic negotiations should be resumed.

In these circumstances, I think it is necessary to take certain precautionary measures here in Stanley. I have alerted the Royal Marines and I now ask for all serving members or active members of the Falkland Islands Defence Force to report to the Drill Hall as soon as possible. They will be on guard tonight at key points in the town. Schools will be closed tomorrow. The radio station will stay open until further notice. If the Security Council's urging to keep the peace is not heeded by the Argentine Government, I expect to have to declare a state of emergency, perhaps before dawn tomorrow.

I shall come on the air again as soon as I have anything to report. But in the meantime I would urge you all to remain calm, and to stay off the streets. In particular, do not go along the Airport Road. Stay indoors, and please do not add to the troubles of the security services by making demonstrations or damaging Argentine property. This would play into their hands and simply provide them with the excuse they need to invade us


On 2nd April 1982 Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, resisted bravely by the small detachment of Royal Marines and the Falkland Islands Defence Force. The next day South Georgia was also taken. The Prime Minister of the day, Margaret Thatcher, was not one to stand for this type of vulgar behaviour. She mobilized her armed forces and aroused the greatest storm of British patriotism since WWII. All of this and that which follows is shown in my Falklands video to which there is a link at the end of this article (film from a variety of sources, including my very old vid cam, music by Elysium Strand). I have included a Falklands War Timeline, which you can read by clicking here.

The Falklands Task Force (actually Task Group 317.8 Carrier Battle Group, Task Group 317.0 Amphibious Task Group and the Supply Force) consisted of some 111 ships (including 2 carriers, RN surface ships, Royal Fleet Auxiliaries (RFAs), Merchant Navy ships and civilian liners used as troop ships). Although some of these did not deploy until much later, that's a lot of hardware.

HMS Invincible - The Falklands War 1982
HMS Invincible - The Task Force Heads for the Falklands in 1982

The Task Force was assembled in something of a rush - the response time was truly impressive - and a lot of these ships were hurriedly taken away from their prime duty as the UK's defensive force at the height of the Cold War. Actually, now that it's out in the public domain, it's safe to comment on the fact that the deployment was so rapid that they didn't have time to off-load certain pieces of hardware that we probably didn't want to send south; this included two-thirds of the Royal Navy's tactical nuclear arsenal of WE-177. This was a major concern as it was putting these weapons at great risk, taking them away from their Cold War job and, potentially, taking them into the Latin America Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. It's unclear exactly what happened to them, but it seems likely that they were transferred to the larger, safer capital ships, kept out of the zone and, at some point all were returned to the UK.


Ascension Island - The Falklands War 1982
Ascension Island from the air

Ascension Island, South Atlantic, after the Falklands War
Map showing the location of Ascension Island

To keep the story moving, I shall jump ahead somewhat here. It is not my intention to retell the entire tale of the Falklands War as many authors have done this long before me and far, far better than I could. I'll just cover the bits relevant to my tale. On 25th April 1982, British forces retook South Georgia and established a supply line over 8,000 miles long. The key to this was Ascension Island, forming a halfway house between the UK and the Falklands. Supplies could be airlifted to Ascension and shipped from there to the Task Force. As a vital link in the chain, it needed to be properly defended. So, 29 Squadron, under the command of Wing Commander Ian MacFadyen, RAF, were sent to defend the island with three F4 Phantom FGR2s. Our main duty was to hold Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) in order to repel any Argentine effort to break the connection between the Task Force and the United Kingdom, a duty we took over from 1 Squadron Harriers on 25th May 1982.

During that month, British (RN and RAF) aircraft began to strike at Argentine positions, including the runway at Port Stanley. Several of these strikes were launched from Wideawake Airfield on Ascension and we witnessed the launch of numerous Victor tankers supporting the ageing Vulcan bombers which had been pressed back into conventional warfare as the only large RAF bomber with the range to reach out and smack the Argentine forces in the Falklands (and believe me, being smacked in the Falklands can be very painful). It was like watching the launch of the old thousand bomber raids. The Vulcan raids against the runway at Stanley and against Argentinean radars were codenamed BLACK BUCK.

Operation Black Buck

Ascension Isalnd, Wideawake Airfield - operating base for 29 Squadron F4 Phantoms during the Falkalnds War, 1982
Wideawake Airfield on Ascension Island


Operation Black Buck

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Operation Black Buck was planned to be a series of 7 raids against Stanley Airfield and Argentinean radar and troop positions. Two raids were cancelled due to meteorological and in-flight refuelling problems. Black Buck 1 saw two Avro Vulcan B2 bombers, each carrying twenty one 1,000lb general purpose bombs, and 13 Victor tankers launched from Wideawake Airfield on Ascension Island between 2250 and 2310hrs on the night of 30th April 1982. Their mission was to crater the runway of Stanley Airfield to limit the use of the airfield by the Argentine Air Force.

Vulcan XM598 at Wideawake Airfield, Ascension Island, 1982
Vulcan XM598 at Wideawake Airfield, Ascension Island, 1982

The primary Vulcan, XM598 captained by Squadron Leader John Reeve, suffered a pressurisation failure and was forced to return to Ascension soon after take-off. The reserve aircraft, XM607, captained by Flight Lieutenant Martin Withers took over the mission. One of the Victor tankers also returned to Ascension with a faulty refueling hose system and its place was taken by an airborne reserve. XM607 was refuelled five times on its way south. It became apparent that the Vulcan was using more fuel than had been planned for and the final Victor had to give them more fuel than was planned, leaving the Victor (captained by Sqn Ldr Bob Tuxford) short for their return to Ascension. After that, the Vulcan continued on its own.

Three hundred miles from the target, they descended to 300 feet in order to remain below Argentinean radar coverage. With 40 miles to run, they accelerated to 350 knots and climbed to 10,000 feet for the bombing run. Martin Withers and his crew released a stick of twenty-one 1,000lb bombs some three miles from the target before turning for home. The first of the bombs struck the runway near its centre at 0400hrs 1st May.

Over 2,000 miles further north, they rendezvoused with a Victor tanker to refuel for the last time in order to make it back. XM607 returned safely to Ascension after a sixteen hour return flight, the longest range air attack ever conducted at the time.

Although commonly dismissed as propaganda, Argentinean sources confirm claims that Black Buck was initially responsible for the withdrawal of a number of Mirage 3s from operations over the Falklands in order to defend mainland Argentina. Unfortunately the British Secretary of State for Defence then publicly announced that Britain would not bomb targets on the Argentinean mainland. This statement was undoubtedly welcomed by the Argentinean military command because it permitted a number of Roland SAMs to be deployed to the airfield at Stanley.


Black Buck 2: During the night of 3rd and 4th May, XM607 (flown by Squadron Leader John Reeve) flew a near identical mission targeting the area at the western end of the runway. This prevented Argentinean engineers from extending the runway sufficiently to allow the operation of high performance aircraft.

Black Buck 3: Vulcans XM612 and XM607 were scheduled for a mission on 13th May, but it was scrubbed shortly before take-off due to strong headwinds.

Black Buck 4: Victor XM597 was recalled five hours after take-off on 28th May as one of the Victor tankers had a problem with its refueling system.

Black Buck 5: On 31st May, Sqn Ldr Neil McDougall and his crew completed the first mission with AGM45 Shrike anti-radiation missiles in XM597. Their target was the AN/TPS-43 long range radar near Stanley Airport. Their first missile damaged the radar, but the Argentineans then switched it off, denying the crew a further shot.

Vulcan carrying a Shrike anti-radiation missile
Vulcan at Wideawake Airfield carrying a Shrike anti-radiation missile

Black Buck 6: The same crew and aircraft attacked and destroyed a Skyguard fire control radar and killed 4 operators on 3rd June. During their return to Ascension, their in-flight refueling probe broke off and they were required to divert to Rio de Janeiro. They made it there with just 2,000lbs of fuel remaining, not even enought to attampt a second landing.

Black Buck 7, the final mission in the series, was flown by Martin Withers in XM607, attacking troop positions close to the airport on 12th June.

Stanley Airport after Black Buck
Stanley Airport showing some of the damage from Black Buck

The military success of Black Buck remains controversial with some describing the damage to the airfield and radars being quickly repaired. But no matter what anyone says, these were audacious raids demanding the utmost skill from the Vulcan and Victor crews. The Black Buck missions would certainly have had a significant impact on Argentinean personnel, simply by knowing that we could strike at them from Ascension. Remember also that the Vulcan bomber was designed as a medium-range nuclear bomber capable of flying some 1,700 miles. To use it on these 8,000 mile raids, we had to refurbish the 25-year-old aircrafts' air-refueling equipment (cannibalising Vulcans from all over the World for their refueling probes and other equipment), retrain or train its crews in air-refueling procedures, fit the equipment to carry 1,000lb conventional bombs and manufacure wing pylons to carry the Shrike missiles. Martin Withers later remarked that after the first Shrike attacks, " We found that the Argentines actually switched off their systems to prevent us attacking them, which gave our taskforce fighters relative freedom of operation."

Ascension Island, Wideawake Airfield - operating base for 29 Squadron F4 Phantoms during the Falkalnds War. April 1982.
Ascension Island - The RAF deployment on the dispersal at Wideawake Airfield in April 1982.
Our F4 Phantoms can be seen here in front of the Nimrods.

Amazon Class Frigate - Falkland Islands, 1982
HMS Amazon

Royal Navy Lynx helicopter, Falkland Islands 1982.
A Royal Navy Lynx helicopter

Shit That Happens

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While on Ascension Island, there were one or two little incidents, the telling of which you may enjoy. At one stage, our detachment commander was one Squadron Leader John 'Stanley' Spoor. He was an upright gentleman of great integrity. The mantle of responsibility appeared to rest comfortably on his shoulders and he was a popular leader. He was also his own man, given to doing things his way and to seeing through his ideas. One such idea was to show the Royal Navy who owned the seas around Ascension Island; generally speaking the Royal Navy would consider that they do! As we were packing up at the end of a day's flying, leaving the airfield to that night's QRA crew, 'Stanley' off-handedly informed us that he wanted us all in at four o'clock the following morning. This was not immediately well received by the boys - war zone or not, there is a code! He then revealed to us his cunning contrivance.

We were to get airborne as a four-ship, before dawn in order to go and beat-up, sorry, 'fly past' an Amazon class frigate (not HMS Amazon, as she was the only Type-21 frigate not in theatre) that was steaming north on her way home from the Falklands War. Once this plan was revealed, the disposition of the boys improved remarkably. So, sure enough, the following morning (31st October 1982) saw our formation of four F4 Phantoms launch about 20 minutes before sunrise in order to be overhead the ship at dawn. Each aircraft had its speedbrakes loaded with several rolls of toilet paper - a slightly unorthodox weapon load, but suitable for our purpose. We over flew the ship in turn, releasing our lavatorial accoutrements in a billow of sea spray, reheat and streams of paper. The ship was, you might say, well and truly wellied. Behind us it was festooned with loo roll and her crew abruptly startled from their, hitherto, peaceful slumber. By the time we had reformed and returned to Ascension, there was a signal awaiting us from the Captain of the ship. It read,

'Thanks for the early morning shake and papers, next time bring the tea.'

It all seemed like a good idea at the time, but in retrospect I had to speculate at the wisdom of carrying out an unannounced attack on 2,800 tonnes of warship, armed to the teeth and recently engaged in a war where assault from the air was a real and terrifying threat. Indeed, some nights later, the tables were turned in an incident that almost cost the helicopter pilot from one of our ships his life. He had, apparently, decided to visit the Island for the night, so he flew his 'cab' towards Wideawake airfield. He too was unannounced and the first anyone knew about it was when the radar site atop Green Mountain detected an unidentified contact heading for the Island. The fighter controller on duty reacted accordingly and alerted Rich Jones and I who were on QRA that night. Receiving an authentic codeword and an instruction to scramble to engage and destroy an inbound target, we raced into the dark, suddenly unfriendly, air in a haze of adrenaline and apprehension. Rich fired up the radar and I armed and tuned our missiles. We turned north and started to search for our quarry. It rapidly became apparent that whatever we were chasing was at low level and lights out - neither fact adding to the perceived friendliness of our quarry.

Something, however, was not quite right. The target was quite a slow mover that made it either a helicopter or a transport aircraft. The latter could well have been an Argentine transport bringing armed troops to Ascension. As I mentioned, this was the key link in our logistics chain and Argentina would have done well to disrupt it in just this way. On the other hand, if this was a helo, where had it come from and what was it doing? Ascension Island is, after all, 1,000 miles from nearest land and that is Africa. As we had the time to investigate before the target would reach the Island, we set about a thorough search of the area. Before long we found a large surface contact. Cautiously approaching closer, we were able to identify it as a British Naval vessel by using our newly delivered night vision goggles (NVGs). Turning back to our target, we were eventually able to find and identify that as a wayward RN Lynx helicopter. I never did meet the pilot concerned and I still wonder if he ever knew how close he had come to a watery grave that night. He had been looking down the wrong end of a Sparrow air-to-air missile with my finger on the trigger. Only a 'feeling in the bones' had saved him. I wonder if someone aboard an RN frigate had similarly targeted a four-ship of F4 Phantoms a few mornings before?


Of course, just because it's stupid, doesn't mean we're not going to do it! Obviously! And to prove it further, returning from a mission out of Wideawake Airfield one afternoon, I spotted my buddies Nick Seward and Mick Martin taxiing back along Wideawake's single runway after landing. They were just asking for...

F4 Phantom Low Pass - RAF Style

F4 Phantom: Ascension Island (Wideawake Airfield), Paul Courtnage.
Top Jet: Courtney (Paul Courtnage) and 'Mac' McKendrick.
Lower Jet: Nick Seward and Mick Martin.
Ascension Island (Wideawake Airfield) 1982, 29 Squadron.

PILOT: Fg Off Nick Seward NAV: Sqn Ldr Mick Martin (QWIN) PILOT: Fg Off Paul Courtnage (Courtney) NAV: Sqn Ldr Mac McKendrick (Nav Leader)

Stanley Airport - 29 Squadron F4 Phantoms, The Falklands War 1982
Stanley Airport from the air, 1982.
In the harbour are the troopships, Stanley itself is on the left and in the foreground is Stanley Airfield.
Falkland Islands 1982 by Courtney

TEV Rangatira in Stanley Harbour, Falkland Islands, 1982
TEV Rangatira in Stanley Harbour, Falkland Islands, 1982.
Picture by Courtney

  2 Apr 70: Keel laid.
  23 Jun 71: Launched by Lady Blundell.
  20 Dec 71: Sea trials.
  16 Feb 72: Sailed for Wellington.
  28 Mar 72: Maiden voyage Wellington
              to Lyttelton.
  14 Sep 76: Final voyage in New Zealand.
  17 Sep 76: Sailed for Falmouth to lay-up.
  12 Mar 77: Sailed to Loch Kishorn as an
              accommodation ship.
  25 May 78: Laid up at Glasgow.
  2 Oct 78: Accommodation ship at Sullom
  Jul 81: Laid-up at Falmouth.
  15 May 82: Chartered by the MoD.
  19 Jun 82: Sailed for Port Stanley.
  26 Sep 83: Sailed to Belfast for refit.
  30 Mar 84: Laid up at Falmouth.
  86: Sold to P.J. Marangopoulos of
              Greece as a ferry.
              Renamed Queen M.
  88: Registry transferred to Panama.
  89: Registry transferred to Valetta.
  90: Sold to Alimar Shipping Co.
              Renamed Carlo R.
  Jun 95: In service ,Bari - Igoumenitsa.
  Oct 01: Sold to Oberon Cruise Line,
              Renamed Alexander The Great
  Dec 01 - Jan 05: Lying near derelict at
              Bijela shipyard in Croatia.
  12 Jan 05: Sailed to Turkey.
  Jan 05: Sold to Indian ship breakers.
  29 Jan 05: Beached at Aliaga, Turkey.
  2005: Broken up on site, looking sad -

TEV Wahine - predecessor of the TEV Rangatira
TEV Wahine on the bottom, 1968

Meanwhile in the Falklands

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Meanwhile, 4,000 miles further south, British troops prepared to carry out an opposed amphibious landing, a notoriously difficult and risky military operation. Special forces probed the islands to establish the positions of the Argentine troops and to identify the most suitable landing sites on the Falklands. On 21st May 1982 British troops landed at San Carlos (click here for a map). The landing itself was successful, but it was followed by days of air assaults against the British ships attempting to get supplies ashore. Three more warships and a merchant ship, the Atlantic Conveyor, were sunk, a number of helicopters were lost, and many Argentine aircraft were shot down.

The first major land engagement came on 28th May when 600 British troops defeated a much larger Argentine force at Goose Green. Our land forces moved on towards the main Argentine garrison, which was based in and around the capital, Port Stanley. The land battle was fought until 14th June, when the Argentine garrison surrendered. That makes a long and heroic war sound very simple; it was not. It was a hard, gruelling and bloody war, but, as I said, I am not even trying to tell that story here.

Falkland Islands - Argentinean Surrender

The Argentine Junta in Buenos Aires resigned not long after the defeat. The Islands were then fortified by the British. The runway at Stanley airfield was only 4,000' long, nowhere near enough for the F4 Phantom, so it was extended using 8 foot by 2 foot metal sheets and 5 arrestor wires were installed. Once this work was complete, we flew our F-4s in to take up our position there to provide air defence for the Falklands - the first RAF Phantom was flown to the Falklands by Wg Cdr Ian Macfadyen, OC 29 Squadron on 17th October 1982. We took eight aircraft south over the following days; our flight there from Ascension took a gruelling nine hours (a long time to be strapped to a hard ejection seat) with no available diversions and little by which to navigate. I can still remember my first reaction on arrival: 'Eight thousand miles, for this?' The world starts to seem like a very big place when you're flying fighter aircraft to very distant places.

TEV Rangatira

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For the rest of the year, 29 Squadron guarded the Falklands living in Stanley Harbour aboard the TEV Rangatira - a former ferry, built to carry 733 passengers and 200 cars between North and South Islands of New Zealand. Actually, she was TEV Rangatira II, the original having been launched in 1931 and scrapped in 1967. Before Rangatira left the UK on 19th June 1982 to become our floating home, her passenger accommodation was increased to around 1200 by cramming four extra bunks in each of her two-berth cabins. Her upper car deck was fitted out with 3 mess decks and the lower car deck had 14 freezer containers installed (holding enough food to feed 1,200 people for six months). Rangatira also had four 20mm Oerlikon guns fitted to her upper decks and a helicopter pad was built on her stern (see pictures below and left).

TEV Rangatira in Stanley Harbour
Approaching TEV Rangatira in a landing craft,
showing her helo deck. Stanley Harbour 1982

By mid-1982 the Rangatira was housing around 1,250 of us. Being so overloaded, conditions on "Old Smelly" (as she became known, for obvious reasons) were pretty cramped, although I was rather coming to like her in a strange sort of way. In fact, I liked her a lot. She was actually quite a beautiful ship with gentle curves and clean lines. But not all good back in 1982. Our squadron ground crew lived way down on F Deck, which was the lowest accommodation deck on the ship. Anyway, bear in mind the ship's design capacity and the fact that her sewage system had been constructed accordingly. On their first morning aboard, our groundcrew awoke to find that the waste water system, unable to cope with the effluent from twice the intended population, had overflowed into their cabins. As they climbed out of bed, they found themselves standing in a foot of stinking sewage. That happened every night we were on board and I never once heard the 29 Squadron groundcrew complain about it.

TEV Rangatira in Stanley Harbour 1982
TEV Rangatira in Stanley Harbour 1982

There was a popular myth among the Rangatira inmates that the TEV Rangatira had a sister ship called TEV Rangatiki that had turned turtle and sunk in two minutes flat during a storm with the loss of everyone aboard a few years earlier. Of course, there were wonderful and frightening rumours of design flaws and exciting stuff like that. Rangatira, it would seem, could sink instantly at any minute!

Now, I have since done some research into this and found that this story was completely wrong in all important respects. The Union Steam Ship Company in New Zealand ran two ferries between Lyttleton (near Christchurch, South Island, New Zealand) and Wellington (North Island). These were TEV Maori and TEV Wahine. At 06:40 on Wednesday 10th April 1968 the TEV Wahine was navigating the narrow entrance to Wellington harbour during tropical cyclone Giselle when she was blown off course and struck a reef. She was badly damaged on her starboard side and lost propulsion.

Wahine's anchors were dropped, eventually bringing her to a halt, but the wind speed at this stage was thought to be 100 kts or more. She actually remained afloat in this condition until 13:00 when she started to list to starboard and the order was given to abandon ship. Apart from those that decided to swim ashore (why?), everyone was evacuated by lifeboat. She rolled onto her side at 14:00, coming to rest with her port side exposed above the water. Fifty-one people lost their lives.

Actually, there was also an MV Rangatiki, but she operated years earlier and certainly didn't sink.

TEV Rangatira was built to replace the TEV Wahine, coming into service in 1972. The Rangatira was 152.5 metres in length and weighed in at over 9,000 tons. She made 2,096 safe crossings of the Cook Strait during her four years of service in New Zealand, carrying over 830,000 passengers before being retired in 1976. TEV Rangatira was used as an accommodation ship for the oil industry in UK waters until she was laid up in Falmouth in 1981 to await a buyer. The MoD found the role for her as a Falklands troop ship and that was how we ended up here together.

TEV Rangatira as the TEV Carlo R
The TEV Rangatira as the Carlo R, 2001

The working routine for the Phantom aircrew meant that we alternated between one night on the Rangatira and one night ashore on QRA. The Squadron accommodation was a mix of portacabins and tents so the old 'Tira was quite luxurious - unless you lived on F Deck, of course!

TEV Rangatira set sail to return to the UK on 26th September 1983 and went on to have a long career in the UK and the Mediterranean until she was allowed to fall into very poor condition and was finally beached in Turkey and then broken up in 2005. It was a sad end for what was once a rather lovely ship. Her potted history is in the panel in the margin up a bit and to the left. I just thought you'd like to know. Click here to see a picture of the TEV Rangatira's sad end.

TEV Rangatira
Layout of the TEV Rangatira from a brochure of the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand

RFA Sir Tristram, Falkland Islands 1982
RFA Sir Tristram

Chinook approaching TEV RangatiraHere we are approaching the TEV Rangatira in a Chinook helicopter. October 1982.

The Rangatira was at anchor in Stanley harbour. Every morning we passed the floating wreckage (later rebuilt) of the RFA Sir Tristram, badly damaged in the war when hit by three five-hundred pound bombs. Lest any of us could forget, this presented a constant reminder to us of the need to do our jobs well and the consequences of getting things wrong (photograph left). The prescribed way of getting to work from the 'Tira in the morning was by landing craft to the jetty in Stanley and then the back of a 4 ton truck, an interesting ride over the dreadfully pot holed roads - being made increasingly pot holed by repeatedly driving 4 ton trucks over them.

It was a long way there and a long way back to the Rangatira in the evening when coming off QRA, so we often used to hitch a lift from one of the helicopters, usually the little Scout helicopters who had christened themselves 'Teeny Weenie Air Taxi Service'. These guys could pick us up at the squadron and drop us back on the Rangatira in about 10 minutes - so much better than an hour on a wooden bench in the back of a truck, driving across the surface of the moon with real minefields on it followed by an hours wait on the end of a sray soaked jetty and a 20 minute vomit cruise across Stanley Harbour.

On one occasion we asked Air Ops if they had any helos going and they told us they could take 30 of us in about 15 minutes time. We assembled ourselves and as many of our groundcrew as wanted to go to the 'Tira and were picked up by a Chinook. Now, it had been rumoured that the helo deck on the boat could take a Chinook, which is a bloody big aircraft, but no one we could find had never heard of it ever being tried - later research suggests that it may have been trialled in the UK when the helo deck was fitted. We climbed aboard the Chinook and set off for the 'Tira.

Now, praise where praise is due. Our helo pilot pulled off one of the most impressive pieces of precision flying I've ever seen. He manoeuvred that massive beast slowly and carefully onto the helo deck of the 'Tira like a master. Peering out of the side windows from the main cabin, it didn't look like there was a lot of room to spare. But the full wonder of what he'd done wasn't apparent until we climbed out of the side door and looked at this huge piece of machinery with the front of its 60 foot spinning rotors just inches from Rangatira's superstructure and the rear wheels barely perched on the back of the helo deck. There was no room for error whatsoever. You can see from the picture on the left that there was a fair bit of wind that day (when isn't there in the Falklands?) so even more tricky. Bloody impressive!

Danger, Mines!

Life in the Falklands

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Just after we had been dropped back at the Rangatira that evening I wandered into the Officers' Mess (formerly the upper saloon) for a well-earned beer or three. I was greeted by the my flight commander, Sqn Ldr Mick Martin, who promptly fined me a round of drinks for being improperly dressed. It seems he had received word that I had been promoted to Flight Lieutenant and this was his way of letting me know. Nice one, Mick! I had to borrow a set of flight lieutenant rank slides from my nav. Well, I say "borrow".

Anyway, our own flying revolved around maintaining QRA; all our serviceable aircraft were allocated to QRA each day so we did a lot of practice scrambles to go off and do some training and 'presence runs'. Presence runs involved setting off towards the Argentinean coast to make a show of the fact that the Brits were here in force. They started out as missions to the edge of the 200 mile exclusion zone, but gradually became a bit of a competition to see who could get their F4 Phantom closest to Argentina. We were eventually stopped from doing this as it was all getting a bit silly. The last time I did it was just off a nice looking beach.

We had a really good asset available to us, a C-130 Hercules converted into an air refuelling tanker. Not only did this give us the ability to keep our F4 Phantoms on patrol for extended periods if required, it could also be used as our airborne diversion. If the weather went bad at Stanley, which it often did at very short notice, the big 'Albert' could keep us airborne whilst we hoped the weather would improve enough for us to sneak back in to land. I suppose, at a push, he could have taken us to somewhere in Chile (or even Argentina, but that didn't sound like a good idea in 1982.

Converting the C130 into a tanker involved cutting a hole in the rear ramp door and installing a hose drum unit inside. It was a bit rough and ready, but worked brilliantly. It also gave us a great opportunity to poke a camera out of the back of the aircraft and photograph our buddies plugged in behind the Hercules. Like this...

Courtney in a 29 Squadron F4 Phantom tanking from a C-130 over the Falkland Islands
Courtney in a 29 Squadron F4 Phantom tanking from a C-130 over the Falkland Islands, 1982

Courtney in a 29 Squadron F4 Phantom from an Argentinean Electra, 1982
Courtney and Pete in a 29 Squadron
F4 Phantom photographed from an
Argentinean Lockheed Electra, 1982

It was actually bloody dangerous doing this as the photographer had to jam himself between the hose and various pieces of metal structure. This was fine when the receiver aircraft didn't move fore or aft relative to the tanker, but when he did, all the hose winding mechanism would operate and the bloke with the camera needed to get out of its way pretty damn sharpish. All in a day's work, eh?

We also did a few live intercepts of the Argentineans. One interesting mission that springs to mind was when my nav, Pete, and I were scrambled to intercept a target airborne out of one of Argentina's southern air bases. We raced out to the edge of the exclusion zone and found ourselves a Lockheed Electra, which we escorted until he went home. Now, many, many years later whilst hosting a group of overseas military officers at Farnborough, I met the guy that had been flying that very aircraft on that very day and he was able to get hold of a photo his crew had taken of a British Phantom that had intercepted them. Maybe it is a small world after all!

We flew just about all the time with eight missiles, under-wing tanks and gun (Charlie, 4, 4, Plus - see photo below), which is quite a heavy fit. This gave us a full load of air-to-air weapons plus the gun, which could also be used for firing warning shots (you can't really do that with missiles) and was excellent for strafe (air-to-ground gunnery, another thing the Phantom did really well). The under wing tanks gave us a decent fuel load - around 18,000 lbs or a little over 8 tons (9 US tons because their tons aren't as good as ours).

RAF F-4 Phantom FGR2 (F-4M), 29 Squadron F-4 Phantom FGR2 (F-4M) of 29 Squadron. 2 external fuel tanks, Gun pod, four AIM7E Sparrows and four AIM9L Sidewinders.
"Charlie 4 4 Plus 8 Tiger Fast 60"

However, all this meant that the slightly extended runway at Stanley Airport was still not really long enough for Phantom take offs and landings. In truth, we could get airborne and just about land, but there wasn't enough runway to stop the aircraft in the event of a high speed abort (say, a major emergency just before lift off) and stopping the big old Phantom after landing took a fair bit of space. The get around this our engineers had installed five arrestor cables across the runway, two at each end and one in the middle. So we had a couple to stop us in the event of an aborted take-off and on every landing we aimed to engage one of the approach end cables. Generally, this was a comfortable way to operate, as the first two pictures below show. However, just occasionally, something would go wrong. The third photo below shows the result of the cable snapping; the flailing end of the cable whipped round and did serious damage to the rear end of the aircraft. Knowing the cable had broken, but not what it had done to the aircraft, the crew discussed whether to get airborne and land into a remaining cable or to stay down and rely on engaging one of the over-run end cables. Fortunately, they decided to stay down; had they tried to get airborne, they would have lost control and this would have ended up as a double ejection and a lost aircraft. So the crew walked away from this one and XV468 was shipped back to the UK for repairs.

29 Squadron F4 Phantom Taking the Cable at RAF Stanley

F4 Phantom about to engage the cable at RAF Stanley           F4 Phantom FGR2 (F-4M) Cable Engaged, RAF Stanley, Falkland Islands 1982           29 Squadron F4  Phantom FGR2 (F-4M), RAF Stanley, Falkland Islands 1982
F4 Phantom, hook down, waiting for the cable...           ...cable engaged (slightly off-centre)...                       ...sometimes the cable won!

29 Squadron was relieved shortly before Christmas 1982. For the rest of the F4 Phantom's service with the Royal Air Force, there was always a Phantom detachment guarding the Falkland Islands (later 1435 Flight), a commitment from which the F4 was released only when the Tornado F3 was able to take over in 1992. It was as a result of the decision to base the F4 Phantom detachment permanently in the Falklands that the British Government had to purchase a further squadron (74 Sqn) of F4Js from the USA in order to maintain its air defence capability at home. The Tornado F3, in turn, was replaced in the Falkland Islands by the Eurofighter Typhoon in September 2009.

I would be returning to the islands over the years and I'll tell you more about the place when we get to that part of the story. Below, I've assembled a video designed to recapture the essence of the 1982 Falklands War and to show you a little of what the place is like. I've had some good feedback about this video (for which I'm very grateful). I enjoyed the fact that there are those of you out there that have been, at one time or other, deployed to the Falklands, that use this video to show your friends and loved ones what it's like. Enjoy. Some of it is a bit premature at this point in the story, but I think it's useful.

The Falkland Islands video is a compilation that recaps the Falklands War, looks at the wildlife and amazing scenery in the islands and then shows a short tribute to the men and women of all three services that guard the Falkland Islands, including some F4 Phantom and Tornado F3 flying.


29 Squadron South Atlantic Medal Presentation
29 Squadron South Atlantic Medal Presentation

Back Row: Chris Lem, Dick Friend, Martin Connelly, Jim Gheraty, Dick Mottram, Mick Woods, Dean Whitfield, Graham Dunn, Chris Hill, Roy Walton, Tony Lepine, Steve Haddock

Middle Row: Tony Morrison, Dave Park, Tom Carr, Bruce Murray, Kieth Adamson, Chris Yates, unknown, Ron Brown, Mick Kelly, Nick Ruston, Jon Goodwin, Matt Angus

Front Row: John Megarry, Jon Milo, Andy Cairncross, Sqn Ldr Roy Trotter (OCA Flt), AVM Hayr, Sqn Ldr Russ Morley (OCB Flt), Paul Marskell, Paul Courtnage, Rich Jones.

Photograph kindly supplied by Martin Connelly (third from left, back row).

Moving on to 43 Sqn

RAF Akrotiri
RAF Akrotiri

John Spoor (QWI Pilot), Paul Courtnage, Mick Martin (QWI Nav).
Courtney after gunnery in Cyprus.
The object we're standing on is
the air-to-air gunnery target banner
or 'Flag'. Photo 1981, Akrotiri.
People of note in this picture:
Left - John Spoor (QWI Pilot)
Behind Courtney - Mick Martin
(QWI Nav) Courtney's navigator.

Meter reading low

South Atlantic Medal

Moving On

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To bring this bit towards its conclusion, in June 1983 it was time for me to leave 29 Squadron on posting. One's last flight on a squadron was traditionally an occasion for a little showmanship. As a flamboyant and 'playful' young fighter pilot, the boys on 29 were expecting something outrageous on my last trip. The usual 'farewell salute' was an extremely low, fast fly-by with lots of noise, flame, smoke, danger, etc. I decided that all this would be a bit too obvious, just what they'd be expecting me to do, and, therefore, a subtle and altogether alternative approach might be more fun. This was also far less likely to land me up to my neck in rose fertiliser. We were, once again, in Cyprus. I approached the Squadron's chief QWI who was running the flying programme on that particular day, and explained to him that I would like to have a 2-sticker for my last sortie. He asked why, but I replied that to tell him would spoil the surprise. He was, not unreasonably, suspicious. I promised him that I would do nothing that he needed to worry about, that my plans were completely legal and that I had thought it all through very carefully. He agreed, but not before threatening me with extreme unpleasantness if I did anything unsafe or that abused his trust.

My nav and I went and shot on the flag and, mission complete, returned to RAF Akrotiri. As we approached the airfield we could see the Squadron members outside awaiting the show. Instead of the traditional arrival, I flew an untidy and inexpert-looking break into the visual circuit followed by a pattern to land, which was also as ragged as I could make it appear - without actually crashing or anything. The power was on and off, the flight path all over the place.

From the ground, it must have looked awful. Plonking the jet on the runway, we rolled-out all the way to the far end of the airfield where we were out of sight of the boys. Now came the tricky bit. Parking the jet using the emergency pneumatic brake, held on with my right lap-strap, my navigator and I swapped seats. We also swapped helmets and mannerisms. He, in the front, pushed his sleeves up and lowered his seat to make him look 5' 8”. I raised my seat to the top in order to imitate his 6 foot something and adopted his typical air of aloof serenity.

Thus, under my guidance, he taxied us back to the squadron dispersal where the chaps were waiting to greet us as was normal on these occasions. We parked the jet and shutdown. The assembled crowd was, to say the least, somewhat perplexed at the lack of flare. Having shutdown the jet, we stood on our seats and removed our helmets, revealing the wrong man in the wrong seat.

Our boss stared in horror, convinced that we had actually flown a reverse crew sortie, which would have been totally illegal and mindlessly stupid - even too stupid for me! He spun on his heels and stormed off into the squadron buildings as the rest of the team cheered us for either doing something totally outrageous or for somehow pulling off one hell of a good trick. Nobody was sure – which, of course, was the idea.

The boss refused to ask us in person whether we had, in fact, done it or not. He sent one of his flight commanders to inquire instead. I replied, 'If I told you, it would ruin the joke'. He smiled and agreed that it was better not to ask. So, Boss ('Fadge'), if you're reading this, now you know. We didn't, but we made you think we might have.

So, I would fly home, move myself up to Scotland and join the famous Fighting Cocks, 43 Squadron. I had heard good things about 43 and a few of my buddies were already up there. One infamous occasion involving 43 Squadron in the bar went like this:

OC 43 Squadron was sitting in the Officers' Mess Bar at RAF Akrotiri and found himself being badgered by a nav from the F4 OCU. Eventually he'd had enough and so turned to a large sqn pilot and barked in his characteristic cockney, "Walta, take 'im out!". Said pilot took the nav outside, followed by duffing up noises. The large pilot returned to his beer and the nav re-appeared looking much the worse for wear. Stupidly the somewhat peeved nav decides to verbally attack the boss again about the damage to his £150 Italian leather shoes caused by his roughing up. The now thoroughly bored boss turns to his large pilot and shouts, "Walta, when I say take 'im out, I mean 'ospital job!" The nav finally saw sense and left.

So, onward to 43 for me!

Wing Commander Ian Macfadyen
Group Captain Ian Macfadyen.
You couldn't hope for a better
gentleman as a boss.

Courtney: 29 Sqn McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II (FGR2) deploy to Stanley Airfield in the Falklands Islands, 1982
A few photographs of the RAF F4 Phantoms in the Falkland Islands- 1982 and 1983

Century of Flight has a good page on the UK's Air Defence 1946-1985 including the F4 Phantom.

Part One (Part Two in the following Chapter) of a documentary on RAF F4 Phantoms on QRA made by the BBC's Nationwide Team in 1979. Very good flavour of the time and an insight into Quick Reaction Alert.


This is part one of a short, two-part documentary, made for BBC's Nationwide news
programme in 1979. Part two follows at the end of the following chapter.

Click here for my 29 Sqn photos (opens in a popup window)

Click the button above to see more photographs of 29 Squadron:
Aalborg, Cyprus, Decimomannu, Ascension and the Falklands in 1982.

Paul Courtnage

Previous Chapter. Chapter 5 - F4 Phantom FGR2s (F-4M) on the Phantom OCU                       Next Chapter. Chapter 7 - F4 Phantom FG1s (F-4K) on 43 Squadron

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