Cold War Era

Black Buck 6 and ACME Missions: a quick look at British operations on Latin American soil during the Falklands War

The spotlight was thrown on Chile’s cooperation with the UK when, on May 18, Westland Sea King ZA290 carrying an SAS team landed in the country during a reconnaissance mission for an upcoming covert mission.

During the Malvinas/Falklands War between Argentina and the UK in 1982, there were two British operations on Latin American soil. One of them was actually an emergency and occurred on morning of Jun. 3, when Vulcan B.Mk.2 XM587 returning from the Black Buck 6 mission in which it had attacked Argentine positions with Shrike antiradar missiles, destroying a Skyguard fire director. As explained by Santiago Rivas in his book British Combat Aircraft in Latin America, when the Vulcan was refuelling from a Victor tanker on the return to Ascension Island, the pilot, Neil McDougall, hit the basket very hard with the probe and broke it, leaving the tip in the basket. Without the possibility of receiving more fuel and with not enough to reach Ascension, their only option was to divert to Rio de Janeiro, which was about 500 miles away. As they were still carrying two Shrike missiles, they tried to fire them before landing, but only one released and the other remained on the pylon. Additionally, they had to drop all the charts, planning material, code words and other secret information through the escape hatch, something carried out by the navigator and radar operator, David Castle and Brian Garnder. However, they had problems closing the hatch, as the handle went to the open lock position and they had to descend to the door to unlock it, in an extremely risky and difficult job, but they were successful.

Then, while still flying at 43,000ft, they made contact with the Brazilian air controllers, informing them they were a four-engined aircraft, but not mentioning the type nor the airport of departure, so the Brazilians denied them permission to enter their airspace. At the same time, Capts Raul Jose Ferreira Dias and Marco Aurelio dos Santos Coelho of 1st Grupo de Aviacao de Caca of the Brazilian Air Force at Santa Cruz were preparing their Northrop F-5E Tiger IIs for a training mission at Marambaia firing range, close to their base in Santa Cruz. They were immediately scrambled to intercept the Vulcan and flew over Rio de Janeiro at supersonic speed. However, the radar operator sent them in the wrong direction and they only found the Vulcan when it was close to El Galeao airport. The Vulcan crew’s operator identified the airport when they were at 23,000ft and the pilot decided to maintain the height until he was over the airport, as they were low on fuel and he planned to make a spiral descent with the throttles at idle.

Although they had still not been cleared to land, when they crossed the coastline at 16,000ft, they started the corkscrew descent. Finally, they were authorised to land on the duty runway, but that meant they had to fly all over the city for the circuit, so they decided to land on the reciprocal runway. The fuel gauges indicated the tanks were empty when they were still at 10,000ft. They lowered the landing gear and made a tight turn, descending and losing speed until they were in front of the runway. While the minimum fuel for operational flying was 4,000Ib, they landed with only 1,500. The F-5s finally found the Vulcan when it was close to the runway and escorted it until it landed.

The Vulcan crew was detained for a week until they were allowed to leave with the Vulcan to Ascension Island, while the Shrike missile was confiscated.

The other activity during the war in which a British aircraft landed on Latin American soil was during the ACME missions. As soon as the conflict started, the Chilean government offered help to the British, as Chile and Argentina had almost been at war themselves at the end of 1978 and they were still involved in a border dispute. The British saw the opportunity to collect intelligence on Argentine radars and communications and asked the Chileans for permission to send one of its three Nimrod R.Mk.1s that were used by 51 Squadron for intelligence gathering. While the Chileans did not want to openly display their support for the British, they allowed the RAF to operate from the small runway at San Felix Island, a small rock in the Pacific Ocean 900km west of the South American coast from the city of Copiapo. There, the Chilean Navy had a small airfield and, as there was no population, it was the ideal place from which to operate covertly. The problem was the long distance to the area of operations, which was on the southern end of the South American continent, meaning the aircraft had to refuel somewhere. It was decided to use Concepcion, refuelling during the night on the way out or on the return from a mission. That airfield is about 1,300km to the south-east of San Felix.

Nimrod XW664, supported by a Vickers VC10, was deployed there in early May and on the 5th performed the ACME One mission, with a crew of 30, taking off at 1025hrs and landing at 1920. On the 6th they flew again between 1605 and 2035 but after refuelling (probably at Concepcion due to the length of the flight) they again took off at 0020 and landed at 0745. ACME Four took place on May 9, first flying between 2100 and 2300, most probably from San Felix to Concepcion and then between 0045 and 0645 on the 10th. On that flight the Nimrod suffered an engine failure and a replacement had to be flown from the UK. The flights resumed on May 15, again from San Felix to Concepcion between 2005 and 2155 and then between 0150 and 1050.

ACME Six was the last operational sortie and it took place on May 17 between 2120 and 2330 from San Felix to Concepcion and then between 0145 and 1050 to the area of operations and back.

Although the ACME missions had been flown in great secrecy, the spotlight was thrown on Chile’s cooperation with the UK when, on May 18, Westland Sea King ZA290 landed in the country during a reconnaissance mission for an upcoming covert mission. The helicopter had taken off from HMS Invincible with an SAS team to survey the area around Rio Grande Naval Aviation Base in Tierra del Fuego, during preparations for Operation Mikado, a plan to raid the base, destroy the Argentine Navy Super Etendards and kill their crews. When the Sea King’s crew believed they had been detected by the Argentinians, they flew to the Chilean side of the island and, after landing, destroyed their helicopter. The situation led to the decision by the Chileans to ask the British to withdraw their aircraft from San Felix, so the Nimrod and the VC10 returned to the UK on May 22.

During the war, Canberra PR.Mk9s of 39 Squadron operated from Chilean bases with Chilean markings, but no information has been released about this operation and it remains secret.

British Combat Aircraft in Latin America is published by Crecy and is available to order here.

Photo credit: Airwolfhound from Hertfordshire, UK, and LA(Phot) Gaz Armes via Wikipedia

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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