Cold War Era

The unknown story of the RAF Phantom pilot who intercepted an Argentine Boeing 707 spy plane over the Falklands

John now manoeuvred to hold a safe formation position on the Boeing 707. The Boeing, he noticed, had been painted white with a smart blue band along the fuselage as if to suggest an ordinary airliner. This was clearly not the case, however, for John could see copious aerials of various shapes and sizes on the Boeing’s belly — aerials, he surmised, which must have been installed when the aircraft was fitted-out in Israel…

The following article contains excerpts from the story titled Falklands Phantoms appeared in Richard Pike’s book Phantom Boys Volume 2.

Life, at times, can seem perverse. It certainly felt that way to Squadron Leader John Walmsley when, in June 1986, after a long-distance flight in a Lockheed TriStar from the United Kingdom via the Ascension Islands to the newly-constructed Falkland Islands’ airfield at Mount Pleasant, he made for his cabin on board a so-called Coastel positioned on one side of Stanley Harbour. A Swedish-built floating accommodation barge, the Coastel would end up eventually in the United States of America as a prison ship (for which purpose, incidentally, significant upgrading was required). John Walmsley’s cabin, a metal box that measured approximately twelve feet by eight feet and which had to be shared with another aircrew member, had no window and consequently felt quite claustrophobic. He was keen, therefore, after depositing his somewhat meagre belongings, to head for the Coasters top deck where he’d observe some of the legendary wildlife.


While deployed at Mount Pleasant John became involved in a clandestine plan to intercept an Argentine electronic intelligence (ELINT) aircraft, a modified Boeing 707. Coincidentally, he had been in Cyprus some two years previously when this aircraft, following modification in Israel, was intercepted by Phantoms on its return flight to Argentina. Now, though, the ELINT machine was known to patrol near the Falklands to gain information about UK military electronic emissions. The ministry of defence in London was keen for 23 Squadron Phantoms to intercept and photograph the intruder, but a recent QRA scramble with Hercules in-flight refuelling support had failed to achieve an interception; the elusive eavesdropper had managed to escape. Clearly, new tactics were required, so plans were made for a silent scramble: there would be no radio calls; the Phantom’s ‘identification friend or foe’ device would be switched off; the airborne radar system and even the radio altimeter would be kept firmly off. Meanwhile, the ground radar controllers at Mount Byron and Mount Alice, both located in West Falkland, were carefully briefed on their part in the ruse.

The time was 0600 when, on Friday 13 June 1986, John began his take-off run from Mount Pleasant airfield. The airfield name seemed apposite on that day for the sky was clear, there was not a breath of wind, and all was well with the world as the Phantom climbed up in radio silence. Soon, as he levelled the aircraft at the planned altitude of 25,000 feet, John gazed down at the terrain below which reflected a fine winter morning with the Falklands looking at its best. It was not long, however, before the benign scene showed signs that would lead to complications. As John flew above Falkland Sound and West Falkland, layers of cloud started to accumulate and by the time he initiated a combat air patrol at 25,000 feet due west of West Falkland, the Phantom was flying in thick cloud.

Meantime, as the ground-radar controllers watched the Phantom’s blip on their screens, they prepared to put into action the pre-briefed plan. In a deliberately relaxed voice one controller now passed to his colleague occasional weather updates for Mount Pleasant airfield. The weather updates, however, were adjusted so that the wind direction and speed elements acted as a code to indicate the Phantom’s range and bearing from the ELINT aircraft. John maintained the required heading as the range was counted down towards fifteen miles at which point luck appeared to be on his side for the cloud began to thin until, suddenly, the Phantom broke out of cloud and he saw the ELINT aircraft heading directly towards him. He descended to increase the height separation, then executed a hard turn to end up below the Argentine machine which continued on its course with the crew evidently oblivious of the Phantom’s presence.

John now manoeuvred to hold a safe formation position on the Boeing 707. The Boeing, he noticed, had been painted white with a smart blue band along the fuselage as if to suggest an ordinary airliner. This was clearly not the case, however, for John could see copious aerials of various shapes and sizes on the Boeing’s belly — aerials, he surmised, which must have been installed when the aircraft was fitted-out in Israel.

Argentine Air Force Boeing 707

“Can you count up the aerials, Steve?” John asked his navigator.

“Hang on…still counting!” replied Steve [Flight Lieutenant Steve Chaskin]. At length, when both of them agreed on the tally, they began to discuss the true nature of the Boeing 707’s role.

“It appears to be more of a communications eavesdropper than a real ELINT machine,” said John.

“I agree,” said Steve. “This thing’s hardly in the same category as, say, a USAF RC-135C with its distinctive ‘cheek’ pods, a camera position on the aft fuselage plus a few other signs of a genuine ELINT aircraft.”

By this stage Steve had started to take photographs using the special QRA camera supplied with black and white film, then he took more photos using his own personal camera with colour film. “This should keep the intelligence boys happy,” he said.

“Well done,” said John, “but before we leave, perhaps we should make our presence known?”

“I think we should,” said Steve. “I reckon the crew are still unaware that they’ve been rumbled.”

At this, John manoeuvred to a position above and behind the Boeing before he began to move forward slowly to place the Phantom abeam and to the left of the pilots’ cockpit. He climbed slightly so as to give the pilots a good view of the Phantom’s eight air-to-air missiles, then he waited, and waited and continued to wait until an abrupt jerk of the Boeing suggested that the pilots had, finally, looked out of their ‘office’. Their state of shock can be imagined as, like small boys caught in the act of petty theft, they realised that they’d been ambushed. Their next move was to turn hard towards the Phantom as if to ram it out of the sky. A Phantom’s superior manoeuvrability, however, allowed John to perform a graceful barrel roll around the Boeing’s cockpit before he engaged the Phantom’s reheats and headed back towards Mount Pleasant airfield.

Meanwhile, the Mount Pleasant weather reports, by now in uncoded form, announced that the weather conditions had deteriorated to state ‘red’ with a cloud-base below 300 feet.

“The wind direction’s across the runway and gusting up to fifty-five knots,” said John. “We should think about your rolls of film,” he went on. “If the worst comes to the worst we may be forced to eject into the sea.”

“I’ll stow the film in the most waterproof way available,” said Steve. At this, he loosened his ejection seat straps, unzipped his immersion suit and placed the film rolls under the suit.

As they continued to fly towards Mount Pleasant, John pondered a further problem – that of the Phantom’s weaponry in the event of a possible diversion to Brazil. Should he land the Phantom in South America with the aircraft still fully armed, or should the weapons be ditched into the sea before landing? He decided to put this to headquarters for a decision if and when the issue arose.

The weather conditions at Mount Pleasant, meantime, showed no signs of improv-ment. “Request clearance for a let-down over the sea,” John asked air traffic control.

“There’s no conflicting traffic,” said the controller, “you’re clear to descend over the sea.”

Despite any superstitious omens about ‘Friday the thirteenth’, the let-down worked out well and the Phantom broke through cloud at a safe altitude of around 500 feet. John now reduced the Phantom’s airspeed while he flew back towards Mount Pleasant as he maintained visual contact with the ground. When the airfield came into sight, a glance at the windsock confirmed the prospect of a difficult landing. Buffeted by turbulence, he had to kick off a large amount of cross-wind drift immediately before touchdown. The good judgement of an experienced ‘top gun’ pilot paid dividends, though, as the Phantom landed firmly but safely on the runway after which he taxied the aircraft back to its QRA hangar.

“Glad to have missed that sea dip,” John quipped to his navigator as the two of them climbed out of their cockpits. “And now we must send the films post-haste to London.”

It took a few days but when John heard back from London, the intelligence officer’s comments were highly satisfactory. “They were pleased with your colour photos,” John said to his navigator.

“Did they realise that I used my own camera?” asked Steve.

“Probably not. From their point of view it was just part of a day’s work.”

“After all that effort?”

“Afraid so,” chuckled John. He nodded slowly and glanced up when he heard the distinctive cry of a passing bird, one of the area’s profuse number of oystercatchers. For a moment or two he thought about conditions in the Falkland Islands, the abundance of wildlife, the barren surroundings, the ‘camp’ settlements, the particular lifestyle. “Just part of a day’s work,” he confirmed.

Photo credit: Crown Copyright, Major Dennis A. Guyitt and MSgt. Don Sutherland / U.S. Air Force, Chris Lofting 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.

View Comments

  • Surprised he was at a coastel. The phantoms had moved to MPA then with the aircrew & Groundcrew!

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