THE EMPIRE’S TWILIGHT
NIGHT OF THE VIXEN
By Anthony Wilkins
The Falklands War,
30th May 1982
I gripped the controls with such force I thought for a moment that they were going to snap in my hands. My face tucked in beneath the leather oxygen mask glistened with sweat as I kept my eyes on the instruments. The Falkland Islands were just a black outline on a darkened horizon off the nose of the Sea Vixen EF.3. Michael, my ‘Observer’, couldn’t enjoy the view being trapped in his dungeon just to the right of my cockpit. I never envied him and his job. I took a ride ‘down there’ once a few months after joining 892 NAS when one of the aircraft was on an air test out of RNAS Pembrey. It was merely out of interest to see what it was like for Mike. I had never been air sick before but that day I was ready to churn out my last three meals in one go. There is only a small window to his right and ‘sun roof’ in the hatch above his head. Other than that it’s just a wall of displays and control panels with my right leg on his left. It’s quite disorienting.
1st Lieutenant Mike Beaumont was a Canadian on exchange to the Royal Navy. We had been flying together for close to six months when the Argentineans invaded the islands. He was not a particularly broad person, a blessing some might say considering where he worked, and he spoke with a polite twang in his voice. Being the exotic one he always had more attention from the ladies than I ever could hope for and I once remarked that when we were out on the town he would turn into Clark Gable. The name soon stuck and he was unofficially known as ‘Gable’ around the squadron.
It was somewhat sobering to know that we would be the first Commonwealth aircraft over the islands since they were annexed by the Argentineans almost a month ago. We were ahead of a Vulcan bomber flying from Ascension Islands with the aim of cratering the runway at Port Stanley to prevent the Argentineans from basing offensive aircraft there to attack the fleet. Our job was to fly pathfinder for the Vulcan crew and make sure there wasn’t any high altitude targeting radars in the way of the Vulcan. If there was then we had two Red Heat missiles under the wings to take care of them. The Red Heat was an anti-radar missile derived from the old Firestreak Air-to-Air Missile. The infra-red seeker had been replaced by a radiation seeker to detect the radiowaves from a scanning radar dish and then home in on the source. It was not the best missile in the world for the job but it was what we had at the time. Backing up the missiles were our jamming equipment which is always tricky at the best of times and two Red Dean 5 AAMs.
The islands were now getting bigger and beginning to dominate my field of view. Having no night vision equipment Mike had to navigate for me to make sure we didn’t fly into any mountains as well as do his own job. That’s not to say I just leave it all to him since I have to correlate what he tells me with the map stuffed into my thigh pocket visible through the transparent patch across the top. We were currently at two thousand five hundred feet heading into Yorke Bay just to the north of Port Stanley.
“How are we looking?” I asked Mike referring to whether or not his equipment had detected any signals that might indicate a radar scan.
“Cleaner than a nun’s sheets,” replied the voice in my headset which in the cock-eyed arrangement of the Sea Vixen is sometimes the only indication that you’re not flying alone; except when Mike thumps me in my left leg to make sure I have his full attention.
“They’re keeping quiet. Do you think they know we’re coming?” I joked with an air of forced bravado in attempt to hide my anxiety at the fact that by now people on the islands could hear our engines in the night.
“They must be expecting something by now. They know the taskforce has been down here for over two days. Port Stanley airport is eighteen kilometers on our left and even they’re quiet. What do you want to do? If we climb we could pick up anything on the mountain tops or we could turn north and scout the route the Vulcan will take. It’s your call.”
I thought for a moment trying to weigh up my options as quickly as possible. I knew that the Argies weren’t stupid and that’s why they were keeping their radars off for the time being. They no doubt would switch them on only when they suspected something big was up. Our Vulcan would no doubt be detected by Venezuelan tracking stations and the information would be passed on to the Argies through a discrete telephone call. They would then know when to switch their radars on to engage it. The problem is that by then we were supposed to be out of the area.
There was one option made available to us however in the pre-flight briefing which we hadn’t discussed yet. We knew it would reveal to the Argentineans that the airport was the target but our mission was to knock out their targeting radars capable of reaching over fifteen thousand feet that was the minimum height the Vulcan could attack from. It didn’t matter if the Argies knew what we were planning as long as they couldn’t reach the Vulcan.
“What if we overfly the airfield?” I said to Mike. “Make ‘em think that we are on a bombing run. That might coax them into switching on long enough for us to squeeze off a Red Heat.”
“I was hoping you wouldn’t say that,” joked Mike. “Do you really want to do it? We’ll probably take a lot of ground fire.”
“Yeah but they’ll be shooting blind until they turn their radar on.”
“Alright then let’s go. Hell I didn’t want to live forever anyway. Let’s hit it from the east. We’ll make good our escape over Surf Bay and then swoop back up to see if we’ve pissed them off enough. Agreed?”
“Roger,” I replied.
“Ok then if I can’t convince you otherwise turn to one-one-zero.”
Upon his instruction I put the Sea Vixen into a big turn to the left watching my compass until the numbers matched the direction. As any aircraft turns the g-forces build and as I held the aircraft controls I could feel the pressure start to build against me. Now on a south easterly heading I waited for Mike to let me know what was going on electronically. He remained silent still waiting for a signal.
The black waters underneath us soon gave way to land that appeared just as black, broken only by the headlights of a solitary car on some winding road into Port Stanley town. Given our current speed and heading we were not even three minutes from the airport that was so precious to the Argentineans. Any second now and we would be stirring the Hornet’s nest.
“I’m arming the Red Heats,” said Mike who didn’t want to take any chances. We weren’t going to miss any opportunity. “Two minutes, scope is still clear.”
I kept looking into the night sky expecting to see tracers at any second start rising into the air trying to shoot us down. The faintest little light seemed to make my heart freeze. Suddenly there they were! A string of lights!
“Shit! I gasped.
“What?” bellowed Mike who couldn’t see anything. “What is it?”
My eyes focused on the row of little lights I could see ahead of me. They weren’t tracers. They were landing lights but before I could pass this on to Mike we had begun to pass over the outer perimeter of the airfield at a speed of over three hundred and fifty miles an hour. The row of lights quickly passed us by on our right. The tracers I had expected never materialized. As I glanced back over my right shoulder at the lines of landing lights strobing eastwards I suddenly saw another light appear in the sky to the west.
“Nothing on our scopes they’re keeping quiet,” said Mike his voice still panic stricken at the suddenness of my yelling.
“I don’t believe it. Something’s trying to land on the runway.”
“What, are you serious?” Mike must have looked out his own little window at the illuminated runway because he quickly added, “That looks like a 707.”
I tempted a second look and indeed I could see the wing root landing lights sending beams of light across the forward half of a white fuselage of an airliner. I couldn’t be sure it was a 707 but it looked as such. Although judging distances at night is difficult I estimated it was two and a half miles from the runway. I then realized what was happening.
“They’re trying to land a transport plane at night without radar,” I explained.
Suddenly the lights on the runway went black. The airliner seemed to pitch upwards with its lights still on full beam, the pilot obviously forgetting he was in a warzone.
“They’ve aborted!” I said to Mike. “They’ve told him we’re here.” Soon the lights on the 707 went out also. “This is our chance. I’m taking us up.”
Before Mike could acknowledge I pulled back on the stick and the Sea Vixen began to climb. To keep the speed up through the climb I opened the throttles. We were quickly passing through 4,000 feet…4,250…4,500. At 5,000 ft I rolled the aircraft back and the ground now appeared to be above us until I rolled upright.
The mission had now changed. This was a golden opportunity. We knew the Argies were using requisitioned airliners to fly in fresh troops and supplies to the island under the cover of night. We had disrupted this flight and that provided us with an opportunity to hurt the enemy. But before I could entertain any thoughts of pursuing the 707 fate intervened.
“Radar spike!” said Mike. “They’re homing in on us.” The words we had been hoping for since the mission began now seemed like a bitter pill to swallow. I wanted that 707 but I was now reverting back to the original mission. “It’s in the high Y-band, looks like a HAWK SAM.”
The HAWK was an American Surface-to-Air Missile that had been supplied to the Argies before the war began. We had suspected they were on the islands but we hadn’t confirmed it until now.
With the airport now off to our 2 o’clock position I watched a small orange and white light start lifting up into the sky followed by another and then a third. The lights illuminated grey smoke trails behind them that began to arch up into the sky like three long witch’s fingers.
“Shit they’ve fired,” I said into my oxygen mask through an almost dry mouth.
My instinct was to begin turning away from them but Mike seemed to scream, “Keep us steady I’m homing in on the dish. Just two more seconds.”
That was easy for him to say. He couldn’t see them down in his little dungeon. Me; I had a front row seat to what was possibly the end of my life. two seconds? May as well have been two years. The HAWKs were now above us and curving back down towards our Sea Vixen. The Argies had fired their full salvo of missiles (HAWK comes on a three round launcher) and I felt this was a bit reckless considering they had one of their own aircraft in the area.
As I continued to keep a close eye on the missiles I was silently cursing the designer of the Red Heat missile because it needed a steady platform to home in on the radar dish. The HAWKs were now just dots of light above us indicating that they were heading straight for us. They were approaching their terminal phase of flight.
“I’ve got it!” boomed Mike. “Firing!”
I quickly closed my right eye so that I was not blinded by the glow of the missile’s rocket motor. It could take upto twenty minutes for my eyes to readjust back to the night but with one eye closed the other eye would adjust a lot quicker as both would equalize. Looking through my left eye I saw the orange and white glow light up the underside of the Sea Vixen as the missile went streaking off the launch rail. It shot out ahead of us before beginning a sharp turn to the right towards the north eastern side of the airport. I would have liked to watch it but I had more pressing concerns.
With the missile gone I could now take evasive action. I threw the Sea Vixen into the hardest right turn I had ever done. The old jet moaned and creaked as the g-forces piled on and the stick now felt five times harder to pull back. I kept the aircraft turning knowing that the HAWKs would have to pull at least 12G to get inside the turn and strike us all the while chaff was spewing from the rear fuselage to try and confuse the scanners.
With the Sea Vixen now nearly ninety degrees on its right hand side the missiles that were bearing down on us appeared in my left hemisphere. I kept a close eye on them as they got closer and closer. I kept the turn and soon the airport was back on my 2 o’clock. There was a sudden flash near where the runway was located but I couldn’t get distracted by it although I needn’t have worried. The flash was the Red Heat striking the guidance radar for the missiles. The radar was destroyed and the missiles went ‘dumb’. Instead of chasing us they began to just race towards the ground each of them exploding on the barren terrain of the islands.
I stopped the turn and once I had leveled out I punched the air with adrenalin fueled joy and relief. We had lost nearly 2,000ft in the turn and I began to compensate with a gentle climb.
“We fucking got it!” said Mike. “Scope is clear.”
But I wasn’t going to waste anytime. That 707 was still out there and I wanted to get it.
“Mike, sweep the area. See if you can find that plane that was trying to land. I will turn us 360.”
“Roger,” said Mike. With our own airborne radar now scanning ahead of us the Sea Vixen was like a flying lighthouse searching the sky as we turned. We had almost completed the turn when Mike reported, “I’ve got it. Level out now. I did as he instructed and leveled the aircraft in a southerly direction back towards Surf Bay. “It’s at 11 o’clock low heading west. Looks like he’s running for home.”
“We may never get another chance like this. Let’s take it out.”
“I thought you’d say that,” he said dryly. “He’s passing our nose so you’re going to need to break left and we’ll turn in behind him.”
“Roger that,” I said as my heart began to pump faster once again. This was a different feeling to the one I experienced flying defence suppression missions. There you don’t feel like the hunter but sometimes quite the opposite. Now we were the hunters stalking prey. It was a whole other sensation of excitement and eagerness.
Once the turn was complete Mike scanned for the 707 once more. Although I couldn’t see it Mike reported its position to me. It was five miles ahead of us and still just below our altitude keeping a solid westerly direction. Mike slaved the seeker of one of the Red Dean V Air-to-Air Missiles on the inner wing pylons to the radar which told the missile where to look. Soon there was a growling noise in our helmets indicating that the missile was locked on.
Although I could fire the missile it was practice to leave night intercept firings to the ‘Observer’ and that’s how we played it.
“Lock is good,” said Mike. “Ready to fire.”
“Do it!” I instructed him and once again I closed my right eye.
For a second time a missile streaked off the rails of the Sea Vixen. It was not too dissimilar to the way the Red Heat looked when it fired since they both belonged to the same family of missiles. The Red Dean V drew a long line of smoke illuminated by the rocket motor across the night sky ahead of us. The missile slowly descended down to the altitude of the 707 and was soon just a dot on the horizon.
I’d never seen anything like it. The sky erupted in a brilliant orange plume of fire that quickly subsided into what appeared to be a shower of sparks from a firework. The burning wreckage twisted and turned as it tumbled towards the sea where it disappeared into the blackness, gone forever.
“We got it, Fox 2 kill,” I uttered in frightened awe of what we had done. I didn’t know whether to celebrate or cry as I realized that there was a very real possibility that the 707 was filled with soldiers. There could have been as many as 250 on board a plane like that and we had just killed them all.
I knew it was dangerous to think like this and a fuel warning light snapped me out of it. Guided by Mike I turned back towards HMS Hermes but I will never forget the sight of that aircraft burning through the night sky and knowing that one day it could very well be the Sea Vixen I’m in now. The war was only one day old after all.