2009 Articles

DEC 22 2009
South Atlantic - The Early Years

I was very interested in Gareth's article of October 20th about the arrival of the Typhoons at Mount Pleasant airfield in the Falklands to take over the Island's defence from the Tornado F.3. My interest stems from my having spent almost two years there from 1983 to 1985 as a civilian working for the Laing/Mowlem/ARC consortium building the airfield.

Many people only think of the Falkland Islands (FI) ever having the Tornado in this role, but from 1982 to 1986, whilst the airfield was built at MPA, the RAF operated the F4 Phantom, Harrier and Hercules out of RAF Stanley's small airstrip and it may well have been the most short lived active station since WWII.

Although I was working for the MPA construction company I was actually based at a satellite operation at Mary Hill Quarry, just yards from the end of Stanley runway. So for 14 months I had the sort of up-close-and-personal access to fully armed aircraft that most enthusiasts would sell their wife and kids for. Needless to say, I had a camera, and now I would like to share some of the best pictures with GAR's readers.

Let me start by pointing out that these pictures are all scans of 25 year old prints; digital wasn't even being talked about then and I had a Canon T50. A post-war island, 8000 miles from its supply source, was not the best place to get fresh 35mm film and more often than not it was a good two to three months beyond its 'use by' date. It would probably be a further two to three months before it was shipped home for developing too. So while I'd ask you to please forgive the picture quality, I'd also like to think that it's content that really matters with this subject!

There was no time after the 1982 war to rebuild the runway at Stanley, so a repair and extension were affected with the use of interlocking metal sheets about 8 feet by 2 feet.

Looking west along the runway, You can just make out the 'paneling' of the interlocking metal sheets and the rubber 'bungs' holding up the arrestor cable used to catch the Phantoms. Stanley is to the left. Aircraft banked right (south) soon after take-off to avoid noise nuisance in Stanley.

A Hercules always went up with each patrol to refuel them and this one will head out east away from Stanley. The Herc also carried out maritime reconnaissance patrols - note the 'pod' on the wing tip. This was less than a year after the war had ended remember, aircraft went up prepared for trouble and the C-130 also operated the dreaded 'Airbridge' to and from Ascension Island. If you've ever spent 12 hours sat between the wing roots of a cruising Hercules, you'll know why it was dreaded!

A Phantom heads off on patrol, east to west, towards Stanley. This picture was taken from the 'Harr Det' (Harrier detachment) about halfway along the runway. In the background is the 'Herc Det'. You can see 2 of the Bristow Helicopters as well - they had a military transport contract. The yellow sign to the right reads "DANGER - AIRCRAFT ARMED".

This picture demonstrates the very temporary nature of the whole installation at Stanley.

Another Phantom heads off, this time west to east. Sometimes, the blast would lift loose panels at the runway edges.

Stanley was still littered with wrecked Pucaras.

I'd like to claim that this is the first of the Vulcan's bombs hitting the airfield......... but it's a blast day in the quarry! The end of the runway is just out of shot to the right. All aircraft had to be on the ground before blasting just in case debris put the runway out of action.

The Harriers were kinder to the runway panels being able to touch down gently...........

...... whereas the Phantoms were more punishing. Even with the extension, the runway was only just long enough to land a Phantom with full braking and chute deployed. This could have caused major maintenance headaches with only four Phantoms available, so four sets of arrestor gear along the runway ensured they could always be stopped.

I apologise for this picture's lack of focus, but it was a very opportunistic shot; hand-held with a 400mm lens. This pilot missed the first cable and this is the second cable down the runway that you can see in the first photo.

This pile of gravel was my vantage point for many of these images. Those of you who know the Stanley area will notice the bow of the "Lady Elizabeth" just on the left edge of the picture.

This shot shows just how close our quarry was to the runway. Although this Harrier is just hovering, they regularly used to 'beat-up-the-airfield' at this sort of height. I heard many Forces people say that the rule book was all but thrown out of the window when it came to low-flying in the Falklands.

Like I said in the intro, 'up-close-and-personal'! Try getting this close to an armed aircraft, being refuelled at a USAF base for example.........

I was able to blag my way onboard a maritime recce flight one day. We spent four hours flying round the Islands photographing all the shipping. Great fun and I didn't realise just how manoeuvrable a Hercules could be!

I also managed to get on a refuelling flight one day. It was simply a case of walking over to the Herc' crew's plush office (a portakabin) and just asking if I could go up. "No problem mate - be here at 11:00 tomorrow and we'll set off!"

Although this was middle of the day, the lighting seemed like dusk, something to do with being at altitude and so far south; a surreal experience.

The trip resulted in me getting a picture that I'm still proud of to this day. You can clearly see the live armament carried by the Phantoms and Harriers - in this case I think they are Sparrow missiles, but I'm sure someone will correct me. I do remember thinking for a moment "I'm sitting in a plane stuffed full of fuel and right behind us is a bloke with his finger over four bloody missiles"

All done and back to base. A Hercules tanker and his customer flying in formation over Stanley before landing.

Hook down and ready to hit the brick wall. It's strange to think that probably none of these pilots had ever done a deck landing, yet by the time they finished their land-based Falklands tour, they were well qualified for it.

There was plenty of activity away from the airfield too. This Chinook had to make a forced landing one morning on the green right in the centre of Stanley's seafront. The rotors have been removed prior to another Chinook airlifting it back to base. That was an impressive sight but I didn't have my camera.

I don't remember the circumstances of this shot, but it was taken a few miles south of MPA on the road connecting the site to the temporary dock at Berthas Beach.

SAR (Search and Rescue) was taken care of by a detachment from 202 Squadron. Their base was over the other side of Stanley Harbour.

These pictures pretty much represent typical daily movements in and out of Stanley. Typically, I didn't have my camera handy when the unusual things happened. Being so isolated, and in a post-war state, the Islands never saw any unexpected aircraft types. If I'd known then what I know now, I would have taken a whole lot more pictures.

By the time my 14 month contract was up, the airfield at Mount Pleasant was almost open, so unfortunately I was back in the UK when Prince Andrew turned up to cut the ribbon. But after only six months back home, I had the chance of returning to MPA for a final stint. Having taken so many photographs first time round, I took a video camera (actually a JVC camera and Sony Betamax portable recorder!) with me and concentrated on moving images. But I did get some stills of life at MPA. The hardened aircraft shelters were still being built when I returned so the Phantoms & Harriers were still at Stanley.

The civilian contractors and many military personnel were by now being flown in and out by BA 747s. But the RAF was also now running Tristars down there. These two types didn't need refuelling between Brize/Ascension/MPA and were faster than the Hercules Airbridge, but the journey from Brize was still an epic one. I'm sure I have some pictures of the scenery at Wideawake Airfield on Ascension taken whilst we refuelled, but I'm afraid I can't find them. On the return leg, MPA to Brize, we also had a fuel stop at Dakar airfield right on the west coast tip of Africa. We had to get off the plane for fuelling, but there was no cover anywhere from the sun....... that was hot!

Let me finish off with a few pictures from the early days of RAF Mount Pleasant.

An Islander touches down on the temporary airstrip laid at Mount Pleasant so that FIGAS (Falkland Islands Government Air Service) could fly the important people to and from Stanley - the link road across 26 miles of peat bogs and 'rock-rivers' wouldn't be completed for many months.

..... and on a grander scale, Tristar ZE704 touches down at MPA...................

............ and parks up beside the 747 that arrived the previous day. We had one 747 that arrived with five engines! It was bringing in a spare that needed to live at MPA in case another 747 ever needed an engine change to get home again. The best way to bring it down was mounted on a hard point under a wing but sorry, no picture of that sight!

When BA's contract was up, the last 747 to leave went in style. The pilot did a circuit, came in low and fast down the runway, dipped his wings a couple of times, then pulled up into a steep climb out. This is not that flight I'm afraid.

Heli' ops' had moved to MPA quite early on. That's Mount Pleasant ridge in the background.

......... and viewed from the ridge, that's MPA in the distance, with a different Falkland's flying thing 'up-close-and-personal'.

These pictures obviously mean a great deal to me and represent a major part of my life, but I hope that you all enjoy them for what they are....... a reminder of aircraft and operations now gone.

GAR wants to interact with its readers so if you have a question for the author or a comment to make on this feature, please click on the button below. The best comments will appear right here on GAR.

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2012-12-21 - Andy Gilbert
Stunning pictures, and good quality for the time. My pictures of my tour in 1984/85 haven't survived nearly as well, though were taken on an OM1 and Zuiko lenses on Kodak film.

2012-12-21 - Warren Archer
Great Pictures! Brought back some great memories - especially the big white Gozmee Bird the Tri Star - HQ RE BFFI 1986-87

2012-05-02 - Wickham
See also another Sea King photo in November 1983 at Mount Pleasant
and read my memoirs
as I seem to have been there at the same time as Andy Matheson (but I was at MPA, not in Stanley).

2012-04-17 - Bob Higgins
Great photo's and good comments on them. You were lucky you had a decent camera. My photos taken in September 1982 up to October '82 were on a slightly lacking Kodak 110. Not the best, but at least I got some pics of the place as a reminder of what a hell hole the Falklands could be. Again, great pictures. Brings back many memories of the place.

2010-03-31 - Andy Ottaway
Thanks for the great photographs - I flew Gazelle helicopters out of our small base behind Stanley for a few months in 85, and took the first BA 747 home. I have happy memories of the challenging flying conditions down south, as well as some poignant ones of the aftermath of Op Corporate.

While we all operated within safety constraints, you could still get the odd surprise, such as sitting on the ground at a remote refuelling site, and looking down into the cockpit of an F4 as it did a low beat-up.....

Thanks for sharing.

2010-02-09 - Liam McBride
Superb reading and a brilliant era for aviation. An envious adventure.Well done.

2009-12-26 - Jim Maher
The pictures bring back some memories.I served at Fox Bay.Hillcove and did a stint one day at Byron Heights on TSW duties.

One minor point the Phantoms were still there Dec87-Apr88 when i was there.

You mention low flying.I could tell you a few stories of certain Chinooks flying around Fox Bay.I am sure the name Bunny will ring a bell with some people.Or the Wasp pilot of HMS Appolo who fired off a flare over Xmas on the deck.

Thankyou for sharing your story.

2009-12-23 - Doug Monk
Great images. I was there at the back end of '82, the first of three tours on the chinooks - I was a hooker. The Chinook on the harbor front was the result of some bad rigging by some of the chaps. They rigged a 40 ft ISO container with 20 ft slings. Net result was too much strain for the angle of the slings. A couple of the sling legs broke free (25,000 lbs SWL) and flew up into the rotors. The crew 'dumped' the load and put the Wokka on the nearest bit of terra firma. Outstanding job!! I am pretty sure one of the pilots was a young Simon Falla, the head honcho of the Joint Helo Command. What memories........

2009-12-22 - Damien Burke
Brilliant - just brilliant. More like this please guys!

2009-12-22 - Rod Matheson
As his other older brother, most of this was news to me as well, although I knew he thoroughly enjoyed his time out there.

Brilliant article and some fabulous photo's.....

When will you be signing the book then Andrew and where, Harrods????...

2009-12-22 - John Matheson
For all the years I`ve had him as a young brother, he`s never shown me those pictures! Brilliant article, obviously he loved his time out there (his wife will vouch for how often he goes on about it!), and it shows in the writing. Well done Andy, said with equal shares of pride and envy!

2009-12-22 - Michael Hind
A fantastically fascinating article, with brilliant pictures to boot. Well done.

2009-12-22 - Gavin Weaver
Very interesting article - thanks for sharing your memories!

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