Military Aviation History

FEB 22 2011
Military Aviation >> History > Gulf War 20th: Buccaneer, a pilot’s eye view.

When we began planning a series of features to mark the 20th anniversary of the Gulf War, we knew that we couldn't do so properly without taking a look at the contribution made by the venerable Buccaneer. When Wg Cdr Bill Cope (Buccaneer Detachment Commander in 1991) was asked by the media to comment upon the effectiveness of the Bucc, an aircraft that had some three decades of service behind it and was fast approaching retirement, he quipped, "My old grandmother is getting on a bit, but you wouldn't want to mess with her!"

The Blackburn Buccaneer, affectionately known as the Banana Jet as a result of its distinctive curved profile, first flew in April 1958 and entered Fleet Air Arm service four years later. The aircraft had arisen from a Ministry of Supply specification (M.148T) that called for a carrier-borne low level strike aircraft to counter the new fleet of Russian Sverdlov class cruisers which were launched in the early 1950s.

The Royal Air Force would eventually procure the Buccaneer itself following the cancellation of first the TSR.2 and then the F-111K, its aircraft remaining in service until 1994, long outlasting the FAA which retired its aircraft in 1978 following HMS Ark Royal’s decommissioning. By 1990 three units remained operational – 12 Squadron, 208 Squadron and 237 Operational Conversion Unit, all based at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland. Each flew the definitive RAF version of the Buccaneer, the S.2B, in the maritime strike role and were assigned to SACLANT (Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic) although 237 OCU was also assigned a land strike role under the auspices of SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander Europe).

“I arrived on 12 Sqn in 1989,” John tells me, “and, having only been on the squadron for twelve months or so, and still being a youngster, I remember being most peeved at Saddam Hussein that our 1990 exchange visit to Izmir in Turkey was cancelled!

“What that did do however was really bring it home that I was very much in an operational environment, flying a weapon of war and that the prospect of even deploying a squadron of bombers on exercise to a nation bordering Iraq had strategic ramifications and was deemed too sensitive.”

What followed for the Buccaneer force was, well, not much really. It wasn’t in the frame to deploy, although John and many of his colleagues were well aware that warfare is rarely a predictable entity and that the situation could quickly change. Remember, both 12 and 208 Sqns were trained and equipped to carry out a purely maritime role, so, potential deployment in mind, they decided to ensure that their overland navigation and tactical skills were more current than they usually would be.

“We received quite a stern directive from our HQ (18 Group at the time) that we were not going to deploy to the Gulf, we should desist from war-mongering and return to working purely on our maritime tactics.

“Typically, it was only a few weeks later that we were told to get our gear together as we were deploying!”

When the air war actually commenced in January, John was in Germany on a survival course and he recalls coming in from the exercise and watching that opening night unfold on the television, though it seemed inconceivable at this stage that the Buccaneer would be taking part. A week or so later of course, and with the Tornado by then operating at medium level, it became evident that the Buccaneer’s laser designation capability was required.

Weeks prior to this, well before the campaign actually began and when the idea of deploying the Buccaneer was originally mooted, the USA military command had said that it was unnecessary as it would designate targets for RAF aircraft. As the air war began, however, those resources quite simply weren’t available and the Buccaneer was about to be called in to action.

“It was a pretty tight flash-to-bang,” John recalls, “not only to get the aircraft prepared and to get them out there, but the crews had to be equipped with what we needed, including all the dreadful injections and such like.

“I remember going to visit the medics and they said they had four injections to give us and we were supposed to have them four days apart. Well, we were going the next day so we had two in one arm and two in the other!”

John flew in the second wave of aircraft to depart from RAF Lossiemouth, it was quite an adventure and is something he remembers vividly to this day.

“It was a cold, pitch black January morning and I arrived for work at about 4am, taking off at about 6am. About 90 minutes later I distinctly recall the beautiful sight of the sun rising over the English Channel as we approached the first tanker bracket, which was with a Victor.”

Tanking complete John then realised that he needed a leak and, just two hours in to an eight hour trip, holding on to it clearly wasn’t an option.

“It was the only time I ever resorted to using the awful RAF pee bag,” he smiles, “and I learned to control my liquid intake after that!”

Flying non-stop for eight hours in an aircraft which was controlled entirely manually was tiring and John readily admits that he was "absolutely exhausted" by the time they reached their destination, Muharraq airbase in Bahrain. Especially as his longest sortie prior to this had been a mere three hours.

Of course, getting there was only the first of many challenges.

“Having been called upon to deploy, we arrived determined to do the best job we possibly could. It was exhilarating no doubt about it; but it was also a shock to the system and it focussed the mind, this coupled with a sense of disappointment in some ways that the situation had developed in to one where lethal force was being used. That’s not something that should ever be done lightly.”

The Buccaneer had arrived in theatre and it was time for them to get to work.

“There were two TIALD pods (CLICK HERE) in theatre with the Tornado GR.1s and they did great work with those, despite the fact that they had been rushed in to service. The Buccaneer, however, did account for the vast majority of RAF laser-designation sorties. We gave the Tornados the ability to bomb accurately from medium level which they just hadn’t been able to do without us and it was a huge boost to the morale of the Tornado force. They had performed magnificently in the opening stages of the war but they had taken a pasting for it and when the effort switched to medium level I think their morale suffered a wee bit given that their efforts just weren’t producing decisive results, due entirely to the way the kit, the navigation and bombing computers, were set-up. I think we helped them to find their second wind; I think it worked very well.”

That said, cooperative bombing was not the simplest of tasks, as GR.1 detachment commander Jerry Witts confirmed in an earlier GAR feature.

“Working co-operatively was extremely complex,” says John, “it wasn’t always the ‘one bomb / one hit’ process that I think many onlookers assumed.

"It required an immense amount of co-ordination and that needed familiarity and practice – we had neither of those!”

Laser designation was part of the regular Buccaneer training programme but all from low level and against maritime targets. All of the procedures for working at medium level were different and very challenging.

The lasers were bore-sighted to the front of the aircraft and a mark would be made on the sighting glass with a chinagraph pen – it was as technical as that, and each Pave Spike pod pointed in a slightly different direction! Once airborne the jets would accelerate to attack speed and the pod would be bore-sighted again against one of the accompanying aircraft so the crew could check the alignment, being careful not to fire the laser of course because it was quite capable of causing irreparable eyesight damage.

“Even finding the targets could be very difficult and many of them were dirty great Iraqi airfields; they were enormous but you might still only get first sight from about 15 or 20 miles away. We typically flew at an airspeed of around eight miles per minute so that is still only two or three minutes flying time away from the target. When you factor bomb release at about four to five miles out, you were typically still trying to get eyes on to the target with about 90 seconds to go before the Tornados hit their weapon release point. In that short space of time, a lot had to happen, both within your own aircraft and in terms of communicating between the bombers and the ‘spikers’, so it could be quite a tense time.”

Haze was a big problem for the crews as a result of the awful weather in the region and visually acquiring pretty much anything in what John describes as “a big, sandy orange world” clearly wasn’t especially easy.

“The Tornados would call ‘Bananas Bananas’, which we insisted they use in deference to our standing tactics, at around 20 miles out from the target. From that point we only had about 30 / 40 seconds to acquire the target area and, if not find the specific aiming point allocated, at least conclude that you would be able to do so during the time of flight of the bomb!”

Once the target had been identified the pilot’s job was to place his chinagraph mark over it and hold it there, giving his navigator a chance to get the laser on to it.”

“We would make a call from the front seat of ‘sight on, sight on, sight on’ which was the cue for the navigator to acquire the target on his television screen and start tracking it. Bearing in mind that all the time the ‘sight is on’, the aircraft is in a straight line, steepening dive towards the defended target area, it was also code for ‘hurry up, I want to get out of here’!

“Once he had got the target on-screen the navigator would then take manual control of the laser and call ‘capture’, leaving the pilot free to manoeuvre the aircraft, but only within fairly careful parameters as the pod clearly couldn’t look in all directions. You could certainly pull out of the dive and ease away from the target area threats and the other aircraft in the formation, but all the while you’d be watching a little needle to make sure it didn’t ‘mask’ as we called it, or hit its gimbal stops; if it did that it would automatically ‘cage’, or bore-sight back to the nose of the aircraft and it was ‘game over’ for that attack!”

It is worth noting that the optical magnification of the pod inevitably resulted in a very narrow field of view and the navigator was effectively ‘looking through a drinking straw’ to identify the target which he then had to track continuously using a thumbwheel with his left hand. It was a delicate task with a slight lag between operating the thumbwheel and the laser reacting, while usually having to contend with the sun streaming into the cockpit and the aircraft manoeuvring.

“It was a real team effort. Without the guy in the front to find the target you’re going nowhere, but once you found it, it was up to the guy in the back to keep it locked on until the Tornado’s weapon impacted.”

The Tornado GR.1s, usually from Dhahran, and the Buccaneers would get airborne and normally meet at the tanker. Despite not really needing the fuel the Buccs weren’t going to turn it down and, having tanked, the formation would head towards the target area.

“As the spikers we would stick to the bombers like glue,” John remembers, “and flying in close formation, in cloud, as a four or six aircraft package for two hours or so was another challenge. You dare not lose them as the navigation kit wasn’t good enough to find them again very easily and the integrity of that formation was vital to the whole process. We stayed close until we were about 30 miles out when we would split and give them cover while off-setting to fire the laser across and on to the target for them.”

Complex stuff as you can see, and for John, who recalls being like “a rabbit in the headlights” and believes he may have been the youngest allied combat pilot in theatre, it was an extraordinary experience.

“We were lucky in some respects, I think,” he reflects, “there were undoubtedly flaws in our tactics and we also got complacent as we didn’t vary our tactics throughout the war. My first combat mission was against Al Taqaddum airfield and we learned during our briefing that we had lost an aircraft (Rupert Clark and Steve Hicks’ Tornado GR.1) over that very same target earlier in the morning.

“That aircraft had been the eighth aircraft in an eight ship formation and you did have to wonder whether there was a cleverer way of us going back in to hit it again – especially as I would be the last aircraft through from our formation, number eight in fact!

“To my amazement, I learned that we were about to repeat exactly the same tactic in the afternoon. Remember, I was the most junior pilot there and when I ventured that we might like to consider using a different tactic, someone made a disparaging comment which effectively called my courage into question. Of course that irritated the hell out of me and I climbed back into my ‘junior-pilot’ box and flew the mission as directed. Sure enough, that afternoon, as we attacked the same target as had been attacked in the morning, from the same direction and in the same formation, I got lit up by an SA-2 - brilliant!!”

John resolved there and then to learn from his experiences and to apply those lessons to future combat operations. Simple lessons, such as regarding everyone’s opinion as valid, were etched upon his mind. More broadly, he was struck by how blinkered the RAF had become in its approach to combat operations, simply not considering any alternative to the established methods and Cold War imperatives.

And what of the Buccaneer itself? As a Junior Pilot with comparatively little experience, John suddenly found himself going to war in what was a relatively antiquated aircraft in many respects; so what did he make of it?

“All of our training had obviously been under peace time constraints which were quite conservative and during the war we needed to fly the jet quite literally as if our lives depended on it. We were not sure how the conflict would unfold and whether we may yet face remnants of Saddam’s air force, or need to designate or evade at low level, so I learned, very quickly, to fly it lower, faster and to point it at the ground until later than I ever had done before. It was designed to be flown at low level but it performed magnificently at high level too, out-performing the Tornado in many respects - cruising faster and climbing faster, but you did need to keep the airspeed up, she was always much happier then.

“The airframe was quite unique; many aircraft can feel quite fragile but you never felt that with the Buccaneer, we always felt as if we could ram something and she would still carry on going! The avionics were pretty shocking though, and it is to the credit of the navs that it all worked out so well.

“The Buccaneer provided me with a tremendous grounding in military discipline, although it took a while for all the lessons to sink in and I think that my flight commanders could be forgiven for missing it! But I undoubtedly learned many of the fundamentals required to be a good military pilot during my time on the Buccaneer and they have stood me in good stead I think.

“The Bucc was a phenomenally capable platform but when we retired the aircraft it was definitely time for her to go; the aircraft had had its day and it is always better to go out on a high.

"In a nutshell, it was a magnificent machine and thoroughly up to the job asked of it in the Gulf - the experience I gained with the Bucc, and especially during a brief but intense period in 1991, would prove invaluable to me over the years since.”

Global Aviation Resource's photographic and written work is subject to copyright and may not be reproduced or distributed in any form without express written permission.

If you would like to discuss using any of our imagery or feature content please contact us.