Coachlines - March 2022

30.03.22 Past Master Gerry Bunn CBE

No 10 Squadron Royal Air Force and the Falklands Conflict

The Coachmakers’ various Service affiliations will be represented at the Banquet this year and some of the elements that make up the Commando Helicopter Force and RAF Brize Norton were both actively involved in the conflict in 1982.

However, before RAF Brize Norton became the Coachmakers’ affiliated RAF unit, that honour was held by No 10 Squadron RAF, a unit of Transport Command flying VC 10 passenger and cargo aircraft. The affiliation passed to Brize when 10 Squadron was disbanded in October 2005. It re-formed in 2011 and now operates Airbus Voyager air-to-air refueling tanker aircraft; appropriately it is now affiliated to the Worshipful Company of Fuellers.

In 1982 however, 10 Squadron was very much affiliated to the Coachmakers and its Officer Commanding was none other than Past Master Gp Capt Gerry Bunn CBE. In his own words, the following is a summary of a key role played by 10 Squadron during the Falklands Conflict.

No 10 Squadron Royal Air Force and the Falklands Conflict

It was in early 1982 that my colleague Wg Cdr Marcus Wills (now Past Master Gp Capt Marcus Wills CVO OBE) told me that I would be taking over from him as Commanding Officer of 10 Squadron and its 13 VC10 aircraft plus elements of the air and ground crew corps who would be involved in operating and servicing them. For me it was the challenge of a lifetime; an inspirational task especially as war with the Argentinians was on the horizon over the Falkland Islands. The VC 10 aircraft were to be based at RAF Brize Norton and operated as troop and freight carrying aircraft on a global basis. The aircraft type had already established itself as a vehicle which could carry troops and equipment over vast distances, and land and take off from runways which had previously been deemed as unsuitably short such as Kathmandu and Hong Kong. The VC 10’s versatility was readily acknowledged and the smart new aircraft were used very regularly by Her Majesty the Queen, the Royal Family, Foreign Secretaries and by many other politicians and groups who had international business around the world.

10 Squadron VC 10s were adapted to become even more capable when the fleet was fitted with both an in-flight refueling capability to extend an individual aircraft’s range but also the ability to operate as airborne tanker for refueling fighter aircraft fleets on route to and from combat zones.

Perhaps one of the most crucial tasks of the Squadron VC10s after the Falkland Islands were attacked was the recovery of ground forces and severely injured individuals following Argentinian attacks against ships and aircraft. The runway on the Falklands was not available during the conflict itself, so the VC10s had to be operated from distant airfields away from the combat zone, mainly on Ascension Island.

Casualties such as Simon Weston, who received 46% burns over his body and was in a critical medical condition when he was brought from the Falklands by ship to Ascension Island, where he was transferred to the newly equipped hospital VC10 aircraft to be flown home to the UK. This aircraft was equipped with medical staff and an operating theatre area. However, the transfer from the Falkland Islands to Ascension Island involved a ship transfer which culminated in a helicopter flight for the casualties from the ship to the single runway airfield. It was not ideal but we were managing operating facilities as well as could be achieved under these chaotic conditions. Later I found the doctor who was travelling with us under the wing of the VC10 smoking his pipe. I said I thought he should be in the aircraft helping the young nurses tend to their badly injured patients. He said he agreed and he was concerned that the aircraft smelt very badly of burnt flesh so perhaps a puff of pipe tobacco might help! He did a great job overall and having him aboard allowed the crew to relax a little.

I spent time talking to our passengers once we were safely airborne but we knew the flight was going to be lengthy. I invited as many as possible to visit the flight deck to see the view over a brilliant sunlit sea and to listen to us chattering to other aircraft travelling south to Ascension Island.

As we approached the UK we spoke with air traffic control to confirm that the weather was good enough for us to carry out the planned formation flypast over Cornwall and along the south coast for our arrival at Brize Norton. The weather was fine with sunshine and we descended slowly in formation flying across military establishments along the coast in an arc toward RAF Brize Norton where we landed in line astern. It was a delight to see so many senior military officers, members of the Royal Family, the Prime Minister and politicians gathered to witness the safe return of our brave and battered passengers to British soil.

I had personally invited an artist I knew well to come with us on the flight. I did not want photos to be taken but I did want her to draw a picture of our VC10 and its cargo being loaded because I wanted Brize Norton to have a visual record so that people could understand what the aircraft had achieved.

The VC10s of 10 Squadron continued to fly personnel and stores to and from Ascension Island throughout the conflict and well beyond. Indeed, one of them flew the Clerk and his colleagues in the Advanced Leave Party of HMS PLYMOUTH back to the UK in mid-July 1982 – but that’s another story.