Westland Sea King HC. 4 helicopter
On 26 May 1982, three men in hastily acquired civilian clothing gave a press conference to the world’s media in a packed reception room at the British Embassy in the Chilean capital, Santiago. The three were the crew of an 846 Naval Air Squadron Westland Sea King HC. 4 helicopter (serial number ZA290 and coded VC) that had been operating from the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible.
A few days earlier they had landed near the small coastal town of Punta Arenas in the extreme south of Chile. 1 Reading from a prepared statement, one of the men, the Royal Marine pilot, Lieutenant Richard Hutchings, explained that his helicopter had developed a malfunction whilst on a routine patrol, forcing him to divert to Chile. Not a word of the statement, however, was true.
Just after 11.00 hours on 4 May 1982, an Exocet missile struck and sank the Type 42 destroyer HMS Sheffield. The attack sent shockwaves through the Task Force. If either of the two British aircraft carriers, Hermes or Invincible, were to suffer a similar fate then the retaking of the Falkland Islands would be much more difficult, if not impossible. It was soon discovered that Argentina possessed at least three more of the deadly missiles. Something would have to be done to eliminate what was now seen as the greatest threat to the entire expedition. Codenamed Operation Mikado, the proposed solution was to fly two RAF Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport ‘planes, loaded with some fifty-five heavily armed SAS personnel, and land them directly onto the runway at the Rio Grande air base in Argentina’s southern Tierra del Fuego region. Intelligence suggested that this airfield was the home of the Argentine naval air arm’s Exocet-equipped Super Étendards.
Once on the ground, the British troops would then destroy any enemy aircraft and Exocet missiles they encountered. Those SAS troopers who survived the assault would then make their way on foot to neighbouring Chile. Though technically neutral, Chile’s long-standing enmity with Argentina meant that the former was secretly aiding the British war effort.
Perhaps not surprisingly, when the plan was presented to the SAS men by their commander, Brigadier Peter de la Billiere, it was immediately dubbed “Operation Certain Death” by many. And when the first SAS officer chosen to lead the assault pointed out that Mikado was effectively a suicide mission, he was promptly replaced. Nevertheless, and despite the enormous political risks of taking direct military action against the Argentine mainland, the threat to the Task Force from the Exocets was judged to outweigh the drawbacks. The operation was given the green light.
But if Mikado was to have even the slimmest chance of success an initial visual reconnaissance of the ground at Rio Grande would have to be carried out, not least to confirm that the Super Étendards were in fact based there and to gauge the strength of the defences at the air base. To that end the somewhat eccentrically named Operation Plum Duff was devised.
This would entail a Sea King helicopter from the Task Force making a hazardous long-range flight across the South Atlantic to Tierra del Fuego carrying a nine-man SAS patrol. Once landed, their task was to set up a covert observation post and monitor activity on the Rio Grande air base, radioing intelligence back to the British commanders. If the opportunity presented itself, the SAS patrol was to destroy the Super Étendards.
It would be a one-way mission for the crew of the Sea King as the helicopter would not be able to carry enough fuel to return to the Task Force. Once they had dropped off the SAS team, they would fly on to neutral Chile and, after hiding out for a week to disguise the true purpose of their mission, they would hand themselves in to the Chilean authorities.
With the planned landings of British forces on the Falklands to retake the islands scheduled for 21 May, during which period the British ships would be at their most vulnerable to Exocet attack, there was no time to lose.
Volunteers were requested to fly the SAS in. Lieutenant Richard Hutchings RM put himself forward. Once chosen, Lieutenant Alan Bennett (known as “Wiggy”) and Leading Aircrewman Pete Imrie completed his crew.
The dangers the men faced were enormous. The Argentine Air Force had a squadron of Mirage jet fighters stationed in the south of the country, ready to intercept any intruders, as well as numerous radar-controlled anti-aircraft guns. The distances involved were also huge. So just getting a fully-laden Sea King to the target area would present a formidable challenge.
It was also clear to Hutchings that the SAS team itself was deeply split over the viability of Plum Duff. “As time went on”, reveals Hutchings, “it became apparent that there was some unease within the team about aspects of the mission. Having heard a number of disagreements which caused me concern, I felt that before departure I had to share my observations with Captain `A’ [first name Andy, the SAS officer in command of the mission] and the Captain of HMS Invincible as to their apparent disquiet. I could not help but think that the operation was destined to get off to an inauspicious start.”
Under the cover of darkness, and protected by a screen of escorting warships, HMS Invincible, escorted by the Type 22 frigate HMS Broadsword, had steamed west and as close to the South American coast as her captain dared. Just fifteen minutes after midnight on 18 May 1982, with the SAS soldiers embarked, the Sea King rose from the flight deck and disappeared into the moonless night.
Flying at an altitude of little more than fifty feet in order to avoid radar detection, the flight was uneventful. But as they neared the jagged coastline of Tierra del Fuego, things started to go wrong. Thick fog began to close in. Even with the aid of their night vision goggles, navigating in the murk became difficult. Then, suddenly, a bright light lit up the sky a few miles ahead of them.
“Initially unable to make out its form, I continued flying on the same heading, but slowed the aircraft to sixty knots,” recalled Hutchings. “When approximately four miles away I realized to my horror that the light was a long flame, a flare burning from the end of a tower on an exploratory gas platform; we had stumbled across an Argentine offshore gas field.”
A detour was required to avoid being seen by those on the platform, which would further cut into their dwindling fuel. More bad luck followed, and by the time the helicopter made landfall the fog had worsened considerably.
“The visibility deteriorated rapidly with each passing mile,” continued Hutchings. “I knew that it would not be long before I would run out of external visual references by which to fly the aircraft. Climbing the aircraft above the layer of fog would have exposed us to detection by the radar known to be at Rio Grande and was, therefore, not an option. Fast running out of ideas and options I landed the aircraft in the certain knowledge that it would be my last opportunity to make a safe landing whilst remaining in full control.”