Pitch Black 2016, Part 1
Air Operations during Exercise Pitch Black 2016
This story begins in a secluded bush block near Darwin Airport – DRW/YPDN (Northern Territory, Australia) with barely a puff of breeze caressing the long, dry yellow straw-like grass through which an occasional hawk or honeyeater passes overhead. All is still, the cooler morning breeze has yet to be replaced with the humid heat of the afternoon and standing in the shade of the pandanus grove, there is a keen feeling of anticipation. The sky remains cloudlessly blue and smoke from nearby burn-offs has yet to penetrate to where we stand. We perceive a distant rumble which quickly expands into pure adrenalin! We are about to witness the first “wave” of combat jets returning to the airport from which they had departed. we quickly lose count as formations (including “combines” of dissimilar aircraft types) come over our position, set up for initial and pitch to join the pattern and land. We are witnessing air operations for exercise Pitch Black 2016.
PHOTORECON had earlier witnessed the departures on Runway 11 of the first “wave” to the airspace over Bradshaw Training Area and Delamere Air Weapons Range (familiar to USAF strategic bomber crews) which make the Territory such a sought after airspace for high-level combat training. Here’s information from the Royal Australian Air force page related to Exercise Pitch Black:
The first Exercise Pitch Black (Ex PB) was conducted over 15-16 June 1981 and primarily involved 77 Squadron and 3CRU (No 3 Control and Reporting Unit) defending RAAF Williamtown against F-111 aircraft. The next Exercise Pitch Black was similar in scope and was conducted from 28-30 July 1982.
The first multinational Exercise Pitch Black was in April/May 1983 at RAAF Darwin which involved 77 Squadron, F-111s from 1 Squadron and United States Air Force (USAF) assets. A similar Pitch Black exercise was conducted in the Darwin area in May 1984.
The RAAF fighter on strength in the 80s was of course the superb Dassault Mirage III. The subsequent three decades have seen the exercise alternate between the east coast of Australia and Darwin, involving the US Air force, Navy and Marines, Royal Air Force and local Asian partner nations. The transition over three decades saw transition from generation three fighter aircraft and classic types such as the redoubtable F-111 and Boeing 707 tankers, US Navy EA-6B and RAF Panavia Tornadoes, towards more integrated regional forces flying F/A-18 Hornet and F-16 variants, refuelled from KC-30A tankers, utilising shared battlespace support aircraft. Force integration is very much the aim these days.
During PB14, attended also by PHOTORECON, described from the PB16 website: 1 – 22 August 2014 – Darwin/Tindal area. Participants included Australia, the United States, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, United Arab Emirates and French Air Force (New Caledonia). Royal Australian Air Force KC-30A operated from RAAF Amberley. Six Mirage 2000 and one A330 tanker from the United Arab Emirates Air Force took part. More than 2500 people and 110 aircraft took part.
In a media release before the exercise began, RAAF Air Commodore Christopher Sawade, Head of Special Events, said major exercises such as Pitch Black are pivotal in ensuring the Royal Australian Air Force remains ready to respond whenever the Australian Government requires. “The training and integration of forces that occurs during these exercises directly supports Air Force’s ability to conduct operations, such as current missions in the Middle East against Daesh”.
To engage the general public and give them an opportunity to see defence assets on display during the exercise, a handling display and flypasts will be performed over Mindil Beach on Thursday 11 August and an Open Day at RAAF Base Darwin is scheduled for Saturday 13 August. Both events are free and provide the Royal Australian Air Force with the opportunity to thank the local community for their continued support of important training activities in the Top End. Naturally, PHOTORECON will be there!
For those contemplating travel to Darwin for spotting, Runway 11-29 presents the best possibilities and with Darwin’s superb dry season weather there are usually great opportunities for spotting. Pitch Black allows an opportunity to compare different flying techniques – the US for instance displays flamboyance and flair, the Singaporeans professional, disciplined formation flying whilst the Indonesians, new to PB in their F-16s, were much more cautious. RAAF Hornets tended to cut in confidently and early, landing efficiently.
Aircraft were seen from:
US 14th Fighter Squadron “Samurais” of the 35th Fighter Wing (Misawa Air Base Japan);
Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF or Angkatan Udara Republik Singapura) F-15SG of 149SQN(strike) “Shikras” and F-16C block-52 of 140SQN “Ospreys”;
Republic of Indonesia TNI-AU F-16A Block-15 of SkU3 “Sarang Naga” (Dragon’s Nest)Thai F-16A/B Block-15 of 403SQN;
RAAF Air Combat Group F/A-18A classics of No.81 Wing and F/A-18F “Rhino” Super Hornets of 82Wing.
There are also many support aircraft from these participating nations. Most commonly, C/KC-130 Hercules but special mention to Singapore’s G-550-AEW Nachshon Eitam and KC-135R, RAAF and Canadian C-17A Globemaster IIIs, CN-235 (France), and No.42 Wing’s E-7A Wedgetail.
In this piece, we present a selection of images of participating assets as they arrive and begin prepare with familiarisation flights over the remote north of Australia.