Affair – During Exercise Pitch Black 2018 in the far northern part of Australia, Royal Australian Air force KC-30A of 33 Squadron have been conducting aerial refuelling training with participating Australian and foreign military aircraft. Aviation Spotters Online have been capturing many parts of this year’s exercise including team photographer Phil Munsel, who was given the opportunity to partake in the media opportunity on-board the three and a half hour flight.
Reason – The Northern Territory (NT) of Australia is playing host for Exercise Pitch Black again and has been since the early 80’s. The exercise is generally run over a three week period in the middle of the year. This major International biennial engagement activity conducted by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), traditionally operates out of RAAF Base Darwin and Tindal however 2018 is also utilising a forward operating base at Batchelor Aerodrome approximately 100 km south of Darwin.
Facts – For over thirty years, Exercise Pitch Black (PB) has been increasingly growing in size and with that brings new technology, capabilities, honing of procedures and processes. It is also a chance to strengthen ties with regional partnerships, improve interoperability between nations and promote regional stability. Throughout the three weeks that Exercise Pitch Black will operate, it will see up to 16 nations, 140 aircraft and around 4000 personnel involved in realistic war like fighting operations fostering international co-operation with partner forces. 2018 sees participants from Canada, France, New Caledonia, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Sweden, Thailand and the United States. A significant growth from its humble beginnings as an Australian only exercise back in 1981 and was limited to a select number of different RAAF units.
Training conducted, involves multiple, realistic simulated scenarios, practicing offensive and defensive counter air offensive combat. Simulating war operations, traditionally involves the ‘Red Team’ and the ‘Blue Team’ based at Tindal and Darwin respectively. The two bases are only separated by approximately 300 km, however the overall training area can span thousands of square kilometres. The NT boasts possibly one of the largest military training airspace’s in the world. The unique airspace gives opportunity for the Australian Defence Force (ADF), to play in their own back yard while mixing it up with multinational forces participating from around the world. The airspace in the top end is less densely populated than most airspace’s in the world, giving opportunity for participating forces to operate without the usual constraints that they would normally be restricted too and would see up to 50 and even 60 aircraft flying together. The most commonly used airspace during flying activities will be North and South of Darwin and to the west of Tindal. Some of the land based training areas utilised, include facilities such as Robertson Close, Kangaroo Flats (50 km2), Delamere Air Weapons Range (2110 km2), Mount Bundey (1000 km2), and Bradshaw Field (8700 km2). The Northern Territory offers a multitude of advantages training in the top end.
FIT – The first week of three, during ExPB18 is Force Integration Training (FIT) week. This is the time participants prepare, integrate and familiarise with each other safely, while conducting operations throughout the exercise. Familiarisation training missions are conducted to help the forces get comfortable with flying in Darwin airspace, knowing local procedures and being comfortable flying as part of larger missions involving aircraft and aircrew from partner nations. Some of the missions conducted will include air-to-air combat, beyond visual range engagements, high explosive weapons deployed through Air-to-Ground Attack, Aerial refuelling, Airborne Early Warning and Control, Tactical Air Transport/Mobility and the chance to co-ordinate live fires with forces on the ground. A typical fighter mission may involve making their way to the training airspace with the co-ordination of Air Traffic Control (ATC) and hooking up with the tanker for Air-to-Air Refuelling and further continuing on for some basic fighter manoeuvre missions. Mission scenarios progressively become more complex throughout the duration of the exercise, factoring in increased workload and pressure. While Exercise Pitch Black is largely about air combat scenarios, many ground borne roles are needed to support such operations – such as combat support, joint battlefield airspace control, joint terminal attack control, and exercise coordination.
Air-To-Air Refuelling – Aerial Refuelling is an effective method of extending the endurance, range and/or loiter time on station for aircraft, by refuelling them in flight. In-flight refuelling can be executed as many times as needed and is only limited to factors such as crew fatigue or maintenance issues with the aircraft. When deploying for operations or exercises overseas, air-to-air refuelling can now reduce the units time of their overall journey by remaining airborne and reducing time spent on ground. With in-flight refuelling becoming more in demand with many nations, there is a need to practice and hone their skills. Exercise Pitch Black is no exception and is a perfect opportunity to perfect and improve techniques including with allied nations given the large expanse the northern part of Australia has to offer.
Tanker History – The KC-30A Multi Role Tanker Transport or MRTT, was designed and built by Airbus Military. It has been acquired by the RAAF to replace its aging fleet of tanker/passenger configured Boeing 707’s. These classic Boeing jetliners started their service back as far as March 1979 with the acquisition of two Ex-QANTAS 707-338C models, VH-EAD and VH-EAG. A total of seven used airframes were on the register, with one used only for spares (Ex-Saudi Arabian airlines), four converted for tanker roles (Ex-QANTAS) and two solely for VIP transport (Ex-Saudi Arabian airlines). Sadly one of the transport configured airframes was lost into the sea on a training exercise with all five crew lost. Over time the remaining five airframes became non-compliant with foreign noise and emission regulations and were wound down for retirement. The last three remaining aircraft were acquired by US Operator – Omega Aerial Refuelling Services in 2011.
RAAF’s MRTT – The KC-30A is essentially a militarised version of the popular Airbus A330-200 Airliner. The aircraft’s role is Aerial Refuelling and Strategic Airlift. The fleet is operated out of RAAF Base Amberley in Queensland, by No 33 Squadron, under the control from No 86 Wing.
This year due parking space at a premium at Darwin and Tindal, 33 Squadron are operating from their home base Amberley, Queensland. This makes their daily commute in excess of twelve hours, flying to and from the top end, including tanker operations during the Exercise. Managing their fatigue have been sort by the addition of more crew rotations to ensure that they are well rested. The Squadron motto is appropriately named “Enduring” and uses the call sign “Dragon” during operations, except this Pitch Plack they used “Thumper” in honour of WOFF Chris Hunter, a 33 Sqn Air Refuelling Operator whom had passed away on a previous deployment to Darwin. ‘Thumper’ has also been used to reduce confusion during this deployment as USMC MV22B Ospreys from VMM 268 ‘Red Dragons’ currently at Darwin have been operating with the Dragon callsign.
It is also worth noting that this exercise being the largest to date requires 33 Sqn to conduct the majority of tanker operations in partnership with foreign nations attending. It is a first for 33 Sqn to be refuelling the Indian Air Forces, Sukhoi SU-30 MKI and vice versa for the Indians to be receiving off the KC-30A. One of the RAAF’s KC-30A’s also supported the long trip for French Air Force (Armee De l’Air) Dassault Rafales fighter aircraft to Australia for participation in this years exercise. With the French and the Singaporeans in the process of acquiring their own KC-30’s, Pitch Black 2018, gave them further opportunity to learn and train more with the platform.
Detail – The Airbus A330 has been in production for over 26 years and has been a popular choice with airlines with over 1400 airframes built. The crew is comprised of Pilot/Co-Pilot, one Air Refuelling Officer, one Mission Coordinator, and when required, up to eight crew Attendants. The aircraft’s cruise speed is 860km/h, can fly as far as 14,800 km before requiring refuelling and can fly at a ceiling of 41,000 feet.
The twin-aisle, wide-body, medium to long range, twin engine aircraft has a wing span of 60.3m, height of 17.4m at the tail, and a total length of 59m. Engines of choice for the RAAF are the General Electric CF6-80E1A3. These engines have the highest thrust power of the CF6-80 Series family, with between and up to 68,000 to 72,000 lbf (pounds of thrust) at the ready, giving the aircraft increased performance capabilities.
Maximum take-off weight is a staggering 233 tonnes, with the maximum landing weight of 180 tonnes. The Fuel carried is held in multiple tanks within the length of the wings and center wing tank and even in the horizontal tailplane, named the trim tank. A total of 111 tonnes of fuel can be carried without the need of additional tanks and is also the highest capacity of all tanker aircraft. The KC-30A MRTT can remain 1800 km from its home base, with 50 tonnes of fuel available to offload for up to four hours.
Airbus Military – states “The A330 MRTT is the most effective tanker based on its unmatched fuel capacity that allows it to offload more fuel at any given distance than any competitor. More fuel on-board means more flexibility, more range and longer time on station. This enormous fuel capacity allows the A330 MRTT to act as a force multiplier, thus, improving the efficiency and effectiveness of fast jets operations.”
Fleet – The Royal Australian Air Force operates six KC-30A’s with number seven currently under conversion for delivery this year. An option of a further two more (No 8 & 9) are under consideration as part of the 2016 White Paper. The KC-30A’s have been in operation with the RAAF since June 2011 and reached their initial operating capability by February 2013. The first five are newly manufactured from Airbus in Toulouse while the remaining frames, six and seven are Ex-QANTAS passenger A330-200 VH-EBH and VH-EBI.
The seventh airframe, under modification has been approved for a ‘Modest’ VIP fit-out to provide support of long-range international government transport and will be the first of its type for the Air Force. It will have the addition of meeting spaces and enhanced communication facilities; however, its role will still be primarily aerial refuelling. In its transport role, the KC-30A can carry 270 passengers. It comes with under-floor cargo compartments which can accommodate 34,000 kilograms of military and civilian cargo pallets and containers.
The RAAF’s KC-30A MRTT’s have been quickly put in operational overseas deployment in the Middle East. For nearly four years, 33 squadron have had at least one of their aircraft based at all times in the Persian Gulf region to help support the RAAF’s own task group and coalition aircraft. The aircraft type has been powerful force multiplier for the RAAF, proving itself many times and is highly regarded by the coalition forces. Only recently a mile stone was reached, with 33 Sqn tankers offloading 100 Million pounds of fuel so far during Operation OKRA.
Avionics – The MRTT features advanced communication, navigation and mission planning systems, and an electronic warfare self-protection system for shielding against threats from surface-to-air missiles. Aiding on-ground and in-flight mode of operations together with aerial refuelling missions. Equipped with data-link to exchange tactical information and imagery in real time. Directional Infrared Countermeasures (DIRCM) missile warning system and electronic warfare self-protection (EWSP) systems for protection from surface-to-air missiles are also incorporated.
Delivery Systems – The RAAF’s KC-30A’s are fitted with two forms of aerial refuelling delivery methods – Flying Boom and Probe-&-Drogue systems. An Advanced Refuelling Boom System (ARBS) is mounted under the tail of the aircraft; and a pair of all-electric refuelling pods under each wing (outboard). Each aircraft among select other aircraft in the RAAF inventory have a Universal Aerial Refuelling Receptacle Slipway fitted above the cockpit for self-in-flight refuelling, giving the KC-30A almost infinite range capabilities.
Tail Boom – With additional information sourced from Airbus Defence and Space, the ARBS is certified and combat-proven in service and is fully interoperable with all refuelling receptacle-equipped fighters. It is equipped with an all electrical, full fly-by-wire flight control system remotely controlled by an Air Refuelling Operator (ARO) seated behind the pilot/co-pilot in the cockpit. The ARO can view refuelling from a console through advanced 2d/3D high definition/digital enhanced video monitoring system screens. The console is operated to control boom, pods, video systems, mission planning system, communications systems and fuel offload quantities. The boom is around 12m long when retracted and up to 18m when extended and allows the fastest fuel transfer up to 4,600 l/min at 50 psi. Refuelling can be performed at any altitude up to 35,000 feet while cruising at speeds between 180 and 325 knots. The ARBS is considered the most capable new generation boom available today.
Pods – The RAAF’s, KC-30A aircraft are fitted with a pair of all-electric Cobham 905E under-wing refuelling pods with a 90ft hose-and-drogue system to refuel probe-equipped aircraft. The refuelling pods feature integral fuel boost pump which provides a fuel transfer capability up 1703 l/min at 45 to 55 psi. Pods operate with aircraft power, or are self-powered by a Ram Air Turbine (RAT). The drogue (The ‘Basket’ at the end) which is the part of the aerial refuelling system, stabilises the hose in flight and provides a funnel to aid insertion of the receiver aircraft probe into the hose. The RAAF have employed a high speed Variable Drag Drogue (VDD) with unique technology allowing for a stable platform for refuelling of 180-325 knots and a patented ‘low Foreign Object Damage’ construction which eliminates any parts that would cause receiver engine damage in case of breakage. The high speed VDD enables a single tanker to support a variety of aircraft from the Boeing V-22 Osprey to the latest generation fast jets such as the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.
The Media Op – Working from previous events, this year was definitely the hardest for being approved to be able to cover media opportunities during Pitch Black. Given that this has been the largest international exercise held in the southern hemisphere to date, it was only natural that it would have the interest of foreign media outlets. Having said that, I am very grateful for all involved for me to be allowed to participate in this year’s media flight to cover aerial refuelling operations during the exercise.
Arriving at the main front gate of RAAF Base Darwin at 1130hrs, there was a lot of things going through my mind as I didn’t know what to expect! I notice the other media representatives mingling just outside the gate waiting for direction. I walk up and notice a few familiar faces, and happily greet and introduce myself . It wasn’t too much longer when we were issued our visitors passes, and motioned to make our way through the secure front gate to a car park off the side where our commuter bus was waiting. We climb aboard and fill the 12 seats available, with the remaining media representatives able to drive their cars following us, as we made our short drive to the RAAF Darwin Air Movements Terminal.
Driving through a small part of the base community, I notice ADF personnel and other military forces from foreign nations going about their day. Arriving we group together, offered bottles of water as we make our way through the entrance to the well-lit departure lounge with other defence personnel waiting. From this room I could see another lounge directly to our right through glass partitions and in front was another room to accept departures and arrivals. Beyond that was air-side, I could make out various aircraft including our ride the KC-30A directly in front, an Airbus A400 on the other side and the RSAF KC-135 tanker which had just arrived, maneuvering between us and our MRTT.
The Brief – We all spread out in the room taking a seat, shortly after which, our Public Affairs Officer (PAO) and the few personnel that were standing out the front of us, proceeded to give us the brief for our flight in turn. Today the flight was going to be approximately three and a half hours in duration. The plan is to make our way to the airspace south of Darwin and fly in an oval racetrack pattern. It is expected that we will rendezvous with two USAF (United States Air Force) F-16’s, four RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) Hornets , and then three RSAF (Republic of Singapore Air Force) F-16’s. With this array of aircraft, we will be utilising the Tail Boom and the Hose & Drogue systems.
It was also stressed that we were to have the rubber lens hood attached to our lens at all times, as previously briefed in media request emails leading up to the event. Each passenger window is made up of multiple panes, with the inner pane being like a dust cover to take the mistreatment from passengers and prevent the main structural pane from being scratched. It has been noticed that with many flights like these, the inner protecting pane was constantly being damaged, in turn making for needless costs to replace them and making it hard to capture decent images or just look out the window. After the brief they came through and carried out bag inspections to make certain there was no prohibited items coming on-board, as with any aircraft. Then, it was just a matter of waiting for the aircraft to be readied before given the all clear to board.
Boarding – After about an hour, between 1300 and 1400hrs we were able to make our way to the aircraft awaiting outside. When going air-side and walking up, to, and around aircraft is a weird and wonderful feeling for me, maybe it’s because of the noise and open expanse of the tarmac with nothing else but aircraft and essential equipment. The other reason would be the build-up of anticipation and excitement that I’m about to experience, something I’m sure not many civilians get to do! (I’m still smiling to myself as I think about it!)
I seek approval of a quick snap as we walk towards our Tanker, KC-30A A39-004. A quick response of yes chimes through, – with strict instructions of only within a certain arc, and not to capture any other sensitive movements happening, and I oblige accordingly to said instruction. Walking forward I notice the airstairs in position at Door 2 Left, making our way up I take in the different perspective, which is exciting, and different. Typically you would normally be entering through a covered aerobridge if it were an operating airline. We are greeted by a crew attendant directing us left, towards what would be ‘Business Class’ seating. We all shuffle in and find seats with another personal bottle of water waiting. The refreshing temperature of the air conditioning, doing its magic to make us more comfortable. I find and sit next to a friend whom I had met on a previous media occasion sitting in the window seat.
It’s not long before cabin doors are closed, engines start to groan to life, while our safety brief is being demonstrated. Seat belts done up low and tight we begin to taxi out of the Air Movements apron towards taxiway ‘Alpha 1’ ready for departure from Runway 11. Lining up with no delay, the engines are fed more combustible liquid, which push us into our seats as we are carried down the tarmac and swiftly climb above the city of Darwin.
In the Air – As we climb to Flight Level 230 (23,000ft) I take in the scenery below seeing Darwin and its surrounding outskirts from the air by day.
From May to October is “The Dry Season’ here in the Top End. This year with the dry windy conditions increasing, coupled with very minimal rain over the last few months, the grass becomes very dry and vegetation quite easy to burn, the fire danger risk is quite high. Looking out at the countryside is a little hazy from the smoke generated from the bushfires.
We effortlessly reach our cruising altitude and with seat belt signs switched off, we are free to move about the cabin. It was a minute or so and I noticed half the group had already moved rearward to the last rows of seats with windows, as we had been advised earlier that they were best for capturing pictures/footage. Moving down the twin aisle wide body, you forget how big the aircraft really is and the fact it was almost empty with just a handful of people. The port side rear seat rows were the first to fill up, as this is the side for aircraft wanting to refuel. I managed to get 2nd from rear, starboard side for when they transition across after refuelling. It was voiced to us that if everyone shared their spots (seats), we would all be able to capture what we wanted as there would be numerous refuelling ‘contacts’ from the various fighter jets.
Without really noticing, we were flying in a left-hand racetrack pattern above the clouds. Before long, the staff had briefed us that we would be making contact shortly with USAF F-16’s. With this type of aircraft they have to use the tail boom and we wouldn’t be able to see the actual refuelling, other than the aircraft forming up on the port side and then sliding into position one at a time,and directly under the tail of out KC-30A. Whilst flying the boom, the seat belt signs would be on and we were not to move about until hook-up’s were complete and the seat belt signs were off.
Sequence – The refuelling sequence generally starts with the tanker on track and the receiving aircraft would then conduct an intercept and join to the rear of the tanker. Once on the wing they will have permission from the ARO to move into the ‘Pre-Contact’ position. Once in position behind the delivery system (Boom or Drogue), the ARO will give further clearance to move forward and make contact. With the drogue they will push forward into what they call a ‘Refuelling Range’ and fuel will offload automatically. The boom system is similar however the receiving aircraft will hold position directly below the boom and the ARO will fly the boom with the flight control stick (joystick), extending the nozzle to engage into the receptacle of the receiving aircraft. When both aircraft are stable the ARO will initiate the transfer of fuel.
USAF F-16’s – With approximately ten people down each side of the rear cabin, and occupying what window space was left, and a few scattered amongst the centre seating, we virtually had the (two) seats to ourselves each. Before long the seat belt sign came on, and within a few minutes there was action on the port side, with cameras firing and alerting others, something was out there. Although we wouldn’t see anything on our side (starboard) for a little while, I still kept checking, just in case! Soon enough we caught a glimpse of our first subject. USAF F-16C, 90-0711 from the 80th Fighter Squadron, nicknamed the “Headhunters”, based at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, proceeds up from behind and moving just rearward and upward of the starboard wing. It was my turn now to put my cameras into overdrive and capture what I could. Having this been a first for me, and not really knowing what to expect I had to ‘wing it’ so to speak, and try my best to get the best angle within the confines of the small inflexible window. Some of the things I came across when trying to shoot, included a few drama’s that one must overcome and adapt to, and one being, was that the window was just a little bit too low for me when seated, and trying to contort in every which way to take photos, looking back made it extremely difficult to get the subject in the camera’s frame. Adding to this, was that the seat backs were usually in the middle of the window, which again, made you work for your shot! Using the rubber lens hood has its advantages, but it too was something else to factor in with each composition. As we are flying in a circular pattern, the light is constantly changing, so at times you are still going to get light creeping in. If you push a little too much against the window, the hood will bend enough, so that the black shape creeps into frame. I definitely had to think quickly, as you know in your own mind, the aircraft is not going to be there for long. With many shots taken from both of my cameras already, the next jet comes into sight – USAF F-16C, No 88-0549….and we are on again! After loitering for a short time, the pair slowly climb away until out of sight. Shortly the seat belt sign is extinguished again and its courtesy that we give our seats up for others to get their turn. Slowly we all play musical chairs and I get myself over to port side. We are informed that it will be about 20 minutes before our next engagement and that we can make our way up to mid galley for some pre-packed lunch.
RAAF F/A-18A’s – Five minutes before our next contact, the drogue hoses from the under wing pods start to wind out and trail behind our KC-30A. Within a few moments , a pair of RAAF F/A-18 ‘Classic’ Hornets pull up on our 7 o’clock. To all on board’s delight, F/A-18B Hornet A21-101, wearing the marking’s of it’s former host, the Australian Research & Development Unit (ARDU), is onside and ready with it’s refuelling probe extended, and without hesitation forms up and slips to the starboard side to hook up. The second hornet moving in is A21-14 Single seat ‘A’ model still with the markings of former No 3 Squadron (Now deployed overseas at Luke Air Force Base on conversion training for the awaited F-35 II). This time everyone is hastily snapping away, moving around to different positions/seats as we are not restricted with the seat belt sign. The hornets disconnected and moved rearward, to allow for the next pair. By this time the majority of us had got most of the shots needed and it was very easy moving around the cabin asking to move into a seat they wanted. Two more RAAF F/A-18 ‘Classic’ Hornets made contact, with A21-56 of No 2 Operational Conversion Unit (2OCU) & A21-54, again with No 3 Squadron livery. The earlier ‘Classic’ ARDU bird also popping in for another go, topping up on the port side, to everyone’s delight on board the media flight.
RSAF F-16’s – When the Hornets bugged out, it was time to choose a seat again and to buckle up for the Boom deployment. Before the last round there was a noticeable thrust increase, along with a decrease in speed to set the pace again for The Republic of Singapore Air Force F-16’s. Again, I chose the starboard side, which turned out that I was only able to capture two of the known three which formed up on the port side. The two Vipers that I managed to capture were ‘No 615’, F-16C from 143 Squadron “Phoenix” and ‘No 696’ F-16D ,from 140 Squadron “Osprey”. The one that got away from me, which I did see, but couldn’t get the angle as he dropped back nearly on our six and never saw again was ‘No 642’ F-16C, from 143 Squadron “Phoenix”. The remaining two hung off the starboard wing for a brief period in formation before heading off.
It was said to me from someone else, who had previously experienced this, who told me – At some point, just stop, put the camera down, and look out and enjoy the moment! To which I did, and I must say, it was so surreal, and such an amazing experience to be able to look out the window and see a fighter jet sitting 30m from me, something that you only see in the movies, and i was experiencing this! I must say, looking through a lens and seeing it for real are still two totally different experiences!
Return to Base – With the last in-flight refuelling task completed, it was time to head for home. The last three plus hours was just a blur! Where did that time go!? We all collected our things and made our way back slowly to the pointy end, taking the same seats we departed on. Heading back to Darwin was near twenty minutes flying time, giving me a little time to move about the cabin looking out through the various windows. Parts of the coastline came into view on return as we descended, making a straight-in approach for runway 29. Touching down was like any other landing from an airliner, pulling us forward out of our seats while you try to upright yourself, still looking out the window with the International terminal passing us by. Slowing down to what felt like walking pace, we taxied back to the same parking bay on the Air Movements apron past many other various military aircraft. Making our way out of door 2 Left again and down the air stairs along the tarmac I was able to capture a different angle of our ride with permission. We made our way back through Air Movements terminal thanking our hosts, heading towards our minibus. It was a matter of a short bus ride again to the car park just inside of the main gate, again thanking our PAO’s and handing our visitors pass back and walking off base through the main entrance gate.
Aviation Spotters Online and myself would like to graciously thank all involved with Pitch Black to make this happen, including The Royal Australian Air Force, United States Air Force, The Republic Singapore Air Force, No 33 Squadron, Darwin Air Movements, The Public Affairs team; Eamon and Marina and all aircrew, ground/support crews and personnel that go unmentioned in background who I didn’t see.
This is my first trip to the Northern Territory, making a lot of firsts for me. Seeing first hand the multinational defence forces operating together and how they co-exist with Darwin’s community and showing what they have to offer. Having the chance to see Mindil Beach with the famous sun setting over the water is something you only see or hear about.