Aviation Spotters Online

Aviation Spotters Online

All posts by Sid Mitchell

In Memory of No2 and No13 Hudson squadrons – a plaque unveiled in Darwin by Veteran Air Gunner

In memory of the brave and dedicated aircrews and maintenance personnel from RAAF Lockheed Hudson No.2 and No.13 Squadrons, a plaque had been unveiled in Darwin by the last surviving aircrew member of those squadrons, Air Gunner, Flight Lieutenant Brian Winspear AM.

The unveiling ceremony marks the beginning of the Darwin City Council’s 77th anniversary program of the Bombing of Darwin which also includes a Commemoration Service at the Darwin Cenotaph on the 19 February every year.

1938 Chevrolette Staff car
1938 Chevrolette Staff car arriving with FltLt Brian Winspear

As the crowd and dignitaries assemble, a restored 1938 Chevrolet Sedan typical of those used by the RAAF in the war period drives up and slowly stops. The rear door opens and out steps FLTLT Brian Winspear in tropical dress, adorned with his AG wings and campaign ribbons. For a gentleman of 99 years he is rather sprightly and begins shaking hands with those nearby, ADF representatives, Government, Council, Historical Society and some members of the public.

Welcomed by WGCDR Parsons 13 sqn RAAF Base Darwin

FltLt Winspear AM who joined the RAAF at 19 years old was by the age of 21, a Royal Australian Air Force air gunner (AG) flying in Lockheed Hudsons with No 2 Squadron. He is the only surviving aircrew member of the two Hudson squadrons and has been passionate about gaining recognition for his fallen comrades – “For 75 years I have been agitating to get some recognition of the terrible losses we had, so today is important”

Speaking with another veteran
Speaking with another veteran

Among the attendees are representatives of the ADF, including the Royal Australian Air Force’s Wing Commander Parsons from RAAF Base Darwin, home of 13 Squadron, Australian Army and Royal Australian Navy commanders, Her Honour the Honourable Vicki O’Halloran AM, Administrator of the Northern Territory and even the Mayor, Kon Vatskalis who all welcome FLTLT Winspear to Darwin.

Tom Lewis and Brian mingle with the public
Tom Lewis and Brian mingle with the public

For the plaque Brian has been working with Dr Tom Lewis OAM, a noted military historian and author, the Order of Australia Association along with the Darwin City Council to have it installed at the Cenotaph overlooking Darwin Harbour. Dr Lewis opens the preceding by welcoming everyone and today’s special guest.

Dr Tom Lewis OAM welcomes all
Dr Tom Lewis OAM, a noted military historian and author welcomes all

“Tomorrow, the 19 February, it will be 77 years since the first attacks on Darwin during World War Two. With each year, on Bombing of Darwin Day, we pay tribute to the contribution and sacrifice of so many servicemen, servicewomen and civilians,”

”We are honoured to welcome Bombing of Darwin veteran Flight Lieutenant Brian Winspear back to Darwin for the official unveiling ceremony.”

FltLt Brian Winspear AM to the dias
FltLt Brian Winspear AM to the dias

With that, and despite his 99 years, Brian stands at the dais and begins to recall the return to Darwin of 2Sqn after the offensive bombing attacks on shipping out of Koepang and Penfoie (Timor), and the flights they carried out to evacuate personnel from the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia). With some of the returning Hudsons carrying up to 25 air and ground crew into Darwin early on the 19th February 1942 – the day Darwin was to bombed by the Japanese forces en masse.

Addressing the crowd
Brian talking of his experiences in Darwin

“The initial attack on Darwin at 9.58am, there were 188 Japanese planes. A greater number of bombs were dropped over Darwin on that day than were used in the attack on Pearl Harbour. These were the most serious of at least 64 air raids on the Top End of Australia which continued until 12 November 1943”

He earlier recalled the first raid on Darwin, seeing the attacking pilot’s faces – “I swear they were smiling” – the noise hurting his ears, bomb craters around his trench and receiving bomb splinters to his hand and eye. He told of putting out fires after the raid and pinching a bottle of beer from the Officer’s Mess.

2 Sqn Crew and Ground staff in front of their Hudson -at Batchelor October 1942
Commemorative postcard – 2 Sqn Crew and Ground staff in front of their Hudson at Batchelor airstrip (AWM photo)

Brian was soon back in the air a day later in one of only two serviceable Hudsons – they were to head back to Koepang (Timor) but were unable to land or even attack the assembled Japanese Navy (no bombs on board) so with minimum fuel they only made it back to Bathurst Island. After hand pumping fuel from drums they finally arrived very tired into Darwin.

Opening the scroll of names
Opening the scroll of 200 names

Brian asks his assistant to help unroll a paper scroll about 1 metre long. With it blowing in the breeze he continues – “2 and 13 squadrons arrived in Darwin pretty much together. The two squadrons were here from 1941-1943 and lost 200 aircrew in that time, three quarters of us were wiped out – this paper contains the names of the 2oo who were killed”

2 Sqn photo - 1943
Batchelor, NT. 1943. Group portrait of members of No. 2 Squadron RAAF in front of a Lockheed Hudson bomber aircraft. (AWM image)

FLTLT Winspear is invited to unveil the plaque and is escorted by one of the senior students of Darwin High School, Alanah Hardy, along with Tom Lewis. He removes and folds the black cloth and the plaque is revealed for all to see. Upon the plaque is a photo of a Hudson and squadron members plus the United States Presidential Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism against the enemy something not given out lightly he says later.

Walking to unveil
Walking to unveil the plaque with Ms Hardy and Mr Lewis
Unveiling the plaque
Unveiling the plaque
Hudson plaque
Hudson Squadron plaque

The Squadrons were awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation for their service in the Timor area in August to September 1942. Although awarded in October 1942 the citation was not officially presented to the Squadron until May 1990. The Distinguished Unit Citation was redesignated after World War II as the Presidential Unit Citation.

Observing the dedication
Vikki O’Halloran, Brian Winspear, Kon Vatskalis and Steve Parsons observing a moments silence

During the service there are several moments of prayer and remembrance conducted by RAAF Base Darwin Chaplain SqnLdr Senini including The Ode and a minute of silence –  a moment for those present to reflect on this dark time in our history while the breeze blows off Darwin Harbour and the sun dips towards the horizon.

Chaplain Christine Senin of 13 Sqn RAAF Base Darwin
Chaplain Christine Senini of No13 Sqn RAAF Base Darwin leads the prayer service

With that the official service is over and FLTLT Winspear begins to mingle with the crowd chatting with young and old, even taking the opportunity to joke about the RAAF WOD’s pace stick.

Can I have this?
Can I have this?

Brian returns to the plaque for a media photo opportunity and talks about his time after Hudsons when he was given a commission and went on to fly in the Vultee A-31(V72) Vengeance as a Navigator with No 12 Sqn based at Batchelor airfield. He describes how they would dive almost vertically at 500mph with the pilot looking through a small hatch to see the target… and the g-forces as they pulled out after bomb release. A very good aircraft for putting a bomb down a funnel.

FltLt Brian Winspear AM and Chaplain Senini
FltLt Brian Winspear AM and RAAF Chaplain Christine Senini

After the attack on Darwin the Hudson squadrons were dispersed and moved about a bit – not just the Darwin RAAF Station but Daly Waters, Hughes, Batchelor for 2 sqn, and similarly Darwin RAAF Station, Daly Waters, Hughes and Gove for 13 Sqn. In fact there is still a No 13 sqn Ventura wreck located at Gove Airport today. The squadrons eventually re-equipped with more modern aircraft like the Bristol Beaufort, Lockheed Ventura and B-25 Mitchell and were deployed further afield by the end of WWII hostilities.

Arming up a No 13 Sqn Hudson
Arming up a No 13 Sqn Hudson (AWM image)
13 Sqn Lockheed Ventura A59-73 at Gove, NT
Lockheed Ventura A59-73 was damaged by fire at Gove in 1945 – it remains there to this day

I chat with an elderly lady who has come from up Victoria with her husband for a few days. She had heard on a local radio station that this event was to be held and wanted to attend because her father had been a pilot in No 13 Sqn “It may be just a quick 3 day visit and I think dad would have liked to be here but unfortunately he passed away 17 years ago – but at least he is here in spirit I feel” A number of other interstate visitors have travelled to attend the Bombing of Darwin Commemoration services, some having relatives who made the ultimate sacrifice.

No 13 sqn Crew and their Hudson
Members of No. 2 (Hudson) Squadron RAAF stand beside their aircraft.(AWM image)

As the public disperse, Brian finds a moment to take in the view from the cenotaph and gives us a grin, before being ushered over to the RAAF Chev staff car.

FltLt Brian Winspear AM
Giving us a smile
Brian and Chev owner
Brian chats with ex RAAF MT fitter Paul, the driver of the lovingly restored 1938 Chev Staff Car
Having a laugh polishing the Chev
Having a laugh polishing the Chev

Even at this age he is still cheeky, quickly whipping out a hanky to pretend to polish the car he is about to depart in. After climbing aboard he gives a wave as the car slowly drives away.

Wave from FltLt Brian Winspear AM
A final wave from FltLt Brian Winspear AM

One wish of veteran Brian Winspear is to go for a fly in Temora Aviation Museum’s Lockheed Hudson A16-112. This beautiful aircraft has beeen restored as A16-221, a Hudson III that served with No 2 Sqn in the North Western Area – Timor and the Netherlands East Indies and out of Milingimbi , an Arhnem Land island to the east of Darwin. What an experiencce that would be for him.

Temora Aviation Museum's A16-112
Temora Aviation Museum’s A16-112 currently flies marked as A16-211 “The Tojo Busters”
Temora Aviation Museum's A16-112
A16-211 “The Tojo Busters”

It is a sad fact that less and less veterans are with us each year which is why it is so important to hear and record their stories. Fortunately for us this story has been told by a gentle man who now smiles, but observed and experienced some terrible events, losing many mates and still has clear memories of a dark time in world history. Lest We Forget.

If you are ever in the Top End please have a stroll around the Darwin Cenotaph on the Esplanade – there are many plaques like this one. There are several museums in Darwin including East Point, Darwin Aviation, Charles Darwin Park and the Stokes Hill Wharf Museum – pay them a visit too. There are also a great many placards dotted around Darwin and if you are travelling up by road – many of the WWII airstrips and camps are located right next to the Stuart Highway – have a rest and take in some history or even visit the Adelaide River War Memorial.


Sid Mitchell

Photographer ASO

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Safety One…. Airside Safety in the Top End

When talking about aviation safety, most passengers only think about the safety brief delivered by the cabin crew as we are getting pushed back from the gate, or are on taxi to the holding point. 

We might also think about how Air Traffic Controllers keep us safe from colliding with other aircraft while far above the ground, but there is a whole different side to aviation safety that most travellers never see, or for that matter, never really consider.

Saftey One
Saftey One – one of several vehicles the team use daily

Many would have looked out their windows and seen the airport vehicles with large numbers on the door and flashing orange lights on the roof, sometimes driving down taxiways or even zig zagging down the main runways in-between flights. Often these vehicles are being driven by members of the Airport Operations team who look after the ground based safety operations of many airports across Australia, and beyond. Without these important 24/7 working teams at major airports our safety would be in jeopardy before we even take off.


I was recently fortunate to spend part of a shift with one of Darwin International Airport’s (DIA) Airside Operations Officers (AOO), Maria. My visit coincided with what has to be one of the busiest times of the year for aerodrome ground operations at DIA, a major military exercise, and I want to find out, not just what Maria’s job entails, but how the exercise might impact day to day airside operations of Darwin Airport.

PB 2018
PB 2018

Darwin Airport shares runways with RAAF Base Darwin and the biennial Exercise Pitch Black, run by the Royal Australian Air Force, draws nations from around the world into the Northern Territory. This year the exercise has brought 140 military aircraft to the Top End, some based at RAAF Base Tindal, but most based in Darwin. They are here to carry out intense aerial combat and tactical training in the airspace over the Northern Territory.

RAAF Super Hornet
RAAF Super Hornet at Exercise Pitch Black 2018

For Maria and the Operations Team the activity on the airfield increases dramatically during this 3-4 week period every two years as the airport is a shared facility – RAAF operations on the southern side and civilian operations to the north of the runway. Both need to use the main runway 11/29. (110 deg and 290 deg are the marked directions of each runway)

I meet Maria at the Terminal Control Centre (TCC) part way through her shift, as she had planned for us to be on the aerodrome prior to a mass launch of military aircraft heading out to one of the planned scenarios of Pitch Black. The TCC is where the Operations team are based and also where all those people required to go airside need to acquire passes or authorisation.

As we get ready to head on out to the safety car I ask Maria what her job entails and the types of responsibilities she faces?

“My position at Darwin International Airport is an Airside Operations Officer. My responsibility is to ensure the safety of Aerodrome Operations and reporting any non-compliances. This includes carrying out runway and taxiway inspections, bird hazard management, responding to aircraft emergencies, spills, facilitating aircraft parking, monitoring the Obstacle Limitation Surfaces (OLS), overseeing aircraft ground operations and so on. We also conduct routine Regular Public Transport (RPT)Apron inspections which include and are not limited to aircraft parking control, ensuring Ground Service Equipment (GSE) is stored in the allocated areas, inspecting the condition of pavement, cleaning oil and fuel spills and overall, ensuring the ground operators are following the rules required to operate on the apron. My role is dedicated to Airside Operations; however, Darwin Airport is a relatively small team and at times I may be required to provide support to our other operations such as Terminal Evacuations.”

So what sparked your interest in being an Airside Operations Officer?

“My passion for aviation only began in my teenage years and like most teenage girls, it was my dream to become a flight attendant. I never knew that there was such a job as an Airside Operations Officer however after starting out in the industry I knew that was exactly what I wanted to aim for. The rest is history!” – she says with a grin as she opens the door that leads to the RPT apron where the vehicles are parked.

Donghai Airlines B737
On the PRT Apron – Donghai Airlines B737

How long have you been in the job and where did you start out?

“I started working at Darwin International Airport when I was 18 in Customer Service with great enthusiasm to excel within our operations team. Fortunately, opportunities presented themselves and with the dedication to learn and a passion that was rapidly developing for aviation, I knew that it was something that I wanted to pursue. However, I needed to use my own initiative to learn about the technical aspects of how Aerodromes worked and the level of compliance that was required to maintain an operational and safe airside. I’ve been working at DIA for 7 1/2 years of which 4 of those have been in my current role.”

“This will be our car today – Safety One” As the she checks the ute out Maria runs me through a small induction mainly around what to do if there is an aircraft emergency on the field  

We hop in and she starts typing on an iPad  – “Every time I do anything I log it on the iPad – runway inspections, bird harassment stuff like that.”

I ask what qualifications are required for someone, say, straight out of high school, if they were interested in applying to start a career in this field?

“My advice for anyone interested in pursuing a career in the Aviation Industry specific to safety is to complete a basic Works Safety Officer course. That will give you a head start and an insight into furthering your skills. If you’re luckily enough to be employed by a company that offers in house training then that’s also another option.” 

Alliance Fokker 100
Alliance Fokker 100

She grabs one of the radio microphones as Tower (Darwin Ground) has radioed to ask where a Unity Fokker 100 aircraft that has just landed is parking – and looking at a printout and replies – “Bay 22.”

“The Airport Duty Manager will coordinate the aircraft bay plan for the duration of the shift, which we will notify ATC of any changes if they occur. Aircraft parking is allocated based on an occupancy chart which identifies what the maximum wing span, weight or size of aircraft that can park on each bay.”

We drive out across the apron towards the taxiways – So where did you conduct your training, was it here at Darwin Airport? Interstate or was it on the job training?

“Our Certificate 3 in Aerodrome Operations was by an external company who delivered the training in Darwin. Once the theory component of the certificate was finalised, a practical on airfield assessment is completed to determine competency in the role. This is generally conducted after a period of 3-6 months on the job training.”

Ukraine Air Alliance Antonov AB-12BP
Ukraine Air Alliance Antonov AB-12BP

What is the typical daily routine you follow?

“As per the Manual of Standards Part 139 issued by CASA, we have a high level of compliance that needs to be maintained at all times to ensure that we are operating a safe Aerodrome for aircraft taking off, landing and the personnel on the ground.” (Maria calls Darwin Ground for clearance to enter one of the taxiways) “In order to achieve this, we are required to conduct a minimum or three runway inspections over the 12-hour period, starting from first light and continuing throughout the night. On a standard day, we carry out anywhere between 3-5 inspections of both runways. This doesn’t include the requirement to enter a runway for bird hazard Management. A typical day consists of carrying out runway, taxiway and apron inspections, bird harassments, calculating crane assessments and inspecting the OLS, responding to emergencies or spills that may occur on the aerodrome. No day is ever the same.”

By this time we have reached the main runway that is in use at this time – Runway 11 – departing aircraft to the east while arriving aircraft approach from over the ocean to the west. We are heading over to the RAAF Base Military Hardstand to pick up Flight Lieutenant Glenn P. who is to be my RAAF Public Affairs Officer – an escort, as I will be taking photos of the exercise aircraft as part of today’s visit.

RAAF King Air
RAAF King Air taxi to runway 11

As we wait for clearance to cross Runway 11 while some general aviation (GA) aircraft line up to depart, I ask – Do you have specific role within the Safety Team?

“Our Airside Operations team consists of 5 full-time Airside Operations Officers. When operating on the airside with the call-signs Safety 1 (that’s us today) and Safety 2, it means that we each carry out all aspects of airfield operations. This creates a broad range of skills that are required to ensure that we are competent in all components of the role, in particular we are required to have a high level of communication skills and situational awareness”

Paspaley Mallard
We wait for a Paspaley G-73AT Mallard to land

Do you get the opportunity to work at other Northern Territory airports?

“There are always opportunities to challenge our skills and work at other Airports. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time at Hobart International and Melbourne Airport over the last few years which was fantastic.”

We drive past some large transport aircraft – a Republic of Singapore Air Force KC-135R, a RAAF C-17A Globemaster III, a Malaysian Air Force Airbus A400M Atlas and some Lockheed C-130J Hercules, one from the RAAF, one from the USMC and one from the Indian Air Force, all here for the exercise. 

RSAF KC-135R Stratotanker
RSAF KC-135R Stratotanker
Royal Malaysian Air Force A400m Atlas
Royal Malaysian Air Force A400m Atlas

I figure Maria has seen pretty much all the different aircraft types into Darwin.

What do you enjoy about being an AOO?

“You’re asking someone who loves absolutely everything about their job, but if I were to choose one thing that I love I would have to say it’s the diverse range of traffic that we get the opportunity to work around. There have been days that I’ve driven out onto the airfield to find a C-5, C-17, B-52, B747, F/A-18’s and an A400 all within a few hundred metres of one another. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

USAF C-5B Galaxy
USAF C-5M Super Galaxy
RAAF C-17 Globemaster
RAAF C-17 Globemaster

Parking outside Air Movements, our PAO for the day, FLTLT Glenn jumps in and introduces himself – he is up in Darwin as part of the Air Force’s PB Media Team and is no stranger to the exercise having attended a couple in recent years.

Heading back we chat about the exercise and I ask how DIA works in with the RAAF operations,

“During exercise periods such as Pitch Black, we work closely with the RAAF Base Safety Officer (BASO). As our runways and southern taxiways are jointly used with the military, we liaise with them if any of their operations have an impact on civil operations.”

And what about airfield safety briefing for the visiting foreign squadrons? – “Generally, the BASO will brief any military personnel.”


As we are driving down taxiway Charlie, the main transit route for aircraft from the military hard stand, I wonder about how DIA deals with the traffic heading for parking bays and sharing the responsibility for looking after the taxiways- “The RAAF BASO looks after all military parking areas and taxiways however we do report any unserviceabilities if they have an effect of any airfield operations such as taxiway lighting.”

RWY 11/29 3354m x 60m

Getting clearance to cross runway 36, we cruise down taxiway Alpha- the long full length taxiway that runs parallel to the main runway. I notice it is almost as wide as the main runway.

Maria explains that Alpha also acts as a standby emergency runway to all but the largest of aircraft (due to its shorter width) She also explains that the surface of the runways are different and the “Wet weather conditions require constant monitoring as sitting water on a runway can quickly become unsafe for aircraft taking off and landing. Depth tests are completed as requested on short notice and in some cases, can lead to the closure of a runway if more than 25% of water is covering the runway surface. RWY 11/29 is a grooved runway which allows water disperse and drain quickly.” providing better braking characteristics (and drainage) during wet weather conditions, while taxiway Alpha isn’t. 


We pass by the Bomber Replenishment Apron (BRA) and the various parked aircraft – the Indian Air Force with it’s Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighters making their debut at PB2018 and the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s F-16s Falcons and F-15SG Strike Eagles lined up.

RSAF Flightline BRA
RSAF Flightline BRA

What does the Safety Team do or how do you respond if an emergency is declared?

“In the event that a local standby or full emergency is declared, effective communication is essential. Details of the nature of the emergency are given to us by ATC which includes the type of aircraft, operator, what runway they will be landing on, estimated time of arrival (ETA), persons on board (POB) and any other significant information that may be beneficial. We have a range of procedures during these scenarios that reflect what is stated in our Aerodrome Emergency Plan (AEP). A runway inspection will be conducted immediately after the aircraft has touched down (pending that it has landed safely) to determine if the runway is serviceable. In the event that an aircraft is disabled on the runway or on the airfield, we establish an Incident Control Point (ICP) usually at least 75m upwind and maintain control of the emergency in assistance with emergency services.”

Qantas B737
Qantas B737

We wait at the bottom of the runway for a commercial airliner to land – nearby are the United States Marine Corp and their MV-22B Osprey Tilt-Rotors. USMC VMM-268 “Red Dragons” are currently on deployment as part of the US-Australia Force Posture Initiative announce back in 2011. Essentially each year the USMC deploys personnel and aircraft to the Northern Territory to gain experience operating together with the Australian Defence Force. This is the second year the unusual aircraft have been operating out of the Fighter Replenishment Apron (FRA). In a recent announcement there is additional infrastructure to be built so we can expect to see more Marines deployed injecting considerable money into Darwin’s local economy.

USMC MV-22B Osprey

It’s nearly 1130 and the military jets are leaving soon and we have to activate the displaced threshold lighting system for the duty runway. I ask why, and how this changes with the normal day to day operation – “With approximately 80-100 military aircraft flying each day and night during Pitch Black with the potential of a full emergency being declared or an aircraft taking the cable on our main runway, there is the added risk of not having a serviceable runway for a length of time.

Maria starts the displaced threshold generator

“We also have Operational Readiness Platforms at the threshold of our main RWY 11/29 which can be utilised by military fighter jet aircraft. They are used to maximise traffic flow and reduce congestion on the airfield during each departure wave. This however requires a Displaced Threshold to be marked by temporary lighting such a Runway Threshold Identification Lights (RTILS) and temporary PAPI’s which we set up 30 minutes prior to departures. In simple terms, we cut off 723m of our runway to facilitate the flow of traffic. The constant traffic also has an effect on the amount of runway inspections we do as some days a maximum of 30 seconds on the runway is given by ATC due to departures and arrivals.”

TNIAU and USAF F-16C taxiing out near the OPR

The temporary PAPI lighting system consisting of four lights that visually gives a slope indication to pilots on approach while the Runway Threshold Identification Lights (RTILS) are two bright strobes, one either side of the runway need to be activated. The change is co-ordinated with the Tower. 

Displaced Threshold strobes visible for miles.

So you have to work closely with other departments like the Tower, Aviation Rescue Fire Fighting and Border Force?

“We work side by side with our Airport Duty Managers who run Terminal Operations. They plan our daily aircraft parking and are also able to assist in Airside Operations in the event that we need help on the airfield in an emergency situation.”

DIA plan
Apron aircraft size by gate

“We’re also required to maintain contact with Air Traffic Control at all times who we have a great working relationship with. There has to be a level of trust between us and them as we’re working in an environment that is high risk and demanding at the best of times.”

DIA Control Tower manned by RAAF 452 Sqn
Darwin Tower
Darwin Tower

After Tower confirms the lighting is correct Maria requests clearance to do a runway inspection – How often do you perform runways inspections?

“On a standard shift, 4-5 runway inspections will be completed of both RWY 11/29 and RWY 18/36. That is not inclusive of runway entries that are required to retrieve FOD or harass wildlife. Depending on the situation, most runway inspections during the day are completed facing into arriving traffic to improve situational awareness and in a zig zag pattern to cover as much area of the runway as possible. Using a zig zag pattern also alerts any arriving aircraft that you’re a vehicle proceeding down the runway and not an aircraft. During night time operations, inspections are conducted by driving down one side of the RWY and back up the other. Our main duty RWY 11/29 is 60m wide and our crossing RWY 18/36 is 30m wide. Due to RWY18/36 being an unlit runway, only last night inspections are carried out.

The first of the military traffic, a Singaporean Gulfstream G550, is requesting clearances so we start the side to side inspection drive down runway 11. We notice some birds hovering (a Nankeen Kestrel I am told) and just as we near it there is a loud noise from above the ute- Maria has hit the bird harassment siren button.

Nankeen Kestrel
Nankeen Kestrel

So birds are one of the day to day challenges?

“Birds! What a lot of people don’t realise when flying from one airport to the other is the amount of time that is dedicated to harassing wildlife to allow aircraft to take-off and land safety. Between 2006-2015, 16,096 bird strikes were reported to the ATSB in Australia alone. Fortunately, we have a range of methods that we use to reduce the level of bird activity on the airfield and with new technology being introduced we are always implementing new tools to improve the level of safety on the field.

I spy another Nankeen Kestrel sitting on the the 6000’ marker oblivious to our activity, but it is soon scared off by the siren.

Maria continues – “We have a high level of bird activity that requires constant management throughout the year, with the Black Kite being the most struck species over the last ten years and the Australian Pratincole being the second most struck species. Whilst our bird activity and strike rate per 10,000 movements is high, we have a broad range of tools that we use such as pyrotechnics, gas cannons, lasers and live rounds that are used to disperse bird activity in our critical take-off and landing areas. Our collected strike data over the last 10 years has identified trends that have allowed us to change the ways in which we harass wildlife. Data is extremely important as we now know the most common strike area, the time of day that they’re occurring and what species are being struck. It’s a challenging environment to work in.”

Most bird strikes involve the Kites

She also says that the start to the wet season is a bad time as the insects which a lot of bird species feed upon increase dramatically – bringing in the birdlife.


We look at the windsock just as Tower calls and announces a runway change – the wind has swung around to the north-west and now traffic will be departing on runway 29 once the Gulfstream leaves. So for the next 10 minutes we ride in Safety One as Maria reverses the generator and displaced threshold lighting arrangements.

PAPI Genset
PAPI lights behind the Genset

For the next 30 minutes we move up and down parallel to the runway watching a constant flow of jet aircraft leaving and taking photos. Maria jokes about having one of the best jobs around – an air-conditioned office, bring coffee if you want it and plenty of travel each day – what more could you want?

IAF Su-30 MKI Flanker
IAF Su-30 MKI Flanker
RAAF Super Hornet
RAAF Super Hornet getting the gear away
RSAF KC-135R Stratotanker
RSAF KC-135R Stratotanker
USMC MV-22B Osprey
USMC MV-22B Osprey

With the high number of movements we talk about emergencies and the arrestor hook as we head back over to the RAAF Air Movements section to drop off Glenn, who I suspect has enjoyed getting close to the departing jets just as much as I have.

How does the airport go about runway maintenance?

“As we are a joint user aerodrome, our main runway is fitted with Aircraft Arrestor Hook Cables used by military jets. The RAAF has a requirement to maintain both cables therefore standard maintenance is carried out every fortnight. Displaced Thresholds are setup to reduce the runway length to allow these works to occur. During this time, we may take the opportunity to complete our own maintenance such as lighting repairs or painting. Minor works, such as painting of the runway centreline or edge markings are planning during quite periods where traffic is low; for major works, there is a Method of Working Plan which is jointly prepared by DIA and Defence.”

Arrestor Cable western end – maintained by the RAAF

“Apron extensions and runway works are generally dealt with by Airside Operations and Safety Standards Managers working with the Project Management Team to ensure safe operations and Method of Working Plans are in place; however things such as cranes may have an impact to airspace safety depending on the location and the height of the crane. A number of risk assessments are completed in situations like these to ensure that there won’t be an impact to aircraft safety.

In previous years, we have completed airfield lighting upgrades and taxiway overlays. Works Safety Officers are employed for such works however, it’s our job to ensure that safety is maintained at all times.”

Enjoying the moment
Royal Thai Air Force JAS-39 Gripen
Royal Thai Air Force JAS-39 Gripen
Armee D' Liar Dassault Rafale
Armee D’ Liar Dassault Rafale

We begin my final drive across the airfield back to the Darwin Terminal and I raise the point that there have been a few diversions into Darwin, some as big as an A380 – How do you cope with diverted aircraft on such short notice and do you assist with, say, medical emergencies?

Thai Airways B747 diversion
Thai Airways B747 diversion

“Depending on the aircraft type, assisting with a medical emergency where an aircraft is diverting becomes our number one priority. Strategic bay planning is used to try and keep Bay 1 or 2 available for any wide body aircraft. Things that we consider are getting the passenger off as quickly as possible in which case having access to an aerobridge is essential although in some cases may not be possible. A runway inspection will be completed prior to their arrival and departure bearing in mind that we may have never facilitated that particular aircraft before. In some cases, you may receive notification of a diverting aircraft 15 minutes prior to their arrival. Quick thinking, team work and effective communication is key in these situations.”

And as for those larger airport customers or transiting heavy haulers – we would get some interesting aircraft through Darwin – what would have been the most unusual you have helped see into Darwin?

‘There have been some magnificent aircraft drop in over the last 7 years but I’d have to say the AN-124 still has to be the aircraft that blows my mind every time. With a wingspan of 73.3m and a MTOW 392 tonnes, it’s an incredible aircraft to watch get off the ground. Behind that would be the A400M. Maybe one day we’ll get the AN-225!”

Volga-Dnepr Antonov AN-124-100
Antonov AN-124-100 delivering oversized cargo

So you’re the ‘Follow Me’ person? – “I am!” – How awesome is it to lead the big Antonov’s that visit Darwin? 

“We are often required to carry out follow me’s for aircraft requiring to taxi or tow to the civil side or for refuelling purposes. To have the nose of an AN-124 in your rear vision mirror is daunting and amazing all in one! In terms of parking, there are several considerations that are taken into account such as the aircraft size, wingspan, weight and what services are required when allocating a parking bay for an aircraft. We have a strict Apron Occupancy Guideline that is used to ensure that minimum wingtip separation is maintained at all times. Other considerations such as power in/out operations and potential jet blast are taken into account to ensure that an aircraft turnaround is planned with safety being the number one priority.”

Honeywell B757 Testbed
Honeywell B757 Testbed on pushback

We park up Safety One near the Bay 3 aerobridge and I grab my gear as Maria makes yet another entry into her iPad. We head inside to the TCC to have a coffee and I notice the walls of their office are covered in various photos taken over the years, some of bogged airport vehicles while others capture unusual visiting aircraft on the aprons and runways. Darwin really does have a unique location that lends itself to be a staging point for many international aircraft passing through, many of them quite interesting.

I thank Maria for providing an insight into her role and how safety operations are conducted at Darwin International Airport, and for sharing a couple of hours of her shift out on the aerodrome amongst the departing traffic.

So next time you are in Darwin or any major airport for that matter, spare a thought for the professionals in the brightly lit vehicles that make the beginning and end of our journeys as safe as the actual flight between destinations.

For more information about Darwin International Airport click here: https://www.darwinairport.com.au

Sid Mitchell


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It’s a Wrap – Exercise Pitch Black is over for 2018.

Today Air Commodore Mike Kitcher, Officer Conducting Exercise Pitch Black, has officially wrapped up the exercise for 2018.  With representatives from 10 different services across 8 of the 16 nations involved in the exercise, it demonstrates just how diverse Pitch Black has become since it’s humble two nation beginings back in the 1980’s.

Wrap up RAAF Base Darwin
Air Commodore Mike Kitcher wraps up PB2018
Wrap up RAAF Base Darwin
Wrap up team RAAF Base Darwin

Between a backdrop of the Royal Malaysian Air Force A400M Atlas and to the other side a Republic of Singapore Air Force KC-135R Stratotanker, AC Kitcher welcomed us to another sunny morning at RAAF Base Darwin – “The exercise concluded yesterday with a final debrief yesterday afternoon and a hot wash up this morning after 10a.m, and already people are preparing to depart. Looking at the flightline, here with the KC-135 and A400M, behind me the C-27 and the fighters, they have all got to get out of here over the next few days”

Wrap up RAAF Base Darwin
RMAF Airbus A400M Atlas
RSAF KC-135 crew before flight service
RSAF KC-135R Stratotanker

“So Pitch Black this year was the biggest we’ve had thus far and has been certainly very successful. We’ve had over 4000 people from 16 different nations, 140 aircraft and a lot of firsts for the exercise. The missions we flew were all very successful and the training deemed by all of them (partners) was first class”

“Not only did we get first class air training for our fighter aircraft, but we also got first class training for our transport aircraft, for our joint attack controllers, special forces, Delamere range and other areas, which is a really important part of this exercise”

Wrap up RAAF Base Darwin
Wrap up RAAF Base Darwin

“Over the course of the three weeks we’ve flown over 1300 sorties, which is the most sorties flown in a Pitch Black, and we’ve done that safely which is extremely pleasing to me and one of the most important factors. One of the firsts has been the use of the E/A-18G Growler and the C-27J and also the first time we have stood up a bare base airfield, down at Batchelor. That was a really important step for us in practicing to be able to provide humanitarian assistance in various scenarios, which we are called on to do regularly around our region.”

RAAF E/A-18G Growler
First Pitch Black for the RAAF E/A-18G Growler
RAAF C-27J Spartan at Batchelor Airstrip
RAAF C-27J Spartan landing at Batchelor Airstrip

“For our foreign participants, a couple of firsts – the Indian Air Force for first time here with their Sukhoi’s and C-130J aircraft, the French are back for the second time, first time with their Rafales, and the Malaysians are back this year and you can see their A400M behind me here, which has been participating in the exercise as a tanker”

French Air Force Dassault Rafale B
French Air Force Dassault Rafale B
Indian Air Force Sukhoi Su-30MKI
Indian Air Force Sukhoi Su-30MKI

“One of the strengths of this exercise was the international participaton, and one of the objectives of this exercise was to make sure we strengthen our regional partnerships and also to improve our interoperability throughout the exercise. I flew in a mission yesterday as Red Air – that mission was extremely complex and the way that the nine different nations and their aircraft worked together was extremely impressive”

With a RMAF F/A-18D ‘Ghost Rider’ noisily announcing it’s return overhead, the Air Commodore goes on.

RMAF F/A-18D Hornet
RMAF F/A-18D Hornet

“I realise the noise is about to end and we do thank the Darwin population for putting up with it and we do respect their support during the exercise – we do our best to minimise it. Thank you to Darwin, we enjoyed putting on the Mindil Beach display and the Open Day and I still enjoy getting airborne out of here and seeing people off either end of the runway showing their support, and we really do appreciate it.”

TNI-AU F-16C Falcons
Falcons lining up
Republic of Singapore Air Force F-15SG Strike Eagle
Republic of Singapore Air Force F-15SG Strike Eagle

“We’ve got a gathering of people from our Australian and Foreign participants here and I would like to have them introduce themselves to you and once we are done they will be availabe for a chat”

AC Kitcher
Air Commodore Kitcher hands over

One by one the members of the group, from RAAF LACW through to IAF Group Captain, introduce themselves. A diverse range of ranks and roles from security forces to detachment commanders, battlespace managment and surveillance to logistics and communications. All important components that come together to make Pitch Black such a successful exercise.

Wrap up RAAF Base Darwin
Representatives ready to chat

AC Kitcher goes on to say ” Its really important to note that behind us there’s only a few aircrew. The majority of people are not aircrew and if you think of the 4000 people who are involved in the exercise, only about 200-250 of those are aircrew. The others are essential support personnel that makes this exercise tick, whether is refuelling aircraft, maintaining the aircraft or the people that stood up the bare base at Batchelor, whether it’s the supply personnel ensuring the spares get to the aircraft or people that are providing security for the aircraft such as this young lady and her dog here today, or even those that are running the messes – that’s what makes Pitch Black tick”

Wrap up RAAF Base Darwin
LACW Fletcher – M

“It was certainly good to see when I went to the messes here, Australian and Marine Corp cooks in there and later on the Indian cooks got involved – and so we had some cracker curries there later on in the exercise as well.”

“And thats the sort of thing we see at Pitch Black, where young men and women get together and just make things work”

“So just want to say again the exercise was a success and we acheived what we wanted to acheive with all our international partners who are standing behind me today. I hope that Pitch Black will grow and we can expect to see a similar amount of people here in 2020 – I would say for certain the F-35 Joint strike Fighters will be involved in Pitch Black 2022 – there’s a chance they will be involved in 2020 but we will have to see how that goes”

As for the types of scenarios during the exercise – “We conducted a bunch of varied missions in the exercise. In general Darwin is the hub of the Blue Forces and Tindal is the hub of the Red Forces or ‘Baddies’. Up to 60 or 70 aicraft would launch from Darwin and go down to just south of Batchelor (aprox 100km south) where they would marshall, refuel if need be and get set to ‘push’. The Red Forces would marshal about 250 miles (400km) south of Darwin and the airspace that we fight in is one of the largest in the world, including Bradshaw and Delamere weapons ranges beneath the airspace as well.” 

VMFA(AW)242 'Bats' landing at Tindal
’01’ F/A-18D Hornet from the ‘Bats’ – VMFA(AW)-242 – back into ‘Red Force’ base – RAAF Tindal
Top Aces Dornier Alphajet C-GITA - Red force at Tindal
Another Red Force aircraft – Top Aces Alphajet C-GITA

“Some of the missions saw up to 80 aircraft involved, obviously a lot of fighters, an E-7A Wedgetail (RAAF) or a Gulfstream G550 (RSAF) for control… we had tankers such as the Singapore tanker (KC-135R) here behind us, plus tankers from Australia (KC-30 MRTT) and Canada (CC-130HT) and the Malaysian A400M. And we had transport aircraft like the C-17 , C-130’s and the C-27.”

RAAF E-7A Wedgetail - RAAF Tindal
RAAF E-7A Wedgetail into RAAF Tindal

“The missions varied as they should, some were designed to escort a C-27 or C-130J into Delamere Range to drop some special forces off or pick some people up. Some were designed to get strike aircraft in to strike at notional targets, some missions were Close Air Support (CAS) where we had Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC) and Forward Air Controller (FAC) at Delamere with a real enemy located on the ground at Delamere. We had Hornets and other aircraft over the top providing CAS for those people as they engaged the enemy in the ground battle”

RAAF F/A-18A 'Classic' Hornet
RAAF F/A-18A ‘Classic’ Hornet

“Whilst there is a focus on fighter v.s fighter, this Pitch Black was special in that we integrated a lot of the ground elements and that was extremely successful – and having flown a couple of those missions, (against ground elements) they were quite challenging”

I wander about the different services and they all say they have really enjoyed the experience of this exercise here in the Top End, some for the first time in Australia, enjoying the tourist attractions on offer and joking about discovering how many “things that can bite, sting, poison and kill you here”. Some, like the RMAF deployment personnel were able to enjoy the hospitality of local family who provided a huge evening meal – cooking up some real home grown traditional Malay dishes.

Wrap up RAAF Base Darwin
‘They bite.. yes?
Group Captain Cuvraq - Indian Air Force
Group Captain Rao – Indian Air Force

I talk with a couple of Royal New Zealand Air Force officers – FLGOFF James Macintosh and FLTLT Daniel Hook – both have been here invloved with the Logistics side of Pitch Black – working at Air Movements for example. They mention how similar a lot of the physical aspects are – pallet and load sizes etc – ‘We are aiming to standardize almost all that we can to make it that much easier to integrate between the Air Forces, but there will be some small items that remain different just due to a different way of doing things in each service ‘ Dan is also the RNZAF Detachment Commander for this deployment and we all chat about the 40 Sqn B757 that was in yesterday and the T-6C Texan II advanced trainers the RNZAF aquired a few years ago – plus how many RNZAF aircraft pass through Darwin on deployments north. Inevitably we turn to discussing the Rugby – I surprise them by saying my money is actually on the All Blacks taking on Oz and they have a laugh and reckon I am throwing my money away.

Wrap up RAAF Base Darwin
Aussie’s and Kiwi’s – but don’t mention the rugby!
Wrap up RAAF Base Darwin
USAF Captain ‘Chug” Butler and 2nd Lieutenant Riley of 80 Fighter Squadron
Wrap up RAAF Base Darwin
Mingling of Services

As we are ushered away to our transport we see the RAAF flightline crews performing a FOD walk in preparation for the Super Hornets to depart – nearby the RSAF crews are almost done getting the KC-135 ready.

It certainly was a huge exercise but surprisingly the local Darwin public seemed to embrace the action, noise and military traffic more than ever…maybe it was the impressive Mindil Beach Display, maybe the largest Open day, who knows? Being a local I have met many that are already looking forward to the next Exercise Pitch Black in two years time…”bring it on” they say.

Many thanks must go to the Exercise Pitch Black Public Affairs team – Eamon, Peter, Marina, Patritia and the PB team for arranging the various media events, often at short notice.

And of course to all the aircrew, maintainers and support teams of the various air forces that gave their time to allow us to share their world for three weeks during this Pitch Black – we look forward to seeing you again soon.

Cheers from Sid, Mark, Phil and Leigh from ASO.


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Exercise Pitch Black 2018 – Mindil Beach Sunset Display

Again Darwin has been entertained by a brilliant sunset display from the aircraft involved in this year’s Exercise Pitch Black.
In addition to the traditional formation flypasts, two individual displays thrilled the onlookers watching at Mindil Beach in Darwin, Northern Territory.

On Thursday evening the gathered crowds watched on for more than an hour as large transport aircraft down to small fighters swept along the front of Mindil Beach and it’s popular sunset markets. The public had gathered in the thousands along the coast from 4:30pm, parking their cars wherever they could find a spot and drifting down to find a vantage point on the dune, the beach and even in the water to watch the displays.


The crowd waiting in anticipation at Mindil Beach


This year they were not going to be dissapointed as the Royal Australian Air Force had planned the biggest flypast so far for a Pitch Black exercise, involving almost all the visiting squadrons of the execise. It is one of two events that give back, in thanks, to the people of Darwin and Northern Territory.

Many could hear the jets departing the RAAF Base to form up at holding points not far from Darwin so knew the flypast was eminent. Opening the event was a RAAF C-27J Spartan arriving from the north, flying parallel to the beach, rear cargo doors open and one of the seated passengers waving. After circling it departed south – the crowds were puling out cameras and smartphones,  many standing in the shallows of the Arafura Sea ready to catch the action.


Opening the show – the RAAF C-27J Spartan
35 Squadron C-27J Spartan
RAAF Spartan door open and wave
A quick wave to the onloookers


The unique sound of the USMC Ospreys could be heard, a now a familiar sight in the Top End, as they flew behind the city to their holding point, maybe a clue as to what was to unfold.


Sneaking into position - Osprey
USMC Osprey heading to the holding point


With little warning a formation of RAAF Hornets, Classic F/A-18A’s and the new E/A-18G Growlers, swept over the beach from the north – right over the crowd, some onlookers still caught by surprise but for the rest…it was on! 


RAAF Hornet formation
RAAF ‘Classic’ Hornets – familiar to the display
Old and new – Classics and Growlers


By now most could guess which direction to watch for the approaching aircraft and next up was as a formation of Indonesian Air Force (TNI-AU) F-16C Falcons, fully kitted with external tanks and in their two tone ‘millenium’ camouflage scheme.


The TNI-AU (Indonesia) F-16’s
TNIAU F-16's
TNI-AU F-16C’s


New to the sunset display this year are the MV-22B Ospreys and to open the first of the individual displays two of these unusual tilt-rotor craft arrived in front of the crowd and split off, one in hover configuration and the other sweeping past in forward flight mode. They are unusual in that they can operate as a rotorcraft (helicopter) and also like a fixed wing aircraft when the proprotors and engines are tilted forward.


Two USMC MV-22B Osprey
Cross over
Sweeping in


The colourful hovering Osprey ’00’ often referred to as the ‘CAG’ bird, circled and began to perform a series of manouvers directly in front of the onlookers – performing a pirouette and moving side to side. On the second pass the crew neatly positioned the Osprey, and reducing height, produced a fine mist spray which drifted towards the beach.


USMC MV-22B Osprey
“00” from the ‘Red Dragons’
USMC MV-22B Osprey
USMC MV-22B Osprey
Second circuit


Many poeple were enjoying the cool spray generated from the rotorwash, with some children running about in the shallows, huge grins on their faces – certainly a crowd pleasing manoeuvre by the Osprey crew.


Moving into position
Cooling spray for the beach-goers


Next to pass by were the medium airlifters, a pair of RAAF C-130J’s followed by in close formation, two USMC KC-130J’s from VMGR-152 “Sumo’s ‘ who are in the Top End supporting the US Marine deployments.


37 Sqn C-130J’s
KC-130J’s from the USMC
Two USMC KC-130J
Two USMC KC-130J


Continuing the entertainment and turning in over East Point was the RAAF C-17A Globemaster III- the strategic Airlifter for the RAAF.


Arriving nice and low – RAAF C-17A Globemaster III
RAAF C-17A Globemaster III
RAAF C-17A Globemaster III
RAAF C-17A Globemaster III


Back to the fighters and next to appear was a formation of one French Air Force Rafale B and two Royal Thai Air Force SAAB JAS-39C Gripens. They seperated slightly and circled to perform another pass – afterburners lit for the public.


Rafale B and Gripen
French Air Force Rafale
French Air Force Rafale
Royal Thai Air Force JAS-39C Gripen


The Republic of Singapore Air Force has long been a participant at Pitch Black and the public love to see their F-16’s – this time two sweeping past against the setting sun backdrop.


two RSAF F-16D's
RSAF F-16D’s as the sun drops closer to the horizon


Supporting the RSAF F-15’s and F-16’s o the deployment is their KC-135R Stratotanker – providing a great silhouette for photographers with it’s refueling boom lowered and fully extended out.


RSAF KC-135R Stratotanker
RSAF KC-135R Stratotanker


No sooner had the tanker departed then a formation of the larger fighters at Pitch Black appeared. Two Indian Air Force Su-30MKI flanking a pair of RAAF F/A-18F Super Hornets cruised past performing a wide circle to make further passes in front of the public.


RAAF Hornets and IAF Flankers
Flankers and Super Hornets passing over the crowd
Formation -Hornet/Flanker
Flanker, Hornets, Flanker
Flankers in formation
Indian Air Force Su30MKI
Indian Air Force Su30MKI
RAAF F/A-18A and Indian Air Force Su30MKI
RAAF F/A-18F and Indian Air Force Su30MKI
Formation -Hornet/Flanker
Not often seen together in a display formation
Silhouettes showing different aircraft


Throughout the whole performance the contracted RAAF Rescue helicopter, a CHC/Lloyds Sikorsky S-76 had been stationed over the harbour – it now moved away from the display area, often a clue that procedings were over… or not.


Contracted CHC/Lloyds S-76A Rescue Helicopter
Contracted Rescue Helicopter S-76A earlier at Darwin Airport
Taking in a different vantage point as the sun sets


With many of the onlookers thinking the show was over, they had begun packing up when from behind a single RAAF F/A-18 roared overhead – the traditional solo display had started.


Burners on, coming in straight over and surprising the crowd
Putting the ‘Classic’ through its paces
Turn and Burn
Taking it to the limit
RAAF Hornet
Turning wide
Iconic Darwin sunset
Showing off the classic lines of the Hornet
The perfect backdrop


Putting the Hornet through it’s paces the young 77 Sqn pilot manouvered through high-G turns as the sun dipped below the horizon. We could hear the croud cheering at the pure noise and Hornet moves they were watching – and as part of the handling display, they were treated to a slow ‘dirty’ pass where the Hornet’s flaps, gear, refuelling probe and arrestor hook are extended in a low speed pass.


Letting it all hang out
RAAF Hornet dirty pass
RAAF Hornet dirty pass
Cleaning up
On the ‘fizzy’


Gear, hook, probe and most of the flap goes up in preperation for a ‘high apha’ pass where the nose of the aircraft is held up in a high angle of attack, a high powered but slow flying manoeuvre. A great opportunity for everyone to capture the hornet in the low light.


RAAF Hornet display
Wrapping it up
Departing for the final climb
Going vertical while corkscrewing


With the show nearly over the pilot circles for the finale flypast – one that always pleases. Approaching dirctly in at speed he pulls into a vetical climb on full afterburners and rapidly ascends to roll and level out before departing back to the RAAF Base.



Yet another great Mindil Beach Sunset display is over, but many will remember it and feel that the bar has been raised for next time- the best so far performed by the various Air Forces coming this year to Pitch Black. Some of the public began the shuffle to leave, and traffic was a bit mad for Darwin, many others stayed to enjoy what the beach markets had on offer – food, drink and entertainment of a different kind.

You can guarantee that this year will be chatted about for some time and who knows – maybe there will be a few more different aircraft next time. We are certainly looking forward to 2020.

Your ASO team in Darwin.


Packing up after a successful evening



Contracted CHC/Lloyds S-76A Rescue Helicopter

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Exercise Pitch Black 2018 Open Day – what a display!

The Open Day at RAAF Base Darwin is one of two most anticipated public events held during the Royal Australian Air Force’s Exercise Pitch Black, held every two years. The open day, as announced by Air Commodore Noddy Sawade at the begining of the exercise, is set up at the BRA (Bomber Replenishment Apron) on the military side of Darwin International Airport, and again this year, the visitors were able to park close by or catch shuttle busses to and from the main event.

Air Commodore Noddy Sawade
Air Commodore Noddy Sawade ensuring all is going to plan for the open day.

The general public and various military visitors were treated to an excellent static display of military and civilian aircraft, emergency services, their vehicles and various marquis selling items from squadron patches and T-shirts to refreshments. The Royal Australian Air Force provided entertainment and informative live displays of the non-flying components that make up the ADF such as NorForce and 1st Brigade Artillery. Meanwhile some local aviation interest groups – East Point Model Aircraft Club and the Darwin Aviation Museum added a alternative flavour to the day. A vendor Chalet and live broadcasts by several media outlets kept all informed of the day’s events from 9am through to 4pm.

front line display
Lining up

The aircraft had begun the move to their allotted spaces the morning before – a tight schedule had been arranged so that each aircraft could be positioned as per a master plan on the apron. Under the direction of Warrant Office Wayne – the tarmac controller, and with the help of 13 Squadron Duty Crew and other RAAF squadron personnel, each of the countries moved their display aircraft about – some being towed into place while others initially parked under their own power.


For the aircraft from Tindal like the United States Marine Corps VMFA (AW) 242 ‘Bats’ F/A-18D and RAAF Boeing E-7A Wedgetail, they were flown in the day before the display. One exception was a RAAF 4 Squadron PC-9A which taxied into the BRA (bomber replenishment apron) about 8.am (as scheduled) on the morning of the open day, giving some early photographers something to start the day with.

PC-9A A23-022
Morning wave

Prior to the gates officially opening at 9AM, and as part of the RAAF media access program, ASO was invited to explore the displays and photograph, video and chat to the crews from the participating counties. They were all excited about the impending crowds and were in the process of carefully arranging merchandise at each of their Squadron ‘trade’ stands or putting up information placards about their aircraft.

USMC MV-22B Osprey
Pre crowd chats

It is always a great opportunity for the military to engage the public – an ideal time to spark the interest of a potential new recruit to the Armed Services or just explain the aircraft and it’s role during the deployments. It is also a chance to retail official merchandise such as patches, coins and printed clothing that sometimes are not available outside of these exercises.

RAAF E-7A Wedgetail
RAAF E-7A Wedgetail

The St John teams were preparing for the day with a few final briefs to their teams as I was told the occasional heat stress patient was certainly expected later in the day. At the same time commercial vendors were finalising the set up of their marquis, food outlets and retail points while the local Australian Air Force Cadets completed their information tent.

As I roamed from display to display taking a few photo’s, it was great so see the crews and maintainers from different nations also wandering about looking and talking with others, occasional I heard some good natured banter and laughter between them, a relaxed day for them before they ramp up the pace again in the following weeks.

Time for a Team Photo – Indian Air Force

And of course while it was quiet it seemed the perfect opportunity for the teams to take a group photo in front of  aircraft, especially the Indian Air Force team. It has been amazing to see the amount of social media put out by each of the air forces – a great way for us and the world to see how they operate behind the scenes.

RMAF (TUDM) A400M Atlas M54-04
A400M Atlas M54-04

A few of the larger displays were open to walk through and the massive Royal Malaysian Air Force Airbus A400M Atlas was one I strolled through first up. It is amazing how well concealed much of the hydraulics, electrical wiring and rigging is where the passengers sit. The A400M can be configured for pretty much all conceivable roles that could be asked of a heavy lifter – standard cargo,  palletised freight, vehicles (heavy and light), liquid bladders and of course fully kitted soldiers or paratroopers.

TUDM A400M Atlas
A400M Atlas

I talk with one of the crew of M54-04 who explains some of the specifications. ‘It can carry 30,000 kilo’s from Air Base Butterworth to Darwin but for this trip – less, because we have the refuelling ability” He is referring tho the two pods that are installed on the wings.

TUDM A400M Atlas
A400M Atlas refuelling pods

I ask if they have refuelled any coalition aircraft while on the deployment but he says “No – we can only refuel TUDM (Royal Malaysian Air Force) F-18D – only certified, not for other fighters at Pitch Black” A group of excited Air Cadets arrive so I wish him luck and leave him to deal with what will no doubt be a myriad of questions.


TUDM A400M Atlas
Atlas ramp
TUDM A400M Atlas
TUDM A400M Atlas

The RAAF’s Alenia C-27J Spartan has had an enhanced role this Pitch Black – operating from Batchelor Airstrip about 120km from Darwin. I had a chance to chat with a Warrant Officer Loadmaster while in the cargo hold and ask him about his experiences with the new fleet addition. He has a great deal of Hercules experience and explains that despite public perceptions “The Spartan is definitely in a class of it’s own – it’s not a baby Herc and its not a new version of the old Caribou.” He really likes the later build C-27J’s and has a laugh when he says the earlier ones were a little bit ‘bespoke’ in their construction – “hand built like a Ferrari.”

RAAF C-27J Spartan
Spartan adaptable cargo space

The adaptable roles of the Spartan can be seen as he points to one of the two rear window by the side doors – ” For example over here.. we can clip in a seat, remove the cross bar over the window and it becomes an observers position – and we can initiate the counter measures for self defence if we see something nasty – that’s independently of the aircrew up front …because they will be busy looking forward.”

Spartan Main Gear and countermeasures
Adaptable mains and counter measures

He goes on to show me the floor mounted palletizing system – “It is removable but takes pretty much a full shift in the hangar to do that job – so we just leave it in place. It adds a bit of weight but that’s no problem as the same engines on this as are on the C-130J Hercules.”

I ask how do your special passengers like it? He laughs and says “The Forces teams (Australian Army) hop on with two quads and a couple of teams – they love it…love how we can get them into tight spots where a Herc can’t go and they pretty much just ride straight off. We are looking at the HALO ops too”

C-27J Spartan A34-010
C-27J Spartan A34-010

How about the ride?  He points up and tells me “The wing is a three spar construction – very robust (can handle operational loads in the region of 3G) and when we are operating low it can be a really rough ride – have had some tough army guys really crook and yelling that they “don’t care – just get me off this thing”.

Moving up to the cockpit I sit in the copilot seat and like how organised it appears. FLGOFF Oran tells me how he likes flying the Spartan -” More than enough power available (that Hercules power train again) and will go wherever it is pointed, especially the climb angle” And you use night vision goggles on some missions? “Yes – both of us (aircrew) use them when flying NVG(Night Visual Goggles). We have a much larger total field of view outside that way” FLGOFF Oran pulls a cover from overhead near the fold down HUD revealing aditional window – “that helps sometimes too”  Stargazing? – he just laughs. What is it like to use the HUD? – Pointing to the red soft cover he continues, “Its great – not the same as the larger aircraft with fixed HUD but this system works well for the 27 and it self-aligns for us – the occasional blip but good.”

RAAF Spartan
RAAF Spartan A34-010

“It’s really a great battlefied airlifter – very quick for time sensitive critical support missions – it fits in perfectly – carries the most common sized loads – up to 10 tonnes. It doesn’t need to be long range as the 27 is very fuel efficient, but we do hop between refuelling points and will land at most remote landing fields. We can, and do, lower the tyre pressures of the mains and nose to spread the load at some of the more austere locations.”

“In the case of Batchelor this year, where we are operating from, it’s the first time we are operating out of there during this Pitch Black exercise”

I thank him and leave by the crew door and wander around the Spartan thinking, it seems to have fitted perfectly in place within the RAAF fleet.

Taking the intruder down – much to the crowd’s delight

As the crowd starts to build some head towards the cordoned off area where the RAAF Security and Military Dog teams are gathered. Some poor soul is dressed in one of those protective padded suits and running across the paddock… yep, the Dog Handlers have ‘released the hound’ and within seconds the ‘intruder’ is brought to the ground with a cheer from the onlookers. Another crowd pleasing event on the open day.


There are some smaller displays set up along the grass – the RAAF band is belting out some tunes as I call in under some camouflage netting strung between two Mercedes 6×6 Communications vehicles. 

Merc 6x6 Comms Unit
Mercedes 6×6 Field Communications Unit

No. 1 Remote Sensor Unit (1 RSU) is a unit formed in 1992. The low profile unit operates a number of sensor platforms including the Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN) and space based infrared and surveillance telescope systems. They are tasked with maintaining a continuous tactical picture of Australia’s Air and Space regions of interest.

Merc 6x6 Comms Unit
Dial up the data

The communications pod on the rear is open on one vehicle and they have a monitor screen on a table nearby being fed with live data of civilian aircraft over Northern Australia – each with a tab indicating various target parameters such as velocity, altitude and ID codes. No doubt they would be more than capable of tracking any non-civilian movements if required to do so.

RSAF F-15SG Strike Eagle
RSAF F-15SG Strike Eagle

As the day progresses I manage to catch up with ASO Videographer Mark Pourzenic and we chat about all the displays we had been through agreeing it is pretty awesome. He speaks with F-15SG Pilot Nick while I chatted with Marvin, a WSO on the F-15SG. Marvin says “they enjoy the amount of space in the Northern Territory and the facility at Delamere Range.” I ask what is their main role – “We mainly perform strike role with own designation and have been using JADM on the missions, we but can do air to air roles if directed.”



The Republic of Singapore Air Force, F-15SGs and F-16C/D’s have been tanked from their own KC-RSAF KC-135R Stratotanker which Singapore has used when transiting their jets to the exercise – they will do so again with just one top up on the way home according to Marvin.

RSAF KC-135R Stratotanker
RSAF KC-135R Stratotanker
RSAF KC-135R refueling boom
KC-135R refueling boom

First time attendee, the Armee de L’Air Dassault Rafale B attracted some interest from the public being it’s first appearance at a Pitch Black Exercise. The three Rafales’ were refuelled by a 33 Squadron, RAAF KC-30A MRTT for more than half their journey from France. Just another example of interoperability between partners – even if it is only a long distance ferry flight.

French Air Force Dassault Rafale B
Dassault Rafale B from the Armee de L’air
French Air Force Dassault Rafale B
Dassault Rafale B

The Rafale display also had the 30mm GIAT 30-M791 cannon on display with a 125 round mgazine. Dassault has remained with the 30mm sized aircraft cannon and many RAAF personnel would remember the Mirage had two 30mm DEFA cannons (120 rounds each) 

French Air Force Rafale B - Giat 30mm M791 cannon
Giat 30mm M791 cannon

The French Air Force has again deployed their CASA CN-235 Tactical Transport Aircraft to Darwin from Nouméa-Tontouta (New Caledonia) – we have seen the CN-235 during several past exercises in the Top End.

French Air Force CASA CN-235
CN-235 from ET 52 Tontouta
French Air Force Casa CN-235

Possibly the most talked about aircraft this week has been the Indian Air Force Sukhoi Su-30 MKI. It’s the first time India have been to Pitch Black in a flying capacity – previously as observers but not deploying fighter aircraft. The SU-30 is a big aircraft compared to it’s exercise peers but the IAF have performed Force Integration Training (FIT) without any issues, which is part of what the exercise is all about – interoperability – including refuelling from the 33 Sqn KC-30A MRRT during the exercise.


What is probably the most unusual feature of the Su-30MKI is the thrust vectoring nuzzles – marvel of engineering in themselves.

Vectoring exhaust nozzles

With about 60 fighters at Pitch Black, air to air refuelling plays an important role and the Royal Canadian Air Force has again sent a Lockheed CC-130HT all the way from 435 Squadron, in Winnipeg. The Hercules carries an on board tank that provides up to 24,000 lbs of fuel, dispensed through two wing pod – drogue and hose assemblies at more than 1100 litres per minute.

RCAF CC-130HT Hercules
24,000 lbs capacity of Avtur

One of the more unusual exhibits and very popular as they have been flying about Darwin since May, is the United States Marine Corps, Boeing MV-22B Osprey. The Ospreys tilt-rotors are here as part of the Marine Rotational Force -Darwin 2018 and the public constantly filed through the display pretty much all day. The crew and maintainers were there to answer the questions – “We’re old hands at it” one said as he pointed out the thermal diffusion plates in the exhaust of an engine.

USMC MV-22B Osprey
Osprey display
USMC MV-22B Osprey
MV-22B Osprey cockpit
USMC MV-22B Osprey
USMC MV-22B Osprey late taxi


The Hornet in it’s various guises plays a major role in Exercise Pitch Black, and there were more than enough on display for the visitors to view. One of the more colourful displays was by the TUDM – the Royal Malaysian Air Force and their F/A-18D Hornet M45-01 and it’s 20th anniversary scheme. It was nice to find out a local Malaysian identity Pn. Samiah and her family had hosted the RMAF guys for an evening meal of traditional Malay cuisine – Darwin is know for it’s multicultural hospitality and I am sure they really enjoyed themselves.

TUDM F/A-18D Hornet
Royal Malaysian Air Force F/A-18D anniversary scheme


Making a debut at Pitch Black was the Royal Australian Air Force EA-18G Growler from No. 6 Squadron at Amberley. The Growler is fitted with an electronic jamming suite that adds to the complexity of the latest exercise scenarios.

RAAF EA-18G Growler
The Growler – here to disrupt electronic procedings

The other large airframed Hornet in attendance is the RAAF’s F/A-18F Super Hornet from No. 1 Squadron, also Amberley based. 1 Squadron has trained in the N.T several times over the last few years including back in PB16. The have brought their colour tail, A44-210, which celebrated 100 Years in 2016.

RAAF F/A-18F Super Hornet
RAAF F/A-18F Super Hornet

Attending for probably it’s 3rd last Pitch Black is the long serving F/A-18A from the RAAF. The Classic has been attending Pitch Black for about 30 years now and will be replaced by the F-35 Lightning II. Although A21-54 has 3 Squadron markings on the tail, it has been common practice to pool the Hornets into the remaining operational squadrons for their twighlight years of RAAF service, and not repaint them.

RAAF F/A-18A Hornet
RAAF F/A-18A Hornet – ‘Classic’

77 Squadron, Commanding Officer ‘Easty’ has mixed emotions about the retirement of the Classic. He is a veteran of  deployments to the Top End and says with a hug grin – ” I guess I have probably spent a year in total on deployments up here over my time in the RAAF” 

'Easty' - CO of 77Sqn
CO of 77Sqn in front of A21-54

Another coalition partner that has returned to the Northern Territory are the ‘Bats’ – USMC VMFA(AW)-242. The Bats are based in Tindal this exercise but were in Darwin last year for the Air Weapons Instructor Course exercise. For the open day they flew up one of their F/A-18D “OO” fitted with the ATARS – Advanced Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance System. Only a few have this front end modification in place of the M61A1 Vulcan in the gunbay.

USMC F/A-18D Hornet
One of the ‘Bats”- F/A-18D from VMFA (AW)-242
USMC F/A-18D Hornet
ATARS nose package mod

Supporting the USMC deployments from Japan for fixed and rotary squadrons have been the “Sumo’s” – a transport and air to air refuelling Squadron who operate the Lockheed KC-130J Hercules. The Sumo’s are quite a familiar sight over Darwin and Tindal each year resupplying and performing tanker operations for the US Marine Rotational Force deployments.

USMC KC-130J Hercules
Sumo – KC-130J

After last Pitch Black with their F-16 deployment, the Royal Thai Air Force has returned again with their SAAB JAS-39 C/D Gripen from 701 Squadron, out of Surat Thani. The “Ferocious Sharks of the Andaman” were here in 2014 so are again a familiar participant of Pitch Black.

RTAF JAS-39C Gripen
RTAF JAS-39C Gripen
Mixed Tails

While we are looking at single engined fighters you cant go past the timeles General Dynamics F-16, here in several versions. The Indonesian Air Force (TNI-AU) has one of the more colourful schemes on their F-16C’s – the ‘Millenium’ scheme of their 3 Squadron aircraft who are another F-16 Squadron, that has returned for PB2018.

TNIAU F-16C Falcon
TNI-AU F-16C Falcon from 3 Sku

Singapore and the United States – long term participants can be relied on to deploy their F-16’s to Australia. The RSAF spend a lot of time deployed to the NT and brought a mix of 140 Squadron and 143 Squadron tailed jets from Tengah Air Base but did not have one on display this year.

RSAF F-16D Fighting Falcon
RSAF F-16D Fighting Falcon

The USAF deployed F-16CM’s from the 80th Fighter Squadron this time, plus one 35 FS tail. The ‘Headhunters’, from Kusan in Korea arrived into Darwin being refuelled by KC-135R from the Illinois Air National Guard.

USAF F-16C Falcon
35 FS F-16CM

As host nation for the three weeks the Royal Australian Air Force set up exhibits also. The Air Mobility Group had the Boeing C-17A Globemaster III from 36 Squadron on display, it is the main cargo lifter for Australian tactical deployments and humanitarian missions.

RAAF C-17A Globemaster III
RAAF C-17A Globemaster III
RAAF C-17 Globemaster III
C-17 Globemaster III

I am always amazed at the amount of items stowed in cavities along the walls of the fuselage in the C-17A, some neatly covered out of sight and others ready at hand to use – tie down kits, spares, adapters for reconfiguring the cargo space for different purposes. The Globemaster has proven to be a wise investment for the RAAF and has many years of service ahead.

RAAF C-17 Globemaster III
RAAF C-17 cargo

Near the end of the apron is A3o-001 the RAAF’s Boeing E-7A Wedgetail with its unusual vertical array on top of the fuselage. No. 2 Squadron has been operation the Wedgetail for some years now and it remains a critical asset for the electronic surveillance and control network in the ADF. A30-001 was recently in the UK and still displays the 100 year RAF symbol that was applied in addition to the RAAF Roundel to celebrate the Royal Air Force’s 100th year celebrations.

RAAF E-7A Wedgetail A30-001
RAAF E-7A Wedgetail A30-001
100 Years RAF
Helping the RAF celebrate 100 years.

Off the main apron and down a taxiway are some smaller aircraft. A couple of local aircraft often seen about Darwin CBD and flying the coastal route are the ex RNZAF North American T6D Harvard NZ1090, VH VFM. It can be seen taking passengers up early some Sunday mornings when the conditions are perfect for a leadure flight along the coast or out to a local strip. The other vintage aircraft on display is VH-NMD, an ex RAAF de Havilland DH82A Tiger Moth, A17-640. A beautiful sight against the morning blue sky and is also hangared next to the Darwin Aviation Museum.

T6 Harvard VH-VFM - ex RNZAF NZ1090
T6D Harvard – ex RNZAF NZ1090
de Havilland Tiger Moth VH-NMD
Ex RAAF DH-82A A17-640

Almost to the end of the taxiway display is a ‘Dingo Airlines’ King Air A32-439. The KA-350 King Air has been providing support mostly from outside of Darwin RAAF Base and is another that frequents the Top End flying in and out of the smaller strips across northern Australia.

RAAF KA-350 A32-439
RAAF KA-350 A32-439
Dingo Airlines logo
Dingo Airlines logo

Completing the aviation component of exhibits on the taxiway is the only helicopter display here today. ‘Viking’, A38-015, is one of 1st Aviation Regiment’s Eurocopter ARH Tiger based out the local Australian Army Robertson Barracks. Being located near Darwin they can be seen flying coastal to the respective training areas and sometimes seen working with the Ospreys out at Mt Bundey and Bradshaw training areas. The Ospreys have also been using the barracks heliport as a landing facility during their rotation this year.

1st Av Regiment ARH Tiger A38-015 'Viking'
1st Av Regiment ARH Tiger A38-015 ‘Viking’
Army Aviation ARH Tiger A38-015 "Viking"
ARH Tiger A38-015 ‘Viking’

With most of the displays visited it was time to have a wander about and see how the crowd was enjoying the day – many had headed for the shade and refreshment stands but plenty were still arriving as others left. A few unusual sights and some more smaller attractions took my interest. The Bomb Disposal team were entertaining some children in the crowd with their remote disposal unit while RAAF and Civilian security meandered through the crowd on Segway PT cycles…. not something you see every day at a RAAF Base.

Bomb Disposal Robot
Bomb Disposal
Segwey by two
Segwey for two

On the way back I pass by the ARFFS Rosenbauer Panther Fire Tender from the ARFF Station across at Darwin International Airport. These guys attend all the aircraft emergencies that occur on the base, be they civilian or military, and respond to fire alarms on both sides. Their area of responsibility also extends up to about 1 km beyond the airport perimeters and can sometimes be seen performing driver training around the airport in the big day-glo tenders.

Darwin International Airport ARFF Rosenbauer Fire Tender
Rosenbauer Fire Tender – 8900lt of useable water

Residents of Darwin sometimes hear a drone during the night – most often it is the DHC-8 from Australian Borderforce heading out or returning from offshore patrols. The crews work some odd and long hours providing a surveillance and rescue role across the coastal waters of Australia. Bordeforce also had their maritime craft on display, creating a bit of interest from the fisho’s (local amateur fishermen).

Borderforce Dash 8
DHC-8 (Dash8) VH-ZZN from Border Force Australia

I go past the last aircraft to arrive – earlier this morning – ‘Mc Namara VC’ a Pilatus PC-9A from No. 4 Squadron RAAF Base Williamtown. 4 Sqn provide FAC training and run the Australian Defence Force Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) courses. A23-022 arrived and taxied past us this morning to park next to the RTAF Gripen, maybe for the last time at Pitch Black as the ageing PC-9A will be replaced by the new PC-21A which is almost half way through the delivery program.


RAAF PC-9A A23-022
RAAF PC-9A A23-022
RAAF PC-9A A23-022
RAAF PC-9A A23-022




I catch up with Mark who has been interviewing the military aircrews and we both agree this has been the best Pitch Black Open Day so far – a great selection of aircraft, some of them new to the exercise, some that will be gone in a few years but no matter what is here in Darwin, it always draws interest from the military enthusiasts and general public, some from as far as the UK. I know the military visitors also get a buzz from showing their aircraft off to us and we hope they enjoy their deployments – no matter how long they may be.

A big thank you to the PITCH BLACK Public Affairs Media Operations Cell for Pitch Black, and of course to the particpating airmen and airwomen involved with all aspects of the exercise – even though you have a serious job to perform, you go the extra mile to make the Open Day a great event for us, the public, to enjoy so much.

For more information about Exercise pitch Black 2018 click on the links below:

@RoyalAustralianAirForce (#ExPitchBlack18)

@Aus_AirForce (#ExPitchBlack18)@Aus_AirForce (#ExPitchBlack18)




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It’s ON! Exercise Pitch Black 2018 officially opened.

The southern hemisphere’s premier air training exercise, the Royal Australian Air Force’s Exercise Pitch Black 2018, was officially opened today by Air Commodore Michael Kitcher at RAAF Base Darwin. With him was Air Commodore Noddy Sawade – who was also present at Pitch Black 2016.

PB Opening AC Mike Kitcher
Air Commodore Mike Kitcher
PB Opening AC Noddy Sawade
Air Commodore Noddy Sawade

AC Kitcher welcomes the media and explains that “Normally my day job is Commander Air Combat Group but for Pitch Black I am fortunate to be in charge of the whole box and dice, running of the exercise. I am here with Air Commodore Noddy Sawade who will talk about the Mindil Beach event and the open day. Also with me is Wing Commander Steve Parsons who is permanently based here as the senior ADF Officer.”

WCdr Steve Parsons
WGCDR Steve Parsons

“In an hours time we will have the mass air brief for partners and allies but Pitch Black proper starts on Monday. This Pitch Black 18 is the biggest we’ve ever done…we’ve got about 140 aircraft from 16 different countries involved with about 4000 people, including 2500 Australians and about 1500 partners and allies here with us. The exercise is mainly based here in Darwin and Tindal which is quite full, and we have people located down at Batchelor as well…. and aircraft based out of Kununurra. We also have another five or six locations for our ground control agencies and we are using Bradshaw and Delamere Air Weapons Ranges in the Top End as well – so it’s a big exercise”

RAAF C-130J A97-441
Getting a wave from A97-441 as it taxied out after the media brief

There are a few ‘firsts’ for this exercise. We have the Indian Air Force here for the first time, they were part of the International Observer Group last time and decided to come along this time with their Sukhoi 30 aircraft and their C-130J’s – a wonderful addition to what is a great exercise.”

Indian Air Force KC-130J

“We’ve also got the French Rafales here for the first time…the French have been here before but not with their Rafales.

French Air Force Dassault Rafale
French Air Force Dassault Rafale

“For the Royal Australian Air Force we have a couple of firsts… the C-27J behind me here and also our EA-18 Growler airborne electronic attack aircraft participating for the first time. Our partners and allies have been coming here for many, many years such as the Singaporean Air Force, the Thai Air force, United States Air Force and Marine Corps – the Indonesians are here this year as are the French and many others that make this truly an international exercise.”

RAAF EA-18G Growler
First Pitch Black execise for the RAAF Growlers
RAAF Alenia C-27J Spartan
RAAF Alenia C-27J Spartan

“One of the things that makes Pitch Black special is the amount of airspace available – from just south of Batchelor to down past Daly River – it extends from the Stuart Highway out to the coast and out over the ocean up to 50,000 feet, which is unparalleled pretty much anywhere in the world. Considering the number of aircraft we have, that chunk of airspace is vital to us, for conducting as realistic operations as we can for the coalition.”

RSAF F-15SG Strike Eagle
RSAF F-15SG Strike Eagle
RMAF F-18D Hornet
RMAF F-18D Hornet

“The other thing is that we appreciate is the support of the local community here – so I would like to hand over to Air Commodore Noddy Sawade who will run through a couple of events.”

PB Brochure

AC Sawade says ” We really enjoy being up here, it’s not just the training that we do, but we also get involved with the community. This year as we have done in other Pitch Black’s, we are going to do two main events. The first one is next Thursday down at the Mindil Beach markets – from about 5 o’clock to about six-thirty the aircraft that are in the exercise are going to be flying down the beach in close formations – be prepare to see quite a few aircraft over an hour and a half.”

PB 2018 display at Mindil
Mindil Beach Display PB2016

“That’s the lead in to the second event at the base – the Open Day where we turn all the aircraft around (for display), with a little showground – it’s free, and you can get here by bus, plus we have free parking. Come in from 9 Oo’clock in the morning until about 4 o’clock in the afternoon where you can talk to the people who actually fly the aeroplanes, fix the aeroplanes and look after all of the exercise activities. They will be happy to talk to you, and you can come in and get real close to the aeroplanes, take photo’s and it’s all free to enjoy. They are the two main events to give back to the community something we take from here with all our activities. So we look forward to seeing you there and get on the website at https://www.airforce.gov.au/exercises/pitch-black to find out all about it to enjoy – for the people of Darwin and the Top End – thank you.”

USAF F-16C Falcon

AC Kitcher continues explaining the first week is really about familiarisation training which is small packages (of aircraft) going out as different nations to get used to operating together in relatively simple missions. Weeks two and three build gradual and deliberate scenarios – which might be up to 100 aircraft involved in a particular mission. It might be a strike mission to Delamere, it might be a C-27 or C-130 or even C-17 into Delamere to pick up or drop off people. Whist there is a focus on air combat we involve multiple types of aircraft in some of the most challenging missions, some that could require a transport aircraft getting through the airspace into a target in the Delamere or Bradshaw areas.”

RAAF F/A-18A Hornets
RAAF F/A-18A Hornets

“For the first time we are opening up Batchelor airfield so will have C-27’s operating out of the Batchelor area practicing some humanitarian and disaster relief type activities.”

RTAF JAS-39 Grippen
RTAF JAS-39 Gripen
RSAF General Dynamics F-16C
RSAF General Dynamics F-16C Falcon
F/A-18F A44-210
A44-210 1SQN 100th year Anniversary scheme into Darwin for PB18
TNI-AU F-16 Falcon
TNI-AU F-16 Falcon
RAAF F/A-18F Super Hornet
RAAF F/A-18F Super Hornet

As for noise the Air Commodore discusses the ways they will control and minimise the impact of noise near the airports. “We have day flying only in week one, then afternoon and night flying in weeks two and three and those times are all available on the website. The departure procedure dictates almost 20km each end of the runways – flying up over 1000m before we turn through the departure gates. We come back as quickly and efficiently to put the jets on the ground as quickly as possible, which is the best way we can minimise noise to the communities of Darwin and Katherine. This particular exercise with 4000 people over three for four weeks is going to put an estimated $30 million into the community – which is great.”

RSAF Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker
RSAF Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker
USAF KC-135R Stratotanker
USAF KC-135R Stratotanker

“As we take off from here I look forward to seeing people at the end of the runways watching what’s going on, as that’s quite impressive for us – at Bagot Rd off runway 29 or Amy Johnson Ave off runway 11. Thats about all I have at the moment to talk to you about but happy to take some questions”

IAF C-17A Globemaster III
IAF C-17A Globemaster III

I ask the Air Commodore how they will be integrating the various participants – will they mix it up in each package or mission? He says ” Yes, they have a matrix where they plan to have all the partners fly with each other to gain experience working with different aircraft in different packaged missions. Once completed, the matrix box is ticked off for that combination or specific mission”

RAAF C-17 Globemaster III
RAAF C-17 Globemaster III

He also explains – “We try to get as many partners working with each other as we can, and although we all speak english and all have fighters or other aircraft, we all do it slightly differently. So exercising in as realsistic as passible scenarios that we present in Pitch Black, we can actually learn from each other. We can perform the mission and come back and talk about it and go through the mission in slow time. This means we end up far more effective at working together and achieving the objectives set. ”

RCAF Lockheed CC-130HT
RCAF Lockheed CC-130HT
RTAF Lockheed C-130H
RTAF Lockheed C-130H
RSAF Lockheed C-130H
RSAF Lockheed C-130H
TNI-AU Lockheed C-130H
TNI-AU Lockheed C-130H

As for the ageing F/A-18 Hornets – “This is one of the last Pitch Blacks for the Classic Hornets but they will be participating in exercises for a couple of years yet – but Pitch Black 2020 may very well be their last one. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the first two of those arrive at my base, RAAF Williamtown, in December and may participate in a very small way in Pitch Black 20. By Pitch Black 2020 they will be participating definately.”

Classics arriving from WLM
Two ‘classic’ Hornets arriving from RAAF Base Williamtown for PB2018

As the interview wrapped up, a nearby RAAF Hercules, A97-441, was given the thumbs up for start so we moved across the road to watch it depart the hardstand for runway 11 – the typical morning departure direction this time of year in Darwin. The crew taxied past giving the onlookers a wave – probably amused at us standing there with hands shading our eyes as we looked into the morning sun.

RAAF C-130J A97-441
RAAF C-130J A97-441 firing up
RAAF C-130J A97-441
A97-441 taxi for departure runway 11
Hercules on the Military Hard Stand
Hercules on the Military Hard Stand
French New Caledonian CASA CN-235
New Caledonian (French) CASA CN-235
RTAF Airbus A340-500
RTAF Airbus A340-500
RMAF A400M Atlas
RMAF A400M Atlas

Finally we were escorted back to the front gate to hand in passes and thanked the media team and look forward to what they have in store for us in the coming weeks of this exercise. Being the largest exercise to date, I am sure we will not be dissapointed in any way.

RSAF G550 Gulfstream EA&WC
RSAF G550 Gulfstream EA&WC
RAAF E-7A Wedgetail AEW&C A30-001 – Tindal

Another veteran of the Pitch Black exercises is the USAF B-52H – although we may never see them land this time, they will however begin entering exercise airspace high above the NT but can drop low – often to less than 5,000′ depending on what missions they are tasked with during the exercise.

USAF B-52H Stratofortress
USAF B-52H Stratofortress into Darwin
PB opening map
Open day Map

So if you are in the Top End keep an eye out for the multitude of aircraft that will be in our skies for the next few weeks – and get on down to the Mindil Beach display and the Pitch Black Open day on base…. I have been to a number and always worth attending.

I would like to thank the RAAF PB18 media team for arranging access to the brief and of course Air Commodore’s Kitcher and Sawade for their insight as to what we, the public, can expect to see and the free events we can attend during Exercise Pitch Black 2018.


Cheers from Sid in the Top End.



If you cant wait for all the action to start or want a taste of what Pitch Black is all about … check out the ASO coverage from Pitch Black 2016 by clicking the image below

For more information on the public events or the exercise in general check out the RAAF Web site


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Australia’s Eyes and Ears to be enhanced by RAAF MQ-4C Triton


In a boost for the Northern Territory as part of a $8 Billion expenditure over the next 10 years, the Australian Government plans to invest $110 mil at RAAF Base Tindal as part of project AIR7000 Phase 2B – Maritime Patrol Aircraft Replacement Project.

Artist impression of RAAF MQ-4C Triton. (Courtesy of Northrop Grumman)

New facilities designed to support the Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton Un-manned Aerial System (UAS) operations will be constructed including Aircraft Pavements and Shelters, communication (antenna farms) and support infrastructure (refuelling), and also secure administative annexes. After completion RAAF Base Tindal will be capable of fully supporting the primary operations of the Triton out of RAAF Base Edinburgh, S.A.

Artist impression of RAAF MQ-4C Triton. (Courtesy of Northrop Grumman)

With the Northern Territory an important forward defence location for Australia, Minister for Defence, Senator the Hon Marise Payne announcing recently – “These facilities works will be tendered in a way that will ensure that Northern Territory businesses are best placed to succeed in delivering these facilities,” Minister Payne also said “The successful prime contractor will be required to implement a Local Industry Capability Plan (LICP) that will ensure small-to-medium businesses in the Northern Territory have the best opportunity to compete and win work.”

RAAF MQ-4C mock up at Avalon Air Show – 2015

Senator for the Northern Territory, Senator the Hon Nigel Scullion – “This is another demonstration of our commitment to Australia’s long-term national security, and our commitment to supporting Northern Territory business.”

The full scale mock up of the MQ-4C Triton Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (ADF supplied photo)

The RAAF Triton is based on a US maritime variant of the RQ-4B Global Hawk and will be tasked with providing broad area real-time maritime Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR). ASO photographer Motty recently captured the USAF version on a visit to ADEX Korea, a surprisingly large unmanned aircraft with a wingspan just shy of 40m.

USAF- Global Hawk at Seoul ADEX2017
USAF- Global Hawk

These aircraft types are commonly referred to as an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) – that is, a remotely piloted aircraft. Although having many autonomous functions, it requires ground-based team – command (Pilot) and control mission planners and one or more Sensor Operators to operate and collate the information  during each specific mission.

RAAF crew flying the RAAF IAI Heron from inside the piloting
Heron operations centre

On extended flights , while the aircraft crews are able to be rotated to minimise fatigue, the Triton continues it’s mission. The launch and recovery from runways is performed by the crew but long legs on pre-programmed missions are often only monitored unless required to be altered or interrupted by human input. An example would be the warranted investigation of a unknown or suspicious target, or in the case of SAR misssions, the discovery of a vessel or surface debris.


The MQ-4C Triton will fly in conjunction with Royal Australian Air Force P-8A Poseidons, performing the high altitude (17,000m+) long endurance (HALE) mission, complimenting the ADF’s existing suite of sophisticated intelligence collecting systems. In addtion to ISR, Signals Intelligence, Communications Relay, and with a flight endurance up to 30 hours and approximately a 15,000km range, the Triton can be tasked with extended Search and Rescue (SAR) missions anywhere within Australia’s Economic Exclusion Zone, and beyond if necessary.

Triton capabilities (Northrop-Grumman)

The Triton will supplement the capabilities of the new Boeing P-8A Poseidon from 11 SQN, also based out of RAAF Edinburgh, and replace many of the functions performed by the retiring Lockheed AP-3C Orion. It will have the capacity to communicate and exchange data with the RAAF’s other airborne eyes and ears, such as the Boeing E-7A Wedgetail from 2 Sqn based at RAAF Base Williamtown, and is expected to be compatible with future Airforce purchases such as the Gulfstream G550 ISR&EW special mission platform or even the project AIR7003 contenders,  IAI Heron TP or General Atomics’ MQ-9B.

The six MQ-4C Tritons are scheduled for delivery mid-2023, with initial operating capability (IOC) 12 months later, and full operational capability (FOC) is expected by mid-2025.

RAAF Poseidon
RAAF P-8A Poseidon A47-001 – Darwin
RAAF Boeing E-7A Wedgetail A30-001 – Tindal
Into Darwin - AP-3C
AP-3C landing at RAAF Base Darwin

In 2017 the RAAF’s  5 Flight retired the much smaller leased IAI Heron which paved the way for unmanned surveillance aircraft operations in the ADF – see ASO Editor Leigh Atkinson’s article on the Heron remotely-piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) in RAAF use here  http://aviationspottersonline.com/raafs-thin-end-of-the-wedge/

RAAF Heron – RAAF Base Amberley, QLD.
5 Flt IAI Heron into RAAF Base Tindal – one of the last flights – 2017

With UAS to become a commonplace intelligence and/or offensive assets in the modern battlespace, many air forces are introducing them into their inventory. A recent announcement by the British Govenment (RAF) to deliver their first Protector RG Mk.1 Piloted Air System (RPAS) in a Trans-Alantic flight during July, the Chief of Staff Capability, Air Vice-Marshal Rochelle announced, “The first trans-Atlantic flight of the Protector reinforces the Royal Air Force as being at the forefront of cutting edge technology. Offering over 40 hours’ endurance Protector will provide the RAF with unrivalled intelligence gathering possibilities.  The decision to expand our Remotely Piloted Air System (RPAS) fleet with this world leading aircraft will offer a game changing leap in capability and marks the next step in our modernisation in our 100th year.” This will be the first RPAS of it’s class to in operational use over the UK. The Royal Air Force will have the Protector on display at the Royal International Air Tattoo 2018.

Protector - RAF RPAS drone - CREDIT MOD
Protector RG Mk.1 Piloted Air System (RPAS) (UK MOD artist impression)

As with all new acquisitions they will be phased in but we may get to see the real deal in a few Avalon’s time.

Cheers.. Sid Mitchell

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Last patrol for RAAF Orion A9-757 – another preserved for the public to see.

Just after 10 am on June 23rd 2018, Royal Australian Air Force Lockheed AP-3C Orion, serial A9-757, was officially handed over to the Darwin Aviation Museum in the Northern Territory, Australia.

The aquisition process has been a 2 year odyssey for the tender team at the museum, but all the hard work has finally paid off with A9-757 becoming the latest aircraft to be added to their outstanding collection.

Lockheed AP-3C Lockheed Orion, A9-757 spending it’s last night at the BRA apron, RAAF Base Darwin.

Only the day before the ceremony A9-757 was towed into the museum grounds adjacent to RAAF Base Darwin by the members of Airforce’s JTF 639, after spending the night parked at the RAAF Base BRA apron.

Before reaching the gates, A9-757 had to be negotiated through a secondary access road due to some limited dimensions and with the outboard main tyres crossing the extreme edges of the last culvert (with supported matting in place), it made the last move up to the museum gates.

Committee members of the Darwin Aviation Museum remove the security gates for access

To access the grounds two security gates were unbolted and removed by the museum team before the Orion could be towed through the threshold. It was a great exercise in adapting to changing conditions and with slow and steady progress the JTF team negotiated the obstacles and the aircraft was parked in it’s new home and prepared for the upcoming ceremony.

Crossing the threshold to a new life of preservation
Mr O’Loughlin and RAAF personnel carefully guide the Orion through the gate
Squeezing through
The old Darwin Control/Water Tower

The Air Force Duty Crew and Air Movements section has temporarily loaned a set of stairs until the museum can position their own historical set of Air Stars in position. They also provided some basic storage recommendations and tie down instructions until a hangar can be constructed over the Orion.

A9-757 onto level ground again
Nearly there
JTF crew towing A9-757 into final position
Some of the happy comittee members pose with their newest exhibit at the end of the tow day

I enquire with a JTF Warrant Officer about what has been left intact and about the engine status. He explains that it is pretty much complete, less fuel and some sensitive and security related electronic equipment that has been removed, plus disabled engine fuel control – even for the APU. But ground power could possibly be utilised to run lights. The RAAF has been exceptionally helpful in preserving the aircraft until the hand over and and have also been forthcoming offering technical advice when asked by the museum.

Getting ready
The big day

At 10 am on June 23rd 2018, the start of the official handing over ceremony of A9-757 at the Darwin Aviation Museum in the Northern Territory, Australia, began just outside their huge hangar. In attendance were representatives from the Museum, Defence, Government, members of the AHSNT society and interested public.

Handover proceedings start up
John O’Loughlin, Director of Disposals Projects

First to take the podium was John O’Loughlin, Director of Disposals Projects who has been principle in authorising the disposal of A9-757. He makes a number of recognitions and introductions, then opens proceedings by saying,
“Today’s a good day for defence disposals, any day that we can preserve military history through the War Memorial, Service museums or local museums is a good day. I would like to thank my team and the team from the museum who have worked tirelessly to make this day happen, and all the paperwork and approvals that go on behind it.”

JTF the previous day

“Special mention must go to the members of JTF 639, who have preserved this aircraft for over 12 months. It would be in a very different condition if it wasn’t for their outstanding work.”

Mr O’Loughlin then goes on to introduce Air Commodore John Meier, Royal Australian Air Force, to say a few words. The Air Commodore has a loose connection with Darwin – as a young Officer he served with Air Vice Marshall Jack Plenty, son of Darwin’s Wng Cmdr (Ret) Ed Plenty – a great mentor at the old Darwin Aero Club.

Air Commodore John Meier -Air Force Director General, History and Heritage

“It gives me great pride and pleasure in my capacity as first Air Force Director General, History and Heritage, to hand over 757 behind me to become part of Darwin Aviation Museum. This is an important year for Airforce, its the 100th anniversary of the end of the 1st World War, 75th anniversary of the last major air battle over Darwin and the 50th anniversary of the first Air Force Orions.”
The Air Commodore goes on the describe some significant events around the Orions and in particular A9-757.
“10 P-3C’s including this aircraft replaced Neptunes at 10 Squadron in 1978, while 11 Squadron P-3B’s were replaced by another batch of Orions in 1984/85. Flying from the US, Canada and other places as part of cold war operations, the P-3 located, classified and tracked Soviet attack and ballistic missile nuclear submarines.”

The AC describing the historical side of the Orion in RAAF service

“When Australia declared its exclusive economic zone in 1973, it was the Orion that gave Australia the ability to surveil a maritime area larger that the Australian landmass. In fact I have flown many of those surveillance missions in this particular aircraft.”
He continues detailing the various roles the Orion has performed from Operation Estes, which commenced in 1980, involving P-3s in round the clock surveillance of Bass Strait oil rigs against an assessed terrorism threat, to Malaysian based operation Gateway which continues to this day tracking submarines and conducting intelligence gathering and reconnaissance operations.
In addition the P3s have been involved in countless rescue operations at sea – the rescue of solo yachtswoman, Isabelle Autissier”

“757 in particular has a varied and auspicious history – the aircraft began its service with No 10 Sqn in November 1978 at RAAF Base Edinburgh. In 1984 the RAAF deployed 4 Orions, including 757, to the Cocos Islands where they gained imagery of a previously unseen Russian BOR-4 spacecraft that splashed down 300 miles to the south. It was the first time it had been seen by the west and those Orion photos were distributed to all our western allies – a real intelligence coup”

Decribing significant milestones in A9-757’s service career

“In 1983 this particular aircraft was the first of the P-3C’s to participate in the international anti-submarine exercise called Fincastle, where we compete against the Brits, Kiwi’s and Canadians to see who has the best skills on anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare. Again this aircraft was the one of the first aircraft where we carried out anti shipping mine exercises of dropping inert anti-shipping mines at Lake Hart near Woomera.”

From November 1998 to June 2000, 757 flew 17 missions out of Malaysia in support of Operation Gateway. In 2000 A9-757 carried out coastal surveillance patrols around Australia’s fishing zones, the third largest in the world, covering some 9 million square kilometres, many of those mission out of Darwin.

In 2011 757 was the first P3 to deploy to Learmonth as part of Operation Relex, the ADF’s enhanced border protection operation in the country’s northern approaches. Between May 2012 and march 2017 757 carried out multiple surveillance missions as part of Operation Resolute, the ADF’s contribution to protect Australia’s economic zone – most of those missions were flown out of this base. So 757 has a very long and close tie to RAAF Base Darwin and the Territory.”
“Throughout its service with the Air Force, 757 has optimised the flexibility of air power and with more than 17,000 flying hours, divided by 24, that’s a lot of days in the air. The legacy of this grand aircraft will be preserved for many more years beyond its normal operational service.”

Back from patrol into Darwin

“As Director General History and Heritage I applaud Darwin Aviation Museum and the NT Government’s efforts to explore and document WWII aircraft crash sites, including the recovery and preservation of aviation relics related to the defence of Darwin, and the air battles over Darwin during the Second World War. The preservation of the F-111 just inside the hangar is of world standard and I know that 757 will be well looked after. By supporting quality heritage organisations such as Darwin Aviation Museum, with the gifting of heritage aircraft and artefacts, the Airforce shares a record of Australia’s air power throughout it’s history by presenting a physical and touchable expression of how the Airforce has developed it’s capability in order to defend Australia’s interests. The educational opportunities provided in the Darwin museum are significant and have a profound influence on how people connect with and understand howe the Australian Air Force behaves operates both in peacetime and in wartime and in particular the defence of the Northern Territory. So it is with great pleasure and to be honest, a fair amount of nostalgia, that I hand this magnificent aircraft over to Darwin Aviation Museum for preservation, education and community enrichment…Thank you very much”

President of the Darwin Aviation Museum – Tony Simons “This is and absolutely wonderful day as far a the society is concerned”

The Museum’s President, Mr Tony Simons takes to the podium to make an acceptance speech;

“This is and absolutely wonderful day as far a the society is concerned – a culmination of two years of long and hard work by our committee and the involvement of Defence Disposals and must acknowledge the museums manager Angie Clucas, curator Ken Lai and John O’Loughlin from Defence Disposals”
“Our next step is to get this magnificent aircraft under cover and we will continue our negotiations with the Federal and Northern Territory Governments to get an extension to our existing hangar”

“We have been very fortunate to retain our visitation rates at around 30,000 and to be able to acquire exhibits like this only continues to enhance our reputation as an organisation and make the experience for our visitors even better.”

Assistant Minister for Veteran Affairs – Tony Sievers

The Assistant Minister for Veteran Affairs Tony Sievers and Member for Solomon, Luke Gosling make their speeches reflecting on the Northern Territory and it’s long standing with all branch services of the Australian Defence Force – from the tragic bombings of Darwin to modern exercises both on land near Darwin and offshore to the north.

Almost done
Member for Solomon – Luke Gosling

There is a short break as the signatories prepared for the official handover document signing.

Signing off

Air Commodore Meier, Minister Sievers, Museum President Tony Simons and witness, Member for Solomon Luke Gosling, all sign and then pose for photographs in this historical moment for the museum.

From the Territory Government
Done – now in the custodianship of the AHSNT
A proud occasion for all

It is a proud moment for the Darwin Aviation Museum and a moment in history that marks yet another retiring Lockheed Orion making the transition to preservation in Australia, as apposed to what fate it may have had in store otherwise.

With the official ceremony over the public are allowed to climb the stais and wander through and about the Orion.

Done and dusted

The Air Commodore escorts Wing Commander (ret) Edwin Plenty – Honorary Member of the museum, an ex RAAF Canberra pilot/instructor, and Commanding Officer of Base Squadron Darwin during the 1970’s. He has had a long connection with the RAAF and the Aviation Historical Society of the Northern Territory and graciously accepted the Committee’s offer to become the patron of the AHSNT back in 2016.

Lets look inside
On the stairs

Through the door hatch straight ahead you can see the floor level sonobouy tubes and starboard aft observation position – to the right is the other observation position. The seats are fully adjustable and fitted with lambs wool – as are all seats in the Orion as many long hours can be spent in them.

Sonobouy tubes
Aft Starboard Observer position

Behind them is the crew rest area and galley – including dinette style seating, table and bunks with strapped in mattress and pillow. Often the promise of a hot meal and a break from the monitoring must be welcomed at times on long missions.

Crew rest area with crew position roster

Turning forward to the main cabin you can see sonobuoy storage racks – the Orion can carry both active and passive sonobuoys and Marine markers. Escape hatches are located left and right and interestingly noted by a few observers today, a parachute stowage bay which is also present elsewhere in the aircraft.

Sonarbouy storage magazine

Further forward again and the Sensor Stations SS1-SS4 and SEM positions are located down the port side – these are the Airborne Electronic Analysts (up to six) and the Sensor Employment Manager positions. Each station has its own monitors and they utilises a clever suite of sensor arrays to collect and process information about the threat or target environment.

The heart of tactical and target information gathering
SEM station
Looking aft

The Orion crew uses it’s digital Multi-mode Radar, IFF, Electro-Optical Infra Red Star Saffire II system, Acoustic Sonobuoys and Magnetic Anomaly Detectors. The digital MAD boom is the distinct and easily recognisable tail extension to the AP-3C .

The MAD boom distinct in it’s form

Moving forward you come to the next crew position on the left side, the Tactical Coordinator, who is responsible for co-ordinating the various tactical aspects of the mission. The TACCO role is fed information collated by the AEA’s and SEM in the cabin behind.

TACCO position

The Navigator/Communication Officer sits to the right and manages the aircraft radio’s, and communicates with other airborne assets as well as those on the ocean surface or ground elements. The NAV/COMM also coordinates navigation of the aircraft during each mission. 

NAV/COMM position
TACCO view out the domed observation window

Both positions also have domed observation windows to assist in visual identification of vessels such as in Search and Rescue operations. Below these crew positions is the weapons bay which can carry and dispense a variety of stores including the Mk 46 lightweight anti-submarine torpedo and Air Sea Rescue Kits. The Orion is also capable of deploying the AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missile.

Air Commodore John Meier explaining some details to the public

Looking towards the cockpit the third seat of the Flight Engineer sits between the Pilot and Co-pilot – there is also a second FE normally on board, often a welcomed second set of eyes we are told by the Air Commodore. The FE monitors the aircraft systems including the four Allison T56-A-14 turboprops that give the Orion that distinctive drone. No 1 engine can, and often is, shut down during patrols increasing the loiter time, range and efficiency of the aircraft over many hours of patrolling the oceans. Many think of the Orion as sea orientated aircraft but it is just as capable of performing the land surveillance role.

AP-3C Cockpit
Overhead panel
Pedestal with dual power lever sets

The main and overhead instrument panels have all their electronic flight instrument system (EFIS) displays, standard instruments, switches, indicators and levers in place with only a few missing items from the centre pedestal. The side panels have some missing components that will be easily blanked off by the museum.

Almost complete
Many an Australian flag has been flow from this overhead hatch

There is very little missing inside to the casual observer and the few actual missing panels can be easily be replaced with mock ups, which are already being discussed by museum staff. The cockpit is in very good condition for its age, as is the rest of the aircraft – both inside and out – quite amazing for a 1978 Orion. This is a true credit to the 92 Wing maintenance crews at 10Sqn, 492Sqn and the JTF 639 team at RAAF Base Darwin.

Two Allison’s

I get another chance to wander around the aircraft as the crowd disperses and have a chat with Ken, the museum’s Curator – He is very excited about the new arrival as so much hard work has gone into securing 757 and the preservation plan is only just starting to swing into action. A9-757 will take position front and centre in the outside aircraft parking area, before ending up under cover with a proposed 40m x 60m hangar.

‘Zapped’ by the Canadians

Wandering around I notice a number of ‘zaps’ – Canada, Japan and USMC just a few – simple spray-painted stencils or stickers from other nations sneakily applied during exercises – and yes – the ADF also takes part in these harmless activities as it is all part of the comraderie between competing nations.

Sonobouy tubes
Chocked until tie-down

So for the time being it is hard not to miss seeing A9-757 from the museum grounds, or even the Stuart Highway if you happen to be passing by.

The crowd has gone and a lone MV22 Osprey departs behind A9-757

It is a credit that another museum in Australia has had the opportunity to secure and display a long lived and historical Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance and Anti Submarine/Shipping Warfare aircraft such as this Lockheed AP-3C Orion.

I would like to thank Tony, Ken and Angie from the Aviation Historical Society of the Northern Territory for allowing me to share in this special day with the Museum, Royal Australian Air Force and Defence Disposals. I look forward to many hours ahead at the museum and meeting other members of the society in the near future.

If you would like to see what is on offer at the Darwin Aviation Museum, please right-click-open on the link below, and if you are ever in Darwin, make sure it is on the bucket list – well worth the visit.


Cheers Sid Mitchell
Aviation Spotters Online – Darwin

My gear I use is Nikon D610, D700, Nikon 24-120mm, 70-200mm, 200-500mm and Sandisk extreme cards.


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Donghai Airlines – Shenzhen to Darwin, a new destination for air travellers.

b7100 5

Chinese carrier Donghai Airlines in partnership with Darwin International Airport, has launched its inaugural passenger service to Australia, with the arrival of  the colourful B-7100. As of Wednesday May 30th 2018, Donghai Airlines is operating it’s Boeing 737-800 aircraft on the Shenzhen – Darwin route, currently a twice weekly schedule.


Donghai Airlines is based at Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport in Guangdong, China, and Darwin will be the third international destination for the airline after both their Thailand and Vietnam destinations.

Established in 2002 as Shenzhen Jiehui Freight Aviation Co., Ltd. it wasn’t until September 2006 that Donghai Airlines commenced commercial flights as a domestic cargo operator. The following year they were issued an international cargo charter licence to destinations such as Dhaka, Osaka and Seoul. In March 2014, Donghai operated it’s first passenger flight and during 2015 concentrated on transitioning from cargo freight to predominantly passenger services. By late 2016 they had been granted permission to operate as an international passenger transportation business.

As of February 2014, the airline had signed several contracts with Boeing to supply 25 Boeing 737-800 aircraft and in 2016, Donghai Airlines and Boeing also signed up the intention to purchase 25 737 MAX8 and 5 787- 9 passenger aircraft.

second flight arrival.
Second flight arrival.

Logo interpretation – Nine color seagull – Seagulls, the sea elf, are symbols of courage, wisdom, and tenacity. The nine wavy gulls, shaped like wings of seagulls, are riding the wind and waves on each tail and winglet.

b7100 13

Initial services between the cities will be provided by one of the current 18 Boeing 737-800 aircraft, although Yang Jianhong, Chief Executive Officer of Donghai Airlines, has indicated that the aircraft will be upgraded to the newer Boeing 737-MAX 8 some time in the future.

Darwin International Airport logo
Darwin Airport

In a press release early April, NT Airports CEO Ian Kew, said the new air link between Darwin and China would create over 35,000 airline seats directly into the market – “Uniquely, Donghai Airlines will be the only airline from China to serve Australia with a Boeing 737- 800 aircraft, providing a more cost effective and economically efficient aircraft that will enable very competitive fares to be offered,” Mr Kew said.

Arrivals hall preperations after passenger immigration.

Northern Territory Chief Minister, Michael Gunner also praised the new connection and it’s econimic benefits to the Top End – “We know that travellers from China spend more on average than other visitors so it is an important and lucrative market. We are already attracting 18,000 Chinese visitors annually and this new direct flight will allow us to meet, and well and truly exceed, our target of 30,000 visitors from China by 2020. Shenzhen, with a population of more than 14 million people, is considered China’s ‘Silicon Valley’, so there is also enormous potential to establish new business and trade links.”

On each Wednesday and Sunday passengers will see flight DZ6223 Shenzhen (SZX) to Darwin (DRW) and a return flight DZ6224 from Darwin to Shenzhen, scheduled to operate along the route.

Arrivals board
On it’s way

The inaugural flight EPA/DZ6223 left Shenzhen Boa’an International airport at 0140CST 30th of May 2018 and after a 5:40min flight, touched down in Darwin at 0850 ASCT.

B7100 1
Flight DZ6223 about to touch down for the first time in Darwin.

I was priviledged to be invited to the arrival by Darwin Airport and again be given access airside to capture the arrival from near to the runway. Riding with Bob in one of Darwin International Airport’s safety vehicles, we drove out and parked ready to watch the arriving aircraft land, and then taxi from runway 11 to the International Terminal – Gate 2.

B7100 2
B-7100 touching down on Runway 11, Darwin, N.T
B7100 3
Braking on Darwin’s 3,354m runway.
b7100 7
Taxi to the gate

In a long standing tradition dedicated to special occasions, Airservices Aviation Rescue Fire Fighters (ARFF) positioned two of their Rosenbauer ARFF vehicles either side of the taxiway ready to create a water cannon salute for the aircraft to pass through.

b7100 8
ARFF Tenders opening up the monitors
B7100 9
DZ6223 passing under the arch

With company representatives, public and the media watching on, Donghai Airlines B-7100 taxied through the welcome arch and on to Gate 2 at Darwin International Airport. Interestingly Bob tells me that the Gate 1 and 5  CIMC Tianda aerobridges were actually manufactured in Shenzhen and installed at Darwin some years ago…. another small link between the two cities.

B7100 10
Through the wash
b7100 12
Onto Gate 2

After parking and shutdown, the ground services teams spring into action transferring baggage, performing after flight services and replenishing consumeables for the return flight. Bob invites me to walk the apron around B-7100 as the ground staff move vehicles and equipment about the new arrival, performing their respective tasks.

b7100 15
Ground crews into action
b7100 16
B-7100 on Gate 2
b7100 17
Dnata catering services vehicle positioning to lift
On the bay
b7100 18
Passengers depart DZ6223 for the immigration lounge

We leave the B737 on the bay but it will soon be relocated off the international gates until nearing it’s return flight, DZ6224, departure time of 9:45p.m. We return inside to wait as the passengers and crew transit through immigration heading towards a large welcome in the main terminal passenger hall. 

arrivals board after
Promotion on the flight status board

Representatives from Darwin International Airport, Donghai Airlines in Australia, the N.T Government, the Chinese Community plus local business Crocodylus Park had put on a welcoming show not often seen at the airport.  

Chief Minister Michael Gunner welcomed some passengers to the Northern Territory, while friends and relatives were waiting, as the flight was a mix of family members, first time visitors, business folk and even a Hong Kong movie star. Slowly the steady trickle of travellers began to pick up coming out of the immigration lounge.

Handing out the NT News
nt news
NT News 30May2018

Traditional musicians were playing percussion music as officials waited for executives of Donghai Airlines to emerge. A traditional Lion dance was being performed by the Chung Wah Society Lion Dance Troupe in sync with the music, weaving their way through the onlookers, which only added to the atmosphere of this special occasion.

traditional musicians
Musical welcomes
Lion dance performers

Eventually Donghai Airlines chairman Mr.Wong Cho-Bau and Donghai Airlines Chief Executive Officer Yang Jianhong emerged and were welcomed by the Cheif Minister and other representatives such as Tourism Minister Lauren Moss, returning to Australia on the flight, Darwin Airport and local companies. The welcome even included a pair of juvenile crocodiles being presented by staff at well known local attraction, Crocodylus Park.

dragon dance and welcome
Welcome to Darwin
CEO croc presentation
Mr Wong Cho-Bau meets some local inhabitants

With the Lion Dance completed it was time for some welcome speeches and with translators assisting in the proceedings, the Shenzhen- Darwin and Donghai-Darwin Airport partnership was again announced to the watching crowd, and that future partneships Mr Gunner said he believed the Territory was up to the challenge of giving Chinese tourists a memorable experience.

Dragon dancers
Crew mingling with passengers

Eventually the proceedings are wrapped up – and the crew passed through the crowd as passengers moved off to find their transport into the city. Many have planned some time exploring Darwin and it’s attractions and Darwin can look forward to some additional tourists choosing the Northern Territory as a travel destination. As Tourism Minister Ms Moss said earlier, “There are 18 million people in Shenzhen and tapping into them and others beyond is what lays ahead, I’ve said all along our goal is 30,000 by 2020 and from discussions I’ve had while in Shenzhen, I am confident we can achieve it.”

With the loss of a couple of airlines stopping at Darwin recently, it will be good to start to filling that gap again with what are termed – short-haul travellers. Donghai Airlines looks very capable of filling that void as the flight is only 5 and a half hours long…. either way. Certainly a destination for Darwin residents to consider also.

Mixing of cultures

I would again like to thank Bob the N.T Airports Aerodrome Safety & Standards Manager for escorting me airside and Jill from NT Airports Communications & Media for arranging my visit, much appreciated.

Cheers Sid

second flight arrival.

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Mallard on the Harbour – Paspaley Pearling Company Grumman G-73AT

If you have ever spent some time in Darwin since the 1990’s, you might have seen the occasional Grumman Mallard coming and going from Darwin International Airport. If you recently happened to be down at the Darwin Wharf Precinct or on Stokes Hill Wharf then you may have seen one of these classic amphibious aircraft operating on Darwin Harbour.

VH-PPI on final into Darwin, Northern Territory.
VH-PPI preparing for night operations – Darwin.

Iconic Australian South Seas pearling company, Paspaley Pearling Company, operates a fleet of three Grumman G-73AT Mallards from it’s hangars at Darwin International Airport, servicing their Kimberley based pearling operations. I was fortunate to be invited aboard one of their Mallards to experience a unique aspect of Australian aviation – the world of amphibious aircraft operations.

Gruman Mallard VH-PPE in it’s element.

Arriving at the Mallard hanger at the general aviation area of Darwin Airport, I was met by Daniel, a Mallard first officer at Paspaley Pearling Co who had arranged for my visit. We wandered in to the hangar where VH-PPE was up on jacks undertaking some maintenance – nose wheel and doors removed, engine access panels open, as were numerous other panels and lower belly sheeting. As with all amphibious aircraft, sealing, corrosion, lubrication of moving components is a never ending maintenance task, especially those that operate in salt water environments. 

VH-PPE under going maintenance in the Paspaley hangar.

A little history around the Grumman G-73 Mallard – originally designed in 1944 Grumman built 59 aircraft between 1946 and 1951. The G-73 was a step up from the smaller Goose and Widgeon aircraft having a larger passenger capacity, additional fuel in wingtip tanks, a double stepped hull, fully stressed skin and tricycle undercarriage. Although the Mallard was initially expected to serve in small harbour based airlines, it’s major operations extended into the corporate and private sector, providing a level of luxury air travel for those that preferred an amphibious option to their flying destinations.

Powered by the Pratt and Whitney R-1340 radial, the Mallard soon established itself as a reliable, stable, strongly constructed aircraft and was liked by all that flew her. During the 1960’s the idea of re-engineering the aircraft produced the modified Frakes G-73T Turbo Mallard, powered by the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6.

The Paspaley Pearling Co fleet of Grumman G-73AT Mallards.

In a further model development the three Grumman Mallards of Paspaley based in Darwin underwent the Pearl-Aviation G-73AT Turbo Mallard program at approximately $5 Million which saw a renewing of the airframe life and installation of new engine nacelles housing PT6A-34 turbines, plus the associated engine instrumentation. The new turbines also drive 4 blade Hartzell propellors which improve performance of the aircraft both on water and when airborne. Additional modifications are constantly being implemented by Paspaley such as updated avionics and navigation systems.

Original airframe serial numbers J22, J23 and J26 are now registered to Paspaley Pearling Company as VH-PPE, VH-PPI and VH-PPT,  all having been constructed in 1947. Not bad for a 70 year old aircraft that still has parts available, others that can be refurbished and with an ongoing inspection and maintenance program, has a long airframe life ahead. Waiting out on the apron was our ride for the day, VH-PPT, the youngest (by only months) of the three aircraft.

Wet weather – not a problem.

After meeting Andrew, Pete, Taiki, also chief and line pilots at Paspaley hangar, we climbed aboard PPT to perform a short taxi to the Pearl Jet Centre. The interior is surprizingly spacious and is two-tone cream and light grey with the cloth seating finished in a dark blue and the Paspaley Pearl logo on the headrest cover – quite nice considering a fair amount of the operations involve flying employees to and from the Kimberley locations. The normal seating capacity is 13 in a 2-1 and 1-2 arrangement, plus two crew of course.

Mallard interior furnishings – 13 seats plus two crew.
The Mallard safety placard.

After I get seated, Daniel goes through the safety brief and offers me a headset to listen in on procedings. Andrew and Daniel get seated up front and I listen in on them stepping through their checklists. With the all clear they start first the starboard then port turbines, after which Bob removes the auxiliary battery cart cable so we are good to go.

Aux battery disconnected
PT6A-34 turbine and 4 blade prop – part of the Paspaley upgrade.

With land taxi checklist completed we taxied out to the parking bay where each turbine is wound up and checked before we continue on around to the Jet Centre.

Cranking up the port PT6A-34.
Taxi via the parking bay.

We are marshalled into parking by Jess to pick up some additional Paspaley employees including General Manager, Tony, Jenna the Commercial Development and Operations Manager – red carpet treatment is standard at Pearl. While waiting I find out that the pilots have quite varying flying backgrounds, some have previous floatplane or amphibian type experience and some undertake conversion to Mallards here in Darwin. A lot of float and amphibian pilots gain valuable experience in Canada or the US/Alaska region where these types of aircraft are more prevalent.

Marshalled into the Pearl Jet Centre.
The red carpet treatment…but not for me.

With a few minutes before we depart, I look into the cockpit and see the obvious changes to the instrument panel. Gone are most of the original gauges, replaced by modern instrumentation including the vertical engine instrument cluster, what I did notice was what looked like the original combined flap-position/undercarriage indicator – a touch of functional nostalgia, why not? Centre stage is the Garmin multifunctional navigation display which I saw the guys use to tick off the various checklists.

Modern take on a classic instrument panel
Checklist tick-offs

IPad/Tablets on each control column yoke are often the standard these days, but it was also great to see the overhead panel was looking quite authentic. This panel houses electrical controls, engine fuel selectors and gauges, plus the underslung throttle/pitch quadrant levers.

Overhead panel

One of those quirky features of the Mallard is located behind the copilot’s smaller rudder pedals – the access passage to the forward compartment. This is where Daniel will later crawl to open the front deck hatch which will allow him to secure the mooring line.

Copilot position with forwad compartment access over the rudder pedals.

With Andrew and Daniel up front going through the engine pre-start checklist again, Pete was busy answering questions about the Mallards for us first timers as we taxied out for a Runway 11 departure. After a short roll VH-PPT climbed out for a left turn to follow the coast at around 1000′ heading for our Darwin Harbour landing.

Main gear starting to retract
Climb out of Darwin

Soon we would be landing next to the cruise ship Radiance of the Seas docked at the Darwin Cruise Ship Terminal. Today we were checking the logistics in picking up passengers from a cruise ship, transferring them to and from a Mallard by tender, departing and returning to the harbour after a scenic flight, and back to the wharf (ship) by tender.

As we reduced altitude I could see Brad in the Paspaley tender powering out past the cruise ship to the mooring point a few hundred metres offshore. 

Brad powering out past The Raidiance of the Seas to meet us.

After a final descending turn into wind, VH-PPT gracefully touched down on the green waters of Darwin Harbour. It was interesting to hear the communications on the radio – needing to talk with both Darwin Tower and Darwin Harbour Control to co-ordinate the takeoff and landings with aircraft and waterborne traffic hazards. Having never been in an amphibian aircraft before I was quite surprised how quiet and smooth the landing was – some initial bumps and noise from the hull but that soon reduced to just the hiss of water being sprayed out with the turbines in the background.

A distinct profile from 20′ up.
Coming off the plane.

As we were required to disembark from the port side, Andrew cut the port engine while Daniel went to the rear and opened up the passenger door and assisted Brad bring the tender along side. It’s not often that you hear the term ‘bilge pump on’ used in an aircraft, however it seem quite appropriate for a Mallard.

Slow taxi to passenger transfer position.

Donning life preservers all passengers alighted to the tender for the short trip into the wharf where they were to visit the Darwin Cruise Ship Terminal. For me it was a chance to go back out on the water and take some photos of PPT taking off and landing across the bows of the Radiance of the Seas.

Reversing out – watching our heads on the tailplane.

Brad positioned us near the mooring point and we watched the guys taxi the Mallard downwind past the liner. A quick 180 degree turn into wind and they soon had the PT6A-34 turbines wound up and VH-PPT on the plane, lifting off with the Darwin CBD in the background.

Taxi past the waterfront.
Past the bow.

A quick circuit of the harbour and they were lined up for the approach and landing. Watched by some passengers aboard the ship, the Mallard touched down on the silver waters, flaring and finally slowing to a few knots taxi speed.

Back from the circuit.
To the mooring
Grumman Mallard VH-PPT

As the aircraft was to be moored for a while, the guys were to tie up to the mooring point and soon had the Mallard closing in on a float. Daniel had climbed through the access under the co-pilot dash after raising the rudder pedals, and into the forward compartment to open the front hatch.

Daniel ready to recover the float.

While Andrew manipulated the throttle/pitch controls to combat the outgoing tide and incoming breeze, Daniel armed with a boathook, retrieved the float and tied off PPT. Naturally the Mallard crews are not just aviators but have to take on the role of mariners at times.

‘Got it’

They made it look so easy but with all the practice they have over in the Kimberley bases securing up to pontoons and buoys it wasn’t surprising how quickly they had moored VH-PPT. I noticed the main undercarriage extended and Daniel explained later that it helps with handling by creating some drag. The hull is very ‘slippery’ and the exhaust from the PT6A-34 turbines actually creates some forward trust, even with the props feathered, so a little extra drag is an advantage on the water.

Retracting the mains while tying off to the mooring.

The Paspaley crew climbed aboard the tender and with passenger door left open to ventilate, we headed off to the wharf leaving the aircraft to swing on the mooring. After a stroll through the arrival hall in the Darwin Cruise Ship Terminal and seeing all the tourists heading into Darwin on various tours to do some shopping, it was time for a leisurely cruise back to the aircraft. With some time to spare it was decide VH-PPT would perform a last taxi past the cruise liner for a photo opportunity before I had to jump aboard.

Props clear
Radiance of the Seas and VH-PPT

Leaving Brad to take the tender back ashore, it was just myself and the Paspaley team to take the short flight back to Darwin Airport. We performed a final downwind taxi past the Radiance of the Seas and tuned into wind.

Our water taxi for the day.

This flight I had a different seat and as we taxied I could see the definite drag affect the mains had before they were retracted for take-off. A quick thumbs up from Andrew and we were away.

“Everyone right?.. here we go”

Take off was pretty much the opposite experience of landing, except with a little more noise from the PT6A turbines. I watched the wake dissipate through the window (porthole?) as we rose onto the plane and with one or two bumps were airborne once again. I fly quite often and the one thing I did notice this time was the absence of  bumps or clunks from the undercarriage stowing away. I guess thats floatplanes for you.

Taxi for takeoff.
Window with a view.

A swing of about 270deg around to the left and the guys had us almost lined up on the shorter Runway 36 – gear down, flaps and soon after crossing the Stuart Hiway we touched down and rolled out. A bit of a roundabout taxi to the Mallard hangar due to some ground traffic and we parked on the spot from which we departed earlier.

Homeward bound.

Wandering back through the hanger I see VH-PPE with parts removed and panels open everywhere. Pete had earlier explained the aircraft are removed from service for 100 Hourly maintenance – and of course major maintenances are performed over longer timeframes. Each time the aircraft is thoroughly inspected for corrosion and in the case of PPE, was having some lower hull skins replaced with the maintenance guys doing their utmost to have her ready to take to the air again as scheduled.

The Grumman G-73AT Mallard in it’s element.

With a final thanks to Daniel and Jenna for organising the day, I depart thinking “well…that really was a unique way to spend a morning”. Although a good part of my day was looking through a lens, going over the pics I see minor details I missed that I might have seen if I was just along for the ride, ahh well, maybe next time.

So is it a better vessel or aircraft? – I guess Grumman got the mix right back in the 40’s, as it seems to be just at ease in both environments. As for looks, well, personally I think the Mallard has classic lines that will endear pilots and passengers for many years to come…. I know the folks at Paspaley are pretty chuffed with them.

And for those that have never flown in an amphibian, if you ever do get the opportunity, take it, for it is so much different to your regular flying experience. 

A big thanks must go to Paspaley Pearling Company, Daniel, Andrew,Pete, Jenna, Brad and Taiki for humouring me all morning – so until next time.





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