Aviation Spotters Online

Aviation Spotters Online

All posts by Sid Mitchell

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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
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Braking on Darwin’s 3,354m runway.
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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
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B-7100 on Gate 2
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Dnata catering services vehicle positioning to lift
On the bay
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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.





Thumbs up for go

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SilkAir’s Boeing 737 MAX 8 slips into Darwin


On Sunday 7th January 2018 the Top End monsoon wasn’t enough to dampen the arrival of SilkAir’s inaugural Boeing B737 MAX 8 passenger service to Australia. The event opens a new chapter in the ongoing 6th year partnership between SilkAir – The Regional Wing of Singapore Airlines, and Darwin International Airport in the Northern Territory, Australia.

Although the Singapore – Darwin service isn’t new, the aircraft type certainly is, as SilkAir now operates three Boeing 737 MAX 8’s  in their fleet, 9V-MBA, 9V-MBB and todays visitor, 9V-MBC. However SilkAir will also be adding a further two services from Singapore’s Changi International Airport bringing it to six per week.


SilkAir 801 departed Gate E20, Terminal 2 at Changi International Airport, lifting off at 0856 local time on it’s 4H 40min flight of 3,345km to Darwin, cruising most of the journey at about 850km/h at an altitude of 10,680m.

SilkAir 801 about to touchdown in Darwin.
Thrust reversers in action.

Touching down in Darwin on a damp Runway 29 at 2:36pm local time, during a well timed break in the rain, 9V-MBC as Silkair 801 (MI801), greeted the viewing public with a spray of water as the crew applied thrust reversers of the new LEAP-1B engines. The MAX 8 slowed and exited the runway via B2 and taxied towards the terminal apron.

Damp arrival of B737 MAX 8 9V-MBC.
Taxi on B2

As on other special occasions, a water salute had been arranged by the airport authorities to greet SLK801 as it taxied to Bay 3 at the Darwin International Terminal.

Tender 1 – Rosenbauer Panther.
Tender 2 – another Airservices ARFF Rosenbauer Panther.

ARFF Tenders 1 and 3, a pair of Air Services Rosenbauer Panther fire trucks from Darwin’s Aviation Rescue Fire Service, had pre positioned themselves and opened up their monitors creating an crossing arc of water for the aircraft to slowly taxi through. A great job by the ARFF teams considering only 15 minutes earlier they had been responding to an alarm elsewhere at the airport.

Welcome to Darwin International Airport.
9V-MBC exiting the satute.

Once past the water salute, Captain Salazar picked up the ground handling team waiting at Bay 3, who proceded to manually marshal the aircraft into its final parking position at the airbridge. Normally the aircraft taxi/parking indicators are provided automatically up in the bay, but for today’s special occasion, manual guidance into position was chosen.

Marshalled into Bay 3.

With nosewheel chocks in place, ground comunications to the cockpit is made and final parking procedures performed – main landing gear chocks in position and airbridge connection made before the entrance cabin door is opened.

Ground communications.
Main LDG chocks in.

While the flight crew and passengers proceeded with disembarking to the international lounge and customs area, service crews began their individual tasks both inside and outside the aircraft, aiming to have it turned around ready for the return flight to Singapore.

Let the turnaround begin.

Most passengers never see all the activity that occurs in and around the aircraft while they sit inside the terminal waiting to board their flights. Darwin Airport does offer a number of great viewing areas to observe the activity, from the Dome cafe and Hector’s bar, to the seating area near Gate 4. And to help celebrate today’s arrival, local radio station MIX 104.9 FM has been running a competition promoting Silk Air and it’s many destinations – the team had set up and were broadcasting from the upper level of the Terminal.

The team from MIX 104.9 FM having a ball.

Back downstairs functions such as baggage handling, catering services, aircraft inspection to refueling and ablutions – all need to be performed to meet the next scheduled flight. I was able to observe these activities at ground level today thanks to Bob, the Aerodrome Safety & Standards Manager at Northern Territory Airports Pty Ltd, who escorted me airside for the arrival. Bob has been at the airport for two decades and has an enormous amount of aviation knowledge about the Top End.

Essential fluids.
Final baggage unloading.
The distinct trailing edge chevrons help reduce noise.

We walked around the bay as the groundcrew performed their tasks, which also allowed me to take some photo’s from a vantage point I don’t see very often. The B737 MAX 8 has a few subtle differences from the standard 737, sitting slightly higher at the front and Bob also pointed out the extra dimension of the downward facing winglets that could catch an unwary driver.

B737 MAX 8 Winglets

Once finished we left the apron and arrived inside the terminal so see the end of Silk Air’s welcome ceremony. Mr Foo Chai Woo, the Cheif Executive of SilkAir, acting Minister for NT Tourism, Eva Lawler and acting CEO of Darwin Internantional Airport, Tom Ganley were all on hand to close the celebration with a cake cutting ceremony.

Mr Foo Chai Woo, the Cheif Executive of SilkAir speaking about the new services and aircraft.

Earlier Mr Foo Chai Woo had said, “We are thrilled to be introducing the new Boeing 737 MAX 8 to Australia. Given we recently celebrated our 5th Anniversary of flights to the Northern Territory capital, Darwin is the perfect choice to host the arrival of the inaugural MAX 8 flight into Australia.”

Celebratory cake.

After several desk models of the B737 Max 8 painted in the SilkAir livery are presented by Mr Foo Chai Woo, Jill, from NT Airports Communications & Media Office explains we have been invited go aboard MI801 and take some photographs. 

Some desktop B737 Max 8 presentations – both wood and perspex in the SilkAir livery.

This version of the B737 is configured as 12/144 – that is, 12 Enhanced Business Class seats and 144 Economy Class seats. What is apparent when entering the MAX 8 cabin is the extra room. Business class seating has an increase of 25% in seat spacing – from 990mm to 1245mm and the seats recline and extra 330mm for increased passenger comfort, plus have additional personal item storage pockets. Business Class also is treated with freshly brewed gourmet coffee from Illycafe.

Business Class – row 1.
Smiles all around.

Both Business and Economy seats are provided with USB charging ports and the SilkAir Studios in-flight wireless system has been upgraded to provide an improved entertainment streaming package to passenger’s own devices.

Two tone fabric upholstered sesting in Economy cabin.

While viewing the main cabin there was a subtle lighting change that transitioned from cool blues to warmer sunset hues – it was explained that the LED lighting can enhance the ambience and makes for a more enjoyable flying experience in conjunction with the new dual colour scheme of the fabric upholstery.

Cool blues.
Warm LED lighting to match the time of day.

As the return flight passengers were almost ready to board for MI802, our time was up and we moved down to the tarmac – the opportunity to take some ground level photo’s presented itself again as the he ground crew disconnected the tug and bar, so that the Business partners could be photographed holding the Welcome to Darwin Silk Air banner, with 9V-MBC as a fitting backdrop.

Unfurling the banner by executives – a last photo op before departure.

As the rain started to spit we left the apron for the dry terminal interior and proceded to hand our security passes back. I thanked Bob and Jill for their time and said I looked forward to seeing the MAX 8 back in Darwin soon. With two extra flights to Darwin we can expect even more Singaporean visitors to the Northern Territory, and more Australian travellers heading to one of the largest airline hubs in S.E Asia.

Today’s welcome message on what is normally the flight status board.

I figured I had just enough time to catch 9V-MBC from the end of the runway departing back to Changi Airport as I left the Terminal. SLK802/MI802 lifted off at 4:16pm, 1hr 40min after landing.

Departing as SLK802 to Changi.

Although this aircraft was not the first Boeing 737 MAX 8 to visit Darwin – Boeing’s own aircraft N8704Q was in the Northern Territory performing trials in January 2017, we will certainly be seeing a lot more of the Silk Air fleet in years to come.

I would like to thank Maria, Bob and Jill, the staff at Darwin International Airport and SilkAir for making this day possible and I look forward to the next visit. Darwin really is bit of a unique place and we do get some opportunities to catch a surprising variety of aircraft as they pass through.

Cheers…Sid Mitchell

Nikon D7100, 18-130mm, sandisk


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Bloodhounds freshen up – RAAF Base Darwin


I often drive past RAAF Base Darwin in the Northern Territory and recently noticed the ‘gate guards’, as they are affectionately called, appear to have had bit of a spruce up. Their last major refurbishment occurred back in 2013 so a polish of plaques and paint was a bit of welcomed attention I guess. Many who have lived in, worked in or visited Darwin may recognise these two unique historical icons.

Bloodhound RAAF Darwin
‘Sentinels’ No 7 & 8.

The two Ferranti Bristol Bloodhound Mk. 1 Surface-to-Air missiles, No 7 & 8 now located outside the old main gate, have a historical connection with the defence of Northern Australia. Both were operated as part of the Royal Australian Air Force​’s Number 30 Squadron – their roles specifically as Bloodhound SAM Detachment Flight “A”.

Bloodhound RAAF Darwin
Bloodhound Mk 1.

Originally re-formed and equipped with the Bloodhound Mk.1 at RAAF Williamtown in early 1961, No 30 Squadron and the detachment to Darwin operated for 8 years. It remains the only unit to operate a mid to high altitude Surface to Air missile system in the Royal Australian Air Force.

Bloodhound RAAF Darwin
No 7 – 2 x Thor Ramjets and 4 x  solid fuel boosters (jettisoned).

During the early 1960’s Konfronski (southern end) the almost defenceless nature of No 2 Control and Reporting Unit (2CRU) located in Darwin, N.T was exposed to potential enemy attacks by Tupolev Tu-16  Badgers.  Although the 2CRU radar site was provided with some limited short range L60 Bofor Anti Aircraft guns under Australian Army control, the then Minister of Defence approved the assignment of Bloodhound Detachment Flight “A” to Darwin in May 1965. This action was a stop gap measure during the ‘Konfronstki’ until the Mirage III0 was introduced in full numbers to the RAAF’s fighter squadrons.

Bloodhound RAAF Darwin
Twist and Steer – control surfaces.

Initially only 4 complete launcher and rounds (missiles) were installed with 3 spare rounds as backup. Later during December 1965, as part of Exercise High Rigel with the RAF Vulcan bombers – Darwin Air Defence Exercises (ADEX), RAAF C-130A Hercules would bring four more complete launchers from Williamtown. The missile establishment at full strength would finally consisted of 8 missile pads and their associated buildings being located at Lee Point, not far to the north of the RAAF Base. Most of the RAAF inventory was eventually located in the north – 8 of the available 12 missile launchers and 14 out of 24 live missile ’rounds’ in Australia.

Bloodhound RAAF Darwin
91 kg warhead with continuous-wave radar proximity fuse.

The Darwin based Bloodhounds had a short service life of only 3 years as this version had rapidly become outdated by new weapons technology and performance, and with the Dassault Mirage III being almost fully delivered and assigned the mid-high altitude defence role, by the end of 1968 the detachment and the remaining No 30 Squadron Bloodhounds were withdrawn and disbanded from service. During 1969 Bloodhounds No7 & 8 were relocated to their position outside the then RAAF Base Darwin main gate. 

Bloodhound RAAF Darwin
Hot and noisy end – fixed guide fins.

Up until the new entrance gate was built – visitors to RAAF Base Darwin have had to drive between the two missiles or park next to them while obtaining a visitor pass, before entering the base. Although there are a few other Bloodhound missiles located around Australia this pair have remained somewhat of an attraction for many years, with Darwin locals and visitors both inspecting and taking photo’s with now silent gate guards.

Bloodhound RAAF Darwin
No 8.

It is a credit to the restoration teams, both past and present, that have kept these two cold war ‘Sentinels’ preserved in such good condition so that they can represent an interesting and unique period of RAAF operational history. I hope they remain an interesting attraction in Darwin for years to come.

Bloodhound RAAF Darwin
2013 Restoration Team

Some Specifications of the Bristol Bloodhound Mk.1

Weight: 2270kg

Length: 8.5m

Thrust: 2× Bristol Siddley Thor Ramjets, 4× solid fuel boosters (jettison after Ramjets thrust exceeds SRB)

Max Speed: M2.2

Range: 190km

Warhead: 91kg continuous rod with annular blast fragmentation (buzzsaw)

Guidance and Tracking: Semi-active radar

Cheers… Sid Mitchell

Nikon D7100, 18-300mm sandisk memory card

Bloodhound RAAF Darwin

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Top End “Dog Fighting”- F-16’s and F-18’s team up at Exercise Elang AUSINDO 17

This week ASO was part of a small media group given access to RAAF Base Darwin in the Northern Territory to speak with Wing Commander Michael Grant, Commanding Officer of No 75 Squadron, about Exercise Elang AUSINDO 17. Visits to an OLA to view aircraft plus excursions to adjacent Runway 29 to watch jet departures and arrivals was also on offer.

Exercise Elang AUSINDO 17 is a bi-lateral exercise between the Indonesian Air Force, the TNI-AU, and the Royal Australian Air Force which is being held from 16 – 27 October based out of RAAF Base Darwin. The TNI-AU have brought F-16C Block 25 Falcons from 3rd Skadron Udara, Iswahjudi AB, East Java, while the RAAF has temporarily relocated some 75 Squadron F/A-18A Hornets from nearby RAAF Base Tindal. The exercise aims to increase interoperability between the two nations by developing skills in various Air Combat Manoeuvring (ACM) or ‘Dogfighting’ scenarios within designated training areas both off the coast, and over land in the N.T.

TNI-AU C-130H Hercules from 31 Skadron Udara delivering personnel and equipment for the deployment.
Arrival of F-16C from Indonesia.

Aircraft from the Indonesian Air Force began arriving early in the week with C-130H Hercules delivering personnel and equipment followed by the detachment F-16’s soon after.

TNI-AU F-16C flightline
F-16C’s from 3 Skadron Udara, TNI-AU on the flightline at RAAF Base Darwin.

Thursday at 9 a.m I joined the RAAF Public Relations Team at the front gate of RAAF Base Darwin and proceeded to the Military Hard Stand to meet Wing Commander Michael Grant, Commanding Officer of No 75 Squadron. WGCDR Grant is no stranger to meeting the local media and with a backdrop of TNI-AU F-16’s to set the mood, and us with our cameras at the ready, he welcomed us and began describing the purpose of Exercise Elang AUSINDO 17.

CO 75Sqn
Commanding Officer of the  75 Squadron welcomes media.

“We have brought 8 F/A-18’s up with us here to exercise with the Indonesian Air Force who have brought seven F-16’s to this exercise. The aim of the exercise is really two fold. The first is for international engagement between Australia and Indonesia. That is at the personnel and organisational level, developing those relationships as best we can to ensure that should we ever need to operate together in due course, that the fundamental links are in place if and when that time arrives.
The other side which the public is more aware of, is the flying side, and we will see plenty of that. We are operating together, integrating together in co-ordinated missions to not only learn about each others capabilities, but also share some tactics to make us a stronger package when we do operate together”

Hornet A21-44 from 75 Sqn arriving RAAF Darwin

“The exercise consist of a building block approach which which is pretty standard for joint exercises. It will start with basic fighter manoeuvring which we’re doing this week – which will typically be one on one ‘dogfighting’ if you like, where one F-18 will fight against one F-16. We will increase that to one F-18 against two -16’s or one F-16 against two F-18’s to really challenge our aircrew this week.”

CO 75 Sqn
WGCDR Grant explains what Exercise Elang AUSINDO 17 is all about.

WGCDR Grant goes on to say most of the flying is performed over water 50 km or so northwest of Darwin as the RAAF is very conscious of trying to minimise the noise footprint in the Top End.

“Being based in Katherine, I am very much a Territorian having spent 8 years up here and I am very invested in the communities of both Katherine and Darwin. I know that jet noise can be an issue – I would just like to assure the public that we do everything possible to limit our noise footprint – in particular when we recover to the airfield, we use low power settings where ever we can.”
“That being said, if you really want to see an aircraft at its best, I recommend you come out to Hidden Valley for the V8 Supercars” – he says with a grin.

RAAF F/A-18A Hornet from 75 Sqn departing Darwin.

This week has generally followed a two wave morning and afternoon launch pattern – the first wave departing about 10-10:30 AM for about 60-90 minutes where the packages carry out 3 or more 1 v.s 1 or 1 v.s 2 ’dogfights’ before returning to base to replenish and then the second wave at about 2-2:30 PM.

TNI-AU F-16C from 3 SkU waiting for aircrew prior to a training mission.

“Next week we will start integrating more co-ordinated missions – instead of 1 V 1 or 1 V 2 we will work up to 4 V X – where 4 aircraft (the good guys) are fighting an unknown number in a simulated threat. It’s not the case where it’s Australia v.s Indonesia or Indonesia v.s Australia in this exercise – next week we will get to send packages of four aircraft – two F-16’s packaged right next to two F-18’s. The idea is that we can take the strengths of the F-16 and the F-18 and package those together so that we can literally dominate the airspace and the threat that we’re operating in out there next week”

He continues on by saying that even though he hasn’t flown with the Indonesians for some time now, they have however been to Darwin quite recently – last year during Exercise Pitch Black 2016. Previously to that in 2015 Australian Hornets travelled to Indonesia to operate with them. Within the last 5 – 10 years there has certainly been an increased focus on co-ordination and inter-operability between other nations in S.E Asia. “75 Sqn has recently returned from 5 weeks deployment to Thailand and Singapore, maximising and learning about different aircraft types and their capabilities, which makes us a more knowledgeable and powerful Air Force, and ultimately acts as a wonderful deterrent here in Australia”.

F-16 Pitch Black 2016
Indonesian Air Force F-16 out of RAAF Darwin during Pitch Black 2016

Because the younger Australian pilots have been very keen to fight against dissimilar aircraft, he has let them have a go early this week, so WGCDR Grant only had his first exercise mission yesterday, against two F-16’s. He has been very impressed with the professional briefs, great tactical execution in the airspace, and the de-briefs by the TNI-AU. Thus far the exercise has been going exceptionally well and exceeding all his expectations and he has been very impressed with the professionalism and execution of tactics so far this week.

With reference to speed – “Out in the airspace there are no speed or tactical restrictions placed on us so we can operate our platforms to the full extent up to and beyond the speed of sound. The beauty of operating in Australia and what attracts our international guests here is the size of our airspace. It is that we have one, if not the best training space in Australia”.

TNI-AU pilot and ground crew perform an engine run during the inteview

What of the the differences between the F-18 and the F-16 – “It is critical that we operate with and against other platforms and we don’t get used to our own capabilities… its important in extending our aircrew’s understanding in what we need to do if, and when, we turn up to that merge or fight and see a different aircraft type. We have to identify that aircraft and understand where it’s strengths and weaknesses lay. So the F-16 is very different to the F-18 which is an agile 4th generation fighter whereas the F-16 has an excellent thrust to weight ratio…a big engine for a small aeroplane, which can make it agile in terms of the BFM (dogfighting) we are doing at the moment. But turn performance is also very important and that’s where the F-18’s strength lays”.

Hornet A21-8 in one of the OLA’s

Although live weapons will not be employed during this exercise – “Next week when we get into the 4 V X package work, we are operating in a multi-role scenario, so we will be literally fighting out way in through an air to air adversary, we will be simulating dropping weapons and fighting our way out. We aren’t using any airborne control (E-7A Wedgetail) because we are flying WVR (Within Visual Range) but we do have 114MCRU (No. 114 Mobile Control and Reporting Unit) up here monitoring the airspace which we may use next week when we go BVR (Beyond Visual Range)”

As we wrap up the interview the CO confirms that there may be some reduced flying next week, “Even though everyone loves to fly, none more than me, due to the increasing complexities of military operations, much more effort needs to be focused at investing on in-depth planning to attain better outcomes – We just can’t afford to waste a minute in the air”

From the MHS we are escorted out to an OLA (Ordinance Loading Area) where we find two 75 Sqn F/A-18A’s parked under the roof. A21-34 has had the centreline fuel tank and pylon removed so that the maintenance crew can work on part of the engine bleed air system. It is fitted with engine intake FOD screens to protect the engines from ingesting foreign objects while performing ground runs.

FOD screens fitted to engine intakes during ground engine runs.

The 20 minute photo opportunity is enhanced by the CO explaining various aspects of the Hornet, its operation and giving a  simulating part of a pilot’s are flight walk around of A21-8.

CO 75 Sqn
WGCDR Grant describing some of the the Hornet capabilities
CO 75 Sqn
Simulated pre-flight checks

He explains that the aircraft are fitted with an Air Combat Manoeuvring Instrumentation Pod (ACMI Pod) which uses GPS positioning to identify the aircraft position in the battle space – this information is then used to monitor, review or analyse the merge and subsequent air combat manoeuvring of each aircraft to improve training.

Air Combat Manoeuvring Instrumentation Pod (ACMI Pod)

On the other wingtip (port) the Hornet has a missile fitted to the launcher. This is the Matra-BAe AIM-132 Advanced Short Range Air Air Missile (ASRAAM) which has been in service since 2004 as the RAAF’s Within Visual Range (WVR) missile. Although a training missile, the Infra Red (IR) seeker head is the real deal so the pilot still has seek, track and lock functions providing feedback as if it were a live weapon.

Aim-132 ASRAAM
Matra-BAe AIM-132 Advanced Short Range Air Air Missile (ASRAAM)

Nearby we hear some aircraft starting up their APU’s and soon after the sounds of GE F404-GE-400’s, the Hornets main engines.

Ready for before action
75 Squadron Hornet A21-8

With the arrival of the Base Safety Officer we drive to the BRA apron and are given a brief in regards to safety at our position, the 5500’ marker, pretty much smack bang in the middle Darwin’s 11,000 foot runway. Once we sort our gear we wait for the aircraft to taxi.

TNI-AU F-16C crews
TNI-AU ground crew driving past to the ‘arming point’ at the runway end.

First the 75 Sqn F/A-18’s taxi out but wait for the No 3 SkU (Squadron) TNI-AU F-16C’s to pass them as they are slotted to depart first. The F-16’s will pause at the holding point while the TNI-AU maintenance teams simulate ‘arming’ of their aircraft, before lining up on runway 29.

A21-12 holds for F-16’s
F-16c TS-1625 taxies to holding

Pilots taxiing past a few media with cameras?……naturally we get a wave from one,two or three.

TS-1625 Pilot sharing the “Love” of aviation
We get the “wave” from TS-1639 Pilot
A21-12, the “1” of a 2 vs 1 package following the two F-16’s.

Todays first morning wave consists of two F-16C’s launching followed by a single F/A-18A. There is always something satisfying for an aviation fan when standing 50 meters from jet aircraft as they roar past with afterburners lit… especially paired two-up.

Paired departures in order again today
Gear going up.

Next to depart was a pair of F-18’s followed by a single F-16 – another variation of the 2 v.s 1 scenario mix and match the 75 Sqn CO was explaining to us about earlier.

Paired Hornets out bound
The ‘Chaser’

After a half hour break to allow some media to depart, we returned to the runway, heat haze playing havoc, for the second time of the morning. Firstly a F-16 vs F-18 before another 2 F-18 vs 1 F-16 package signalled the end of morning departures.

Temperature rising
A21-51 with 77Sqn tail flash – sharing aircraft is common practice these days.
A21-32 ARDU tail flash – most F/A-18s will end up at 75 Sqn as it will be the last to transition to the new F-35 Litening II
TS-1627 off the runway early

Within minutes we could see the landing lights of the first aircraft returning – a TNI-AU F-16 announced by the Base Safety Officer who was listening to Darwin Ground/Tower frequencies on his radio. For the next 10 minutes we were treated to the returning jets landing one after the other, some in pairs, rolling out past us to their respective OLA or flightline.

Rolling through the intersection
Back into the heat haze
“Success” ?
Some aerodynamic braking

Occasionally civilian props or jets were slotted in between military movements. As Darwin airport is a shared facility, RAAF 452 Sqn operates the Control Tower and ATC and as such performs scheduling of both civilian and military traffic into and out of Darwin, including ground movements, all which can become a little bit hectic, especially during peak periods such as exercises.

Careflight B200 King Air
Care Flight 25 – Beech King Air landing
Air North Embraer 170
Air North Embraer 170 taxi’s past between military jets

It was with some relief, even for a local, that we left the blazing midday sun next to the runway and headed for the shade of an OLA for some final static aircraft photos.

“Armed” nose flag
Hornets tail

After thanking the 75Sqn CO and BSO, and handing in the pass, it was time to leave the base via the front gate. What a fantastic day and one that I will not forget for a long time.

I would like to thank Wing Commander Michael Grant (CO 75SQN) and the RAAF Public Relations team, Marnie, FOFF Dea, Sgt Hack who allowed me to have a small insight into day to day operations during another of the Top Ends regular exercises.

Cheers Sid Mitchell

My kit is Nikon D7100, Nikkor 18-300mm, 70-200mm and 200-500mm with a sandisk card.

TNI-AU F-16C flightline

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VMM-268 MV-22B Osprey soft lands at Larrakeyah Defence Precinct


As part of the Larrakeyah Defence Precinct Open Day in Darwin this year, members of the Marine Rotational Force Darwin and VMM 268 “Red Dragons” provided a now familiar foreign flavour to the displays that were on hand. The open day officially launches the Northern Territory’s Navy Week 2017.
The MV-22B Ospreys have been a common sight and sound around Darwin since arriving late April this year. Today was a opportunity for the public to again see the unique aircraft up close as some would remember attending a similar display provided by a MV-22B from VMM-265 back in July 2015.

VMM-265 Osprey "00" July 2015
VMM-265 Osprey “00” leaving the July 2015 Open Day.

After loitering over Darwin harbour and the crowds being ushered back to the boundary of the oval, MV-22B ’05′ piloted by 1st T.J Lt Flanagan performed an initial low level flypast over HMAS Coonawarra to grab the crowds attention, which it certainly did.

MV22B Osprey from VMM-268 low pass
MV22B Osprey from VMM-268 low pass.
MV22B Osprey from VMM-268 low pass
MV22B Osprey from VMM-268 low pass.
MV22B Osprey from VMM-268 low pass
Osprey over the roof tops.

Then transitioning from forward flight to hover mode, the Osprey gently landed in the centre of the oval throwing up some grass and leaf clippings. Prior to arriving the crowds had been reminded to restrain loose objects like hats, umbrellas and prams (and jokingly – small children) to ensure they weren’t blown away by the considerable downwash generated by the two proprotors.

MV22B Osprey from VMM-268 landing
MV22B Osprey from VMM-268 landing
Checking clearance.
MV22B Osprey from VMM-268 landing
Kicking up some grass clippings.
MV22B Osprey from VMM-268 landing
On the pitch.

Once on the soft ground and with a slight tilt forward to the rotors, the rear ramp and side door opened and two crew members emerged to perform some post landing checks such as nose landing gear safety pin and main landing gear chocks being placed in position. Shortly after the the Rolls-Royce turbines were shut down and the rotors ceased their most distinctive sound.

MV22B Osprey from VMM-268 landing
Pins and chocks in.
MV22B Osprey from VMM-268 landing

It wasn’t long before the curious crowd wandered over and began inspecting the Osprey – many for the first time. It was a great opportunity for the public to have a real close up look, take photos and ask the crew a myriad of questions about this strang beast.

MV22B Osprey from VMM-268 on display
The public move in for a closer look at “05”.

The Boeing/Bell MV-22B Osprey is a peculiar looking aircraft with two large Proprotors that enable it to perform both like a helicopter when taking off or landing and a conventional aeroplane when in forward flight. 

MV22B Osprey from VMM-268 on display
Starboard engine nacelle and proprotor.
1st Lt Flanagan VMM-268 'Red Dragons"
1st Lt Flanagan pilot with VMM-268 ‘Red Dragons”.

I was fortunate to casually chat with the Pilot, 1st Lt T.J Flanagan, and asked him how the aircraft was dealing with the dusty conditions – extra maintenance and he remarked, pointing to a brown patch over the right hand undercarriage housing, how much Northern Territory dust has been collected while performing operations in the Bradshaw and Mt Bundey training areas. He explained that the conditions often result in a brown out when they are about to land at remote Territory landing fields due to the dust swirling around from the rotor downwash. He told me they have equipment attached to the helmet that they can use which provides a daylight HUD (Heads up display) indicating flight parameters relating to position and attitude of the Osprey. He also explains that while the Aircraft Commander sits in the right seat, maintaining overall command and communications, he is directing the pilot in the left seat who does the actual hands on flying.

MV22B Osprey from VMM-268 landing
Grass… not quite as dense as Northern Territory bulldust.

I asked him about the training he went through and he said – we start out at the same level but end up with choices of jets, like the Hornet or Harrier, props, helicopters or tilt-rotors. Initial training is in single engine aircraft learning basic flight control – then progress to both twin engined aircraft – the Beech 200 or UC-12 Huron as it is known – and the TH-57 Sea Ranger, the military equivalent of a Bell-206, if you are streamed to Tilt-Rotors.

Training for the Tilt-Rotors is carried out at Marine Medium Tilt -Rotor Training Squadron 204 (VMMT-204) located at MCAS New River in North Carolina. From there the USMC Aviators can be posted to one of nearly 20 Tilt-Rotor squadrons.1st Lt Flanagan explains the latest version of the MV-22 simulator is really amazing – it is a full motion simulator that has movement in all three axis and can simulate the acceleration and deceleration feeling of a real aircraft. The visual cues from hi definition screens out the windows generates very real environment imagery.

MV22B Osprey from VMM-268 departing Larrakeyah
Stowing the undercarraige on take off.

The training is unique as there is an additional aspect to consider when transitioning to or from hover flight and forward flight. He explains that the control inputs are complicated because the cyclic (stick) and the collective (in old terms), the thrust control lever, are ok in full airplane or full helicopter modes – it’s the area between that can be a challenge to fresh pilots. The throttle/pitch control slides forward and backwards and not up and down like a collective stick in a helicopter and it is easy for a new pilot to ‘balloon’ their landing – apply to much thrust instead of reducing, because it is actually rotor lift – when transitioning from the aerodynamic lift of the wings.

Cockpit of VMM-265 Osprey "00" July 2015
Cockpit of VMM-265 Osprey “00”

He goes on to explain some unique features of the Osprey – exhaust deflectors for when the aircraft lands, diverting most of the hot exhaust outboard and not directly at the ground – pointing to the oval grass under one engine, he says that wouldn’t last too long after a few landings. He also spoke of the trials on the deck coating materials where they were required to land and remain in position over various experimental pads covered in different coatings to determine which worked better.

Osprey exhaust/ deflector
Avoiding the burn.

Another feature of the MV-22B is the unique rotor driveline. Although, he says, there are two turbines, each is connected and synchronised via driveshafts in a central gearbox located over the main fuselage. Should one engine fail in forward flight there would be hardly any noticeable difference in performance as the Osprey is still generating lift by it’s wings as the drivetrain engages both rotors to one engine. When in hover mode it is a very different scenario because all lift is generated by the rotors which require a large amout of available horsepower.

MV22B Osprey from VMM-268 on display
Forward tilt after landing.
Rotors connected via a central gearbox.
Both rotor connected vie shafts within the wings and a central gearbox.

The mid wing gearbox also provides auxiliary systems such a hydraulic #3 and the Environmental Conditioning System (Air conditioning)- he then smiles and says it’s  broken on this machine. But hey, it’s the dry season in the NT I respond.

I mentioned the rotor tip LED lighting I have seen in night pics and he laughs and say that it is really cool system- they can be adjusted for brightness and frequency or a strobe effect. He grins and says he doesn’t know why they don’t use that mode – its very cool.

MV22B Ospreywingtip LED
Rotor blade tip LED – used during reduced visibility to identift the rotor disc arc.

While we have been chatting the line of people waiting to walk up the rear ramp, through the fuselage and out the front service door hasn’t reduced less that 25m. A good sign the public is satisfying their curiosity, especially the young kids who are full of questions for the Marines, and of course it was a perfect opportunity for a few selfies.

MV22B Osprey from VMM-268 on display
Public access via the ramp.
MV22B Osprey from VMM-268 on display
No rain – no wipers.
"05" Crew
Fielding plenty of questions.

With more questions from other visitors beginning to be asked of 1st Lt Flanagan, I say farewell as he takes up my offer off a few free photos that I will send him, and wander off avoiding the still constant flow of people. The USMC Osprey was certainly a winner for the public today, maybe not for the grounds keeper as I chuckle to myself while looking at how deep the nose wheels have sunk into the cricket pitch grass.

MV22B Osprey from VMM-268 on display
Soft landing
VMM-268 "Red Dragons" insignia
VMM-268 “Red Dragons” insignia
MV22B Osprey from VMM-268 on display
Public lining up well into the afternoon.

At about 5:45 pm the crew fire up “05” and after obtaining clearance from Darwin Tower, depart the oval at Larrakeyah.

MV22B Osprey from VMM-268 departing Larrakeyah
Departing Larrakeyah open day.
MV22B Osprey from VMM-268 departing Larrakeyah
Departing Larrakeyah

For most of the next hour the crew practice various approach types to RAAF Base Darwin with missed approaches thrown in for good measure, finally landing just after the sun has dipped below the horizon.

MV22B Osprey from VMM-268 practicing approaches
Missed approach
MV22B Osprey from VMM-268 landing RAAF Base Darwin
Last for the day


MV22B Osprey from VMM-268 landing RAAF Base Darwin
RAAF Base Darwin

I have a feeling this isn’t the last year we will see the USMC Ospreys operating out of Darwin and look forward to them returning possibly next year. VMM-268 and HMLA-367 are due to depart in the next month or so, ending this years MRF-D ACE (Marine Rotational Force – Darwin Air Combat Element) Fortes Futuna Juvat

 A big thanks to the crews from the Red Dragons for taking the time to open up their tilt-rotor world to ASO and the public of Darwin.

Cheers Sid Mitchell

My kit is Nikon D7100, Nikkor 18-300mm, 70-200mm and 200-500mm with a sandisk card.

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