During October, Airport Safety Week features across the Australian aviation industry. At Darwin International Airport (DIA) Safety Week is an important look at safety within airport operations. It’s an annual safety campaign that is specifically tailored to engage with employees and contractors working on an aerodrome, and one topic that will be in focus this year is the Displaced Threshold.
Having been involved with Safety Week a year ago with a look at Airside Safety in the Top End (see here Safety One ) I was contacted by DIA once more. I was invited by Davy Semal, the Head of Airport Operations at DIA, to capture some imagery of the placing and lifting of a temporary Displaced Threshold at Darwin.
Darwin International Airport has the distinction of being one of the highest implementers of Displaced Thresholds in Australia. Local aircraft operators take it in their stride, as do the major airlines and the military, but sometimes passengers ask – ‘We landed over the top of people and machines on the runway, is that safe?’
Yes it is, so read on to find out what the airside operations team do to make it safely happen.
So, what is a Displaced Threshold? – Well, in simple terms it means when a threshold (the end of the useable runway) is NOT located at the normal extremity of that runway. In other words, some of the runway surface at either end is unserviceable, making the available runway length shorter than it normally is.
Why does there need to be a Displaced Threshold? – Sometimes works are required on or near the runway surface, such as repair or patching of the surface itself, painting of markings or maintenance of fixtures and equipment located within the runway. Another reason could be that equipment such as a crane may need to operate or be positioned in the approach area creating an obstacle intrusion into the normal 3 degree approach or departure path for aircraft.
As a shared civilian and military facility, Darwin International Airport is also called RAAF Base Darwin, and as such sees a considerable amount of military traffic each year, especially during exercise periods. With various fast jets such as RAAF F/A-18A/B Classic, F/A-18F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers passing through all year round. Foreign Air Force aircraft like F-16’s, F-15s and F-18s are also deployed here during various exercises and so the Arrestor Cable system at each end of Runway 11/29 occasionally gets utilised by these jets.
To maintain reliability and functionality, the Royal Australian Air Force perform regular maintenance on the arrester system located at each end. Arrestor Cable maintenance is one of the main reasons that Darwin has so many displace thresholds each year and maintenance has been planned to occur at the Eastern Cable at approximately 0745.
There are a number of Displaced Threshold types that can be in place depending on the obstruction type and length of time but for this case I was only observing a temporary Displaced Threshold. The RAAF Cable Party would only need a few hours maximum to perform their checks before the Displaced Threshold could be lifted and normal runway length operations returned.
As part of the planning for a Displaced Threshold there is a NOTAM (Notice to Airman) issued for Darwin – this informs pilots during their flight planning of the expected change to operating conditions, the information is also transmitted via the ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service) so that even if the NOTAM is missed, the information is also available by radio to a pilot approaching the airport. For aircrew this means they need to review and sometimes adjust the way they take off and land – aircraft performance, different departure points, etc, to meet the new conditions. As for the Safety Team, they follow the Manual of Standards (MOS) — Part 139 Aerodromes, which is pretty much the ‘bible’ containing instructions in accordance with the Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 1998.
With a heads up from Davy I was put in contact with the 452SQN ATC Operations Commander FltLt Richard, to gain access to the Air Traffic Control tower. The plan was for me to capture the placing of the Displaced Threshold from a different perspective, the external platform of the tower. I have been fortunate to take photo’s from the tower previously and know it is a great place to get an overall view of the airport, albeit in this case, my subject was more than 1200m away.
I would then join Davy and Mike (Airside Operations Manager) later observing in Safety Two with Liam (Airside Operations Officer) and his team in Safety One performing the lifting of the Displaced Threshold. This is all after the Cable Party had finished their tasks on the Aircraft Arrestor System.
With the 452 Sqn A/OPSCDR paving the way I was buzzed in through security at 0645 the next day. Signing in and being escorted to the top of the Control Tower, I set up on the external platform on a rather smokey Top End morning – dry season grass fires certainly have drawbacks sometimes, but we take what we can get.
Mornings are quite busy at Darwin with many General Aviation aircraft departing to regional airports, the Tiwi Islands and remote community airstrips, plus the regular scheduled Commercial Airline flights. A mixture of singles, twins, turboprops plus commercial jets from Qantas, Virgin Australia, Toll and Air North departed early plus a RSAF C-130H headed out to Rockhampton, the only military aircraft in the mix this particular morning.
Laying the Displaced Threshold
About 0715 I could see Safety One with Davy, Mike and Liam towing the Displaced Threshold trailer down to the eastern end of the runway. Today Darwin began the day with Runway 11 as the duty runway, meaning that all departing aircraft would be taking off over the top of the working RAAF Cable Party. Depending on the time of year , often the duty runway will switch to Runway 29 as the sea breeze kicks in after midday.
In line with the NOTAM at 0730 Safety One was cleared by ATC (Darwin Ground) to proceed and change the approach lighting configuration. Departing aircraft won’t see anything but should the runway direction be changed during the displaced threshold, all lighting is ready for approaching aircraft.
The Runway Threshold Identification Lights (RTILS), a pair of bright strobes were turned on to indicate the new threshold and with a visible range up to 7km or more are only used during daylight hours. For normal approach pilots use the High Intensity Approach Lighting for runway 29 ILS and Precision Approach Path Indicator (PAPI), which are red and white lights on both sides of the runway near the 1000′ mark. These light bars are a visual indicator to the pilot if he is too low or high and are switched off by the tower.
On the runway
After confirmation from the Tower all is OK the crew headed onto the runway and begin placing the Displaced Threshold markers.
For this operation the Safety Team used red and white cones across the runway near the 2000′ position to mark the Take-off Distance Available (TODA). TODA is the distance available to an aircraft to complete its ground run, lift-off and initial climb to 35 ft.
They then moved towards the Arrestor cable position and positioned orange witches-hats across Runway 11 to indicate the limit of works – this is the furtherest limit the cable crew can safely operate to on the runway.
By far the largest markers to put in place are the unserviceability crosses. These are 6m wide and are in the form of metal framed, fold-out, white panels. Each of the four crosses are spaced out on the centreline indicating the section of the runway that is no longer available – easily observable from the air.
After dropping off the trailer outside the gable markers, Safety One headed up to near the 4000′ mark and fire up the generator to power the Temporary PAPI lights, which are only located on the left side of the runway. Obtaining clearance from the tower the RAAF Cable Party began their maintenance tasks while aircraft continued to take off over their heads. I watched them for a while and could hear the requests for ‘Cable up’ and Cable Down’ with the responses from the ATC “Cable going up” – “Cable going down”.
I asked FLTLT Nick how the displaced threshold affects their tower operations?
“Not too much for today on 11 – most of the singles and twins are still able to depart from their normal intersections (Victor 2 and Bravo 2) as there is plenty of runway and some will take runway 18 (the shorter cross strip)”
“The heavies (commercial jets) will have to cross – to cross 11 and taxi to Alpha 1 for a full length take off – that’s about the most impact – they just have to taxi further”
“When it is the western cable being worked on with 29 as duty runway, they all pretty much go down to Alpha 6 to depart”
I watch a few more aircraft depart before thanking the tower team and heading back down the lift – it is always spectacular view from the tower platform and today was no exception.
Previous Displaced Thresholds
Catching up with Bob Calaby (Aerodrome Safety & Standards Manager) back in the Terminal, I thank him for providing some images from when DIA cut out and replaced a 240m x30m section of runway 11/29. That was a much longer displaced threshold period and the pics are amazing. How many workplaces have B747’s passing so low overhead? Bob is a veritable aviation encyclopaedia with regards to Darwin Airport history and has seen the airport grow over the last few decades. He has seen his fair share of displaced thresholds, probably in the hundreds.
Lifting the Displaced Threshold
About 1015 Mike hears the radio call that the RAAF Cable Crew have completed their work and we are good to lift the markers when ready. I ride with Mike and Davy and we meet Liam and his crew at the trailer. They hook up the trailer and we are given clearance from Darwin Ground to proceed onto the still active Runway 11.
After folding the crosses up we wait for the final clearance to remove the orange witches-hats and red and white cones while a Border force Dash-8 passes overhead. Not a B747 but still a unique experience….maybe another time.
With everything loaded and secured on the trailer, and after a final FOD check, Safety One heads out to secure the RTIL lights and we head up to the Temporary PAPI generator to unplug and turn off the generator set.
With all markers off the surface and runway lighting back to normal conditions plus a call to the Tower to inform them that’s it for the Displaced Threshold today, we drive back to the Terminal Apron.
On the way back Davy and Mike explain that the size of the unserviceability crosses has been recently changed to 36m for a runway greater than 45 m in width. Darwin’s main runway is 60 meters wide so the 36m applies and that’s a huge jump from the current 6m panels. With Darwin’s busy maintenance schedule, it will be interesting to see what type of portable and manageable cross system they develop to meet the new standards. I am sure they will arrive at a solution soon, maybe like Perth has but something that will cope with both the dry season willy willy’s and torrential wet season downpours.
Wrapping it up
As no airport stands still and because they are in demand today, I thank Davy, Bob and Mike for showing me another aspect of airside operations that most of us folks just never see. This is all in the name of maintaining safety, not just for aircraft and passengers, but those maintenance teams that carry out work within the active runway environment. I look forward to the final wrap up of Airport Safety Week at Darwin International Airport on October 18th.
Thanks must also go to No 452 Sqn Darwin Flight ATC for hosting my visit to the Tower – it’s always a buzz to observe the airfield workings from up high.
So next time you fly and see crews below working on the runway, know that it’s OK, know that there has been some serious preparation and planning around keeping everyone safe with minimal disruption to our flights as we travel by air.
In military training exercises there are generally two opposing sides involved – in the case of the Royal Australian Air Force’s Exercise Diamond Storm 2019 it was Blue Air and Red Air.
In this year’s Diamond Storm and Air Warfare Instructors Course (AWIC) Red Air was mostly based out of RAAF Base Tindal, 350km south of RAAF Base Darwin in the Northern Territory.
Some shared assets of Red Air were operating out of Darwin when the mission sets overseen by the Exercise Controller were changed to deliver a variety of scenarios to the participants. Shared platforms such as the RAAF No. 1 Squadron F/A-18F Super Hornets, No .2 Squadron E-7A AEW&C Wedgetail and the visiting United States Air Force 194th Fighter Squadron F-15C Eagles. One new and game-changing platform which appeared in significant numbers this AWIC was the No. 6 Squadron Boeing EA-18G Growler, which was utilised by both Blue and Red Air teams.
RAAF Base Tindal is traditionally the host of Red Air with its home based No. 75 Squadron flying their F/A-18A/B ‘Classic’ Hornets, and this year No. 77 Squadron, based at RAAF Base Williamtown in New South Wales, deployed to Tindal with their Classic Hornets to add to the force. Additional to the dedicated military assets, there were two defence contracted Dornier Alpha Jets from Top Aces out of RAAF Williamtown present also.
The Diamond Storm exercise airspace covered restricted areas of the Top End which included ground ranges such as Delamere Air Weapons Range (DAWR) to the south west of Tindal, and Bradshaw Field Training Area (BFTA) to the West. Other remote areas of the Northern Territory were also used as corridors for entry and exiting the exercise airspace, with some sparsely inhabited locations experiencing temporary low level jet activity – some of it as low as 500′.
On Thursday ASO was invited to attend a media event arrange by Defence Media and the Public Affairs Office. It was a three part visit which included a combined interview with three Wing Commanders, not something you experience every day. The second part was an airside visit with the Base Safety Officer (BASO) to capture No. 75 Sqn and No.77 Sqn Hornets taxi out of the OLA’s and depart Tindal for the exercise airspace. The third was to visit a F/A-18A Hornet in an OLA to capture some static photos. This article covers the first of those three events. Please click Airside and OLA visit to see them.
Meeting the local PAO team FLGOFF Trimble and FLGOFF Finucan as security, we were issued base passes and climbed aboard the bus to take us out to Air Movements.
At Air Movements we were introduced to Wing Commander Tim Ferrell, Senior Officer at RAAF Base Tindal who is the CO of No. 17 Squadron, the base operating squadron, Commanding Officer of No. 77 Squadron, WGCDR ‘Easty’ Easthope and WGCDR Pete Robinson, Commanding Officer of No. 75 Squadron.
WGCDR Ferrell tells us about the challenges faced in supporting an exercise like Diamond Storm and what he expects to gain from it- “We started planning for this about two or three months ago, in relation to food deliveries, fuel deliveries, those sort of things, just planning for what an exercise of this type would need to take place. We’ve got about 300 extra personnel on the base at the moment so well within out capacities to support that and the combat support for the 33 aircraft on the base. I guess for us, what we do here day to day is what we do all the time, supporting 75 squadron, so we surge when supporting 77 Squadron and for me it’s about doing our job safely, say refuelling – there’s more tempo, more people, more trucks. We surge our messes and one of the other things to note is we’re not just servicing Tindal as we’ve got people out at Delamere (DAWR), Pole Hill near Pine Creek and also out at Bradshaw (BFTA). From a military perspective alone we’ve done twenty five thousand meals in the last four weeks supporting this exercise. That’s a lot of meat, chicken, fruit and vegetables…we’ve delivered over 2.5 million litres of fuel. Those are the things we look at and it’s good to get the team planning for an exercise like this. Doing what we do here is what we do overseas on deployment – it’s real world training….so for me, that’s the outcome.”
Commanding Officer of No. 77 Squadron, WGCDR ‘Easty’ Easthope explains about the deployment of No. 77 Squadron to Tindal – ” We’ve brought twelve aeroplanes from our home base down in Williamtown, and we’ve also loaned a couple of our aeroplanes to the squadron up in Darwin as part of this. We have about a hundred and fifty people here up in the Top End in support of the exercise which is quite a big detachment for us but an easy detachment for execution because here (at Tindal), we’re becoming familiar, they know Hornets, the base is set up for it, they know how we work and what we need and we’ve worked together a lot over the years”
“77 Squadron has been on the go since we started with Red Flag over at Nellis Air Force base in the states. We dropped some aeroplanes off to Canada as part of the sale, then back and here into the AWIC which is about to finish – so we’ve been on the go for about five months now. We’ve had a lot of planning over the last six months for what has been a busy year for us so far…. we like being in the Top End, it’s a lovely time of year but everyone is ready to get home and take a break”
WGCDR Pete Robinson, Commanding Officer of No. 75 Squadron which utilises RAAF Base Tindal as their home base, says about this exercise – ” The joy of the Territory at this time of year is the weather but at all times of the year we’ve got this amazing airspace that that allows us to fly our aircraft to their limits, in a large area. We’ve also got some great weapons ranges out there that we can roll into Air-to-Ground training against a number of different targets, we’ve also got simulated Surface-to-Air missile systems on the ground as well. So to bring everything together with the aircraft we have in Darwin, theres F-15’s up there, also we’ve got 2OCU and with 77 Squadron coming up here to be at 75 Squadron, it’s a pretty amazing exercise for us. It’s something different for 75 squadron as usually we’re up here, just ourselves, and we have to generate all our own internal training. When we do have all the additional assets up here we have some amazing things that our aircrew get to deal with. Just the size of the exercise also goes down into our logistics, our maintenance, our administration personnel, as they get to see the base operating to it’s full extent in what is a significant exercise – it’s fantastic”
“Right across Air Combat Group (ACG) whether its our classic F-18’s from either 2OCU, 77 or 75, or the 1 Squadron Super Hornets and the 6 Squadron Growlers, we do a lot of work to integrate those together so that we can bring each of those aircraft’s strengths and capabilities to be better as a sum of all parts, and that’s something we’ve been putting a lot of effort into and these sort of exercises are where we get to see that in full action”
WGCDR Easthope adds – “And to round that off, during this exercise from the Operations and Maintenance, we are quite willing to flex – one day I could be flying a 77 Sqn tail on a mission with 77 Sqn pilots and the next day I’ll be in one of the Magpie jets (75 Sqn) with one of the Magpie wingmen, operating out of their facilities. So we just swap from one day to the next”
“This exercise Diamond Storm is the whole of Air Command plus some joint enablers participating so it’s massive, not just an Air Combat Group (ACG) activity, even though there are a lot of ‘fast pointy things’ around here (he says with a grin), it’s a whole of Air Command effort here with a lot of joint enablers. The challenges are actually just the logistics of it because even a simple fighter squadron draws a fair amount of resources from support but we’ve got multiple squadrons from multiple FEG’s (Force Element Groups) all up in the Top End, all with a lot of people, so you can imagine what the logistics footprint is like. And then you’ve got coordination – lines of communication that don’t get used every day between FEGs into Air Command and high Headquarters, into ground based special services, like our SAS brethren. So there are challenges just with communication being spread over such a large area – all the way up to Darwin, all the way down to Amberley for some of the assets in the missions so you can imagine what the chains of communication look”
As to further celebrations this year, 2019 being the 77th Anniversary of No. 77 Squadron – “Yes we are going to have our Korean Stringer Parade probably first week of July but we will let everyone know about that”
What would be a typical Red Air mission – “So between the two squadrons we have a mix of Blue Air (good guys) and Red Air (bad guys) as a strike mission for the Classic jets you saw yesterday on the KC-30 wing (KC-30A MRTT Air-to-Air refuelling mission) We saw some of the camera’s come to the windows when the Worimi jet turned up. So it was a South Escort Strike mission for that four ship formation, which was a packet of aeroplanes integrated into a larger mission with the sole purpose of getting into a target area alive, blood the nose of the enemy, break their stuff and fight our way out. We had air-to-air adversary, some of it our brethren pretending to be the bad guy, or girl, plus some air defence assets on the ground trying to shoot us down. That particular mission for the four-ship was a classic South Escort Strike mission nested in a much larger package – as you would have seen other aeroplanes around the tanker (we saw Classics and Supers topping up also) all having a discrete role. The aeroplanes in our arsenal are multi-role but that doesn’t mean we multi-mission them in certain missions, so everyone will have their discrete mission, and on that day it was an Air-to Surface mission to destroy the enemy’s stuff on the ground.”
Preparation of aircraft for the mission – “The night before the maintainers will make sure the aircraft is serviceable and mission ready enough to achieve what is required the next day. About four hours prior to the aircrew turning up they will be looking at oxygen replenishment, fuel, and in particular weapons, and have that aeroplane ready 90 minutes prior to it being handed over to aircrew for the mission”
We saw some contrails the day before within the exercise airspace from the KC-30A, are they a give-away or deliberate tactic to fool the enemy.
WGCDR Robinson explains – ” They can be a bit of both. The way that the missiles work is that the higher and faster you are the longer their range so if you want to get an advantage then high and fast is the place to be but the offset to that you can see contrails but in a real situation you will see contrails of the aircraft and as the missile launch you will see the contrails of the missiles as well”
This is the first Diamond Storm where the new Boeing EA-18G Growler is present – “The Growler fights from both Blue Air and Red Air, supporting our core training that we are doing and also providing us with some problems when we perform the Red Air role. They are an amazing platform and providing some sensational capability for the roles we want to use them in.”
WGCDR Easthope backs that up – “Lets just say that when they’re in Red Air operating, we are thankful they’re on our side… great capability. As for the F-35 in this particular exercise, the JSF will be in it around 2023, might see it earlier, might not. This is the last Diamond Storm for the Classic Hornet. You will see Classics in the next one in two years time and then that’ll be it.”
WGCDR Robinson continues on the subject of the classic phasing out – “There’s plans in place for us to make sure that when 75 Squadron is the last Classic Hornet squadron, which will be 2021, we have all the logistics support to make sure we can get the aircraft through to that planned withdrawal date which is December 2021.”
The Diamond Storm exercise pace is flat out and WGCDR Easthope is immensely proud of his team – “We’ve been charging hard and I met up with the whole squadron yesterday, The exercise is just about done so don’t loose sight of the prize, we’ve got to rage for another 48 hours and then we’re heading home. I just passed on a huge thanks but also a lot of thanks comes from outside of the unit, outside the FEG. The absolute commitment and investment a lot of the Air Command units have put into this force – we know it’s worth it because Air Command gets that next generation of warriors that are able to train themselves and be advisors to the Command. But it’s been a big slog certainly for 77 Sqn in the context of what is a busy year – yes immensely proud to be part of a team that is focussed, right down from our newest AC (Aircraftman) who has joined the squadron only this year”
WGCDR Robinson follows up with – “The quality of the young men and women that we have right across Air Force at the moment and obviously I have a huge amount of pride in 75 Squadron as the Commander, is my third tour here and 75 is a very special place for me. The reality is that if you look at 75, 77, 2OCU and the other squadrons you have, there’s just a quality young men and women that is just sensational. So its the old days when you were just whipping people to get stuff done, now, as they’ve got the thrust already, you’re just giving them the direction where they need to go to. It’s very simple to command and it’s very enjoyable to command because of the quality of the people we have in the squadron.”
So with the session over everyone moves outside to take some pics in front of the Air Movements building after which we thank the three Wing Commanders – It’s not hard to see how they are so respected – they call on their squadrons to deliver results under pressure and learn from mistakes but at the same time are very proud of their respective squadron personnel, and what they have achieved during exercises like Diamond Storm 2019.
ASO wishes to thank the three Wing Commanders who gave up their time to speak with us and the Diamond Storm RAAF media team for arranging the event at RAAF Base Tindal. We look forward to our next visit ‘down the track’ to Tindal in the coming years.
The second media event arranged at RAAF Base Tindal, 350 km south of Darwin, during the Royal Air Force’s Exercise Diamond Storm, was an airside visit to capture some Red Air forces taxiing out and departing for the exercise airspace. To have this level of close access is something that is rarely offered to non ADF photographers.
Following a meeting with the Commanding Officers of 17 Squadron RAAF Tindal, No. 77Sqn and No.75 Sqn (seperate article) we climbed aboard our bus and were escorted, after a FOD check on the tyres, out onto the airfield by the BASO – Base Safety Officer. The BASO remains in contact with Tindal Tower so that they know exactly where we are once entering the airfield. Tower does maintain visual contact but uses the radio to us grant permission to cross taxiways or give instructions to vacate a specific location on the airfield if required.
We initially parked mid field but in order to catch the aircraft taxi but it was suggested we move to where we were last year – at the intersection of two taxiways.
This location was again perfect to catch the 77 Sqn and 75 Sqn F’A-18 ‘Classic’ Hornets taxi down from their OLA’s. As we were going to be so close especially on takeoff, we had been issued earplugs plus class 5 earmuffs to wear.
One after the other the mix of A and B models went past including the colourful ‘Worimi’ (A21-23) and the ’77 Sqn Anniversary’ (A21-39) aircraft.
Once the first wave had parked on the ORP we made a dash for the vehicles to relocate back down near the 5000′ runway marker.
The Hornets were positioned facing down Runway 14 and on the designated roll time the pilots let rip – a light cloud of exhaust could be seen moments before the roar of the afterburners reached us.
First to lift off and pass by us was A21-25 followed by 114, the ‘Worimi Hornet A21-23 and No. 77 Squadrons latest anniversary livery, A21-39. Looking around I could see a few grins – as expected.
The next wave included some more colour – the 75 Sqn A21-38 ‘Black Diamond’ tail, and ‘Easty’, the CO of 77 Squadron who gave a quick ‘rock on’ to us.
The following waves left in good order including the 75 Sqn CO’s aircraft, A21-29 ‘Top Hat ‘n’ Cane’ which will end up as a permanent display at RAAF Tindal on retirement of the Hornet fleet.
A bonus finishing off the launches was the two Top Aces contracted Dornier Alpha Jets, C-GITA and C-GLTO up from RAAF Williamtown to participate in the exercise. For a larger selection of photos including them returning to base please view the gallery at the bottom.
But there was to be a low flypast down the strip for us to catch arranged prior to the jets leaving – sure enough it wasn’t long before two pairs of Hornets blasted past our group – fantastic to say the least.
As they flight climbed out to carry out their mission it was time to hop aboard the bus once more and we were off to the third media event arranged for our Tindal visit.
At OLA 6 a few 75 Sqn maintenance guys were just finishing up on F/A-18A Hornet, A21-30 and had pulled the covers off for us.
We were given about 10 minutes to take some photo’s from different perspectives. These photos are always good years down the track as references for those aeromodelling fans.
As most media had driven down from Darwin and needed to drive the 3 hr trip back, the PAO (Public Affairs Office) had us board the bus and back to Security to hand our passes in. Fortunately I was able to stay and catch Red Air return to base late in the afternoon.
What a great day and many thanks again to the Tindal based Public Affairs Office for arranging the day’s schedule. Looking forward to my next visit to RAAF Base Tindal.
The Royal Australian Air Force’s Diamond Storm and the Air Warfare Instructor’s Course normally includes a foreign component to the exercises. This has occured for decades now and 2019 was no exception.
This year the United States Air Force deployed two squadrons to RAAF Base Darwin to participate and train with the ADF in this exercise based out of RAAF Base Darwin in the Northern Territory. Firstly two B-52H’s from the 23d Bomb Squadron, 5th Bomb Wing, Minot AFB, Nth Dakota arrived from Guam where they are currently deployed as part of the U.S. Air Force’s Continuous Bomber Presence (CBP). For a seperate look at Iron Butterfly, one of the B52’s click HERE
The F-15C Eagle fighter contingent was represented by the 194th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron ‘California’ of 144th FW Fresno ANG Base, California. As with the RAAF, the Air National Guard also utilise aircraft from sister squadrons and this year deployed from the west coast of the United States with two of their own and six aircraft from the 122nd Fighter Squadron ‘JZ’ Louisiana, ‘Bayou Militia’ of 159th FW NAS New Orleans.
After transiting across the Pacific Ocean from California, refueling multiple times from KC-135 Stratotankers along the way, the squadron arrived into rain at RAAF Base Darwin, Northern Territory. Two KC-135’s, one from 168th Air Refueling Squadron and the other from the 328th Air Refueling Squadron accompanied them into Darwin.
With some familiarisation flights and a work up in the week before Diamond Storm, the F-15’s soon became a familiar sight in the Darwin skies. The 194th ‘Griffins’ have only been flying the F-15C Eagle since converting from the F-16 Falcon in 2013 but they have deployed to Australia with notable Gulf War (Desert Storm) historical warbirds.
Eagle 85-0102 is a Desert Storm veteran with a Iraqi Air Force Mig-23 kill on 29th January 1991 flown by Captain David G ‘Logger’Rose. This was followed up by two Iraqi Air Force Su-22M kills about a week later on the 7th February when ‘Gulf Spirit’ was flown by Captain Anthony R Murphy. To recognise these kills, all three being with AIM-7 Sparrow missiles, the aircraft has three green stars below the cockpit.
The second F-15C, 84-0014, flown by Captain John T Donski of the 53rd Fighter Squadron, 36th FW, bagged a Su-22M on the 20th of March 1991 with an Aim-9M Sidewinder, however this kill was after the war was officialy over but a no fly zone had been declared. Again 84-0014 is adorned with a green star plus the City of Madera logo – a tradition of naming aircraft after cities located close the 144th Fighter Wing base at Fresno, California.
During the AWIC the RAAF Public Affairs Office made arrangements for ASO to visit to the flightline of the 194th Fighter Squadron and a talk with the Commanding Officer.
We meet Senior Master Sergeant Paz at their operations building who welcomes us and issues us hearing protection, as the flightline can be a noisy environment especially when they fire up the external powercart for systems checks before the day’s flying begins.
SMSgt Paz takes us out onto the flightline where the maintainers are performing before flight servicings. The first F-15C on the line is 81-0022, one of the two 194th jets they have flown to Darwin – “1022 is actually the spare for today so that if one of the jets today breaks, the pilot can shut down, jump out and go for the first spare. We will have to wait as they are still preparing 1022 and they’re going to start the ‘Dash 60’ (jet-turbine powered Auxiliary power cart).
After a few minutes the maintainers begin to move down the flightline pre-flighting each aircraft – checking all the navigation lights are serviceable, oil and hydraulic fluids are topped up, tyre pressures are correct, gauges and switch selections in the cockpit are correct and the ACES II ejection seat is ready (positioning the pilots harness). Not long after the maintainers move off with the ’60’, the Commanding Officer of the 194th, arrives to brief us on the 194th’s deployment to Exercise Diamond Storm.
Lt. Col. Chris “Cliff” Ridlon has only been the squadron CO since June last year but explains a few details about the F-15C Eagle.
“The F-15C is a single seat, twin engine, twin tail air superiority fighter designed in the mid seventies to basically take advantage of and refine all the things of the F-4 to be a pure air-to-air fighter, high thrust to weight ratio and a low wing loading for a fighter. Our mission is to protect friendly aircraft from enemy forces or protect friendly areas whether it be United States or allied Air Forces.”
“These are configured with two external tanks each one carrying 600 gallons of fuel which can be jettisoned if we happen to engage in air-to-air combat. Our normal combat loadout is six AIM-120 (AMRAAM) radar guided, beyond visual range missiles and two AIM-9X heat seeking missiles. We have a M61 gun – a 20mm cannon that carries 940 rounds.’
Before Diamond Storm – “Were part of the Air National Guard (ANG) and were mobilised for this Theatre Security Package and we’re here to reassure our regional allies, to do training with our allies here in Australia and to maintain a prescence to keep peace and stability in the Pacific Command region. We’ve been an ally with Australia since WWI and we are here to build on that relationship.”
“Air National Guard is a bunch of part time forces that work together so as part of that we basically have a mix of aircraft from Louisiana splitting up this mission a little bit and we have some actual folks from Louisiana with us here. We have about a hundred and sixty here, about fifteen pilots and a hundred and forty support folks and also some communications and security support.”
“We’re part of the 144th out of Fresno, California. The squadron is the 194th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron thats where all the folks belong to while we are here but we have folks from the 144th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. Our maintainers do a wonderful job, very experience on this older aircraft in fixing them and allowing us to fly.’
“The focus here is training with Australia, we’ve actually flown with Australians a couple of times at Red Flag (Nellis Air Force Base) and in Alaska so it’s good to come here and be part of AWIC. We bring the air-to-air expertise and the other part is that the F-15 is really known for de-briefing really well. So we bring that expertise with some more senior guys to help out with their (AWIC candidates) course – kind of training along side of them – learning things from them and they’re learning stuff from us”
“We have been both Red and Blue Air – escorting and being both Defensive Counter of Offensive Counter Air. This airspace is absolutely phenomenal, a very large airspace away from the cities so it allows us to do some good high end training and has enough space for us to execute all our tactics. It is comparable to Red Flag airspace in Nevada”
Lt. Col. Ridlon poses for a number of photos in front of various squadron aircraft before departing to a last minute briefing with his pilots.
We move down the flightline and observe some 144th AMS maintainers preparing to jack aircraft 85-0102 for maintenance. They use three large 20t jacks to support 85-0102 off the ground for undercarraige retraction and extension cycle checks. The 34 year old ‘Killer Legacy’ had dumped fuel and taken the arrestor cable at Darwin the night before as a precautionary measure, and subsequently been towed back to the flightline for dayshift checks.
We are able to climb some stairs to look into the cockpit of 81-0022 – pretty much the standard 80’s design, but with an upgraded AN/APG radar and the BVR AIM-120 plus 9X Sidewinder, the F-15C Eagle is still a fighter to be reckoned with. Sadly the pilot’s name on this Fresno Eagle is that of Lt. Colonel Seth “Jethro” Nehring, a 194th Fighter Squadron exchange pilot who unfortunately died in a Ukranian Air Force Su-27UB Flanker crash back in October 2018.
As we walk back SMSgt Paz points out the Ground Support Equipment – tow motors, hydraulic rigs and power carts and says that “It’s all is brought in and out by the USAF Air Mobility Wing – C-17 ‘s and C-130’s…. plus our spares like wheels, avionics and stuff” We see the C-17A Globemaster III regularly in Darwin.
Again it has been a unique experience organised by Defence Media and the Public Affairs team in Darwin, this time to walk the flightline during a major exercise and speak with the CO and a senior maintenance co-ordinator of the 194th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron. The F-15 has been deploying to Darwin exercises for four decades now and we look forward to even more Air National Guard units deploying to Darwin during any future integrated training opportunities that may present themselves.
During Exercise Diamond Storm 2019 ASO was invited by the Royal Australian Air Force Public Affairs Office (PAO) to capture imagery and be given a tour of a United States Air Force Boeing B-52H Stratofortress. Also we were to be briefed by senior RAAF and USAF representatives to give us an overview of the B-52 and its prescence at Exercise Diamond Storm 2019 prior to the tour.
Arriving at RAAF Base Darwin front gate we were met by RAAF PAO team and transported to the Bomber Replenishment Apron (BRA) where two of the Boeing B-52H Stratofortress’s have been operating from.
Many have had the opportunity to see a B-52 up close but it is still a daunting beast to see no matter how many times. With a wingspan of 56.4m (185′) and length of 48.5m (159′) the ‘BUFF’ takes up a considerable amount of room, let alone two of them parked at the BRA. Some more fun facts about the B-52 are at the bottom of the article.
The two aircraft are Boeing B-52H models, 60-0060 ‘Iron Butterfly’ and 61-0035 ‘Witches Brew’, both from the ‘Bomber Barons’ – the 23rd Bomb Squadron as part of the 5th Bomb Wing based at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota.
Prior to our static photo opportunity we are briefed by Wing Commander Parsons, CO of No.13 Squadron, RAAF Base Darwin and Lieutenant Colonel Burrell from the United States Air Force (Pacific Airforces).
WgCdr Parsons is introduced and talks about the B-52 presence from a local point of view:
” The B-52′ s have been flying since 1952, they are an amazing aircraft. We have them here in Darwin about 4 times a year and they are here at Diamond Storm to help our people train with them, so they get used to co-operating with each other. The B-52’s are an iconic aircraft, we have one in the Heritage centre outside of base and they have a long history with Darwin.”
“It is incredibly important to have the interoperablility (with the United States) as these are the people we work with, so being able to operate seamlessly is important and these opportunities like Diamond Storm enable us to do that.”
“One of the things with Diamond Storm, apart that we have these wonderful aircraft and we can operate the way we do, is that it is bonus for Darwin. About 2000 people are here and with that comes the spending on hire cars, fuel, hotel accommodation and getting out and socialising. We do appreciate that Darwin puts up with a bit of noise during the exercise period so we try to put something (money) back into the community to say thank you.”
With that we are handed by FltLt Andersen PAO over to Lieutenant Colonel Burrell from the United States Air Force(Pacific Airforces)
“Exercise Diamond Storm has been great for us – it provides a unique opportunity for us to come and train along side one of our best allies, partners and friends in the region. It’s through this training we gain interoperability, enhanced air cooperation and that leads to regional security and stability. This allows us to promptly and quickly respond to any natural disasters that may occur and it also allows us to operate, integrate and train effectively together.”
“Whats unique here in the Northern Territory is we have access to ranges and airspace that we don’t have anywhere else in the Pacific. So coming here and training with the Australian Airforce has been an amazing opportunity for us and we appreciate it.”
“We’ve brought two B-52’s from Guam, where we are currently deployed to. The aircraft ’60’ (60-0060) and ‘1035’ (61-0035) were both built in 1960 and 1961. These aircraft have been flying two ‘balls’ a day – two flights per day – and we have been here two weeks so they have performed very well. Tomorrow is our last day and we will take them back home to Guam and continue our Continuous Bomber Rotation (CBR) here in the Pacific.” I notice he is sporting the unique 23rd Bomber Barons 2019 Continuous Bomber Rotation (CBR) patch on his right arm.
As for the high pace set during the squadron’s Pacific deployment? – “It’s a lot of work for our maintainers, our maintenance professionals keep the airplanes ready to fly. For our two aircraft out here, we’ve brought about fifty maintainers, and they typically put in about eight to ten hours to get the aircraft ready to fly. We have six B-52’s deployed to USINDOPACOM (United States Indo-Pacific Command) right now and we’ve been flying an average of about 52 sorties per month. Our mission capability rate stays in the 70%-80% range which means we are consistently flying them.”
“The B-52 is a true workhorse, it was designed for the Cold War but since then we’ve updated it, integrated the avionics, and so it’s capable of any operation across the full spectrum of warfare. It is a tested design and even though it is old, it gets the job done.”
“Diamond Storm has been amazing, we came in here two weeks ago not knowing what to expect. We have brought out some very new aircrew who have just got mission qualified about three weeks ago, so this is their first real operation out here in the Pacific and they have learned a lot from our Australian counterparts. This is the first large force exercise where we’ve put them in the aircraft, to go fly alongside the F-18’s, Growlers and Classic Hornets, and they’ve done very well.”
“We feel thay we have learned a lot from the Australians as we have integrated with them, and been part of their strike tactics – it’s been really good training. Australia is one of our oldest allies and partners in the region and we have fought alongside in every major conflict since World War One, so that relationship is not only important but enduring. So us coming here and training with the Australians is key to our partnership in the region and we want to maintain that.”
Wrapping up LtCol Burrell says “We’re just happy to be here and thank you for the opportunity to talk to us, we appreciate it.”
After wrapping up the interviews we are escorted over to the forward section of ‘Iron Butterfly’ where the aircraft has been ‘sanitised’ for our tour. This involves concealing any sensitive equipment within the aircraft and isolating the Electronic Warfare Officer compartment from photography.
Looking up at the side of the crew compartment I again notice the wrinkled appearance of the B-52 skin that I have seen many times before. Captain Tovado of 36th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron introduces himself and sees where I am looking – “Thats due to crew compartment pressurisation, the airplane skin relaxes or expands when on the ground” Apparently it is quite a common question asked by the public.
Soon they are ready for us to climb up the crew hatch/steps, and the world goes rather quiet after the roar of the portable air-conditioning rig parked next to the BUFF – and it is pleasantly cool inside.
Looking forward is the lower deck compartment with two downward firing ejection seats where the Radar Navigator (LH) and Navigator (RH) positions reside. Sitting in the left seat is First Lieutenant Collamatti who breifly explains many of the systems across the complex looking panels. I point to the yellow ‘special weapons’ handles in the roof – he laughs and says “Ahhh…we don’t use those any more, like some of those panels over that (my) side. There are some that are so redundant we don’t use as they haven’t been operational for years”
He points out the dual Honeywell inertial navigation system, and explains the RN role using the Offensive Avionics System is to identify and validate targets using the various sensors and targeting pods. The B-52 is fitted with a Northrop Grumman strategic radar, Honeywell radar altimeter, Smiths attitude heading and reference system, Tercom terrain comparison, Doppler navigation radar, and IBM / Raytheon bombing and navigation system.
The B-52 carries the Sniper Advanced Targeting pod on a right wing station and is equiped with an electro-optical viewing system (EVS) – a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) in the starboard chin turret and a low light level television camera (LLTV) in the port chin turret. The RN develops the attack plan using the different weapon types whether they are unguided or guided munitions like the JDAM or even mines and of course cruise type weapons.
Climbing the ladder to the upper deck reveals the Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) station to the rear which has been darkened and is off limits to us. The RH seat is the now redundant Gunners crew position but these two ejection seats do fire in the traditional direction – up. The EWO monitors and controls a range of electronic warfare equipment including a electronic countermeasures system that uses multi-band threat recognition and multiple threat jamming technology. The AN/ALR-20 radar warning system that detects and prioritises multiple threats while the AN/ALQ-122 multiple false target generator, and AN/ALT-32 noise jammer decieve the enemy. Twelve infrared flare dispensers and eight launchers for the AN/ALE-24 chaff dispenser are fitted to the B-52.
Turning to the front on the left is a basic bunk down low with the overhead area containing plumbing for in-flight refuelling. There are clear panels where crew can check fuel flow and for any potential leaks during the Air-to-Air fuel transfer process. To the right is the ‘port-a-loo’ apparently with the caveat that if you use it… you clean it, plus a bank of circuit breaker panels.
Towards the front is the blue non-ejecting jump seat often used in training (Instructor Pilots) and one of the portable oxygen cylinders that allow the crew to move about if necessary if the compartment depressurises. They can also be used should one of the crew need to walk the bomb bay gantry to the rear section 47 while in flight.
At the front are the Pilot and Aircraft Commander positions, again fitted with upward firing ejection seats that fire once the overhead hatches have blown clear.
Sitting in the pilot’s seat is Captain Draybek who tanks about flying the B-52H – “It’s a great aircraft to fly even in a cross wind” as I look at the crab wheel on the centre console between the seats. “We can slew the undercarriage 20 degrees left and right” Have you used it here in Darwin? I ask. “Yes we have, a number of times. It is quite unique to be sitting in the right hand seat and looking out the left hand pilots screen as you land. Even though the airplane is old the B-52 has gone through many upgrades to keep up with modern warfare.” He talks of the avionics upgrades including the multi-function screens that dominate the instrument panel each side of the eight sets of engine guages. “It’s not that compex once you get used to it – and there are two of us up front” he says.
Captain Draybek and I chat about some of the (potential) future upgrades such as new attack radars, sensors, avionics, defensive systems and crew egress, plus maybe a new flight data recorder. He likes the re-engine program that is being investigated – “The United Sates is looking at replacing the TF-33’s, maybe a choice between the P&W (2000) or the Rolls-Royce (RB211) – they have to fit in the existing engine nacelles. They should give up to 30% improvement in fuel efficiency”
I ask if the Barons have employed any live weapons during Exercise Diamond Storm – “No we haven’t. We have simulated our weapons during the exercise” He has enjoyed the airspace that Australia offers and working with the Australian Air Force.
I enquire about the refuelling profile of a flight from the US to Andersen AFB on Guam in the western Pacific. He explains that -“We normally do that about three times – take off and refuel off the west coast of the States then meet another tanker near Hawaii and another to the east of Guam”
Taking a quick photo of the sister ship ‘Witches Brew’ through the front glass, I thank him for his time and hope he has enjoyed this deployment. “I sure have – much better weather” and he smiles for a last photo.
I move back to climb downstairs to exit and am amazed to later read that the B-52H has provisions for up to ten crewmembers, a basic crew of five, three instructors and two additional crewmembers. The basic crew consists of pilot, copilot, radar navigator, navigator and electronic warfare officer. The instructor crew includes an instructor pilot, instructor navigator and instructor electronic warfare officer. Finally, the gunner and tenth man positions are also available for additional seating. It would certainly be a crowded flight if all positions are filled.
A few of us gather for the external tour and while we wait we observe the Base WOD (Warrant Officer Disciplinary) having a joke with a member from the 194th Fighter Squadron – the F-15C Eagles that have accompanied the 23rd BS to Exercise Diamond Storm.
A USAF Airman 1st Class meets us and introduces himself as the Crew Chief of 60-0060. Sure enough as I look up A1C Haynes has his name adorned on the Iron Butterfly – a long time tradion in the USAF.
The Crew Chief begins our tour of the outside and says ” Much of the Avionics work is carried out by specialists but I am more the aircraft structure and systems guy. I’ve been with ’60’ a few years and really enjoy my job”
He points to the pylon under the wing – the Heavy Stores Adapter Beam (HSAB) ftted with MAU-12 Bomb Racks. The two HSAB’s give the B-52 an external carriage capability of up to 18 weapons rated up to 2000 lbs.
The Crew Chief is joined by OIC Maintenace Captain Tovado and we duck under into the massive weapons bay. Immediately standing out is the mounting system for the Conventional Rotary Launcher (CRL) – a recent upgrade that brings the B-52’s weapons bay and racks to a level that links munitions to the 1760 Aircraft/Store Electrical Interconnection System, allowing the crew to program those modern munitions mid flight, stores such as the 500-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions (GBU 30 JDAM) or 2,000-pound JDAMs (GBU-32). “This gives the crew a greater flexibility during their mission to adapt to changing target characteristics”
The weapons bay is massive it isn’t surprising to see a camera on the rear bulkhead – A1C Haynes explains – ” Thats so the crew (RN) can check to see that all weapons have dropped that have indicated. The airplane bombing systems won’t allow a weapon to drop in an unsfe condition – if the crew loose communication with it, the bomb remains aboard” The B-52 can carry an array of weapons including the AGM-86B/C/D, AGM-129A, GBU-31 JDAM, M-117 general purpose bombs, Mk62 mines, Mk82 general purpose bombs and Mk84 general purpose bombs.
I point out the small door up on the left and the Crew Cheif tells me – “That area can be access in flight if needed – the crew can use portable oxygen bottle (the yellow one seen earlier) and walk the gantry to check out the rear compartment. Thats where the some systems are located”
I ask about the fragility of the wire insulation due to age as it becomes brittle with age – especially many decades. Crew Cheif Haynes nods and smiles – “Uhuh – yea that is an issue with older airplanes but it is looked at – fault finding with pin to pin checks in wiring looms”. Capt Tovado says “The B-52 gets inspected and maintenance approximately each 380 hours. We fly them in and do deeper maintenance and overhauls at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma”
Everything on the B-52H is huge, not least the landing gear assemblies. It is often referred to as a Quadricycle undercarraige as all four sets of wheels are in pairs located close to the aircraft centerline axis. A lower speeds the aircraft relies on an outrigger wheel on each wingtip. Capt Tovado points out the difference in main wheel tyre condition – ” We have layers as tyre wear indicators in each tyre – when the wear reaches the last layer we need to change out the wheel”
Next is the long walk to the rear of the Iron Butterfly. I ask if they have brought brake chute packers with them on the deployment as not every landing uses the drag chute. “Yes we have one Packer with us but we all pitch in and help when it comes to repacking the chutes – it takes some time and they are heavy”
“We also can carry a spare prepacked chute in the aircraft. At the rear is Section 47 where we can put extra equipment like spares, Oils and Hydraulic fluids. That’s also where we can store the spare chute”
It is time to wrap up the B-52 tour and I thank our hosts, the Crew and Maintainers of the Iron Butterfly from the 23rd Bomb Squadron – the ‘Bomber Barons’. They are no strangers to Darwin and the airspace above the Northern Territory, and I am sure will be back in the N.T in the not so distant future.
I guess to them this was just a another day working with the BUFF, but for me, it was an experience I won’t forget for a long time. We assemble to depart and take a last glance at the Iron Butterfly – an enduring airframe that has stood the test of time and will do so until around 2050.
I would just like to thank the RAAF Public Affairs Office team for arranging this visit – not something that can be done easily. A huge thanks to the Crew and Maintainers of the 23rd’s Iron Butterfly for sharing their time and providing answers to us most inquisitive of B-52 fans.
Some Boeing B-52H fun facts:
Primary function: Heavy bomber
Contractor: Boeing Military Airplane Co.
Power plant: Eight Pratt & Whitney engines TF33-P-3/103 turbofan
Thrust: Each engine up to 17,000 pounds
Wingspan: 185 feet (56.4 meters)
Length: 159 feet, 4 inches (48.5 meters)
Height: 40 feet, 8 inches (12.4 meters)
Weight: Approximately 185,000 pounds (83,250 kilograms)
Maximum takeoff weight: 488,000 pounds (219,600 kilograms)
Fuel capacity: 312,197 pounds (141,610 kilograms)
Payload: 70,000 pounds (31,500 kilograms)
Speed: 650 miles per hour (Mach 0.84)
Range: 8,800 miles (7,652 nautical miles)
Ceiling: 50,000 feet (15,151.5 meters)
Armament: Approximately 70,000 pounds (31,500 kilograms) mixed ordnance: bombs, mines and missiles. (Modified to carry air-launched cruise missiles)
Crew: five (aircraft commander, pilot, radar navigator, navigator and electronic warfare officer)
Unit cost: $84 million (fiscal 2012 constant dollars)
The Air Warfare Instructor Course (AWIC) hasn’t always been in the current format we see at the latest series of Diamond Exercises – Diamond Shield, Diamond Seas and Diamond Storm, each in itself a unique phase of training where the ADF makes the best even better.
The Royal Australian Air Force has long been in a process of recognising the need for change so the service can stay at the sharp end of combat training and capability. As military technology changes, defence forces need to adapt, and that means understanding how you can maximise what you have in the inventory and those that use it, but more importantly, how can you improve. The Air Force is a complex system that has many individual elements that are interlink to provide the ‘big picture’ in modern warfare. With complexity comes the need to prepare your personnel to use the tools at hand and sometimes push beyond the boundaries to complete a mission – a far cry from the early days of HQ sending aircrew up to patrol and hopefully engage enemy in aerial combat…..and be the victor.
In a world where countries have military partners that they train closely with, this also means adopting strategies, tactics and common practices or understandings that allow them to operate as a coordinated, cohesive and integrated force when deployed to areas of natural disaster or conflict.
Between WWII and the Korean War, Royal Australian Air Force pilot Wing Commander R C Cresswell (DFC), often refered to as ‘Dickie’ Cresswell, recognised the need to properly train RAAF pilots, partly from his own experiences as a fighter pilot and also from seeing the decline of meaningful training post WWII. Dickie Cresswell had been CO of No. 77Squadron twice in WWII and then again during the Korean conflict, and had gained a wealth of combat flying experience during this time.
WGCDR Cresswell also had some experience in training – he had been an instructor at No.2 (F) Operational Training Unit in 1943 plus the Crew Conversion Unit (CCU) Chief Instructor and had also developed the P-51 Mustang conversion course at war’s end. His experience in the Korean War, once 77Sqn had converted over to Meteor jets, saw him sending some poorly trained pilots back to Australia for re-training. He saw first hand and understood the additional load placed on the active squadrons to train new pilots on new aircraft which only reinforced his belief that dedicated training units needed to be formed. These training units could then send properly trained aircrew to the various active squadrons without those squadrons wasting resources.
He came to the opinion that the RAAF should provide the best air to air fighter combat tactics possible, and from that No.2 (F) Operational Training Unit was re-formed at Williamtown in March 1952. No. 2OTU had previously been a unit based at Port Pirie (S.A) and Mildura (Vic) during WWII, but had been disbanded in 1947.
WGCDR Cresswell took command of No. 2 OTU at RAAF Base Williamtown in May 1953 and from early 1954 the Fighter Combat Instructor course was delivered to pilots. The FCI course syllabus continued evolving and improving fighter combat techniques throughout the introduction of the CAC Sabre to 2OTU.
In 1964 the Mirage IIIO/D was introduced and a revised Fighter Combat Instructor course began in late 1968 at the now renamed No. 2 (Fighter) Operational Conversion Unit (No. 2 OCU). A number of current Airforce Staff Level Officers are those that undertook the FCI course as a Mirage pilot and attended Aces North, the exercise associated with the FCI course.
In 1985 Mirage FCI courses were temporarily conducted by No. 77 Squadron as 2OCU converted to the newly arrived McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, which was a further leap in technology and performance.
2OCU resumed FCI training and by 2015 had concluded No. 33 FCI course at Exercise Aces North in the Northern Territory. The FCI course had continued to evolve, becoming more complex with the inclusion of the F/A-18F Super Hornet, E-7A Wedgetails and KC-30 MRTT tankers. With this last FCI course under the umbrella of Air Combat Group, the ownership of the course moved to the Air Warfare Centre and with that came a change in title. Since 2017 it has been refered to as the Air Warfare Instructors Course (AWIC).
The AWIC is now a complicated and high pressure candidate training program than includes multiple branches of the ADF, partner nations, mainly the United States, delivering vastly different challenges for the trainee instructors. This can be attributed to the number of linked platforms involved in the exercises. No longer is the FCI/AWIC just an air to air combat exercise, it now involves additional Force Elements Groups such as Air Mobility Group, Surveillance and Response Group, Air Combat Group, Australian Army and the Navy Surface Combatants Force. Networked platforms such as No 1 Radar Surveillance Unit (1RSU) operating the Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN) and mobile surveillance units such as No. 114 Mobile Control and Reporting Unit (MCRU) all feed into the ‘Big Picture’.
The candidates aim to emerge from the course as experts at integrating their specialist platforms and to able to conceptualise, develop operational tactic, and deliver that knowledge to other aircrew back at their squadron, so helping prepare the Royal Australian Air Force for future combat operations.
We are provided an opportunity during Exercise Diamond Storm 2019 to hear from the Commanding Officer of No 2OCU, about how the modern AWIC looks today and how it has evolved over the years. The location was one of RAAF Base Darwin’s OLAs – where 2 OCU have been operating from during Exercise Diamond Storm 2019.
“I’m Wing Commander Scott Woodland or ‘Woody’, I’m the Commanding Officer of 2 OCU.’
“Diamond Storm is the culmination of the Air Warfare Instructors Course that is being run at the moment. Traditionally previously it was known as the Fighter Instructors Course which involved the Classic Hornets and F-111’s to begin with and then involved the Super Hornet later on.”
“Now the AWIC construct has brought all domains together, so we have the fast jet community as well as the E-7A (Wedgetail), AP-3C (Orion), C-130J (Hercules), C-17A (Globemaster III) and control based elements from both ground and air Intelligence, all working together in a high end training exercise, to exercise all components of the Airforce together, intergrating them to effect the maximum effect against a notional enemy force.”
With respect to working with the visiting United States Air Force – the 23rd B-52H’s and the 194th F-15’s – “So any opportunity we get to intergrate with another force is beneficial to all concerned, so having the F-15C’s (194th Fighter Squadron) here obviously gives us additional air to air capability that we don’t have in that specific platform within our Air Force. They’re professionals, a National Guard Unit in the United States, which means they have a lot of experience with a lot of them at Wing Commander equivalent rank with a lot of time on the jets, so very experienced. It’s (F-15C) a very capable platform, so they integrate very easily given that our tatical procedures are very much aligned with the way the U.S Airforce operates their aircraft.”
“The F-15s have been acting as Red Air (defensive) and Blue Air (offensive) – ‘Depending on the mission construct and demands for Red Air, given the different mission scenarios that are being presented, there’s different levels of Red Air at different times, numbers and periods where Red Air has to cover. The capablilities of Red Air is varied throughout the exercise and we utilise the F-15 where it’s best suited to replicate some advanced capabilities.”
“The B-52s were part of the whole integration – so when we are talking about dedicated strikes the B-52 excels. The payload that they can carry allows us to service a large number of target sets in a pretty short space of time. Challenges presented are that they need to be defended against Red Air. That’s where the whole Offensive Counter-Air (OCA) comes in to play so that we can set the environment to allow access for a period of time for any strike assets, be they other Classic Hornets, Super Hornets or B-52 which needs looking after as they don’t have a self defence ability except electronic warfare.We had multiple impact points to hit with precision weapons, thats where the B-52 comes into it’s own being able to carry so many and deliver them in a short period of time”
“This will be the last AWIC 2OCU conducts, we will have Classic Hornets participating in 2021 as 75Sqn still operates them at that stage. As for 2OCU we have run FCI from 1954 until now and to retire the Classic Hornet is bitter-sweet as she’s a great jet, serviced very well. Takes a bit more maintenance than she used to but our team has beeen achieving really good results up here. Were just maximising the capabilties of the jet when integrated with other assets. That’s where we still have a big role to play, we’ve integrated with the Super Hornets, Growler, E7, and other capabilities that we’ve got, so she’s still going strong.”
“The Hornet and Super Hornet are multi-type platforms so they have been involve in all aspects so we start out with simple strike training, then we moved onto large force employment. Part of the key training in AWIC is flexibility, and to be able to dynamically re-role in response to a change in the situation.”
“Everyone here is aware of their own capabilities and the key of Diamond Storm is being able to intergrate those capabilities and to learn and understand what other platforms bring to the fight so that we can best employ them if the day ever comes , in particular we have to opportunity to having everyone co locate to Darwin and being able to do that face to face. Having that knowledge from Diamond Storm (knowing the other platform’s capabilities) allows contacts, people to talk to and we have a very good awarenes of what those capabilities are based on in Diamond Storm exercises.”
“In previous AWICs the scenarios given to the candidates were also developed and increased in complexity above the previous courses based on additional platforms, for example Growler is playing for the first time in this AWIC. That brings an absolutely amazing capability to the RAAF that we have never had before, in fact for the ADF, that we’ve never had before. They have been operating for a couple of years but never in the AWIC sphere of such a large force exercise.
With reference to the F- 35 at AWIC – “So at this stage the F-35 is currently planned for 2025 AWIC, however post 2019 exercise and depending on the progression of the current 35’s at 3 Squadron etc, there will be a decision made as to whether they will be integrated into the 2021 AWIC as well, be that potentially as a Red Air role or participating with Blue Air with students from the course as well. As I said, that’s yet to be confirmed or decided”
“We don’t want to progress to quickly – obviously our pilots are relatively junior on that platform and they need experience on that platform to arm them with all the tools and the knowledge to go into the AWIC sphere – its a very complicated and complex environment so we have to be sure the students have the capabilities and have been provided with the training opportunities to prepare them for such a course.”
“The course candidates need to adapt to challenges presented to them in the AWIC and use gains and loss lessons to improve their tactics- “One of the prime capabilities is to have a tactical expertise on their jet and get more expertise on other specific platforms. At the begining of the exercise that expertise is only at a certain level and the aim is to take that as high as possible, so to be able to face-to-face during mission planning cycles where a problem is presented to the candidates and to be able to actually grab a Growler crew, Super Hornet crew, and bring them together and say – ‘Right this is the problem set we have – we need to suppress this enemy air defence system, what can the Growler bring against that system, what weapons do we need to employ from our standpoint against the target area?’ To just be able to eyeball (meet) with those people to provide direct inject of their subject matter expertise into the problem set to devise the best solution possible within the timeframe given. Noting that they don’t have two or three days to plan the mission – they are given a specific number of hours to come up with a resolve – then actually brief and execute – so there is a time pressure component in there as well”
“Having the time during the mission the candidates learn lessons out of it, but then to go away and talk through the mission afterwards they learn from it as well. With some of the security levels of some of the platforms it can only be discussed in certain areas and we have the ability to get people into that space and talk at the approriate levels so the candidates can fully understand and exploite those capabilities and also understand the limitations of those platforms, so they can plan methods to mitigate and counter those capabilities.”
“The airspace and facilities such as Delamere Air Weapons Range (DAWR) and Bradshaw Field Training Area (BFTA) near Katherine are designed to have live weapons dropped upon them – ” The first week we were up here was not actually Diamond Storm, it was the Air to Surface component of AWIC, so primarily focussed on Classic Hornet, Super Hornet, Growler and E-7 integration. Then in the first two weeks of Diamond Storm there were limited live weapon opportunities as we have to go to a specific range area which places limitations and restrictions. Obviously in a real world operation we don’t have to talk to a range to get permission to drop a weapon, follow specific attack headings or weapon restrictions. Hence we have moved away from dropping of live weapons early on to now where we aren’t dropping any weapons, so that we can target effectively anywhere across the area of operations using simulated weapons loads. We’re carrying simulated JDAMS which gives us all the information of a real weapon.”
How capable was Red Air which was mainly based out of RAAF Base Tindal 350km to the south of Darwin- “We used F-15’s in both Blue and Red forces, also the Growler, they had full air control support from E-7 and ground based control. So it wasn’t just a simple Red Air presentation, it was very complex and again depending on mission set, it’s all being managed by a Mission Director who controls the amount of Red Air and on what timelines they present. We also need to ensure that Red Air isn’t too overwhelming so we don’t acheive what we’re actually out to do – for example a strike with dynamic targeting roles as well. So Red Air is managed to allow a presentation (enemy force) on ingress that they have to deal with and push them back, then a period of time where they are allowed to do what they need to do. Given it is AWIC 2019, we have faced the biggest Red Air challenge to date.”
As to deployments by those candidates that pass through 2OCU and AWIC – “2OCU has always delivered what 81 Wing has required of the graduating candidates on the Classic Hornet. Lessons learned out of the Operation OKRA deployment were fed back into tactics and procedures, and as an overall, it reinforced that the training we did at the time was appropriate. No one required any additional training beyond what they’d already been provided by 2OCU and the categorisation and progression at their squadrons as they gained more experience. But the fundamentals did not change at all. It was literally fine tuning procedures and interoperability, working together with coalition forces is where you identify issues where if we tweak that or do this, it’s going to make us easier to be interoperable in the future. That’s key for us being a relatively small force – we need the ability to to go and integrate with another force at a moments notice, and operate very efficiently and very quickly. That’s the benefit of Operation OKRA and exercises like Pitch Black and during AWIC.”
As to the future of the Hornet – “The Hornet has served us so well and Operation OKRA proved it still has mission capablity in different areas, the technology is getting out dated hence it is being replaced. To that end it has served us very well and still provides us a good front line capability through until we replace all of our jets.”
On 2OCU – ‘The ability to take junior male and female aircrew and bring them through a fighter conversion and graduate them from the other end and see the fruits of your labour going on for the next couple of years as they progress through the fighter squadrons is just immensely rewarding. So as a junior pilot you don’t ever picture yourself ever being or wanting to be an instructor, you just want to get out there and fly and learn. Thats good, we need people to do that but they will eventually get to a point where we either turn you into a Fighter Combat Instructor (FCI) or do a Qualified Flying Instructor and Operational Flight Instructor role, and take that experience and feed it back into the junior pilots that evolve into the next generation. So every instructor on my team and those I’ve ever worked with, has a passion and can see the rewards of their labour and contribute directly to the future fighter force for Australia. That is immensely rewarding for all of us and to command such a team as I do, having the most experienced pilots in 81 Wing on Classic Hornets doing that instruction, it’s amazing and to bring that all together on an AWI Course, combined with 82 Wing bringing all the high end instructors we have around the Airforce, the capabilities we can generate out of that is just incredible.”
“Dawn Strike will be as big as we can make it – all these jets up here have to get back to Williamtown on Dawn Strike day along with the Super Hornets and Growlers who participate, because the Patching Ceremony will be done down at Williamtown after the dawn strike. We have fifteen Classic Hornets and in the order of a fourteen Super Hornets and Growlers up here who will be heading back along with the E-7 and a KC-30 helping us back. Obviously being opposed by Red Air back at Williamtown”- Woody says with a grin.
We thank Wing Commander Woodland and take the opportunity to photograph him and the pride of his 2OCU fleet the ‘Tiger’ F/A-18B Hornet, A21-116. 116 has been painted up in the scheme in celebration of Hornet operations with 2OCU from 1985 through to 2019 and may well stay that way until the Hornets have departed the squadron. Woody continues to chat amongst us and the Techos for about 15 minutes before we pack up, we have more to photograph and he has a very proffessional team of instructors and candidates to get through the last days of Air Warfare Instructors Course 2019.
In the wrap up Exercise Director, Group Captain Matt McCormack, said – “It has been a very busy month at RAAF Darwin and RAAF Tindal as we reach the conclusion of this specialist course that has tested the candidates in a range of high-end warfighting scenarios.They represent the next generation of tactical and integrated warfare leaders across the Air Combat spectrum.”
From those early days of Wing Commander R C Cresswell and his first FCI course to the current group of candidates, the AWIC has evolved out of nessessity, experience, tactics, technology and forward thinking. Looking forward it will be interesting to see the introduction of a new platform, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightining II and what it brings to AWIC – new challenges and technology and from that comes changes in the way the Royal Australin Air Force delivers training to future Candidates selected for the Air Warfare Instructor Course.
And for those that can get to RAAF Base Williamtown on 31 May for the “Dawn Strike”, I suspect you won’t be dissappointed at the action that formally concludes Exercise Diamond Storm 2019. For some brilliant pics of 2017 click here (Dawn Strike 2017)
ASO would like to thank Defence Media and the RAAF Public Affairs Office during Diamond Storm for providing a number of unique opportunities to peek behind the scenes and obtain a glance at the inner workings of a major exercise. Many thanks go to Wing Commander Scott ‘Woody’ Woodland for his time to explain the processes and challenges of training the best as they progress through the AWIC at 2OCU.
One of the Royal Australian Air Force’s premier biennial Large Force Employment exercises, Exercise Diamond Storm 2019, has been under way in the Top End since Monday 29 April, with aircraft operating from RAAF Base Darwin and RAAF Base Tindal in the Northern Territory. The United States Air Force is particpating as a one of Australia’s long term partners in the continuing Enhance Air Cooperation program between the two countries.
Exercise Diamond Storm is the culmination of all the lessons and tactics as part of the 6 month long Air Warfare Instructors Course 2019 (AWIC). It gives the tactical and integrated warfare experts a full hands on experience to demonstrate their recently honed skills learnt in earlier phases of the AWIC course. Exercise Diamond Shield and Exercise Diamond Seas are both stand alone exercises of the RAAF’s Air Warfare Instructors Course 2019. The exercises have progressively developed the students warfighting capabilities against aggressor aircraft such as the USAF F-16 Falcons and in the case of Diamond Seas, a maritime scenario utilising the Royal Australian Navy, Australian Army and RAAF assets.
This exercise offers not just fast jet crews top level challenges but those also in airborne platforms like the E-7A Wedgetail AEW&C (Airborne Eary Warning and Control) and P-8A Poseidon which is capable of land warfare missions as well. Control and reporting units such as 114 CRU, the Darwin based (but mobile) radar surveillance and air defence unit, with other ground based surveillance and air defence assets, are all integral to the exercise operations.
This years Exercise Director, Group Captain Matthew McCormack said the Diamond Series of exercises will enhance expertise leading up to the introduction of fifth generation capabilities into the Australian Defence Force (ADF).
“The course exercises complex war-like scenarios and the students put their newly developed skills into practice, making decisions which will shape the way Air Force fights in the future,”
The Royal Australian Air Force’s Air Mobility Group (AMG) deployed a number of aircraft to the Northern Territory leading up to the 29th, including the Airbus KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT), Boeing C-17A Globemaster III’s, and Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules, prepositioning equipment and advance party personnel. These three aircraft types were also involved in specialist missions and support roles throughout the exercise and will provide post deployment support in returning everyone and their equipment back to home bases.
The United States Air Force Air Mobility Wing C-17A Globemaster III’s and Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules have brought deployment equipment to support their two B-52H Stratofortress and eight F-15C Eagles. As have the contracted civillian Atlas Airlines B747 heavy haulers.
Representing the Royal Australian Airforce’s Air Combat Group (ACG) we have seen the arrival of No.6 Squadron EA-18 Growlers and No.1 Squadron F/A-18F Super Hornets, both squadrons having flown up from RAAF Base Amberley in Queensland. Supporting them in transit was one of the Airbus KC-30A MRTT’s from 33 Squadron, also operating out of Amberley.
From the other side of ACG, south of the Queensland border, we saw F/A-18 A/B Hornets from No. 2 Operational Training Unit (2OCU) at RAAF Base Williamtown arriving into Darwin for the last time in this exercise, along with No. 2 Squadron E-7A Wedgetails also from Williamtown.
No.77 Squadron Hornets deployed from Williamtown to RAAF Base Tindal as did the ADF contracted Dornier Alphajets from Top Aces and Special Mission Learjets from Air Affairs Australia and Raytheon. RAAF Base Tindal is also home to No. 75 Squadron who again have the luxury of not deploying and are participating out of their home base near Katherine. The exercise airpace is quite extensive, plus in addition, the Delamere Air Weapons Range to the S.W of RAAF Base Tindal plays an important role as a key target facility – both for attacking and defending forces. There are a number of restricted areas that are off limits to civilian air traffic during the AWIC2019 period including the Bradshaw Training Area which plays it’s role.
The United States Air Force (USAF) deployed the largest aircraft to operate during the exercise with a pair of Boeing B-52H Stratofortesses from the 23rd Expeditiary Bomb Squadron, 5th Bomb Wing, Minot AFB, Nth Dakota. The 23rd EBS is currently deployed to Andersen Air Base on Guam as part of the US Pacific Air Forces Continuous Bomber Presence (CBP) mission. B-52H 60-0060, ‘Iron Butterfly’ plus 61-0035, ‘Witches Brew’ have flown to Darwin to participate in the exercise, offering an additional aspect to mission scenarios.
The fighter element of the USAF are F-15C Eagles from the California Air National Guard’s (ANG) 194th Fighter Squadron, part of the 144th FW located at Fresno ANG Base in California. The 194th Fighter Squadron arrived with a mix of their own aircraft and some borrowed from the 122nd FS from Louisiana. It has been some time since the USAF has deployed F-15’s to Darwin but they have been straight into the action since arriving.
The F-15C Eagles were supported in their transit by a pair of KC-135R Stratotankers, 59-1482 Stratotanker from 328th ARS of 914th ARW, AFRC Niagara Falls and 63-8876 from the 168th ARS, Alaska ANG.
The lesser seen aircraft of these exercises are also represented again this year with the Royal Australian Air Force sending a Beechcraft KA350 King Air up to Darwin. This aircraft is one of a select few that have a surveillance belly pod fitted by Hawker Pacific.
Although the Orion has been officially retired from Air Force service, a couple remain with one Lockheed AP-3C Orion being observed in the Top End, yet another platform that still supports the Maritime and Land ISR capabilities, along side the current the P-8A Poseidon and future MQ-4C Triton.
Both Day and Night phases have been under way and there have been some spectacular backdrops for local photographers as the participants departed or returned to the exercise airspace around sunset.
Although Diamond Storm still has a week to go, there are more opportunities to capture imagery and speak with participating personnel, both air and ground operations, and we will bring that to you shortly. It takes the involvement of many Defence Force component units to run an exercise of this magnitude, their effort in making valuable contributions provide our front line warfare men and women the ultimate opportunity to be the best at what they do. It is also a great way to demonstrate interoperability with our exercise partners – demonstrating and building a cohesive force that can integrate in a many ways under different scenarios, including responding to natural disasters in the Pacific region.
I would just like to thank the Royal Australian Air Force Public Affairs Office for their time and effort that has allowed ASO to see behind the scenes of the Australian and United States Air Forces as they demonstrate the high tech skills of modern warfare.
For a huge gallery of pics so far, click on the gallery below.
In memory of the brave and dedicated aircrews and maintenance personnel from RAAF Lockheed Hudson No.2 and No.13 Squadrons, a plaque had been unveiled in Darwin by the last surviving aircrew member of those squadrons, Air Gunner, Flight Lieutenant Brian Winspear AM.
The unveiling ceremony marks the beginning of the Darwin City Council’s 77th anniversary program of the Bombing of Darwin which also includes a Commemoration Service at the Darwin Cenotaph on the 19 February every year.
As the crowd and dignitaries assemble, a restored 1938 Chevrolet Sedan typical of those used by the RAAF in the war period drives up and slowly stops. The rear door opens and out steps FLTLT Brian Winspear in tropical dress, adorned with his AG wings and campaign ribbons. For a gentleman of 99 years he is rather sprightly and begins shaking hands with those nearby, ADF representatives, Government, Council, Historical Society and some members of the public.
FltLt Winspear AM who joined the RAAF at 19 years old was by the age of 21, a Royal Australian Air Force air gunner (AG) flying in Lockheed Hudsons with No 2 Squadron. He is the only surviving aircrew member of the two Hudson squadrons and has been passionate about gaining recognition for his fallen comrades – “For 75 years I have been agitating to get some recognition of the terrible losses we had, so today is important”
Among the attendees are representatives of the ADF, including the Royal Australian Air Force’s Wing Commander Parsons from RAAF Base Darwin, home of 13 Squadron, Australian Army and Royal Australian Navy commanders, Her Honour the Honourable Vicki O’Halloran AM, Administrator of the Northern Territory and even the Mayor, Kon Vatskalis who all welcome FLTLT Winspear to Darwin.
For the plaque Brian has been working with Dr Tom Lewis OAM, a noted military historian and author, the Order of Australia Association along with the Darwin City Council to have it installed at the Cenotaph overlooking Darwin Harbour. Dr Lewis opens the preceding by welcoming everyone and today’s special guest.
“Tomorrow, the 19 February, it will be 77 years since the first attacks on Darwin during World War Two. With each year, on Bombing of Darwin Day, we pay tribute to the contribution and sacrifice of so many servicemen, servicewomen and civilians,”
”We are honoured to welcome Bombing of Darwin veteran Flight Lieutenant Brian Winspear back to Darwin for the official unveiling ceremony.”
With that, and despite his 99 years, Brian stands at the dais and begins to recall the return to Darwin of 2Sqn after the offensive bombing attacks on shipping out of Koepang and Penfoie (Timor), and the flights they carried out to evacuate personnel from the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia). With some of the returning Hudsons carrying up to 25 air and ground crew into Darwin early on the 19th February 1942 – the day Darwin was to bombed by the Japanese forces en masse.
“The initial attack on Darwin at 9.58am, there were 188 Japanese planes. A greater number of bombs were dropped over Darwin on that day than were used in the attack on Pearl Harbour. These were the most serious of at least 64 air raids on the Top End of Australia which continued until 12 November 1943”
He earlier recalled the first raid on Darwin, seeing the attacking pilot’s faces – “I swear they were smiling” – the noise hurting his ears, bomb craters around his trench and receiving bomb splinters to his hand and eye. He told of putting out fires after the raid and pinching a bottle of beer from the Officer’s Mess.
Brian was soon back in the air a day later in one of only two serviceable Hudsons – they were to head back to Koepang (Timor) but were unable to land or even attack the assembled Japanese Navy (no bombs on board) so with minimum fuel they only made it back to Bathurst Island. After hand pumping fuel from drums they finally arrived very tired into Darwin.
Brian asks his assistant to help unroll a paper scroll about 1 metre long. With it blowing in the breeze he continues – “2 and 13 squadrons arrived in Darwin pretty much together. The two squadrons were here from 1941-1943 and lost 200 aircrew in that time, three quarters of us were wiped out – this paper contains the names of the 2oo who were killed”
FLTLT Winspear is invited to unveil the plaque and is escorted by one of the senior students of Darwin High School, Alanah Hardy, along with Tom Lewis. He removes and folds the black cloth and the plaque is revealed for all to see. Upon the plaque is a photo of a Hudson and squadron members plus the United States Presidential Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism against the enemy something not given out lightly he says later.
The Squadrons were awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation for their service in the Timor area in August to September 1942. Although awarded in October 1942 the citation was not officially presented to the Squadron until May 1990. The Distinguished Unit Citation was redesignated after World War II as the Presidential Unit Citation.
During the service there are several moments of prayer and remembrance conducted by RAAF Base Darwin Chaplain SqnLdr Senini including The Ode and a minute of silence – a moment for those present to reflect on this dark time in our history while the breeze blows off Darwin Harbour and the sun dips towards the horizon.
With that the official service is over and FLTLT Winspear begins to mingle with the crowd chatting with young and old, even taking the opportunity to joke about the RAAF WOD’s pace stick.
Brian returns to the plaque for a media photo opportunity and talks about his time after Hudsons when he was given a commission and went on to fly in the Vultee A-31(V72) Vengeance as a Navigator with No 12 Sqn based at Batchelor airfield. He describes how they would dive almost vertically at 500mph with the pilot looking through a small hatch to see the target… and the g-forces as they pulled out after bomb release. A very good aircraft for putting a bomb down a funnel.
After the attack on Darwin the Hudson squadrons were dispersed and moved about a bit – not just the Darwin RAAF Station but Daly Waters, Hughes, Batchelor for 2 sqn, and similarly Darwin RAAF Station, Daly Waters, Hughes and Gove for 13 Sqn. In fact there is still a No 13 sqn Ventura wreck located at Gove Airport today. The squadrons eventually re-equipped with more modern aircraft like the Bristol Beaufort, Lockheed Ventura and B-25 Mitchell and were deployed further afield by the end of WWII hostilities.
I chat with an elderly lady who has come from up Victoria with her husband for a few days. She had heard on a local radio station that this event was to be held and wanted to attend because her father had been a pilot in No 13 Sqn “It may be just a quick 3 day visit and I think dad would have liked to be here but unfortunately he passed away 17 years ago – but at least he is here in spirit I feel” A number of other interstate visitors have travelled to attend the Bombing of Darwin Commemoration services, some having relatives who made the ultimate sacrifice.
As the public disperse, Brian finds a moment to take in the view from the cenotaph and gives us a grin, before being ushered over to the RAAF Chev staff car.
Even at this age he is still cheeky, quickly whipping out a hanky to pretend to polish the car he is about to depart in. After climbing aboard he gives a wave as the car slowly drives away.
One wish of veteran Brian Winspear is to go for a fly in Temora Aviation Museum’s Lockheed Hudson A16-112. This beautiful aircraft has beeen restored as A16-221, a Hudson III that served with No 2 Sqn in the North Western Area – Timor and the Netherlands East Indies and out of Milingimbi , an Arhnem Land island to the east of Darwin. What an experiencce that would be for him.
It is a sad fact that less and less veterans are with us each year which is why it is so important to hear and record their stories. Fortunately for us this story has been told by a gentle man who now smiles, but observed and experienced some terrible events, losing many mates and still has clear memories of a dark time in world history. Lest We Forget.
If you are ever in the Top End please have a stroll around the Darwin Cenotaph on the Esplanade – there are many plaques like this one. There are several museums in Darwin including East Point, Darwin Aviation, Charles Darwin Park and the Stokes Hill Wharf Museum – pay them a visit too. There are also a great many placards dotted around Darwin and if you are travelling up by road – many of the WWII airstrips and camps are located right next to the Stuart Highway – have a rest and take in some history or even visit the Adelaide River War Memorial.
When talking about aviation safety, most passengers only think about the safety brief delivered by the cabin crew as we are getting pushed back from the gate, or are on taxi to the holding point.
We might also think about how Air Traffic Controllers keep us safe from colliding with other aircraft while far above the ground, but there is a whole different side to aviation safety that most travellers never see, or for that matter, never really consider.
Many would have looked out their windows and seen the airport vehicles with large numbers on the door and flashing orange lights on the roof, sometimes driving down taxiways or even zig zagging down the main runways in-between flights. Often these vehicles are being driven by members of the Airport Operations team who look after the ground based safety operations of many airports across Australia, and beyond. Without these important 24/7 working teams at major airports our safety would be in jeopardy before we even take off.
I was recently fortunate to spend part of a shift with one of Darwin International Airport’s (DIA) Airside Operations Officers (AOO), Maria. My visit coincided with what has to be one of the busiest times of the year for aerodrome ground operations at DIA, a major military exercise, and I want to find out, not just what Maria’s job entails, but how the exercise might impact day to day airside operations of Darwin Airport.
Darwin Airport shares runways with RAAF Base Darwin and the biennial Exercise Pitch Black, run by the Royal Australian Air Force, draws nations from around the world into the Northern Territory. This year the exercise has brought 140 military aircraft to the Top End, some based at RAAF Base Tindal, but most based in Darwin. They are here to carry out intense aerial combat and tactical training in the airspace over the Northern Territory.
For Maria and the Operations Team the activity on the airfield increases dramatically during this 3-4 week period every two years as the airport is a shared facility – RAAF operations on the southern side and civilian operations to the north of the runway. Both need to use the main runway 11/29. (110 deg and 290 deg are the marked directions of each runway)
I meet Maria at the Terminal Control Centre (TCC) part way through her shift, as she had planned for us to be on the aerodrome prior to a mass launch of military aircraft heading out to one of the planned scenarios of Pitch Black. The TCC is where the Operations team are based and also where all those people required to go airside need to acquire passes or authorisation.
As we get ready to head on out to the safety car I ask Maria what her job entails and the types of responsibilities she faces?
“My position at Darwin International Airport is an Airside Operations Officer. My responsibility is to ensure the safety of Aerodrome Operations and reporting any non-compliances. This includes carrying out runway and taxiway inspections, bird hazard management, responding to aircraft emergencies, spills, facilitating aircraft parking, monitoring the Obstacle Limitation Surfaces (OLS), overseeing aircraft ground operations and so on. We also conduct routine Regular Public Transport (RPT)Apron inspections which include and are not limited to aircraft parking control, ensuring Ground Service Equipment (GSE) is stored in the allocated areas, inspecting the condition of pavement, cleaning oil and fuel spills and overall, ensuring the ground operators are following the rules required to operate on the apron. My role is dedicated to Airside Operations; however, Darwin Airport is a relatively small team and at times I may be required to provide support to our other operations such as Terminal Evacuations.”
So what sparked your interest in being an Airside Operations Officer?
“My passion for aviation only began in my teenage years and like most teenage girls, it was my dream to become a flight attendant. I never knew that there was such a job as an Airside Operations Officer however after starting out in the industry I knew that was exactly what I wanted to aim for. The rest is history!” – she says with a grin as she opens the door that leads to the RPT apron where the vehicles are parked.
How long have you been in the job and where did you start out?
“I started working at Darwin International Airport when I was 18 in Customer Service with great enthusiasm to excel within our operations team. Fortunately, opportunities presented themselves and with the dedication to learn and a passion that was rapidly developing for aviation, I knew that it was something that I wanted to pursue. However, I needed to use my own initiative to learn about the technical aspects of how Aerodromes worked and the level of compliance that was required to maintain an operational and safe airside. I’ve been working at DIA for 7 1/2 years of which 4 of those have been in my current role.”
“This will be our car today – Safety One” As the she checks the ute out Maria runs me through a small induction mainly around what to do if there is an aircraft emergency on the field
We hop in and she starts typing on an iPad– “Every time I do anything I log it on the iPad – runway inspections, bird harassment stuff like that.”
I ask what qualifications are required for someone, say, straight out of high school, if they were interested in applying to start a career in this field?
“My advice for anyone interested in pursuing a career in the Aviation Industry specific to safety is to complete a basic Works Safety Officer course. That will give you a head start and an insight into furthering your skills. If you’re luckily enough to be employed by a company that offers in house training then that’s also another option.”
She grabs one of the radio microphones as Tower (Darwin Ground) has radioed to ask where a Unity Fokker 100 aircraft that has just landed is parking – and looking at a printout and replies – “Bay 22.”
“The Airport Duty Manager will coordinate the aircraft bay plan for the duration of the shift, which we will notify ATC of any changes if they occur. Aircraft parking is allocated based on an occupancy chart which identifies what the maximum wing span, weight or size of aircraft that can park on each bay.”
We drive out across the apron towards the taxiways – So where did you conduct your training, was it here at Darwin Airport? Interstate or was it on the job training?
“Our Certificate 3 in Aerodrome Operations was by an external company who delivered the training in Darwin. Once the theory component of the certificate was finalised, a practical on airfield assessment is completed to determine competency in the role. This is generally conducted after a period of 3-6 months on the job training.”
What is the typical daily routine you follow?
“As per the Manual of Standards Part 139 issued by CASA, we have a high level of compliance that needs to be maintained at all times to ensure that we are operating a safe Aerodrome for aircraft taking off, landing and the personnel on the ground.” (Maria calls Darwin Ground for clearance to enter one of the taxiways) “In order to achieve this, we are required to conduct a minimum or three runway inspections over the 12-hour period, starting from first light and continuing throughout the night. On a standard day, we carry out anywhere between 3-5 inspections of both runways. This doesn’t include the requirement to enter a runway for bird hazard Management. A typical day consists of carrying out runway, taxiway and apron inspections, bird harassments, calculating crane assessments and inspecting the OLS, responding to emergencies or spills that may occur on the aerodrome. No day is ever the same.”
By this time we have reached the main runway that is in use at this time – Runway 11 – departing aircraft to the east while arriving aircraft approach from over the ocean to the west. We are heading over to the RAAF Base Military Hardstand to pick up Flight Lieutenant Glenn P. who is to be my RAAF Public Affairs Officer – an escort, as I will be taking photos of the exercise aircraft as part of today’s visit.
As we wait for clearance to cross Runway 11 while some general aviation (GA) aircraft line up to depart, I ask – Do you have specific role within the Safety Team?
“Our Airside Operations team consists of 5 full-time Airside Operations Officers. When operating on the airside with the call-signs Safety 1 (that’s us today) and Safety 2, it means that we each carry out all aspects of airfield operations. This creates a broad range of skills that are required to ensure that we are competent in all components of the role, in particular we are required to have a high level of communication skills and situational awareness”
Do you get the opportunity to work at other Northern Territory airports?
“There are always opportunities to challenge our skills and work at other Airports. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time at Hobart International and Melbourne Airport over the last few years which was fantastic.”
We drive past some large transport aircraft – a Republic of Singapore Air Force KC-135R, a RAAF C-17A Globemaster III, a Malaysian Air Force Airbus A400M Atlas and some Lockheed C-130J Hercules, one from the RAAF, one from the USMC and one from the Indian Air Force, all here for the exercise.
I figure Maria has seen pretty much all the different aircraft types into Darwin.
What do you enjoy about being an AOO?
“You’re asking someone who loves absolutely everything about their job, but if I were to choose one thing that I love I would have to say it’s the diverse range of traffic that we get the opportunity to work around. There have been days that I’ve driven out onto the airfield to find a C-5, C-17, B-52, B747, F/A-18’s and an A400 all within a few hundred metres of one another. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Parking outside Air Movements, our PAO for the day, FLTLT Glenn jumps in and introduces himself – he is up in Darwin as part of the Air Force’s PB Media Team and is no stranger to the exercise having attended a couple in recent years.
Heading back we chat about the exercise and I ask how DIA works in with the RAAF operations,
“During exercise periods such as Pitch Black, we work closely with the RAAF Base Safety Officer (BASO). As our runways and southern taxiways are jointly used with the military, we liaise with them if any of their operations have an impact on civil operations.”
And what about airfield safety briefing for the visiting foreign squadrons? – “Generally, the BASO will brief any military personnel.”
As we are driving down taxiway Charlie, the main transit route for aircraft from the military hard stand, I wonder about how DIA deals with the traffic heading for parking bays and sharing the responsibility for looking after the taxiways- “The RAAF BASO looks after all military parking areas and taxiways however we do report any unserviceabilities if they have an effect of any airfield operations such as taxiway lighting.”
Getting clearance to cross runway 36, we cruise down taxiway Alpha- the long full length taxiway that runs parallel to the main runway. I notice it is almost as wide as the main runway.
Maria explains that Alpha also acts as a standby emergency runway to all but the largest of aircraft (due to its shorter width) She also explains that the surface of the runways are different and the “Wet weather conditions require constant monitoring as sitting water on a runway can quickly become unsafe for aircraft taking off and landing. Depth tests are completed as requested on short notice and in some cases, can lead to the closure of a runway if more than 25% of water is covering the runway surface. RWY 11/29 is a grooved runway which allows water disperse and drain quickly.” providing better braking characteristics (and drainage) during wet weather conditions, while taxiway Alpha isn’t.
We pass by the Bomber Replenishment Apron (BRA) and the various parked aircraft – the Indian Air Force with it’s Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighters making their debut at PB2018 and the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s F-16s Falcons and F-15SG Strike Eagles lined up.
What does the Safety Team do or how do you respond if an emergency is declared?
“In the event that a local standby or full emergency is declared, effective communication is essential. Details of the nature of the emergency are given to us by ATC which includes the type of aircraft, operator, what runway they will be landing on, estimated time of arrival (ETA), persons on board (POB) and any other significant information that may be beneficial. We have a range of procedures during these scenarios that reflect what is stated in our Aerodrome Emergency Plan (AEP). A runway inspection will be conducted immediately after the aircraft has touched down (pending that it has landed safely) to determine if the runway is serviceable. In the event that an aircraft is disabled on the runway or on the airfield, we establish an Incident Control Point (ICP) usually at least 75m upwind and maintain control of the emergency in assistance with emergency services.”
We wait at the bottom of the runway for a commercial airliner to land – nearby are the United States Marine Corp and their MV-22B Osprey Tilt-Rotors. USMC VMM-268 “Red Dragons” are currently on deployment as part of the US-Australia Force Posture Initiative announce back in 2011. Essentially each year the USMC deploys personnel and aircraft to the Northern Territory to gain experience operating together with the Australian Defence Force. This is the second year the unusual aircraft have been operating out of the Fighter Replenishment Apron (FRA). In a recent announcement there is additional infrastructure to be built so we can expect to see more Marines deployed injecting considerable money into Darwin’s local economy.
It’s nearly 1130 and the military jets are leaving soon and we have to activate the displaced threshold lighting system for the duty runway. I ask why, and how this changes with the normal day to day operation – “With approximately 80-100 military aircraft flying each day and night during Pitch Black with the potential of a full emergency being declared or an aircraft taking the cable on our main runway, there is the added risk of not having a serviceable runway for a length of time.
“We also have Operational Readiness Platforms at the threshold of our main RWY 11/29 which can be utilised by military fighter jet aircraft. They are used to maximise traffic flow and reduce congestion on the airfield during each departure wave. This however requires a Displaced Threshold to be marked by temporary lighting such a Runway Threshold Identification Lights (RTILS) and temporary PAPI’s which we set up 30 minutes prior to departures. In simple terms, we cut off 723m of our runway to facilitate the flow of traffic. The constant traffic also has an effect on the amount of runway inspections we do as some days a maximum of 30 seconds on the runway is given by ATC due to departures and arrivals.”
The temporary PAPI lighting system consisting of four lights that visually gives a slope indication to pilots on approach while the Runway Threshold Identification Lights (RTILS) are two bright strobes, one either side of the runway need to be activated. The change is co-ordinated with the Tower.
So you have to work closely with other departments like the Tower, Aviation Rescue Fire Fighting and Border Force?
“We work side by side with our Airport Duty Managers who run Terminal Operations. They plan our daily aircraft parking and are also able to assist in Airside Operations in the event that we need help on the airfield in an emergency situation.”
“We’re also required to maintain contact with Air Traffic Control at all times who we have a great working relationship with. There has to be a level of trust between us and them as we’re working in an environment that is high risk and demanding at the best of times.”
After Tower confirms the lighting is correct Maria requests clearance to do a runway inspection – How often do you perform runways inspections?
“On a standard shift, 4-5 runway inspections will be completed of both RWY 11/29 and RWY 18/36. That is not inclusive of runway entries that are required to retrieve FOD or harass wildlife. Depending on the situation, most runway inspections during the day are completed facing into arriving traffic to improve situational awareness and in a zig zag pattern to cover as much area of the runway as possible. Using a zig zag pattern also alerts any arriving aircraft that you’re a vehicle proceeding down the runway and not an aircraft. During night time operations, inspections are conducted by driving down one side of the RWY and back up the other. Our main duty RWY 11/29 is 60m wide and our crossing RWY 18/36 is 30m wide. Due to RWY18/36 being an unlit runway, only last night inspections are carried out.
The first of the military traffic, a Singaporean Gulfstream G550, is requesting clearances so we start the side to side inspection drive down runway 11. We notice some birds hovering (a Nankeen Kestrel I am told) and just as we near it there is a loud noise from above the ute- Maria has hit the bird harassment siren button.
So birds are one of the day to day challenges?
“Birds! What a lot of people don’t realise when flying from one airport to the other is the amount of time that is dedicated to harassing wildlife to allow aircraft to take-off and land safety. Between 2006-2015, 16,096 bird strikes were reported to the ATSB in Australia alone. Fortunately, we have a range of methods that we use to reduce the level of bird activity on the airfield and with new technology being introduced we are always implementing new tools to improve the level of safety on the field.
I spy another Nankeen Kestrel sitting on the the 6000’ marker oblivious to our activity, but it is soon scared off by the siren.
Maria continues – “We have a high level of bird activity that requires constant management throughout the year, with the Black Kite being the most struck species over the last ten years and the Australian Pratincole being the second most struck species. Whilst our bird activity and strike rate per 10,000 movements is high, we have a broad range of tools that we use such as pyrotechnics, gas cannons, lasers and live rounds that are used to disperse bird activity in our critical take-off and landing areas. Our collected strike data over the last 10 years has identified trends that have allowed us to change the ways in which we harass wildlife. Data is extremely important as we now know the most common strike area, the time of day that they’re occurring and what species are being struck. It’s a challenging environment to work in.”
She also says that the start to the wet season is a bad time as the insects which a lot of bird species feed upon increase dramatically – bringing in the birdlife.
We look at the windsock just as Tower calls and announces a runway change – the wind has swung around to the north-west and now traffic will be departing on runway 29 once the Gulfstream leaves. So for the next 10 minutes we ride in Safety One as Maria reverses the generator and displaced threshold lighting arrangements.
For the next 30 minutes we move up and down parallel to the runway watching a constant flow of jet aircraft leaving and taking photos. Maria jokes about having one of the best jobs around – an air-conditioned office, bring coffee if you want it and plenty of travel each day – what more could you want?
With the high number of movements we talk about emergencies and the arrestor hook as we head back over to the RAAF Air Movements section to drop off Glenn, who I suspect has enjoyed getting close to the departing jets just as much as I have.
How does the airport go about runway maintenance?
“As we are a joint user aerodrome, our main runway is fitted with Aircraft Arrestor Hook Cables used by military jets. The RAAF has a requirement to maintain both cables therefore standard maintenance is carried out every fortnight. Displaced Thresholds are setup to reduce the runway length to allow these works to occur. During this time, we may take the opportunity to complete our own maintenance such as lighting repairs or painting. Minor works, such as painting of the runway centreline or edge markings are planning during quite periods where traffic is low; for major works, there is a Method of Working Plan which is jointly prepared by DIA and Defence.”
“Apron extensions and runway works are generally dealt with by Airside Operations and Safety Standards Managers working with the Project Management Team to ensure safe operations and Method of Working Plans are in place; however things such as cranes may have an impact to airspace safety depending on the location and the height of the crane. A number of risk assessments are completed in situations like these to ensure that there won’t be an impact to aircraft safety.
In previous years, we have completed airfield lighting upgrades and taxiway overlays. Works Safety Officers are employed for such works however, it’s our job to ensure that safety is maintained at all times.”
We begin my final drive across the airfield back to the Darwin Terminal and I raise the point that there have been a few diversions into Darwin, some as big as an A380 – How do you cope with diverted aircraft on such short notice and do you assist with, say, medical emergencies?
“Depending on the aircraft type, assisting with a medical emergency where an aircraft is diverting becomes our number one priority. Strategic bay planning is used to try and keep Bay 1 or 2 available for any wide body aircraft. Things that we consider are getting the passenger off as quickly as possible in which case having access to an aerobridge is essential although in some cases may not be possible. A runway inspection will be completed prior to their arrival and departure bearing in mind that we may have never facilitated that particular aircraft before. In some cases, you may receive notification of a diverting aircraft 15 minutes prior to their arrival. Quick thinking, team work and effective communication is key in these situations.”
And as for those larger airport customers or transiting heavy haulers – we would get some interesting aircraft through Darwin – what would have been the most unusual you have helped see into Darwin?
‘There have been some magnificent aircraft drop in over the last 7 years but I’d have to say the AN-124 still has to be the aircraft that blows my mind every time. With a wingspan of 73.3m and a MTOW 392 tonnes, it’s an incredible aircraft to watch get off the ground. Behind that would be the A400M. Maybe one day we’ll get the AN-225!”
So you’re the ‘Follow Me’ person? – “I am!” – How awesome is it to lead the big Antonov’s that visit Darwin?
“We are often required to carry out follow me’s for aircraft requiring to taxi or tow to the civil side or for refuelling purposes. To have the nose of an AN-124 in your rear vision mirror is daunting and amazing all in one! In terms of parking, there are several considerations that are taken into account such as the aircraft size, wingspan, weight and what services are required when allocating a parking bay for an aircraft. We have a strict Apron Occupancy Guideline that is used to ensure that minimum wingtip separation is maintained at all times. Other considerations such as power in/out operations and potential jet blast are taken into account to ensure that an aircraft turnaround is planned with safety being the number one priority.”
We park up Safety One near the Bay 3 aerobridge and I grab my gear as Maria makes yet another entry into her iPad. We head inside to the TCC to have a coffee and I notice the walls of their office are covered in various photos taken over the years, some of bogged airport vehicles while others capture unusual visiting aircraft on the aprons and runways. Darwin really does have a unique location that lends itself to be a staging point for many international aircraft passing through, many of them quite interesting.
I thank Maria for providing an insight into her role and how safety operations are conducted at Darwin International Airport, and for sharing a couple of hours of her shift out on the aerodrome amongst the departing traffic.
So next time you are in Darwin or any major airport for that matter, spare a thought for the professionals in the brightly lit vehicles that make the beginning and end of our journeys as safe as the actual flight between destinations.
Today Air Commodore Mike Kitcher, Officer Conducting Exercise Pitch Black, has officially wrapped up the exercise for 2018. With representatives from 10 different services across 8 of the 16 nations involved in the exercise, it demonstrates just how diverse Pitch Black has become since it’s humble two nation beginings back in the 1980’s.
Between a backdrop of the Royal Malaysian Air Force A400M Atlas and to the other side a Republic of Singapore Air Force KC-135R Stratotanker, AC Kitcher welcomed us to another sunny morning at RAAF Base Darwin – “The exercise concluded yesterday with a final debrief yesterday afternoon and a hot wash up this morning after 10a.m, and already people are preparing to depart. Looking at the flightline, here with the KC-135 and A400M, behind me the C-27 and the fighters, they have all got to get out of here over the next few days”
“So Pitch Black this year was the biggest we’ve had thus far and has been certainly very successful. We’ve had over 4000 people from 16 different nations, 140 aircraft and a lot of firsts for the exercise. The missions we flew were all very successful and the training deemed by all of them (partners) was first class”
“Not only did we get first class air training for our fighter aircraft, but we also got first class training for our transport aircraft, for our joint attack controllers, special forces, Delamere range and other areas, which is a really important part of this exercise”
“Over the course of the three weeks we’ve flown over 1300 sorties, which is the most sorties flown in a Pitch Black, and we’ve done that safely which is extremely pleasing to me and one of the most important factors. One of the firsts has been the use of the E/A-18G Growler and the C-27J and also the first time we have stood up a bare base airfield, down at Batchelor. That was a really important step for us in practicing to be able to provide humanitarian assistance in various scenarios, which we are called on to do regularly around our region.”
“For our foreign participants, a couple of firsts – the Indian Air Force for first time here with their Sukhoi’s and C-130J aircraft, the French are back for the second time, first time with their Rafales, and the Malaysians are back this year and you can see their A400M behind me here, which has been participating in the exercise as a tanker”
“One of the strengths of this exercise was the international participaton, and one of the objectives of this exercise was to make sure we strengthen our regional partnerships and also to improve our interoperability throughout the exercise. I flew in a mission yesterday as Red Air – that mission was extremely complex and the way that the nine different nations and their aircraft worked together was extremely impressive”
With a RMAF F/A-18D ‘Ghost Rider’ noisily announcing it’s return overhead, the Air Commodore goes on.
“I realise the noise is about to end and we do thank the Darwin population for putting up with it and we do respect their support during the exercise – we do our best to minimise it. Thank you to Darwin, we enjoyed putting on the Mindil Beach display and the Open Day and I still enjoy getting airborne out of here and seeing people off either end of the runway showing their support, and we really do appreciate it.”
“We’ve got a gathering of people from our Australian and Foreign participants here and I would like to have them introduce themselves to you and once we are done they will be availabe for a chat”
One by one the members of the group, from RAAF LACW through to IAF Group Captain, introduce themselves. A diverse range of ranks and roles from security forces to detachment commanders, battlespace managment and surveillance to logistics and communications. All important components that come together to make Pitch Black such a successful exercise.
AC Kitcher goes on to say ” Its really important to note that behind us there’s only a few aircrew. The majority of people are not aircrew and if you think of the 4000 people who are involved in the exercise, only about 200-250 of those are aircrew. The others are essential support personnel that makes this exercise tick, whether is refuelling aircraft, maintaining the aircraft or the people that stood up the bare base at Batchelor, whether it’s the supply personnel ensuring the spares get to the aircraft or people that are providing security for the aircraft such as this young lady and her dog here today, or even those that are running the messes – that’s what makes Pitch Black tick”
“It was certainly good to see when I went to the messes here, Australian and Marine Corp cooks in there and later on the Indian cooks got involved – and so we had some cracker curries there later on in the exercise as well.”
“And thats the sort of thing we see at Pitch Black, where young men and women get together and just make things work”
“So just want to say again the exercise was a success and we acheived what we wanted to acheive with all our international partners who are standing behind me today. I hope that Pitch Black will grow and we can expect to see a similar amount of people here in 2020 – I would say for certain the F-35 Joint strike Fighters will be involved in Pitch Black 2022 – there’s a chance they will be involved in 2020 but we will have to see how that goes”
As for the types of scenarios during the exercise – “We conducted a bunch of varied missions in the exercise. In general Darwin is the hub of the Blue Forces and Tindal is the hub of the Red Forces or ‘Baddies’. Up to 60 or 70 aicraft would launch from Darwin and go down to just south of Batchelor (aprox 100km south) where they would marshall, refuel if need be and get set to ‘push’. The Red Forces would marshal about 250 miles (400km) south of Darwin and the airspace that we fight in is one of the largest in the world, including Bradshaw and Delamere weapons ranges beneath the airspace as well.”
“Some of the missions saw up to 80 aircraft involved, obviously a lot of fighters, an E-7A Wedgetail (RAAF) or a Gulfstream G550 (RSAF) for control… we had tankers such as the Singapore tanker (KC-135R) here behind us, plus tankers from Australia (KC-30 MRTT) and Canada (CC-130HT) and the Malaysian A400M. And we had transport aircraft like the C-17 , C-130’s and the C-27.”
“The missions varied as they should, some were designed to escort a C-27 or C-130J into Delamere Range to drop some special forces off or pick some people up. Some were designed to get strike aircraft in to strike at notional targets, some missions were Close Air Support (CAS) where we had Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC) and Forward Air Controller (FAC) at Delamere with a real enemy located on the ground at Delamere. We had Hornets and other aircraft over the top providing CAS for those people as they engaged the enemy in the ground battle”
“Whilst there is a focus on fighter v.s fighter, this Pitch Black was special in that we integrated a lot of the ground elements and that was extremely successful – and having flown a couple of those missions, (against ground elements) they were quite challenging”
I wander about the different services and they all say they have really enjoyed the experience of this exercise here in the Top End, some for the first time in Australia, enjoying the tourist attractions on offer and joking about discovering how many “things that can bite, sting, poison and kill you here”. Some, like the RMAF deployment personnel were able to enjoy the hospitality of local family who provided a huge evening meal – cooking up some real home grown traditional Malay dishes.
I talk with a couple of Royal New Zealand Air Force officers – FLGOFF James Macintosh and FLTLT Daniel Hook – both have been here invloved with the Logistics side of Pitch Black – working at Air Movements for example. They mention how similar a lot of the physical aspects are – pallet and load sizes etc – ‘We are aiming to standardize almost all that we can to make it that much easier to integrate between the Air Forces, but there will be some small items that remain different just due to a different way of doing things in each service ‘ Dan is also the RNZAF Detachment Commander for this deployment and we all chat about the 40 Sqn B757 that was in yesterday and the T-6C Texan II advanced trainers the RNZAF aquired a few years ago – plus how many RNZAF aircraft pass through Darwin on deployments north. Inevitably we turn to discussing the Rugby – I surprise them by saying my money is actually on the All Blacks taking on Oz and they have a laugh and reckon I am throwing my money away.
As we are ushered away to our transport we see the RAAF flightline crews performing a FOD walk in preparation for the Super Hornets to depart – nearby the RSAF crews are almost done getting the KC-135 ready.
It certainly was a huge exercise but surprisingly the local Darwin public seemed to embrace the action, noise and military traffic more than ever…maybe it was the impressive Mindil Beach Display, maybe the largest Open day, who knows? Being a local I have met many that are already looking forward to the next Exercise Pitch Black in two years time…”bring it on” they say.
Many thanks must go to the Exercise Pitch Black Public Affairs team – Eamon, Peter, Marina, Patritia and the PB team for arranging the various media events, often at short notice.
And of course to all the aircrew, maintainers and support teams of the various air forces that gave their time to allow us to share their world for three weeks during this Pitch Black – we look forward to seeing you again soon.