Aviation Spotters Online

Aviation Spotters Online

All posts by Sid Mitchell

Arrival of VMM-268 completes the Air Combat Element (ACE) for MRF-Darwin deployment 2017

On a grey, overcast April afternoon, the final rotary aircraft deployed as part of this year’s Air Combat Element (ACE), in support of Marine Rotational Force – Darwin 2017, pitched into Darwin, NT, Australia. The four MV-22B Ospreys from Marine Medium Tilt Rotor Squadron 268 (VMM-268) ”Red Dragons”, normally based at MCAS Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, are part of Marine Aircraft Group 24 (MAG-24),  1 Marine Air Wing (1st MAW). This will be the first time VMM-268 have been deployed to Australia, having only reach Full Operating Capacity (FOC) with 12 aircraft in January this year. Another 12 are expected to be delivered by the end of 2018.

The first MV-22B from VMM-268 pitching into darwin.

The crews have flown the Ospreys to Australia from Hawaii, via Wake Island and Guam with the help of KC-130J refuellers from VMGR-152 “Sumo’s”, who themselves are based at MCAS Iwakuni, in Japan. With a total distance of about 10,000km (6000mi) flown, they have transited large expanses of open ocean over the last week and have finally arrived around the back of a cyclonic depression off the north coast of Australia.

Gear coming down.

The distinct rotor noise emanating from the Osprey, Super Cobras and Venoms, will again become familiar sounds around the top end of the Northern Territory as they operate to and from the RAAF Base. Flying out to locations such as the Bradshaw Military Training area, less than an hours flight time for the Osprey, the MV-22’s are well suited for operations in Northern Australia. They have been to Darwin for short periods previously, but this is the first time they will spend such a long land based deployment in Australia.

Almost fully transitioned from forward to hover flight configuration.

With a range of over 1500km and a cruise speed of just over 500kmh, a crew of 3 plus up to 24 troops, they will be one of the largest and fastest operators during this marine rotation.

Short final runway 11 – Darwin.

They are unique in that they can provide a high speed ‘force connection’ capability, linking forward operating bases to staging landing sites or specific field locations of ground elements, in a very short time. Air to air refuelling capability expands the operating range while high speed reduces the deployment time into the battle space, giving an edge to troop insertion missions. The MV-22 can perform troop insertion and extraction even where a landing is not practical. In the case during the Northern Territory’s dusty dry season, it can also perform restricted visibility landings landings employing a hover type approach from 50 ft into a vertical landing.

A supporting KC-135J Hercules from VMGR-152 – motto “Ichi Go Ni”
Another supporting KC-135J “Sumo”

This now brings the total Aviation Combat Element (ACE) to 13 aircraft that will be stationed at R.A.A.F Base Darwin, including five AH-1W Super Cobras and four UH-1Y Venom helicopters from Marine Light Attack Attack Helicopter Squadron 367 (HMLA-367) “Scarface”. The HMLA-367 aircraft have been delivered from Hawaii by C-17 Globemaster III from Hickam AFB over the last few weeks with crews already beginning to familiarise themselves with the Darwin airspace.

AH-1W Super Cobra from HMLA-367
HMLA-367 UH-1Y Venom back into Darwin.

They have just arrived but ASO certainly looks forward to bringing you some more pics as the weeks progress, or if you can make your way to Darwin there will be plenty of opportunities to catch them airborne yourself.


My gear – Nikon D7100, 15-55mm, 50mm, 70-200mm and 200-500mm. Sandisk SDXC UHS-I memory cards.

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The Thundering Third arrive in the Top End for Marine Rotational Force – Darwin 2017

The first large group of Marines have arrived in Darwin this week from the “Thundering Third”, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment based out of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in 29 Palms, California. The deployment is just part of the United States Force Posture Initiatives which earlier in 2017 has already included an Enhanced Air Cooperation (EAC) initiative based out of RAAF Base Tindal. For more on the F-22 and F/A-18 EAC please follow this link-  EAC – Raptor and the Hornet

nOmni B777-200ER
Omni Air International B777-200 N846AX arriving into Darwin with the first Marine contingent.

Touching down on board an Omni Air International 777-200ER just after 9a.m. local time, after its 15 hour flight time originating at MCAS Miramar, California, via Honolulu, the Marines disembarked into RAAF Base Darwin’s Air Movements terminal. Shortly afterwards they were welcomed by the Commander of the 1st Brigade, Brigadier Ben James, AM, DSM, after which they caught transport to their host accommodation at the Australian Army’s Robertson Barracks.

pOmni B777-200ER
Omni Air International taxies to the RAAF Terminal before off loading Marines.

This years Marine Rotational Force-Darwin (MRF-D 2017) continues the long standing training relationship that Australia has with the United States. The training facilities provided by the expansive space of the Northern Territory present a premium opportunity to improve cooperation and interoperability between the two nations. It also furthers both country’s commitment to providing regional security and engagement.

Training this rotation has been lifted to a higher level and will not just include live weapons firing but also reacting to scenarios of disaster or humanitarian relief and counter terrorism missions.

While in Australia the MRF-Darwin will also participate to varying degrees with other exercises planned during 2017 such as Exercises Southern Jackaroo, Talisman Sabre, Kowari, Koolendong and Crocodile Strike. These and other activities will also involve personnel from other regional nations including New Zealand, China, Japan and Indonesia.

qAtlas Air B767-38E
Atlas Air Boeing 767-38E

Atlas Air is another contracted airlift company providing logistics support to the US forces deploying to Australia. Atlas Air’s B767-38E, also carrying personnel, arrived from Andersen AFB, Guam within 24 hrs of the Omni 777.

rAtlas Air B767-38E
Atlas Air N641GT departing Darwin after off loading Marines
sAtlas Air B767-38E
N641GT tucking the gear away – Darwin

Lt. Col. Matthew Emborsky, the officer in charge of the forward coordination for Marine Rotational Force — Darwin 2017,  earlier stated the 3/4th will be supported by other Marines from the 7th Engineer Support Battalion out of Camp Pendleton, also from California. They are all part of this years contingent for the 6th Marine Rotational Force – Darwin (MRF-D).

With large scale exercises or detachments, there is always some lead up activity and often can include various aircraft passing through like the UC-35A, a military designated Cessna Citation 560.

USAiCessna Citation UC-35Ai

Also the Boeing C-40 Clipper (737) carrying larger delegations – both observed flying in and out before and after each exercise. The Northern Territory is no stranger to these aircraft and they mostly go un-noticed, blending in with the other international air traffic.

USAF C-40 Clipperb
USAF C-40 Clipper

Moving larger items and some personnel has been performed by Boeing C-17A Globemaster III, staging from a variety of overseas locations including aircraft from the 535th Airlift Squadron, 15WG/154thWG, JB Pearl-Hickam, and the 3rd Airlift Squadron 436th/512 AW AMC Dover AFB.

USAF C-17 A Globemaster III
USAF C-17 Globemaster arriving late into Darwin with rotary cargo.

Some initial movements included the transport of compacted UH-1Y Venom and AH-1W Cobra helicopters from the HMLA-367 home base at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.

USAF C-17 A Globemaster III
534th AS Globemaster – Darwin
kUSAF C-17 A Globemaster III
USAF C-17 departing Darwin after sunset.

After unloading from the Globemasters,  the Venoms and Cobras were moved to where they could be assembled for ground checks and pre-flight run-ups. From there they conducted initial test flights to bring them up to operating status.

Towing a pair of AH-1W’s from HMLA-367

To provide airborne support for the troops and equipment movements during the deployment, there is a significant aviation element planned. The total Aviation Combat Element (ACE) of 13 aircraft is expected to be stationed at R.A.A.F Base Darwin, although they will often transit to and from forward landing fields, and may, if like previous years, overnight at remote exercise locations. It will begin with four MV-22 Ospreys assigned from Marine Medium Tilt Rotor Squadron 268 (VMM-268) ”Red Dragons”. It will be the first deployment for VMM-268 out of Hawaii since the unit arrived from California mid 2016. Although VMM-268 has not deployed to the NT previously, other Osprey squadrons such as VMM-265 have participated in exercises here.

qqMV-22B Osprey
MV-22B Osprey from VMM-265 “Dragons” – Darwin

The “Red Dragons” MV-22B Osprey aircraft, which are flying nearly 10,000 km to Australia via Wake Island and Guam with the help of KC-130J refuellers from VMGR-152 “Sumo’s”, are well suited for operations in Northern Australia. They are unique in that they can provide a high speed ‘force connection’ capability, linking forward operating bases to the actual field location of ground elements in a very short time. Their high cruise speed and longer operating range, along with the ability to configure for mission roles such as troop insertion, or MediVac, make the Osprey a versatile asset in the battle space.

VMM-265 MV-22 Osprey at the Open Day Darwin 2015

I relation to the deployment to Australia, Captain Aaron Brugman, an MV-22 pilot with VMM-268 out of Kaneohe Bay says – “This is definitely going to prove the range and distance and speed of the Osprey and kind of really shape the global reach that we’re looking for within the Pacific area. While we’re in Darwin, some of the training areas we can can easily get to within 45 minutes,” he said, “But the helicopters won’t be able to do that, or they’ll require fuel support from us or another ground-based, whereas we can just fly down there, do our thing and come back. It’s a good area for the Osprey’s capabilities, for sure.”

zMV-22B Osprey
MV-22B Osprey transitioning to forward flight from hover departure – Darwin

In addition to the Ospreys, there will be five AH-1W Super Cobras and four UH-1Y Venom helicopters from Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 367 (HMLA-367) “Scarface”. HMLA-367 have operated both types in the Northern Territory on past exercises. With offensive weapons such at the 20 mm M197 Gatling cannon, 2.75 in Hydra 70 or APKWS II rockets (in both 7 or 19 shot LAU launchers or even up to 8 AGM-114 Hellfire missiles mounted on the two outboard hard points, the AH-1W Super Cobras are a very capable aircraft at providing close air support.

xH-1W Super Cobra
HMLA-367 “Scarface”

The UH-1Y Venom is a versatile medium utility helicopter and provides not only transport for up to 10 marines, it can also exercise air to ground suppressive fire from a pair of door mounted 7.62mm M240 GPMGs and deliver 2.75in Hydra 70 or APKWS II rockets when fitted with their 7 round launchers. In 2016 the HMLA-367 Venoms were seen configured in this fashion a number of times as they departed for local weapons ranges near Darwin.

ggUH-1Y Venom
UH-1Y Venom – “Scarface” from Marine Light Attack Attack Helicopter Squadron 367

HMLA-367 is no stranger to Northern Australia having been deployed the Top End as recently as 2016. They will be in familiar territory performing key training activities with the Australian Defence Force at various training areas such as the Bradshaw Field Training Area (BFTA).

yAH-1W Super Cobra
AH-1W Super Cobra
ffUH-1Y Venom
UH-1Y Venom USMC medium utility helicopter armed with door mounted 7.62mm M240’s and Hyda 70 launchers

As the rotation has now entered the ramp up phase, we look forward to seeing a greater number of USMC aircraft coming and going from RAAF Base Darwin. It won’t just be United States forces out and about, expect to see the Australia Defence Force in the action as well.

gUSAF C-17 A Globemaster III
C-17 Globemaster III – “Spirit Of Go For Broke”
KC-130J a VMGR-152 “Sumo” – typical air-to-air refuellers for the MV-22B Osprey

Although there has been no announcement made yet, there may be a static display organised at the Royal Darwin Showgrounds as it was in 2016. A great opportunity to get up close to the equipment and ask questions of both the USMC and ADF operations personnel who play a part of the Marine Rotational Force – Darwin 2017.

So if you can make your way to the Top End this dry season, there is plenty on offer for the casual, or serious, aviation photographer… blue skies and cool nights.

Cheers… Sid

I use Nikon D7100, 18-55mm, 50mm, 70-200mm, 200-500mm and Sandisk Extreme SD cards.


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Enhanced Air Cooperation – the first in Australia combining the USAF F-22 and RAAF F/A-18


The alarm went off at 0500 and I was up in a flash, and on the road to RAAF Base Tindal by 0530. Today was going to be one of those days that only come along on rare occasions.

The occasion?…. An opportunity to speak to four key personal involved with the first Enhanced Air Cooperation activity to be conducted in Australia. Not only that, I was going to see both the United States Air Force F-22 Raptor and a Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18A Hornet close up.

Entrance to the Base

Arriving in Katherine, 330km from home, a coffee and fuel stop was in order before driving the 15km to RAAF Base Tindal.
After meeting FLTLT Stephanie and FLGOFF Dea at the security gates, we boarded a bus which transported us into the restricted, operational area of the base. As we arrived outside the Air Movements building, I could just make out a couple of sharp edged fins protruding from the surrounding vegetation. Definitely not the shape of an F/A-18 tail that I was familiar with.
We were welcomed into the building by Marnie from Department of Defence Public Affairs and shown through to the apron. 

USAF 90th F-22 Raptor and 75Sqn F/A-18A Hornet on display.

Parked right there in front was a USAF F-22 Raptor, the Commanding officer’s personal aircraft, and a RAAF F/A-18A Hornet nose to nose and in front of the aircraft and standing in the hot sun waiting for us were our hosts:

Our hosts – USAF and RAAF

Wing Commander Andrew Tatnell -Senior Australian Defence Officer RAAF Tindal
Wing Commander Michael Grant – 75 Squadron Commanding Officer
Lieutenant Colonel David Skalicky – USAF 90th Fighter Squadron Commander
Flight Lieutenant William “Gradz”Grady – Hornet pilot on exchange to the 90th Fighter Sqn

WGCDR Grant welcomes us to the home of 75 Squadron, RAAF Tindal.

The film crew set up their camera while we waited for the C-17 from the 517th Airlift Squadron to shut down it’s APU. This C-17 Globemaster III is one of the support aircraft for the 90th FS while in Australia, and is also based out of Elmendorf, Alaska. It has been shuffling equipment and personnel around in support of the detachment, including down to Avalon.

USAF C-17 98-0051 517th Airlift Squadron, 3rd Wing, Elmendorf, Alaska
KC-135R Stratotanker from 173rd ARS, 155th ARW, Nebraska ANG
KC-135R Stratotanker from 72nd Air Refuelling Squadron, 434th ARW, Grissom AFRC, Indiana

In addition to the C-17 a pair of KC-135Rs have been supporting the 90th in both local air to air refuelling plus transiting across and back to Townsville in Queensland. One from the 173rd Air Refuelling Squadron, 155th Air Refuelling Wing, Nebraska, Air National Guard and another from the 72nd Air Refuelling Squadron, 434th ARW, Grissom AFRC, Indiana.

Wing Commander Andrew Tatnell -Senior Australian Defence Officer RAAF Tindal

First up to speak and welcoming us was Wing Commander Tatnell, the senior ADO who explained – “This opportunity provides the Enhanced Air Cooperation between the Australia and the US where we get to train and work together to validate what we do, and from that, we can in the future, be better prepared to support any requirement that is tasked of us. The F-22 has been able to come to Tindal in its current form and we are well developed to support all fighter operations from this air base. It’s a great place, lots of clear airspace to fly around in and down the road we have Delamere Air Weapons Range. There they can operate over that range unimpeded and not bother anyone in the Northern Territory.”

Wing Commander Michael Grant – 75 Squadron Commanding Officer

He then handed over the speakers position to Wing Commander Michael Grant CO of 75 SQN who said “It’s an absolute pleasure to be hosting the 90th Fighter squadron here, this and next week. It’s no mean effort to bring a squadron down from Alaska and we are really excited to have them here operating in our back yard” He goes on to say “It is a real privilege to have Australia involved with a 4th Gen – 5th Gen mix. In previous years we have had to have squadrons deployed over to places like Alaska or Nevada to participate in exercises such as Red Flag. Those exercises can have over 100 aircraft in them and we don’t always get to work directly with F-22s when we are there. So it is a real privilege that the 90th and 75 sqn operating solely here at Tindal over these next two weeks.”

F/A-18A A21-53 on loan from 3Sqn, taxies past- aircraft often move between squadrons these days.

WGCDR Grant continued on to explain the focus is purely on interoperability and integrated tactics taking the absolute strengths of the 4th generation aircraft and combining them with the huge strengths of the 5 generation aircraft, bundling them together to deal with the scenario threats presented at the moment.

The current generation of fighter pilots.

“This is really important, as Australia progresses into a fifth generation Air Force, we’re going to face the exact same scenario as we have here. As the F-35 comes online in a couple of years, that transition won’t happen overnight. So while this cooperation between 75 and the 90th is fantastic, it is also critical for Australia as we will have F-35s and F-18s (4th and 5th Gen) operating in the same scenario. We will need to be good at it, and so we are getting that valuable training this week”.

90th Tactical Fighter Squadron plaque – Ex Pitch Black 1987 hanging in the opearations room.

I remember when working at 75 Sqn that both 75 SQN and the 90th Tactical Fighter Squadron (as they were known back then), had flown together previously in the Northern Territory. Exercise Pitch Black in 1987 saw the two squadrons, one flying the Mirage III and the other the Phantom F-4E/G, both performing in mock battles in the skies over the N.T. A plaque remains commemorating their visit on the wall in the old RAAF Base Darwin operations room.
WGCDR Grant continues on the historical relation ship between the US and Australia – “75 and the 90th have a rich and long history both being ‘born’ around the early 1940’s dealing with the conflict in the Pacific. Fast forward seven and a half decades and I find myself overseas on operations side by side with the 90th very recently in theatre, and this week we’re back together again in a significant exercise, testing our integration and interoperability. It is with great pleasure I introduce the Commanding Officer of the 90th”.

Lieutenant Colonel David Skalicky – USAF 90th Fighter Squadron Commander

Lieutenant Colonel David “Zeke” Skalicky steps up to the microphone and begins by telling us they have brought 12 F-22s and about 240 airman down to Tindal to integrate with 75Sqn.
“This exercise provides the unique opportunity to integrate down at the unit level in smaller packages – we have integrated in large combat operations and exercises before, but this exercise allows us to delve into the smaller scale tactics and individual execution of each pilot to make us better as a team. What that does for us, it makes us a better postured to meet with emerging threats or anything happening in the future – a better coalition to meet the challenges of the future.
What we have with us is the C-17 cargo aircraft and a KC-135R refuelling aircraft and while we focus on fighter to fighter integration, there’s a whole logistics side to the EAC. In bringing those logistics forces down we have seen that the interoperability of the fighters, logistics, security forces and maintenance functions that WGCDR Tatnell is in charge of. All those parts of our services interact very well and we are seeing the synergistic effects of combining our efforts.”
“For me, its been an absolute pleasure to get to fly with the 75 squadron again, getting to match our F-22 and F-18 capabilities together in a training environment, but also it’s been neat to see the logistics of both our sides working together. To see all that come together has been phenomenal”.

Lieutenant Colonel David Skalicky – discussing the operations while in Australia.

“We have a long tradition of integrating with Australia and that goes all the way back to WWII when the 90th Bomb Squadron at the time was operating out of Northern Australia. More recently we’ve had an Australian exchange pilot in the “Dicemen” as part of my squadron. I’ve got him here today, he has been a phenomenal asset, and an integral part of the Dicemen for the last several years and so I would like to introduce FLTLT William Grady”

Flight Lieutenant William “Gradz”Grady – speaking on his experience as an exchange pilot to the 90th FS

Flight Lieutenant William “Gradz”Grady moves forward and although wearing his RAAF ranked flight suit, it bears the patches of the ‘Pair-o-Dice’ (90th FS), Pacific Air Forces, and his “Gradz Grady ‘Dicemen’ name badge. FLTLT Grady does however retain his RAAF FCI patch on the left shoulder.

FltLt “Gradz”Grady – displaying his hard earned badges.

He also sports the coveted pair of dice awarded to all pilots of the 90th Fight Squadron.

The coveted “Pair-o-Dice”

“ I arrived at the 90th Squadron in November 2014 and I will likely depart in December this year. So its about a three year tenure in total. The idea behind the exchange is for a RAAF pilot normally from Air Combat Group, to be converted to type and taken across to Alaska to fly integrated with the pilots at that squadron. That involves daily training, daily ground training, participating in the exercises that we have in Alaska, and of course it involves travelling across the United States and overseas as required to do so in those exercises and deployments WGCDR Grant talked about earlier”
“The premise of the exchange from an Australian perspective is to gain a good, solid understanding of 5th generation fighter flying, to bring those tactics and techniques back to Australia so we can stand up that integrated and technical force that we are desiring in Australia with the E7, Super Hornet, Growler and eventually the F-35. So it’s a fantastic opportunity for me personally and professionally to be part of it and bring that knowledge back.”

The distinctive ‘Pair-O-Dice” emblem of the 90thFS on the CO’s personal aircraft.

He goes on to say “ From the USAF side I would hope they gain a highly experienced fighter pilot into their squadron as well, hopefully they get a different perspective of how to achieve a mission or a task we are up against every day. So ultimately it comes down to that interoperability, that cross service we talked about earlier, and doing it over a longer term to achieve the goals we are after as an integrated force.”

F-22 Raptor – the CO’s personal squadron aircraft.

Lieutenant Colonel Skalicky says “ What FLTLT Grady talked about – his contribution to the 90th and USAF, well…he is being a little modest in that. He was actually our squadron’s Instructor Pilot of the Year, an award he won from the entire 3rd Wing, which is about five squadrons worth of different aircraft. So he is an absolute asset not only to the 90th, 3rd Wing, but the United States Air Force and we are honoured to have him flying along side of us.”
“The exercise we are conducting is actually one that FLTLT Grady built – a rolling fictitious scenario involving some high end threats that optimise the capabilities of the F22 and F18 to show what we can really do. It has problems that the F-22 can’t solve on its own and problems the F-18 can’t solve alone. So it forces us to combine and realise that interoperability and what we can do together as a team.”
“The F22 is probably the most advance aircraft we have in the USAF but this exercise is not just about their unique capabilities, we realise that due to the numbers of F-22’ we have, we are much more effective when we bring in our coalition partners and their assets, like the 2 Squadron E7 Wedgetail and alone we can’t accomplish these scenarios but together we can”.

Australia has been participating in the bi-lateral pilot exchange programme with the USAF for years. Australian fighter pilots have been embedded in Navy F/A-18As, Air Force F-15C/Es, F-16s, and F-22s. with pilots  The first F-22 exchange pilot was Squadron Leader Matthew Harper who was a F-22 instructor pilot and was the 90th EFS officer in charge of scheduling and training. Sqn Ldr Harper began his exchange posting starting in late 2008.

Raptors in the circuit quickly get our attention and the interview is paused.

With regards to Townsville – “We were in Townsville twice in the past weeks….” He pauses as a flight of F-22s perform their initial and pitch overhead prior to landing. “What we were looking at there was this logistical side of the operational initiative – its really about demonstrating that we do very well in the logistics side , not just the fighters. What that gave us was that we know that we have the capability to meet say, humanitarian crisis, earthquakes, tsunami’s , something like that, We know we can go to a RAAF Base, know the kind of support we’re going to get.”

F-22 leaving runway 32 RAAF Tindal
Raptor on taxiway.
No louder on the ground than it’s contemporaries.

We watch the F-22s land and taxi past to their parking bays on the apron behind the Parked C-17.

F-22 taxiing for refuelling.
90th Raptor taxiing past the squadrons’s support C-17 Globemaster.
Taxi to parking.

I have a chance to ask Lieutenant Colonel Skalicky what celebrations he has planned for their 100th birthday later in the year. he said “We are planning a few celebrations back in Elmendorf – a night where we all get dressed up in our uniforms (USAF dress code), a large dinner function. We are also trying to organising a cruise, glacier cruise. It’s a big occasion – well the first 100th birthday for us – a long time since that original formation of the 90th at Kelly Field (Texas)”

Lieutenant Colonel ‘Zeke” Skalicky – not really a shy guy at all.

I asked him what triggered his interest in an aviation career – “Ever since I was a kid, its all I ever wanted to do. In fact I still have a little Dr Seuss book, and it has writing in it from when I was a kid, one of the last things in it – ‘when I grow up I want to be’ – and I wrote in there with a backwards letter or two – PILOT – and so here I am. In my career I have flown just the trainer aircraft and the F-15C then the F-22. I’ve got a little over 2000 hours time in those two aircraft. The conversion from F-15 to the F-22 can be relatively short, a few weeks in the simulators plus classroom time is all it can take for a really experienced pilot to take his first flight”.

RAAF Hornet A21-31 and returning in the midday heat of the tropics
A21-31 taxiing to the OLA’s.

We mingle and I ask Wing Commander Grant whether 75 Squadron has finalised details for it’s up coming 75th celebration, He says they aren’t all set in concrete yet as the squadron has some flying commitments at the same time as the birthday. But should be sorted soon.

A21-13 a loaned 3Sqn aircraft, normal practice these days.

Just then some returning 75 Sqn Hornets initial and pitch above us, land and taxi past behind the two parked aircraft, and then off towards their OLA’s. Such a great sight, sound and smell that I do miss from my own days at 3 Squadron RAAF Base Williamtown. The 3 Sqn aircraft, A21-13 on loan to 75 Sqn passes behind and he joking asks me not to photograph it – “You should be taking pics of of our Magpie aircraft” he says with a grin.

RAAF E-7A Wedgetail AEW&C A30-001 – an essential airborne asset during this EAC

As the Wing Commander finishes an aircraft integral to this EAC The E-7A Wedgetail AEW&C lands and gracefully taxies past us to it’s parking slot. One of the quiet achievers in the RAAF inventory.

RAAF E-7A Wedgetail A30-001
Friend and Foe in some of the training scenarios – E-7A and F-22, both very capable in their own right.

Once the Wedgetail has move out of earshot Flight Lieutenant Grady continues to describe flying the F-22 – “To fly the F-22 is just unbelievable, its a fantastic jet, who can complain about having super-cruise, super manoeuvrability, integrated avionics and stealth of course. Its one of this aircraft you can’t ‘blame your tools’ on anymore, one of the down side to debrief (as he smiles) . To Fly, you go up there, race to 50,000 feet and at Mach 1.3. It makes it incredibly challenging but also fantastic to go to work every day.” 

F-22 being relocated after shutting down.
USAF maintainers towing an aircraft from the apron.

I watch as a USAF maintenance hook up a tow motor and tow bar to one of the Raptors and proceeded to move it from the apron to the OLA’s after it had shut down earlier.

Excellent all round vision through the one piece canopy.

With regards to bringing his skills from Alaska back to Australia – “ We are getting the JSF, F-35 and whilst this exchange isn’t directly supporting that, all the experience and the lessons we have from operating with the USAF, flying the F-22, will be interchangeable with the F-35. So we will be able to bring those lessons back, develop them and stand up the F-35 as soon as possible. The end state Australia is looking for is a highly technical, integrated force leveraging off the E-7, Super Hornet, Growler and that F-35 mix in there as well. With those components we should be punching above our weight.”

Last Raptor wave returns to base.

The final flight of F-22s fly over and land in trail on RAAF Base Tindal’s 2744m runway.

Final sortie roll out on landing.

I watch mesmerised as they again taxi past on their way to the OLA’s.

Heat haze at RAAF Base Tindal as the final wave returns.
To the OLA’s.

Finally as the last Raptor taxi’s to it’s lair it is time to wrap it up – all of us feeling the heat a little after an hour and a half in the Top End’s blazing sun.

Last Raptor returning to it’s nest.

I shake hands and thank the pilots and CO’s who gave me their valuable time to open a window into their exciting world.
Wing Commander Andrew Tatnell -Senior Australian Defence Officer RAAF Tindal
Wing Commander Michael Grant – 75 Squadron Commanding Officer
Lieutenant Colonel David Skalicky – USAF 90th Fighter Squadron Commander
Flight Lieutenant William “Gradz”Grady – Hornet pilot on exchange to the 90th Fighter Sqn

A few final pics and it’s time to wrap it up.

Meandering back into the Air Movements building I begin reflecting on what has been an experience I won’t forget for a long time. YES! – I have seen a F-22 Raptor up close.
I would like to thank Marnie from DOD Public Affairs, for the opportunity to attend this unique event, and FLTLT Stephanie, FLGOFF Dea and CPL Kelly for getting us safely to and from the location.

Cheers… Sid Mitchell
I use Nikon D7100, 18-55mm, 50mm, 70-200mm and 200-500mm, Sandisk cards.

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Bombing of Darwin – 75th Anniversary

Just before 10 a.m on the morning of the 19th of February 1942, Australian history was marked by a dark moment as Darwin became the first major target on land to be bombed by a large airborne enemy force.
Having been relatively immune from enemy strikes, this attack was to be a wake up call for Australia as a nation…. war and conflict had finally reach our shores. Australians had heard on the wireless and in read in print news of the Japanese surprise attack on the United States at Pearl Harbour, but most never thought the horror of war would impact the civilian population so violently on home soil.

“Fighter Guide Map No. 1B, Darwin Area”, March 1944. Produced for air defence purposes by the Royal Australian Air Force.

The initial Darwin raid at 9.58am, was conducted by 188 Japanese aircraft, 36 A6M2 ‘Zero” fighter escorts protecting 71 Aichi D3A “Val” and 85 Nakajima B5N2 “Kate” bombers from four Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carriers, the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu, located in the Timor Sea to the north.

Nine large ships were to eventually sink in Darwin Harbour as a result of the raid that day and a further two more outside the harbour. More than 15 others would be damaged either at anchor, berthed or in slipways.

The Neptunia which was loaded with ammunition blows up at Darwin wharf. Rescue craft, the HMAS Vigilant and the Katoomba are centre pic. while the Zealandia to the right later caught fire and sank.

A second attack followed 25 minutes later buy 54 land-based aircraft including 27 Mitsubishi G3M ‘Nell” and a further 27 Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers.

Fuel bunkers burn at Stokes Hill after being struck by Japanese bombs dropped on 19th February 1942

Both attacks caused considerable damage and loss of life to not only the military but the civilians of Darwin. The Darwin Hospital, Post Office, Police Barracks, Bank of NSW, 7 out of 10 fuel bunkers (tanks), wharf, rail/road facilities and the telegraph line were just some of the infrastructure damaged.

Darwin Police Barracks which was destroyed during the air raid on 19 February 1942.

With the Australian Government’s official figures as a result of the two raids that day being 235 people killed and an estimated 300 to 400 wounded causalities, many allied soldiers and sailors , some say those numbers under estimates the real figure.

Destroyed and damaged buildings in the business centre of Darwin. The remains of Jolly’s Store, the Bank of NSW and the Commonwealth Bank can be seen.

As a response ten P-40’s of the 33rd (Provisional) Pursuit Group USAAF, which was based at Darwin on that day, were sortied with all but two being shot down defending Darwin and the following pursuit of the raiders as they departed. The newly formed “A” Flight 33rd Pursuit Squadron, under command of Maj Pell ceased to exist that day following the air raid and aerial combat with the Japanese. One of the later wartime air strips built 100km down the Stuart Hi-way was named in Major Floyd Pell’s honour. Even though it was surprise attack, one Kate dive bomber was shot down over Darwin, a Val and a Zero crashed from damage returning to their carriers and a further Zero crash landed on Melville Island to the north of Darwin.

The remains of Sgt Toyoshima’s IJN A6M Zero on Melville Island north of Darwin.

Of note was that the Japanese Zero pilot., Sgt Hajame Toyoshima became Australia’s first prisoner of war captured on home soil, being detained by local Aboriginal men until handed over to military authorities.

The one fully airworthy surviving aircraft, piloted by Lieutenant Robert (Bob) Oestricher claimed two of the four Japanese aircraft shot down during the raid.

No. 2 squadron Hudsons had just started returning to Darwin from Koepang (Kupang) on 18 February 1942, joining some of 13 Squadron Hudsons at the RAAF Station. Other 2 Sqn Hudsons arrived at Darwin on 19 February only a few hours before the first Japanese bombing attack. Up to 30 aircraft were reported as destroyed in various telegraphs to HQ, including 6 Hudsons, 2 Kittyhawks and a B-24 Liberator totally wrecked on the ground with a Wirraway plus another Hudson badly damaged as well. In air combat 8 Kittyhawks were shot down and 1 returned suffering battle damage.

Lockheed Hudson bomber aircraft A16-57 of No. 2 Squadron RAAF – destroyed on the ground that day.
Aerial view of the damaged RAAF Station after the raid.

It interesting to note that more bombs were dropped on Darwin, the RAAF Station and Darwin harbour on the 19th February 1942 than were delivered in the attack on Pearl Harbour 3 months prior. Some long range drop tanks were initially mistaken as bombs in the aftermath of the raid.

A pair of crushed and damaged Japanese long range fuel tanks which were recovered after the first Japanese air raid.

WWII relics are still visible at many Darwin locations and in the surrounding areas including a number of airfields and storage facilities used during the war. Darwin also has a number of historical centres that show the wartime history including the  Australian Aviation Heritage Centre, WWII Oil Storage Tunnels, Darwin Military Museum and the Royal Flying Doctor Service Darwin Tourist Facility at the wharf which includes the Bombing of Darwin Harbour display with a replica A6M Zero suspended from the roof. 

A mural painted on the wall of an ammunition bunker in the old storage area off Bombing Road, Winnellie.

Even today evidence of attacks can be seen at the old QANTAS hangar – formerly of the RAAF station in Parap. Strafing runs performed by A6M Zeros have left 20mm cannon left holes in the building’s structure in a number of places.


One popular airfield right on the Stuart Highway is Strauss Airstrip, about 45 km from Darwin CBD. It is a popular rest stop for travellers to the NT with Strauss Airfield providing some information boards and three painted silhouettes of aircraft types used to defend Northern Australia.

P40 Kittyhawk silhouette at Strauss Airstrip
Spitfire Mk Vc silhouette at Strauss Airstrip
Spitfire Mk VIII silhouette at Strauss Airstrip

In Honour of this 75th Anniversary two locally based aircraft, an AT6 Harvard and DH.82 Tiger Moth, both flew over the city. This was in addition to the USS Peary Memorial Service conducted earlier in the morning. USS Peary , a destroyer at anchor in Darwin Harbour, was sunk in the attack and many allied sailors died as a result.

USS Peary monument
Destroyer USS Peary Deck Cannon Monument
Australian Navy patrol boat HMAS Maryborough in darwin harbour

The ADF also performed displays for the public, a simulated attack with the Australian Navy’s patrol boat HMAS Maryborough firing it’s guns, and troops from the Australian Army at Robertson Barracks firing field guns near the Cenotaph.

Australian Army firing field guns at the Cenotaph

At 9:58am a low level flypast by the Royal Australian Air Force roared overhead, consisting of 4 aircraft , a P-3C Orion based at RAAF Base Darwin plus three F/A-18A Hornets flown up from RAAF Base Tindal. The first past was as a combined formation then as the smoke cleared from the gunfire, individual low passes back over the Cenotaph and CBD.

P-3C Orion and Tindal based F/A-18A’s in formation pass over Darwin.
10 Sqn P-3C Orion passing low over Larrakeyah Barrack on it’s way to the CBD
Hornets departing over the Darwin Cenotaph

Truly a sad day in Australian and Allied history but one that is to be remembered with a memorial ceremony held every year on 19 February at the Cenotaph in Darwin. As with each year past, at 9:58 am a World War II Air Raid Siren sounds to mark the precise time of the first attack. Lets We Forget.


Cheers…Sid Mitchell

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Newest additions to the RAAF arrive in Australia – Pilatus PC-21 A54-001 and A54-002

On a humid Saturday afternoon, the latest additions to the Royal Australian Air Force inventory A54-001 and A54-002, touched down about 8 minutes apart at RAAF Base Darwin, Northern Territory. The two Pilatus PC-21 aircraft, both sporting the Southern Cross, ‘Invasion” stripes, and the No2 Flying Training School (2FTS) crest, have flown under Swiss civilian HB-HWA and HB-HWB registrations. They have almost completed their full delivery flights from Pilatus Aircraft in Stans, Switzerland to be handed over to the ADF as part of the AIR 5428 Pilot Training System project, and today at 5:30pm marked their landfall in Australia.

Pilatus PC-21 HB-HWA (A54-001) arrives in Australia

It has been a long series of flights for the two pilots lasting nearly a week, which has seen them traverse half way around the globe via countries such as Italy, Kingdom Of Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia just to name a few. One of the longest legs was from Bangkok to Singapore across the Gulf of Thailand – a 3 hour stint mostly over water and not a problem for the aircraft cruising at about 280 knots.

Pilatus PC-21 HB-HWB (A54-002) arrives in Australia

After performing post flight checks, topping up the internal and external tanks, putting blanks and covers on, the two Pilatus pilots departed, leaving the aircraft on the civilian apron overnight until they next depart.

Topping up the tanks after arriving from Kupang, Indonesia.

These two aircraft, A54-001 only having completed it’s first flight in July last year, are the first of 49 to eventually be delivered to the RAAF. They are the most advanced pilot training aircraft and will replace the current Pilatus PC-9A advanced trainer and CT-4B basic trainer aircraft and will be located at both RAAF Base East Sale in Victoria and RAAF Base Pearce in Western Australia. Basic pilot training with the CT-4B will continue at Tamworth, NSW.

HB-HWA and HB-HWB receiving, after-flight checks before bedding down for the night.
Post flight chat by the two Swiss Pilatus pilots.

With the planned retirement of the now old PC-9A, Pilatus places the PC-21 into the advanced trainer market as a 21st Century Trainer for a 21st Century Air Force and states the “PC-21 has better aerodynamic performance than any other turboprop trainer on the market.” 

Powered by the proven Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-68B coupled to a five-blade Scimitar graphite propeller, it can deliver 1600 SHp propelling the PC-21 to a maximum operating speed of 370knots and to a maximum service ceiling of 38,000 feet.

Equiped with digital power management systems and auto-yaw compensation, hydraulically operated control surfaces, the PC-21 is designed to allow continuous low level high speed operations exceeding 320kts and using roll spoilers can deliver fighter like roll rates for the trainee.

A54-002 – once officially handed to the Royal Australian Air Force.

The Pilatus in house avionics suite and cockpit design have been produced to mimic the latest front line fighters in current use. A glass cockpit utilising 3 main active matrix liquid displays (AMLCD) deliver a full systems, navigation and communications package including the standard Hands On Throttle And Stick (HOTAS) and Up Front Control Panel (UFCP). The step for the graduating pilot from this cockpit to the operation Squadron aircraft will be closer than ever before.

Capable of carrying 2535lbs (1150kgs) of stores on four under-wing and one centerline external stations, giving it some flexibility in performing the various roles intended by the Royal Australian Air Force.

Covers and blanks fitted…time for a rest.

No doubt once the serial number and RAAF roundel stickers are unveiled, the PC-21 will be warmly welcomed as a further extension to the constant evolution of training systems in our Defence Forces and certainly welcomed to Australian skies by many aviation enthusiasts around the country.

Flying completed for another day.

For a lot of the public, they will get to see the new Pilatus PC-21 at Avalon this year and get up close for a good look at the best trainer Australia could purchase for its up and coming pilots. We certainly hope to see more PC-21’s out and about as more are delivered over the coming years.

Cheers from the Top End… Sid Mitchell

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Supporting the USAF 90th FS F-22 Raptor deployment to Northern Australia

Recently the announcement was made by the Minister for Defence, Senator the Hon Marise Payne, regarding the deployment of USAF F-22 Raptors from the 90th Fighter Squadron, 3rd Wing to Northern Australia. This deployment is part of the first Enhanced Air Co-operation (EAC) activity in Australia, an element of the United State’s Force Posture Initiatives.

As with most deployments, the need arises for some logistical movements to be carried out, especially to pre-position personnel and equipment in advance of arriving aircraft. With the USAF receiving their Raptor aircraft into Tindal, this was no different.

Kalitta Air N403KZ

This contracted movements function was provided by Omni Air International based out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, operating a B767-328 (ER), and Kalitta Air based out of Ypsilanti, Michigan, operating two B747-481 (F)s. Between the three aircraft, they delivered personnel, equipment and spares to Tindal via Darwin.

Kalitta Air 747-481F N403KZ arriving into a cloudy RAAF Darwin.

The first to arrive on Sunday after a 13 hour flight from Elmendorf AFB in Alaska, the 90th Fighter Squadron’s home base, was Kalitta Air’s 747 N403KZ, carrying the Santiago Cherry Express label having recently delivered tonnes of cherries to Zhengzhou.

Kalitta Air 747-481F N403KZ sporting the Santiago Cherry Express label.

N403KZ remained in Darwin until it’s Wednesday return flight to and from Tindal, after which it departed for Andersen AFB in Guam early Thursday morning.

Kalitta Air 747-481F

The second to arrive on Sunday after a 7.5 hour flight from Chubu Centrair International Airport, Japan, was OAI’s 767-328ER, sporting the smart Omni Air International maroon and champagne livery.

Omni Air International 767-328ER N342AX departing for Tindal

N342AX was only to stay in the NT for a day before departing back to Japan early Monday.

Omni 335

The second Kalitta Air 747, N401KZ, arrived on Monday, also after a long 13 hour flight from Elmendorf AFB in Alaska. This aircraft appearing in plain white with it’s Kalitta name emblazoned in red.

Kalitta Air 747-481F N401KZ parked up – Darwin.

N401KZ remained in Darwin until it’s Thursday return flight to and from Tindal, after which it departed for Osan Air Base in South Korea early Friday morning.

747-481F N401KZ departing for Tindal during the Top End monsoon.

With any long distance flight to Australia from Japan or Guam, there is the unavoidable necessity to land or carry out air to air refuelling. One way this can be achieved is by pre-positioning a tanker aircraft at the receiving end of the planned flight route. With Fridays arrival of 3 F-22 Raptors into Australian airspace and their landing at RAAF Tindal, it seemed only natural to pre-deploy a boom equiped tanker to RAAF Base Darwin.

USAF KC-135R from 117th ARS, 190 ARW Kansas Air National Guard.

Once the KC-135R Stratotanker from 117th Air Refuelling Squadron, 190th ARW, ANG Kansas, arrived early in the week, it wasn’t long before the Raptors were expected to arrive. Departing Friday morning the tanker headed north from Darwin to meet the inbound fighters at altitude. The KC-135R then returned with them to the Top End, separating from the F-22 flight just north of the coast before landing back in Darwin.

“American Muscle” 62-3572 KC-135R from 117th Air Refuelling Squadron.

No doubt the KC-135R will be used during their deployment and who knows – maybe even tagging along down to Avalon for the Australian International Air Show.

KC-135R “American Muscle” returning to Darwin after escorting the F-22 Raptors into Australia.

Although the high profile fighters, in this case the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, have much more attention paid to them by the media, there is a large amount of activity required to be carried out behind the scenes before, during and after any fighter appearance. That is where the ‘big guns” of the aviation transport sector come into play.

We certainly expect to see more logistic movements in the Top End over the coming weeks as additional troops and gear are brought in for the MRF-Darwin 2017 rotation and other operations, including passing through Darwin for the Australian International Air Show.

Cheers….Sid Mitchell

I use Nikon D7100, 50mm, 70-200mm, 200-500mm, and Sandisk cards.

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Marine Rotational Force Darwin – ‘Semper Fidelus’ in the NT

AH-1W Super Cobra
AH-1W Super Cobra from Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA) 367.

With the recent announcement that the United States Marine Corps will be expanding it’s fleet on deployment through Darwin in 2017, ASO has a peek at what aircraft types are coming and a quick look back at a few USMC aircraft from previous Darwin visits.

For 2017, the USMC force arrives during April and is planned to depart in October, but the difference this year is that the ground forces are being supported by several helicopter types, instead of just one. The NT will be treated to not just UH-1Y Venoms like we saw in 2016, but Super Cobra’s and Osprey tilt rotor aircraft as well, even though both types have also deployed to Darwin on previous exercises.

During 2017 the Marine Rotational Force – Darwin (MRF-D) squadron line up is expected to be 9 aircraft from HMLA 367, a Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron with tail-code VT, “Scarface”. They will be utilizing examples of both UH-1Y and AH-1W, being 5 and 4 of each type respectively.

AH-1W Super Cobra
“Scarface” a AH-1W Super Cobra from HMLA 367
UH-1Y Venom
“Scarface” UH-1Y Venom (Super Huey) from HMLA 367, a Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron

In addition there will be 4 MV-22B Osprey aircraft from VMM 268, a Marine Medium Tilt-Rotor Squadron with tail-code YQ, the “Red Dragons”.  The aviation combat elements are all from Hawaii, HMLA367 from MCAS Kaneohe Bay and VMM 268 from MCAS Hawaii.

MV-22B Osprey
“Dragon” MV-22B Osprey transitioning from forward flight to hover and land.

Well before the Marine Rotational Force – Darwin (MRF-D) was announced back in 2011, Darwin has been hosting various USMC visits, but more so on a semi-permanent basis since 2012. Most Darwin residents these days go about their daily business without much acknowledgement of the various C-17A Globemasters, KC-130J Super Hercules, CH-53E Super Stallions, UH-1Y Super Hueys or AH-1W Super Cobras coming and going.

“Sumo” KC-130J from VMGR 152 – a regular in the Darwin skies.
USAF C-17 Globemaster III
“Trek” USAF C-17 Globemaster III from 176th Wing Elmendorf Alaska, providing logistical support to the USMC

As a clear demonstration of the public’s acceptance of Darwin’s military history, not just with our own ADF, but with the foreign armed forces as well, is how the community welcomes the support and construction activities the Marines perform while on rotation in Darwin. Many local businesses and light industry benefit from the Marine presence in the Northern Territory, from providing catering and consumables to tourism and entertainment.

CH-53E Super Stallion
“Pegasus” CH-53E Super Stallion from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron HMH-463

During 2015 the MRF-D contingent was supported by four CH-53E Super Stallions, call sign Pegasus, one of the largest battlefield helicopters in the US military (mind you, the CH-53K King Stallion is coming). These 4 Super Stallions from HMH 463, a Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron also based out of MCAS Kaneohe Bay Hawaii, arrived in April and departed in October 2015.

CH-53E Super Stallion
“Pegasus” with crewman riding the ramp

The majority of their operations were troop airlifts to, from and within the Bradshaw and Mt Bundy military training areas – large spaces of the Top End that afford a variety of challenging combat environments for the Marines. There were also some offshore movements to and from vessels during local exercises during the year.

KC-130J VMGR 152
“Sumo” KC-130J VMGR 152

During 2016 Darwin saw the USMC forces supported by UH-1Y Venoms (often called the Super Huey) from HMLA-367, a Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron also from MCAS Kaneohe Bay Hawaii. These aircraft were not only assigned as Marine transport, but were configured with ground attack munitions – Hydra 70 and LAU launcher plus the two door mounted M240D GPMG’s. They could often be seen transiting to and from the Bradshaw training area and weapons ranges.

UH-1Y Venom
“Scarface” Venom off to the weapons range.

During other exercises conducted in the Northern Territory, we were treated to a number of USMC aircraft on short stay in Darwin. These included the MV-22B from VMM-265 and AV-8B from VMA-311, both squadron assigned on board the USS Bohomme Richard which docked into Darwin to back load during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2015.

MV-22B Osprey
“Dragon” MV-22B Osprey Tilt Rotor from VMM-265 departing Darwin
MV-22B Osprey
MV-22B parked for display.
MV-22B Osprey
MV-22B cockpit
USS Bonhomme Richard LD6 2015
MV-22B, CH-53E and AV-8B aircraft lashed down for return trip on the USS Bonhomme Richard.

It isn’t just the small operational aircraft that transit Darwin in support of the deployment. A number of USAF squadrons fly in and out providing various support functions for the Marines. Some transport aircraft such as the USAF C-5M Super Galaxy and C-17A Globemaster III, are quite capable of transporting equipment from palletised freight, armoured vehicles right up to helicopter size loads around the globe.

C-5M Galaxy
“Reach” one of the last flying C-5B Galaxy’s bringing equipment in to Darwin.


Another C-17 Globemaster from the 176th Wing approaches into Darwin
C-17 Globemaster III
Maintenance and Loadmasters carefully insert a prepared CH-53E into a USAF C-17 for transport home.

Another vital function is the regular operational re-supply and equipment support given from the Marine Corp’s own logistics squadrons. A regular sight has been the KC-130J’s from VMRG-152 “Sumo’s” based out of MCAS Iwakuni, in Japan. These work horse aircraft come and go at all hours and not only shunt cargo around, but are capable of Air to Air refuelling – aircraft such as the MV-22B Osprey and CH-53E Super Stallions.

“Sumo” KC-130J from VMGR 152 turns onto final in Darwin.
Sumo 22
KC-130J from VMGR 152 parked on the ramp.

In the lead up and ramp down each year, Darwin often sees a number of personnel transport aircraft, carrying both high ranking and regular troops. These types include the USAF C-40 Clipper (B737) and larger contracted airliners such as United or the Altas  747-422 and Omni Air International’s 757-33A, which conveniently can meet both freight and passenger requirements at the same time.

US C-40 Clipper
US C-40 Clipper from 73rd Airlift Squadron, 932nd Airlift Wing
USN C-40 Clipper
USN C-40 Clipper (737)
Omni Air 767
OMNI Air International B757 arriving into Darwin.
Atlas Air 747
United B747-422 about to touch down.

2017 appears to hold some great military photographic opportunities in store for anyone that happens to visiting the Northern Territory, not just from the USMC MRF-D aspect, but from other exercises and events planned for the year.

MV-22B Osprey
An Osprey transitions to hover and roll out landing – Darwin, NT.

Stay in touch as ASO looks forward to bringing you more from up north throughout the year and beyond.

Cheers..Sid Mitchell in the Top End

 My gear is a Nikon D7100, Nikkor f2.8 50mm, f4 70-200mm and f5.6 200-500mm. SD cards by Sandisk and Slik tripod.


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Exercise Kakadu 2016 – A short look at land based air assets.

79 Sqn BAE 127 Hawk arriving at RAAF Base Darwin for Exercise Kakadu 2016

The Northern Territory is certainly no stranger to military exercises and often as one ends, another begins, sometimes within weeks or even days. Such is the case this year from 12 to 23 September with Exercise Kakadu 2016 being launched by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), an exercise that covers a large area of sea and air spaces in northern Australia.

Japan Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) KHI built P-3C Orion

Exercise Kakadu 2016 is a two yearly, multi-national maritime exercise that will involve up to 19 nations from not just within the Indo-Pacific region, but as far as Canada, the United states and even France. Participating countries will be deploying a variety of their assets including 19 surface and sub-surface vessels and 18 or more aircraft which will perform a number of roles including maritime surveillance, air to surface attack and search-and-rescue activities, to name a few. Some nations such as Fiji, Vietnam, Timor-Letse and the Republic of Korea will be participating as observers.

Republic of Singapore Air Force (Navy crewed) Fokker F-50 Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA)

This is the 13th time Exercise Kakadu has been held and will again promote partnerships between the multi national forces to better their skills at not just maritime warfare scenarios, but international aid and humanitarian assistance operations, plus sharing search and rescue techniques. Initially splitting into 3 task forces once leaving Darwin Harbour, they will test their abilities to defend themselves and neutralise threats from both surface and sub-surface elements and of course those airborne threats based out of Darwin.

Pakistan Navy 28Sqn P-3C ’86’

The exercise is planned to work towards a final 1 vs 1 scenario where two opposing task forces utilising their prime naval and air assets will have what the Commander of the Australian Fleet, Rear Admiral Stuart Mayer, describes as a “free play”.

USN Patrol Squadron Five (VP-5) P-8 Poseidon ‘437’

RAAF Base Darwin is hosting a number of foreign fixed wing assets from the Republic of Singapore Air Force/Navy, United States Navy, Pakistan Navy and Japan Maritime Self Defence Force.

RSAF Fokker F-50 MPA from 121 Sqn

These aircraft are the backbone to Maritime Airborne Surveillance and include the Dassault HU-25 Guardian, Boeing P-8 Poseidon, Fokker F-50 MPA and several versions of the P-3C Orion, both the Lockheed and the licence built Kawasaki Heavy Industry version.

JMSDF P-3C on approach
P-8 Poseidon from VP-5 ‘Mad Foxes” departing

In addition to RAAF AP-3C, C-17A and C-130 transports regularly in and out of Darwin, there will be BAE 127 Hawks in attendance from 79 Sqn, normally based at RAAF Base Pearce in Western Australia. These aircraft are used in a number of training roles but will be utilised for Fleet Attack/Support in the Top End.

79 Sqn Hawk A27-13
79 Sqn Hawk A27-15

“Air Force fast jet and maritime patrol aircraft crews will conduct simulated attacks on both surface and subsurface vessels in the waters off northern Australia”  – Squadron Leader Mark Williams, Commander, Task Unit Air Headquarters for the exercise.

79 Sqn Hawk A27-01
79 Sqn Hawk A27-22

79 Squadron is familiar in fleet support operations as they often interact with the Royal Australian Navy off the Western Australian coast during other training and exercise activities.

RAAF Hawk A27-13 returning from fleet operations

Just on a historical note, 79 Squadron was once temporarily located at Sattler Airfield about 30km from Darwin during January/February 1945 while they refitted with newer Spitfire Mk8’s. In a recent commemoration at the RAAF Museum located in Point Cook, Victoria , a full size replica of 79 Squadron’s Supermarine Spitfire MK VIII A58-492 has been placed on display – for more information slip on over to here and read Dave Sodertrom’s take on this dedication event. 79 Sqn has also transited through RAAF Base Darwin when equipped with CAC Sabres and Mirage III aircraft.

RAAF Museum 79 Squ 20 (1 of 1)
A58-492 79 Sqn replica at the RAAF Museum, Point Cook. Victoria.
JMSDF P3-C ‘5090’ departing on patrol
USN VP-5 ‘Mad Foxes” P-8 off for a night mission

With ships from a number of navies in the exercise, rotary aircraft will play an important part in sea operations, from ship to ship transfers, search and rescue, to one of their core roles – sub hunting. Although not based at Darwin helicopters have been seen transiting to and from the fleet and RAAF base, one such example is the S-70B -2 Seahawk of the RAN (816 Sqn).

RAAF AP-3C turning onto final

Even a pair of RAAF CH-47F Chinooks were seen aboard the HMAS Adelaide anchored up in Darwin harbour in the opening days of the exercise.

HMAS Adelaide (L01) sporting a pair of CH-47F Chinooks

So with mostly offshore action the majority of movements over land will be launching and recovery from their blue-water missions – still a great opportunity to see some classic and contemporary military aviation aircraft continuing to fill the Northern Territory skies.

French Navy Dassault HU-25 Guardian ’65’ on approach
Paired take off by 79Sqn Hawks
P8 Poseidon from VP-5 United States Navy

Another aspect of modern exercises is the fact that some of the functions are contracted out to civilian firms who can provide various training assets for each exercise. This alleviates the need for the Australian defence Force to maintain some training systems that are not utilised all year round.

Air Affairs Lear 35A VH-LJJ with MTR 101 and towed target pod

One such company is Air Affairs who provide Learjet aircraft with crews and towed targeting systems that integrate with the ADF during training exercises such as Kakadu. This year there are 4 Lear 35/36’s from AA and a Lear from Raytheon involved with the operations, all based out of RAAF Base Darwin

Raytheon’s VH-ESM

Another operation to be filled by civilians can be the Search and Rescue function during a variety of exercises. Currently in Darwin is VH-EPH, a CHC Helicopters Australia Bell 412EP operated by Lloyd Helicopters.

VH-EPH CHC Helicopters Australia operated by Lloyds in SAR role

A full list of those participating nations in both active and observation capacites – Australia, Canada, Fiji, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Timor Leste, Tonga, United States of America, and Vietnam.

A27-15 and A27-22 departing past the moon

With so many exercises either based out of Darwin itself, or including Darwin and the surrounding restricted training areas and weapons ranges, I certainly appreciate the opportunity to share some photo’s of both RAAF and other aircraft from our international exercise partners. Never boring in the Top End…..just how I like it.

Sid Mitchell

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Just what the Doc ordered – A look at the Royal Flying Doctor Service and Central Australian Operations


Australia is a large continental island and most of the population tend to live close to the coast. This means specialist medical care is concentrated in the larger towns and cities, mostly away from those communities inland. Whether it is bringing a patient to or taking health professionals out, the only quick method of travel is by air, especially when an emergency situation arises or the roads are closed due to bad weather.

Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS)  – “The furthest corner. The finest care”


Most of us have heard of the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) but what does this iconic not-for-profit organisation do?  Well, just a few of the services the RFDS provides are:

Aeromedical retrieval, Patient transfers, regular fly-in fly-out GP, Nursing and Allied Health Clinics, Tele-health consultations, Health and Dental clinics in remote and rural communities, plus Mental Health and research support across remote and rural Australia.

PC-12 VH-FVE backdropped by the desert sunset at Fregon, S.A. Photo taken by RFDS pilot Shane.

The RFDS has 4 operating sections: Central Operations (South Australia & Northern Territory), Western Operations, Queensland Section and the South Eastern Section(Victoria and Tasmania).

The Central Operations covers South Australia and the lower half of the Northern Territory, from Elliot/Daly Waters southwards, an area of more than 1 million square kilometres (386,000 Sq Miles). The Alice Springs Base was opened in 1939, followed by Port Augusta in 1955, and Adelaide in 1987.

In this article I will be looking at just one of those bases, the one located in Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia.

RDFS Central Operations Base, Alice Springs, Northern Territory.

After introducing myself to Kate Hannon, the Media & Communications Manager RFDS Central Operations, my visit was arranged to the base facility located at Alice Springs Airport 12km from town.

The Base complex includes three large hangar spaces, reception, administration offices, meeting, pilot/crew and ready/despatch rooms. Standby crew have a ‘not so dark’, and ‘dark’ rest rooms and there is a workshop/store annex to the side of the maintenance hangar. There is also a medical facility that can be used to stabilise patients between air and ground transport modes. Ambulances are able drive directly to the facility or to the aircraft parked on the apron if required.

VHF, HF Radio and Sat phones have been essential for staying in contact from the early pedal powered wireless days.

Having been signed in and issued a pass and day-glo vest by Karen at reception, we headed out to the hangar to meet my guide for the afternoon.

VH-FGT sits in the hangar awaiting a callout.

Shane Wise is one of the Line Pilots based at Alice Springs and was rostered in a non flying role for the day so was able to show me around. When I arrived he was at VH-FGT with Flight Nurse Alister, demonstrating the stretcher lift to some students on a visit to the facility. The lift, an accessory fitted to the rear access doorway of the PC-12 aircraft, electrically raises the stretcher, in this case with a student strapped in, from ground level to cabin floor level. From there the stretcher can be wheeled into position and secured inside the aircraft.
After the group of students departed, we climbed up through the forward door and I enquire about how long he has been flying for the RFDS. “I have been with RFDS for just over 2 1/2 years, the conversion takes 2 weeks plus about 2-4 weeks of on the job In Command Under Instruction (ICUS). We all have varied experiences as pilots, as for I myself, was flying Rockwell AC50 Aerocommanders and Dornier Do228s before coming here, some of the others were on B200 King Airs, and we have a spattering of instructors from various flight schools, one guy even has DC-8 time!” He goes on to give me a rundown of the various models they have here in Alice Springs.

Shane flying VH-FDJ into Darwin -the PC-12/47-10 slightly modified version.

“Alice Springs Base operates 4 types of Pilatus Aircraft from the PC-12 range, VH-FMW and VH-FMZ are PC-12/45 series 9, VH- FGT is a PC12/45 Series 10, VH-FDJ is a PC-12/47-10 but modified, and rounding out the fleet are VH-FVA and VH-FVB, both PC12/47E (NG)”  The PC-12NG are the latest versions. Shane mentions that a new era will soon be here with the introduction of the Pilatus 24, a jet with large cargo door and short, unpaved surface capabilities. It is another asset which can shorten the air time in patient transfer but will not be based at Alice Springs.

VH-FGT PC12/45 Series 10
VH-FVA the latest PC12/47E or Next generation (NG) version

The Swiss built aircraft arrive in Australia as a basic Pilatus airframe fitted with the single Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A , tricycle trailing link undercarriage, with a massive cargo door in the back that swings up, and the forward access being an air-stair. They are fitted out in Adelaide, a process that takes a few weeks to complete which delivers a medically-equipped aircraft capable of carrying two stretchered patients, a retrieval doctor, flight nurse and passengers.

NG series cockpit

Looking into the cockpit it is obviously a very modern ‘glass’ cockpit and Shane flicks a few switches and a Primary Flight Display (PFD) and Multi Function Display (MFD) fire up – and then uses the navigation ‘trackball’ to demonstrate how easy it is to highlight and enter navigation parameters like descent profiles. He explains a number of technical innovations with the NG version and says due to some advanced navigation features, it could be very easy to let the ‘aircraft fly you’ instead of you flying the aircraft. Shane also highlights the cabin pressurisation system and how it is a factor in some patient transport. “The PC-12 system can hold ground-level pressure on the series 9 and 10 to approx 15000 feet, the NG in Low Cabin mode 16-17000 feet”. Some patients do require cruise altitude considerations due to their medical conditions, he says.

VH-FGT ready to go at a moments notice

I ask him what are the shortest and longest flights, and he says the patient relocation flights to Darwin or Adelaide, about 1500km each, north and south of Alice Springs are the longest. Some local flights can be quite short – such as the Napperby community, about 150km (75 miles) from Alice Springs.

Shane’s photo of VH-FDK on a turn around at Napperby dirt airstrip, NT.

What about the worst conditions you are likely to fly in ? – “I think the worst conditions are rainy/stormy at night”

Turning to the cabin area, most of the seats have been removed and modular components fitted to the cabin area. Normal layout starting from the front is, a rear facing seat for the Retrieval doctor who is positioned facing the first (larger) of two stretcher positions. The patients head is normally towards the front. Opposite the patient is a drawer cabinet which contains a myriad of medical supplies, consumables and specific equipment such as masks.
Behind the cabinet and opposite the mid section of the stretcher, is a rear facing seat for the Flight-nurse. This position also has a communications panel (VHF) to allow the flight nurse to talk directly with base/medical facilities without the need to be in the actual cockpit. Behind the nurse seat is another seat, forward facing, that can accomodate an additional passenger, sometimes a relative, friend or aide to the patient.

Interior fitted out for any patient emergency

A second stretcher position lays behind the first and beyond that at the rear of the cabin are more storage spaces for equipment that may need to be brought aboard for a specific flight. Above both stretchers is a fitted rack which can accomodate a number of monitoring devices and other life support equipment necessary to keep the patient stabilised. Oxygen and a suction is also available from a purpose built panel on the side wall of the cabin.
Essentially the crew have the capability to stabilise, monitor and treat a patient for a number of hours while airborne, so they can be transferred to a ground based, high care medical facility. As patients do need to be assessed for suitability for air travel, occasionally air retrieval is not possible due to their specific medical conditions.

Polished and ready to go

Shane also said that each aircraft have their specific traits with the older version such as VH-FMW, which was parked in the hangar, a much more hands on aircraft. The more modern NG versions have an additional trim tab to make flying easier. FMW and FMZ are dedicated to passenger configuration for clinical flights. Clinical flights are where the aircraft is in its standard seat configuration and carries General Practitioners, Nurses and Allied Health Professionals to remote locations, enabling them to deliver essential primary and preventative health care services.

VH-FMW configured with just seating for clinic flights

The ‘Clinic’ aircraft are easily identified by the overall white with the blue, grey and red pin-striped livery, and looking outside the hangar, I see VH-FMZ sitting patiently in the sun on the tarmac.

VH-FMZ PC-12/45 series 9

The remaining 4 aircraft of the Alice Springs fleet are all Aeromedical types being a mix of old and new livery (Red and White), which is applied at a paint and finish facility in Brisbane, Queensland.

Walking around to the maintenance hangar Shane introduced me to a couple of the LAME maintenance crew, Rodney and Danny, who were working in the engine bay and under the starboard wing. They had just returned to VH-FDJ after an engine run on one of the aircraft due to depart that afternoon. VH-FDJ had numerous access panels and cowlings removed for maintenance.

VH-FDJ with Hartzell 4 blade prop, panels and cowls off for maintenance

Larger maintenance is carried out in Adelaide but most servicing work can be performed at Alice Springs, for example, engine removal, as I noticed a Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-67B engine sitting on a maintenance bench nearby. One luxury pointed out to me was the ‘swampy’ evaporative air conditioner ducts mounted on the rear wall of the hangar, and the roof insulation. The Swampies were made possible through public donations co-ordinated by the RFDS Alice Springs Auxiliary…. a very practical way of using those donations that are so important to the RFDS. They are a modern necessity in the 45 plus degree heat of Central Australia on hot summer days, a luxury that those riggers and mechanics did without, back in the 1930s and 1940s, working under canvas shelters on a mix of de Havilland DH.50s, DH.83 Fox Moths and DH.84 Dragons.

Starboard winglet and radome and some flap maintenance going on

One thing I did impress me was how clean the hangar floors are…just as one of the other pilots, Mick, walked past guiding a new floor wash/sweeper. They are certainly multi skilled at the Alice RFDS Base… all hands help out the team.

“Swampy” evaporative coolers on the rear of the maintenance hanger

From the maintenance hangar we walk back to the main hangar past FGT, and over to have a look inside VH-FMW. FMW is one of the older series 9 aircraft configured for Clinical flights, that is to say non-aeromedical. Being an older version the cockpit layout and avionic suite is also the older.

RH side has “Steam Gauges” in the older series cockpits

As with other aircraft, iPads are becoming part of the cockpit accessories, and I notice one is mounted next to the left window sill of the cockpit. I ask Shane about this type of technology “We carry a handheld iPad 3 as part of our cockpit kit and the fleet nearly all have the iPad minis installed, I think there only 2 left without them and will soon have it install on their next phase service”.


From the hangar we move inside to the administration area, where a series of paintings come together to greet visitors, depicting various aspects of the RFDS. We continue down the hallway briefly looking into the offices, rest and meeting rooms and on toward the operations area.

Reception paintings depicting some aspects of RFDS services

In the pilots office there are desktop computers which the non flying pilots can link with the flying crews for weather updates and changes to flight plans. On the wall is a status/roster board and two pilots, Mick and Mark are at their desks chatting about check rides and operational subjects way beyond me.
Looking at an Area Map, I see operations extend into Western Australia and down into South Australia with range markers at 60 and 90 minutes from Alice Springs airport.

VH-FVA waiting while some discussion takes place at the 4×4 Ambulance. Photo Shane.

There are very few areas where the pilots are not within 50 miles of a remote dirt airstrip should the need arise to make an emergency landing. Shane shows me an airfield data sheet and explains it is one of the smallest communities they fly into. At Wingellina, on the WA/NT/SA border, the aircraft are actually taxied down and parked in the township.

Wingellina copy-2

Interestingly there are a number of locations around Australia where the local highway performs the function of remote airstrip. One that I have driven over many times is on the Stuart Highway mid north South Australia. The road can be close by local police and used buy the RFDS or other emergency aircraft.



I had also noticed the web of aerials across the hangar roof – Shane explains “VHF is for Comms and we can use the HF for communication with the Operational Control Centre (OCC), located in Port Augusta (1200km away)  We also have a Sat phone fitted to the plane”.

With today’s pilot Mark heading out to pre-flight VH- FVA for a trip to Alpurrurulan (Lake Nash) near the Queensland border, Shane shows me to the despatch/ready room. This area contains some of what the retrieval team may need for a particular flight, specialist monitoring and life support equipment like heart or blood pressure monitors and consumable items such as fluids, needles/syringes, bandages, limb supports etc.

‘Ready’ room

Depending on the patient needs and anticipating any complications determines what the team needs to take with them.

Specialist medical equipment ready to be taken if needed

I am introduced to Flight Doctor Simon and Flight Nurse Alister as they quickly grab their kit and head out to the waiting FVA on the apron.

Off to the aircraft

With the aircraft nearly ready, they climb aboard, stow the bags and strap into their seats.

Final checks before boarding

It’s not long before Mark has FVA fired up and ready to Taxi. Alice Springs tower issues the clearance and with a final wave to a few of us watching from the hangar, they taxi across the parking area and out to the end of the runway.

Brakes released….
Taxi across the GA apron
Taxi for Runway 12 departure

Alice Tower clearance signals take off and Pilot Mark, Doc Simon, Nurse Alistair and VH-FVA accelerate, lifting off smoothly and turning left, head towards Lake Nash on the first leg of today’s mission. It will be just over an 70 minute flight with some time on the ground and then returning to Alice Springs.

I ask what does it take to be a pilot or nurse at the RFDS, and Shane explains that most nurses are at least in their 30’s and have a minimum 6 years nursing experience. He points out that they are the real hero’s of the operation, modestly playing down his own role. But pilots, like him, are part of a team and often come from different flying backgrounds, some from twins and some even with jet experience.
As for the doctors, they see a few retrieval doctors rotate through the RFDS – it is certainly a unique experience for them too, working in remote Australia.

VH-FGT PC12/45 Series 10

Time is up and I hand in the vest and visitor pass to Karen, then have short chat with Shane about photography, a common interest it seems. He has a number of his own pics being used for promoting the RFDS and has kindly allowed me to use a few in this article. One notable career highlight is that he was the last pilot to fly VH-FMP which had over 17,000 hours on the airframe before being de-commissioned. It is now the display aircraft in the recently opened RFDS Tourist Facility in Darwin.

Its about 5pm when I return to the airport just in time to catch FlyDoc 864 landing from its 1h:25min flight with their patient.

VH-FVA as FlyDoc864
Returning to GA

FVA taxi’s back to the apron, parks and shuts down – an ambulance transport is waiting to meet them at the hangar. Another important flight completed.

Flight completed until the next call

Many would say is just another day at the RFDS Central Operations Alice Springs, but for people relying on the service, it is a life line to good health care in the Australian outback. I head off to town thinking about how these folks really do make a big difference to those the bush.

VH-FMW also returning from a flight to Lake Nash
Rain, hail or shine… the service must go on

It was such a great opportunity to peek behind the scenes and see just part of the hard work and dedication the RFDS team perform.

I must give big thanks to Shane for escorting me around and explaining the Alice operations to me. Thanks go to Kate in Adelaide and the rest of the team at Alice Springs for the opportunity to visit, and if you would like to know more about this great non-profit organisation, and it’s people, please click on the links provided below.

If you happen to see a RFDS donation tin in your travels please put a little cash in it – every dollar helps, in fact have a look at the $20 dollar note before you drop it in. There are many references to the RFDS – the founder Reverend John Flynn, Victory – their first D.H 50 and Alfred Traeger – inventor of the pedal-radio… all now part of Australian outback history.

The RFDS have links on their website to both Tourist Facilities here: https://www.flyingdoctor.org.au/sant/rfds-tourist-facilities/

For more news on RFDS Central Operations:  https://www.flyingdoctor.org.au/sant/

To check out where are aircraft are flying in real time go to the flight map:  https://www.flyingdoctor.org.au/map/

Find out more about the RFDS fleet:  https://www.flyingdoctor.org.au/about-the-rfds/our-fleet/

Sid Mitchell.

My kit – Nikon D7100, Nikon 18-55mm, 50mm, 70-200mm and 200-500mm lenses with Sandisk extreme card

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Burners over the Beach – Sunset Handling Display PB2016

What connects the Darwin’s Mindil Beach, golden sunsets over Fannie Bay and Exercise Pitch Black?……only the most anticipated military handling display of 2016 in the Top End – the Aircraft Handling Display over Mindil Beach, right on sunset, on 11th of August 2016.

Having been promoted in the local media, and by not just the RAAF, but a number of other social media pages, the crowd had started to arrive at Darwin’s famous Mindil Beach from mid afternoon onThursday.  Many had grabbed a feed from the Mindil beach markets and settled in on the numerous vantage points along the beachfront, others had driven to higher ground or set up deckchairs and the odd esky on their balconies to watch…. some were even moored up in boats.

Mindil Beach -1

This year the public were to be treated to some outstanding manoeuvres as they watched a Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18F Super Hornet performed the low level Handling Display. This was to be followed by a multi ship flypast including the display Super Hornet, a F/A-18A Classic Hornet, plus a Republic of Singapore Air Force F-15 and F-16.  The flypast has been traditionally performed just off Mindil Beach as part of Exercise Pitch Black every two years. It wasn’t to be only jet action either, with a RAAF AP-3C Orion, C-17A Globemaster III and French Air Force – New Caledonia CN-235 also rounding out the list of display aircraft this year.


A fraction after 18:05 the sound of  jet engines from the south west announced the arrival of the Handling Display aircraft, A44-201, an F/A-18F  from 1 Squadron RAAF. Aviation Spotters Online were there to catch it perform the display from multiple angles. The display routine is planned well ahead and is precisely executed to fit in with the local daylight conditions….and in this case the beautiful backdrop of a Northern Territory sunset over Fannie Bay…that’s what it is all about.


Positioning ourselves to cover 180 degrees of action, we were ready from the moment 201 rolled in past Larrakeyah and roared down parallel to the waiting crowd lined up on Mindil Beach.


Mindil Beach -2-2

With the opening pass completed, and afterburners crackling in the afternoon sky, 201 certainly captured the crowd’s full attention..and you could just hear onlookers yelling and whooping from where I was taking photos.

Mindil Beach -5

Then came another cracking entrance as within seconds the display pilot had reversed and was passing the crowd a second time, this time in the opposite direction banking to the right under full power.

Mindil Beach -1-2


A further sweep past the onlookers provided a profile against the horizon and the pilot pushed A44-201 westwards into the setting sun, heading out over Fannie Bay.


Heading back in towards Mindil beach the display pilot set the Super Hornet up for what is often referred to as a ‘dirty pass’ – control surfaces, undercarriage, refuelling probe and arrestor hook all extended showing off the aircraft in an ‘unclean’ or high drag configuration.


This was the best moment for beach goers to take photos as it was a much slower pass than all others during in the display.



A44-201 presented such a great angle for the public to see the underbelly of a F/A-18F.


Undercarriage, arrestor hook, flaps and inflight refuelling probe levers to up/in positions, and the aircraft is quickly cleaned up aerodynamically, in preparation for the next few high G passes.


Adding a little extra to the display tradition, the passenger gave a wave to the crowd.



Then another full noise pass from right to left and we had the topside angle covered, capturing some nice adiabatic decompression, unfortunately something no easily seen clearly from the Mindil Beach angle.


As the last pass ended it was time for A44-201 to circle one last time, zoom vertical, and exit the display box. Yep…reckon  I could still faintly hear kids in the crowd yelling



With a little time to spare there was a small window to review a few photos and adjust a few settings….. and appreciate the golden-orange colour was emanating from the west…truly a great backdrop for a sunset display.

By now A44-201 had formed up to the southwest with a RAAF F/A-18A (A21-29) from 77Sqn, a Republic of Singapore Air Force F-16C (615) from 143 Sqn plus an F-15SG (8302)from 149 Sqn, it wasn’t long before we could see the formation approaching us.

4 ship formation pass at Mindil Beach Display

This formation fly-by was very smooth and as they initiated the first banking manoeuvre in front of the crowd, a RAAF AP-3C Orion could be seen loitering in the background waiting for it’s turn.



As the 4 ship circled, it passed in front of the setting sun providing an opportunity to the crowd to view them silloetted against one of those golden sunsets so famous in the Northern Territory.  The flight formation seemed quite appropriate that they appeared to be positioned like a basic Southern Cross.


Mindil Beach -7


With additional passes photographers were presented the opportunity to use the shadows cast to highlight the different aircraft shapes as they angled around in front of Mindil beach.



Mindil Beach -15






Eventually the fighter component of the display was completed and the jets pulled away to stagger their return to land on runway 29 at RAAF Base Darwin, just a few minutes away.


From a northerly direction came the first of the larger display aircraft, a RAAF AP-3C Orion Maritime Patrol aircraft from 11Sqn, sweeping in along the beach with it’s distinctive synchronised drone.


Many local residents will be familiar with the Orion as they have been a regular sight and sound in the Darwin skies for years. Possibly Pitch Black 2018 it may well be the last opportunity for the AP-3C to participate in this sunset display.


By this time the sun was below the horizon of the Timor Sea and appearing from over East Point Reserve came the heavy lifter of Pitch Black 2016, the RAAF C-17A Globemaster III A41-212 from 36Sqn.


A banking turn revealed the top side in the dusk light.


And with that unique multi turbofan sound, the C-17A departed in the fading light,  silhouetted as the twilight swallowed it up in the distance.



To round out the after dark display was the French Air Force – New Caledonia(FANC) CASA CN-235, a twin turbo prop that was very quiet in comparison to all before it, and due to the low light, quite hard to capture.


The Pitch Black Sunset Handling display is always a top drawcard for the RAAF and this year was outstanding with the additional display aircraft from Singapore, French New Caledonia and the RAAF’s own Transport and Maritime wings.

Many hours of behind the scenes planning goes into the handling display routine, plus the co-ordination and execution of the formation and multi engine flypasts, so that the public can be entertained by what is one of the best displays every two years. It is a credit to all those involved in making this event happen for the public to be entertained by, and we look forward to bringing it to you again in 2018.

As a team this year, Aviation Spotters Online was able to position ourselves in different locations so we could capture the display from different angles. We strive to bring a different photographic and video viewpoint to our readers, something we think separates us from the others because we are always willing to try something new. Who knows what the next Pitch Black will present us with, but we look forward to bringing you the highlights again in 2018.

Sid, Leigh, Mark, Peter and Mark P.

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