Aviation Spotters Online

Aviation Spotters Online


Indian Air Force participation Exercise Pitch Black 2018

The Royal Australian Air Force has recently concluded one of the Southern Hemisphere’s largest biennial bi-lateral premier air training programs, Exercise Pitch Black 2018.
Held in Australia’s Northern Territory between 27 July and 17 August, that included air assets operating from RAAF Darwin and Tindal, plus other locations such as the Bradshaw Field Training Area and Delamere Air Weapons Range, to other austere areas such as Batchelor Airfield located in the Top End, being utilized. This year’s Exercise was one of the largest on record with 140 aircraft from 16 different countries, 4000 personnel of which 2500 were Australian, that also included up to 1500 from allies and participating Air Forces.
Exercise Pitch Black is a multi-national large force employment exercise that is pivotal to ensuring Air Forces remain ready to respond whenever called upon. With the use of one of the largest training airspace areas in the world, the exercise included realistic and simulated threats to test and improve force integration.


Sukhoi Su-30MKI & Hornet Returning
Combination sortie with 2x IAF Sukhoi Su-30MKI’s and 2x RAAF Classic F/A-18 Hornets returning to Darwin, from a training flight


Welcome to Exercise Pitch Black

This year’s exercise included many first time participants such as the Indian Air Force, who brought 4 x Sukhoi Su-30MKI Flankers from No.102 Squadron ’Trisonics’, Chabua Air Force Station, 1 x Lockheed-Martin C-130J-30 Hercules from No.87 Squadron ‘Raiding Raptors’, Panagarh Air Force Station and 1 x Boeing C-17A Globemaster III from 81 Squadron ‘Sky Lords’, Hindon Air Force Station.  


IAF Ensign, roundel and crest (Nabha Sparsham Deeptam) – “Touch the Sky with Glory”

INDIAN AIR FORCE   –  A Brief History

The Indian Air Force (IAF) was officially established on October 8 1932. The IAF recorded its first flight on April 1st 1933, and possessed six Royal Air Force trained officers with nineteen Havai Sepoys (air soldiers), and included an aircraft inventory of four Westland Wapiti IIA army co-operation biplanes located at Drigh Road.
Around the mid 1930’s, what was ostensibly a fledgling formation of outdated aircraft, they found themselves in action supporting Indian army operations against insurgent Bhittani tribesman in Marinshah, North Waziristan.
June 1938 saw a third flight added to bring No.1 Squadron to full strength with their vintage Wapiti biplanes, and remained the sole Indian Air Force Squadron when World War II began, although it’s ranks had now risen to 662 men and 16 officers.
The Chatfield committees proposal that was outlayed in 1939 called for more Royal Air Force squadrons to be based in India, much to the dismay of the IAF that was looking forward to expanding at a quicker pace, instead a scheme was put in place for five coastal defence flights, on a voluntary basis for the protection of principal ports, which resulted in the Indian Air Force volunteer reserve being authorised.
Although there was a shortage of aircraft, five flights were established with No.1 at Madras, No.2 at Bombay, No.3 at Calcutta, No.4 at Karachi and No.5 at Cochin. Eventually a sixth flight was established at Vizagapatanam. Built from a core of RAF and IAF crew, these flights were flown with ex-RAF Wapiti and former No.1 Squadron aircraft after the latter had transitioned to the Hawker Hart.
By March of 1941, Nos 1 and 3 CDFs (Coastal Defence Flights) gave up their Wapitis as these were to be taken on by No.2 Squadron at Peshawar, for Armstrong Whitworth Atlanta transport aircraft, that were to be used to patrol the Sunderbans delta area south of Calcutta.
Meanwhile No.2 CDF had received relinquished DH.89 Dragon Rapides for coastal and convoy work, whilst No.5 CDF took on a single De Havilland DH.86 Express, for patrolling Cape Camorin and the Malabar coast.

The creation of a training structure in India became priority as RAF flying instructors were assigned to local flying clubs to train and instruct Indian Air Force volunteer reserve cadets on the Tiger Moth. Up to 364 students were to receive elementary flying training at clubs situated in British India, including others in various princely states by the end of 1941.
With the push to create and modernise the IAF well underway, No.1 Squadron was afforded conversion to the Westland Lysander at Peshawar, with the inclusion of a full compliment of 12 aircraft within the year via the Bombay war gifts fund. Not long after No.2 and 3 Squadrons converted from the Wapiti to the Audax respectively. With the volunteer reserve inducted into the main core of the Indian Air Force, they initially kept their coastal watch status until Japans entry into World War II in December of 1941.
No.4 flight which had on strength four Wapitis and two Audaxes were dispatched to Burma,to operate from Moulmein. Tragedy quickly struck with four aircraft destroyed due to Japanese bombing, and the flight was eventually replaced by No.3 flight which had re-equipped with ex-RAF Blenheim MkI aircraft, that would provide the sole air cover for shipping entering Rangoon harbour.
February 1942 saw No.1 Squadron arrive in Burma with its Lysander aircraft, that were quickly put to work flying tactical recce missions from Toungoo and Mingaladon. The IAF crews quickly learnt to improvise with 250lb bombs being hung under the wings of the Lysander’s and flew unescorted low level missions against Japanese air bases at Mae-Haungsaun, Cheingmai and Chiangrai in Thailand. This effort was eventually to no avail as the might of the Japanese advance led to the final evecuation of Burma, and No.1 Squadron returning to Risalpur in June of 1942 to convert to the Hawker Hurricane IIB, which was mirrored by associate squadrons at this time.
Between March and December 1942, ten aircrew schools where opened in India, with the first batch of Harvard trainers taken on by No. 1 Flying Training School at Ambala. The aim of the school was to provide basic and advanced instruction for IAF pilots over a 4 and a half month time period.
By the end of 1942, or a decade since the the creation of the Indian Air Force, and three years into World War II, their best efforts only managed to raise five squadrons.
With the coastal defence units disbanded, the IAF had stood up two squadrons (No.7&8) to be re-equipped with the Vultee Vengeance dive bomber which was given operational status in mid 1943. With some teething problems at the start which were quickly eradicated, No.8 Squadron flew the first Vengeance sortie against the Japanese at Double Moorings,Chittagong in December 1943, with No.7 Squadron starting operations in the Arakan shortly after, with both units flying with distinction.
By mid 1944, most Indian Air Force squadrons had either converted to, or already operating the Hurricane,whilst some moved onto their latest acquisition, the Supermarine Spitfire MkVIII. By the end of 1944, the IAF had nine squadrons operational, and with the Hawker Hurricane being the backbone of the combat element, all but most squadrons converted to the Spitfire during early 1945.
During the war years, the service had performed admirably with disruptions against enemy lines and communications, which in turn led to victory.
The service established traditions of courage and efficiency second to none, with no less than 22 Distinguished flying crosses awarded, on top of other decorations in recognition of their service and valor. The service was bestowed with the ‘Royal’ prefix to its title in March 1945 in honour of its wartime contribution.

Post War – A New Beginning

At the close of World War II, the Royal Indian Air Force had on strength 28,500 personnel with some 1,600 officers at its disposal. From late 1945, the RIAF was in the final process of converting all Hurricane equipped squadrons to the Spitfire, and 1946 witnessed the first dedicated transport squadron, No.12, that received C-47 Dakotas at Panagarh AFS. Also during this time of transitional change, manpower was again cut down to almost half to some 14,000 officers and men combined.

August 15, 1947 saw the division of India and the armed forces, with many units stood down, while assets and associated equipment, permanent bases and other establishments transferred to the newly created Royal Pakistan Air Force.

January 1950 witnessed India becoming a Republic within the British Commonwealth, with the ‘Royal” prefix being dropped from its title. The IAF at this time was in possession of six fighter squadrons, comprising of Vampires, Spitfires and Tempests, with one squadron of B-24 Liberators and a flight of C-47 Dakotas. With its British routes firmly ingrained, the Indian Air Force adhered to the training pattern established by the RAF, with most current instructors graduates of the Central Flying School in the UK, or naturally from the No.1 Flying Training School at Hyderabad with their resident Tiger Moths and NA T-6G Harvards, to No.2 FTS at Jodhpur with Harvards and Percival Prentices, to name but just a few of the training establishments already delivering a steady stream of future aviators.

During the period 1953-1957 the government of the day began to seek non traditional /alternative ways of sourcing combat aircraft, as opposed to local manufacture such as the Vampire.

The French Dassault Ouragan fighter was selected, and with an order of 100, the Ouragan, or Toofanis as they were to be known, equipped 3 squadrons from 1953 onwards,until superseded by the Dassault Mystere IVA in 1957. Re-equipment wasn’t only confined to fighter aircraft, as the transport squadrons soon found themselves flying the Fairchild C-119G Packet,which 72 of the type entered IAF service from 1954 onwards. 1957 also witnessed the expansion as the 110 Mystere IVA’s on order were part of an aircraft procurement program including types such as the English Electric Canberra B(I)Mk.58 Bomber, and Hawker Hunter FMk.56 fighter, and included over time their respective updated marks and models.

1960’s   – The Build Up

The early sixties saw the Indian Air Force introduce more hardware to its ever increasing arsenal of types flown, with one of the more interesting types operated by the IAF, the Folland Gnat lightweight fighter. Being an aircraft of extreme agility, and considered cost effective, an agreement was signed for its local manufacture with the parent company before local built models where license built by HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited).

There’s no denying the tension that exists between India and Pakistan, and as history has shown, its one that is far from over. September 1st, 1965 witnessed an attack in the Chhamb sector by Pakistani forces. With Pakistani forces holding the upper hand and posing a threat to Indian ground forces, a response was forthcoming from the IAF, with advancing Vampire FBMk.52’s and Mystere IV’s in the mix, the biggest surprise was with an IAF Folland Gnat scoring a kill against a PAF Sabre, which only inflamed and escalated the tension to full scale warfare along the international border between West Pakistan and India.

The September conflict was the first for the IAF since India declared independence, and many lessons gained as a result. The mid 1960’s Indian Air Force was a potent force comprising reinstated new production HAL Gnat aircraft, purchase of the Sukhoi Su-7BM Fitter Ground attack platform, and the Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21FL Fishbed.

The IAF of 1966 comprised in excess of 70,000 personnel and not far off its goal of 45 active squadrons. 1968 saw another leap with 23 fighter squadrons (categorised), three tactical bomber squadrons, one maritime patrol squadron, eleven transport squadrons, and numerous helicopter squadrons.

A quick breakdown would show the Gnat equipping eight squadrons, six squadrons equipped with the Hawker Hunter, four operating the MiG-21Fl and two on the Mystere IVA, two photo-recce squadrons operating the Vampire T Mk.55 and a sole squadron operating the HF-24 Marut. Bombing elements comprised the Canberra, maritime with outgoing B-24 Liberators with incoming L-1049G Super Constellations, the airlift category consisted of two squadrons of Antonov An-12B’s, three with the C-119G Packet, three of the C-47 Dakota, along with Twin Otters, Caribou’s and the incoming HS.748.

Maturing the Force – The 1970’s

The 1970’s brought with it technological change, and the dawn of another armed conflict that was brewing along the Indo-Pakistani border. As early as 1971 , Governments from both sides protested about airspace incursions along the western border, with altercations coming to a head in late November/early December, when full scale warfare between India and Pakistan occurred.
With the ensuing two week time frame from when hostilities broke out, the IAF had flown approximately 4,000 sorties in the West from its major, and forward bases in Jammu, Kashmir, Punjab and Rajasthan, with a further 1,900 odd flown from the East. The strategy of the IAF during the conflict was to maintain defensive postures around the Northern, and Western fronts, with emphasis placed on a quick turn around in the East. Although Pakistan had initiated the conflict through its pre-emptive strikes against Indian assets, the Indian Air Force showed through initiative that it could quickly, and decisively dominate the skies over both fronts, from lesson’s learned from its training, and the use of employed superior fire power.
The losses incurred by the Indian Air Force were higher than the PAF due to the amount of interdiction sorties flown, and the resulting anti-aircraft fire against the Gnats took its toll.
The MiG-21 that consumed six IAF squadrons where the game changer, and their superiority was demonstrated to great effect. As part of the order of battle, the MiG-21Fl’s were operated in both the Western and Eastern sectors, proving their worth in every engagement. The MiG-21 was employed in many roles including combat air patrols over Vital Points (VP) and Vital Areas (VA), counter-air, escort and close air support tasks, was used as a highly effective platform for short range, precision attack, air defence and interception.
With both sides employing the latest technology throughout their respective air arms, the infamous battle of East meets West occurred during the December 1971 conflict, with the IAF MiG-21’s facing their adversary, the PAF’s Lockheed F-104 Starfighters.
During the 1971 conflict, No.29 and No.47 Squadron MiG-21FL’s had the honour of claiming four victories respectively after downing intercepted F-104’s during aerial engagements over the Rajsthan Desert, and the Gulf of Kutch.


MiG-21UM Fishbed VH-XXI 'U2146' Red Archers Aerobatic Team, Avalon 1995
MiG-21UM Fishbed  VH-XXI  ‘U2146’   wearing the scheme of the  Indian Air Force  ‘Red Archers Aerobatic Team’,  seen here in private hands at the 1995 Australian International Airshow.


1970’s   Progression

The mid 1970’s saw the Indian Air Force go about urgent re-equipment requirements to help it progress into the 1980’s and beyond. The modernisation programme would see obsolete equipment and weapons systems replaced with state of the art technology, that was readily available at the time.
With no less than twenty new aircraft types, not including sub types, had made their way into the IAF inventory over the coming years during its renewed expansion and update. This may have included various strike fighters, third generation supersonic interceptors, tri-sonic reconnaissance aircraft, strategic heavy lift transports, medium tactical transports, light transport aircraft, heavy lift and medium assault helicopters, basic trainers, surface to air missiles and a massed array of sophisticated weapons to help project the IAF, or the Bharatiya Vayu Sen, as a force to be reckoned with.
1979 saw one of the more notable changes with the replacement for the IAF’s ageing Canberra and Hunter force arrive, with the introduction of the SEPECAT Jaguar with No.14 and 5 Squadron in the Deep Penetration Strike role, with further squadrons following suit as HAL ( Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) prepared to begin producing Jaguar aircraft in India.
Meanwhile in 1976, another ‘third generation’ type the MiG-21bis, that is considered the definitive variant of this classic fighter, entered Indian Air Force service and assumed the mantle as the nations primary air defence fighter, with sufficient examples acquired in 1976/77 to equip three squadrons that where operating the now outdated Folland Gnat. The MiG-21 variant was used in large numbers by the IAF, with some 580 examples delivered by HAL, and some 250 ‘fly away’ examples that have remained an invaluable asset for over a quarter century serving the nation of India and its Air Force.
Another issue facing the IAF was the role of Tactical Air Strike, and this requirement was met by the selection of the Soviet Unions variable – sweep wing fighter, the Mig-23BN, that was to replace current squadrons operating the Su-7 and HF-24 Marut,that were operating in the offensive air support role, with the MiG-27M/ML also acquired to fulfill the roles of ageing types such as the Ajeet light fighter and again, the Su-7 Fitter, that were optimised for low-level, high speed performance.

1980’s  and Beyond   –   Welcome to the future – Fly – by – Wire

With the onset of the 1980’s, it also brought about change in worldwide economy that progressed with advanced technological changes, that have continued to the present day. Huge leaps in technology, and major leaps in the world of military aviation saw such ‘next gen’ types as the General Dynamics F-16 fighting falcon being developed, and that was coincidentally purchased by the Pakistan Air Force during 1981/82. The response to this action was for the IAF to acquire ‘beyond visual range’ weapons for its fleet of Russian built MiG-23MF aircraft, including two squadrons to be formed on the type, and that for the most part, was an interim solution to the current situation being faced across its border.
The Government at the time looked into finding a solution to counter this problem, and after coming out blank with its counterparts in the East, 1982 arrived with a signed contract,  and had found itself a solution with Western technology in the form of the French built  Dassault Mirage 2000, a delta wing,  fly-by-wire fighter, with high agility and state of the art radar/weapons systems, with the first t of two Squadrons (Nos.1 and 7) equipping with the French lady during the course of 1985/6.
 With the Indian Air Force  enjoying its current status operating state of the art, fly-by-wire aircraft, an invitation by the Soviet Union was given for IAF pilots to eveluate the latest offering at the time, the Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-29 Fulcrum.  After its acceptance of the offer, the IAF was delighted and remarked that the aircraft was “truly outstanding”.
From the onset of the eveluation flight, to a formal understanding and signed agreement between both nations, two years where to pass before the IAF was able to be supplied with its next generation fighter, which introduced a change in the IAF’s procurement of aircraft and technologies that continues to the present day.    The number of aircraft  serving in the  IAF   since the 1990’s been decreasing due to losses, or retirement.    The  Indian Air Force has in recent years been upgrading its fleet of MiG-21, MiG-27 , Jaguar and Mirage 2000 aircraft, including the planned updates for the MiG-29.   Some medium lift helicopters comprising of Mil Mi-8, Mi-17 and Mil-Mi-17Vs are slated for future upgrades along with Antonov An-32 transports.

The Future –

The Indian Air Force  today is a modern, technological intensive force known for its commitment  to excellence and professionalism.

The mission of today’s Indian Air Force is defined by the Armed Forces Act of 1947,  the Constitution of India, and the Air Force Act of 1950.  It decrees that in aerial Battlespace:

“Defence of India and every part there of including preparation for
defence and all such acts as may be conducive in times of war to
its prosecution and after its termination to effective demobilisation”.


The Indian Air Force is Headquartered in New Delhi, with seven commands located throughout India.       

 Quarter of aster –  Western Air Command – New Delhi ,  Eastern Air Command – Shillong  ,   Central Air Command – Allahabad ,     South Western Air Command – Thiruvananthapuram ,      Southern Air Command  – Ghandi  Nagar,  Training Command – Bangalore  and    Maintenance Command – Nagpur.

In today’s world, the Air  Arm of the Indian Armed Forces,  with its complement  of  personnel and aircraft assets, rank it as one of the  the world’s fourth largest.   The current order of  battle that is the Indian Air Force, in the year 2018, comprises of anywhere between 9 to 16 stations, or Air Force bases, that are  located throughout India, with each commanded by an Air Commodore, with a typical Wing having up to two squadrons assigned to it.

Within an IAF  Wing, its usually comprised of a command and a squadron. Most times it may comprise of  between two or three IAF Squadrons, along with a helicopter Unit, that may also include a Forward Base Support Unit (FBSU).  Presently there are roughly 47 wings and 19 FBSUs currently operating within the Indian Air Force, that are typically commanded by a Group Captain.

 Squadrons  are field units or formations at static locations, with a Squadron comprising 18 aircraft, and are under the control of a Commanding  Officer who wears the rank of Wing Commander.

Some transport and helicopter units are under the control by a Commanding Officer holding the  rank of Group Captain, and a further breakdown would see Flights as sub – divisions of Squadrons that would be commanded by a Squadron Leader.  A flight would consist of two sections, that would be led be a Flight Lieutenant that would consist of three aircraft, that would flow onto service branches for day to day operations and so-forth.

Current  Stature

With the Indian Air Force’s current order of battle either receiving upgrades, or in the process of, the future looks promising for the IAF.  With the current Helicopter  fleet in good stead with the pride of the fleet being the giant Mil-Mi-26 heavy lift helicopter thats operated by No.126 Squadron that delivers with outstanding results, the  remaining fleet of medium lift types such as the Mil-Mi-17 and Mi-8 types are all proving their worth within the IAF structure and roles they’re assigned to.

The Chetak/Cheetah fleet has been the mainstay and backbone in the SAR (Search and Rescue), Casualty and Evacuation role within the IAF for many years, with this type being augmented by indigenous designs such as the HAL ( Hindustan Aeronautics Limited)  ALH Dhruv helicopter, which has proven very successful, and is also the prime machine for the Sarang Helicopter Display Team.   The rotary wings of the IAF are undergoing a major restructure with new procurements coming online such as the  CH-47F Chinook helicopter,  and  the  AH-64E Apache  Longbow attack helicopters, that will operate alongside the 125 (H) squadron Mil-Mi-25 gunships, and the Mi-35 Hinds of 104 (H) squadron, that were introduced in 1990.

The Indian Air Force at this current time has given the go ahead to ramp up production manufacturing the locally designed HAL Tejas fighters, of which some 324 of the type are on order,  with basic trainers such as the Pilatus PC-7 MkII HAL HJT-36 Sitara  pending, and the  Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft to replace the current Ilyushin  IL-78MD  tankers ,  which are all being considered for the future within the IAF.

With the Royal Australian Air Force announcing the participants who will be attending Exercise Pitch Black 2018 early in the year, and with many excited to hear of  what aircraft would be attending, it was interesting, and exciting to see the latest acquisitions of the IAF making their way downunder.    As the IAF operates a varied fleet of  medium to light transport aircraft types such as the Antonov An-32 Sutlej, the  HAL built Dornier Do 228,  and the Boeing 737 and Embraer ECJ-135 Legacy aircraft for VIP duties, the IAF sent the Boeing C-17A Globemaster III and the Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules that would support the four  Sukhoi Su-30MKI that would also be taking part in this years exercise.

No. 81  Squadron  ‘Skylords’

 This unit of the  Indian Air Force is assigned to Western Air Command, with the Squadron  being stood up on September 1 2013 at Hindon Air Force Station.  Their motto states ‘ Capable, Powerful, Omnipresent’.    The Squadrons main role is to participate in operations that involve  the movement and airdrop of troops, equipment, supplies and support of special operations forces when required.    The Squadron operates the Boeing C-17A Globemaster III, which was approved by the IAF in 2011 for the purchase of ten aircraft, with the first of the type touching down in India on June 18 2013.   The C-17 has enhanced  the IAF’s capabilities through  its operational potential in terms of its  payload and performance, and use during times of disaster and strategic airlift missions.   Its role in Exercise Pitch Black 2018 was as a support ferrying personnel and equipment.


Boeing C-17A Globemaster III from 81 Squadron ‘Sky Lords’
Boeing C-17A Globemaster III from 81 Squadron ‘Sky Lords’


No. 87 Squadron   Raiding Raptors’

The Indian Air Force has been operating the Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules with 77 Squadron ‘Veiled Vipers’ from Hindon AFS  since 2011.  In 2016,  No. 87 Squadron was formed  as the IAF had suffered some losses, and a new deal was signed for the purchase of six Super Hercules (C-130J-30), that are customised for special operations,  and are not suited  for routine transport roles.  The first of six Hercules touched down in July 2017 and are permanently located at Panagarh Air Force Station,  which has been renamed Arjan Singh AFS.   

During Exercise Pitch Black 2018,  No. 87 Squadron Hercules,  which  are  an AMSOP  (Advanced Mobility Special Ops Platform) that operate as part of the IAF’s  Special  Air Operations Unit,  took part in joint tasks with RAAF C-130J Hercules from 37 Squadron and C-17A Globemaster’s form 36 Squadron with insertion and extraction of Special Forces and supply drops in and around the Bradshaw Field training area.


IAF Lockheed-Martin C-130J-30 Hercules from No.87 Squadron ‘Raiding Raptors’
IAF Lockheed-Martin C-130J-30 Hercules from No.87 Squadron ‘Raiding Raptors’



Indian Air Force Super Hercules patch
Indian Air Force Super Hercules embroidered patch.


No.  102   Squadron    ‘Trisonics’

Equipped with the Sukhoi Su-30MKI and located at Chabua Air Force Station.  No. 102 Squadron was formed in August 1981, with its first operational sortie flown on August 25 1981 from Bareilly AFS, when the Commanding Officer of the ‘Trisonics’, A J Singh and with the then Chief of Air Staff,  Air Chief Marshal Idris Latif took to the air in a Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-25U Foxbat.    The MiG-25 Foxbat was inducted into the Indian Air Force to fulfill the need of  strategic reconnaissance in 1981.   The IAF operated the MiG-25RB for reconnaissance and the two seat MiG-25U for conversion training, and were known as the ‘Garuda‘ in IAF service.  They were employed for top secret missions over hostile territories taking high definition photographs, radar imagery and electronic emissions.  The MiG-25RB’s were pure reconnaissance aircraft equipped without any interception capability, and relied solely on their speed, which was around Mach 3.2, and altitude to stay safe. The IAF’s ‘Garudas‘ flew between 10 – 15  sorties per month, and only 42 pilots were to ever qualify to fly the type, with three recorded losses during its tenure with the Indian Air Force.  The aircraft’s original calendar life was 15 years, and in 1995 a mid life update was  enacted to further the life for another ten years, and again in 2001, a final push was made until the MiG-25 was retired on May 1 2006.



Trisonics Patch
trisonics patch
Exercise Pitch Black 2018 deployment patch. Design by Saurav Jain



Sukhoi Su-30MKI Returning
IAF Sukhoi Su-30MKI Returning from training in the 1st week of Ex Pitch Black 2018


Sukhoi  Su-30MKI  ‘Flanker – H’

The Su-30MKI is a twin jet multirole air superiority fighter developed by Sukhoi, and licence built by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for the Indian Air Force.  Development of the MKI variant begun in 2000 after a deal was signed with Russia, for the manufacture of 140 aircraft, with the first Russian made Su-30MKI inducted into IAF service on September 27 2002.   The first indigenously  assembled (HAL) Su-30MKI was inducted with the IAF in 2004.  A total order of 272 Su-30MKI aircraft are expected, with the present number in service at approximately  249 units. 

 The Sukhoi Su-30MKI force is well spread throughout  the Indian Air Force   with many Air Force Stations utilised –

 –  Bareilly   AFS :  15 Wing,  No. 8 Squadron ‘Eight Pursoots’ & No. 24 Squadron ‘Hunting Hawks’,                                                                                                                                                                       

 –  Bhatinda AFS : 34 Wing, No. 17 Squadron ‘Golden Arrows’ ,     

–  Chabua AFS :   14 Wing, No. 102 Squadron ‘Trisonics’,  

–  Halwara AFS : 34 Wing, No.220 Squadron ‘Desert Tigers’ & No.221 Squadron ‘Valiants’,  

–  Jodhpur AFS:  32 Wing, No.31 Squadron ‘Lions’,  

– Lohegaon AFS :  2 Wing, No.20 Squadron “Lightning’ & No. 30 Squadron “Rhinos’,  

– Bhuj AFS : 27 Wing, No.15 Squadron ‘ Flying Lancers’,

– Tezpur AFS:  11 Wing, No.2 Squadron ‘ Winged Arrows’, 

– Maharajpur AFS:  40 Wing, TACDE (Tactics and Air Combat Development Establishment).

No. 102 Squadron ‘ Trisonics’ was given the honor of being the first Su-30MKI unit to participate in Exercise Pitch Black 2018, along with No.81 & No. 87 Squadrons.  The deployment has shown that the IAF has the ability to deploy within the Asia-Pacific region when called upon.  This years contingent assembled at Kalaikunda AFS in West Bengal before leaving with their first leg taking them via Indonesia before transiting to Darwin. 

Su-30MKI off the deck
Trisonic – lifting off Runway 11

No. 102 Squadrons role during the exercise varied from air to air missions, strike and air superiority, air to ground and as part of large force packages that were designed to improve interoperability between participating nations involved within the exercise.  During the exercise another first was achieved with the Su-30MKI’s having previously gained clearance, to begin air to air refueling with the RAAF’s fleet of KC-30A MRTT aircraft, which also provided the capability on its return leg back to Malaysia at the conclusion of  Exercise Pitch Black 2018.


Su-30MKI on the BRA
Su-30MKI on the BRA (Bomber Replenishment Apron)


Along with their successful participation during the Exercise, the IAF and in particular, the Sukhoi Su-30MKI’s were a huge hit with the locals and spotters alike.  Their performance when taking off and sheer size made them one of the star attractions during their time in Australia.   The public had the chance to see these magnificent machines up close and personal during the Royal Australian Air Force’s Open day that was held on August 4 2018 at RAAF Base Darwin, and the planned flypast at the Mindil Beach night markets on Thursday August 2 2018, with thousands flocking to witness the aerial display by participating Air Forces involved with Exercise Pitch Black 2018.


Sukhoi Su-30MKI Returning
‘Trisonics’ passing over

And one important occasion of note occured while the Indian Air Force were taking part in their Exercise Pitch Black, and we wished all those on deployment a Happy Independance Day 2018. As on this day each year, India celebrates it’s independence in becoming the great nation that it is today signified by the events that occurred on August 15, 1947. Proud thoughts of the unfurling of the national flag by the Prime Minister at the Red Fort in Delhi, numerous parades and kite flying must have been on their minds while in Australia, as being one of the ways the nation signifies this important day in India’s history.

Sukhoi Su-30MKI pass Mindil Beach with Super Hornets
IAF Sukhoi’s pass Mindil Beach in formation with RAAF Super Hornets


Sukhoi Su-30MKI pass Mindil Beach with Super Hornets
Another view performing over Mindil Beach, Darwin, Australia, 2018


Su-30MKI on the BRA
Su-30MKI – RAAF Base Darwin 2018


Aviation Spotters Online was fortunate to have been given access during one of the Exercises morning launches, with videographer Mark Pourzenic ideally situated along the taxiway and by the runway, with many opportunities to grab vision of all participating aircraft, and was able to capture all four Su-30MKI’s as they departed and returned from the morning wave.



Sukhoi Su-30MKI lift off
Departing RAAF Darwin for another training mission


Su-30MKI on the BRA
Media having the chance to inspect the Su-30MKI during day 1 of Ex Pitch Black 2018


Departing Darwin north
Departing Darwin to the north

Aviation Spotters Online would like to take this opportunity to thank the Royal Australian Air Force’s Public Affairs media team, who granted access, so we were able to capture some of the many special moments that occurred daily during Exercise Pitch Black 2018.

Thanks from Mark and the ASO team.

For more information of the Indian Air Force click on the following links:






Read More »

33 Squadron, Topping Up in the Top End!


Affair – During Exercise Pitch Black 2018 in the far northern part of Australia, Royal Australian Air force KC-30A of 33 Squadron have been conducting aerial refuelling training with participating Australian and foreign military aircraft. Aviation Spotters Online have been capturing many parts of this year’s exercise including team photographer Phil Munsel, who was given the opportunity to partake in the media opportunity on-board the three and a half hour flight.


Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), Airbus KC-30A MRTT – A39-001, from 33 Squadron Amberley “Enduring”  


Reason – The Northern Territory (NT) of Australia is playing host for Exercise Pitch Black again and has been since the early 80’s. The exercise is generally run over a three week period in the middle of the year. This major International biennial engagement activity conducted by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), traditionally operates out of RAAF Base Darwin and Tindal however 2018 is also utilising a forward operating base at Batchelor Aerodrome approximately 100 km south of Darwin.

Facts – For over thirty years, Exercise Pitch Black (PB) has been increasingly growing in size and with that brings new technology, capabilities, honing of procedures and processes. It is also a chance to strengthen ties with regional partnerships, improve interoperability between nations and promote regional stability. Throughout the three weeks that Exercise Pitch Black will operate, it will see up to 16 nations, 140 aircraft and around 4000 personnel involved in realistic war like fighting operations fostering international co-operation with partner forces.  2018 sees participants from Canada, France, New Caledonia, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Sweden, Thailand and the United States.  A significant growth from its humble beginnings as an Australian only exercise back in 1981 and was limited to a select number of different RAAF units.


RAAF ‘Classic’ Hornet


IAF Sukhoi SU-30 MKI


RSAF, F-16C Fighting Falcon


RTAF, SAAB JAS-39 Gripen


French Air Force, Rafale B


USAF F-16C, 80th Fighter Squadron


Training conducted, involves multiple, realistic simulated scenarios, practicing offensive and defensive counter air offensive combat. Simulating war operations, traditionally involves the ‘Red Team’ and the ‘Blue Team’ based at Tindal and Darwin respectively. The two bases are only separated by approximately 300 km, however the overall training area can span thousands of square kilometres. The NT boasts possibly one of the largest military training airspace’s in the world. The unique airspace gives opportunity for the Australian Defence Force (ADF), to play in their own back yard while mixing it up with multinational forces participating from around the world. The airspace in the top end is less densely populated than most airspace’s in the world, giving opportunity for participating forces to operate without the usual constraints that they would normally be restricted too and would see up to 50 and even 60 aircraft flying together. The most commonly used airspace during flying activities will be North and South of Darwin and to the west of Tindal. Some of the land based training areas utilised, include facilities such as Robertson Close, Kangaroo Flats (50 km2), Delamere Air Weapons Range (2110 km2), Mount Bundey (1000 km2), and Bradshaw Field (8700 km2). The Northern Territory offers a multitude of advantages training in the top end.

FIT – The first week of three, during ExPB18 is Force Integration Training (FIT) week. This is the time participants prepare, integrate and familiarise with each other safely, while conducting operations throughout the exercise. Familiarisation training missions are conducted to help the forces get comfortable with flying in Darwin airspace, knowing local procedures and being comfortable flying as part of larger missions involving aircraft and aircrew from partner nations. Some of the missions conducted will include air-to-air combat, beyond visual range engagements, high explosive weapons deployed through Air-to-Ground Attack, Aerial refuelling, Airborne Early Warning and Control, Tactical Air Transport/Mobility and the chance to co-ordinate live fires with forces on the ground. A typical fighter mission may involve making their way to the training airspace with the co-ordination of Air Traffic Control (ATC) and hooking up with the tanker for Air-to-Air Refuelling and further continuing on for some basic fighter manoeuvre missions. Mission scenarios progressively become more complex throughout the duration of the exercise, factoring in increased workload and pressure. While Exercise Pitch Black is largely about air combat scenarios, many ground borne roles are needed to support such operations – such as combat support, joint battlefield airspace control, joint terminal attack control, and exercise coordination. 

Air-To-Air Refuelling – Aerial Refuelling is an effective method of extending the endurance, range and/or loiter time on station for aircraft, by refuelling them in flight. In-flight refuelling can be executed as many times as needed and is only limited to factors such as crew fatigue or maintenance issues with the aircraft. When deploying for operations or exercises overseas, air-to-air refuelling can now reduce the units time of their overall journey by remaining airborne and reducing time spent on ground. With in-flight refuelling becoming more in demand with many nations, there is a need to practice and hone their skills. Exercise Pitch Black is no exception and is a perfect opportunity to perfect and improve techniques including with allied nations given the large expanse the northern part of Australia has to offer.

Tanker History – The KC-30A Multi Role Tanker Transport or MRTT, was designed and built by Airbus Military. It has been acquired by the RAAF to replace its aging fleet of tanker/passenger configured Boeing 707’s. These classic Boeing jetliners started their service back as far as March 1979 with the acquisition of two Ex-QANTAS 707-338C models, VH-EAD and VH-EAG. A total of seven used airframes were on the register, with one used only for spares (Ex-Saudi Arabian airlines), four converted for tanker roles (Ex-QANTAS) and two solely for VIP transport (Ex-Saudi Arabian airlines). Sadly one of the transport configured airframes was lost into the sea on a training exercise with all five crew lost. Over time the remaining five airframes became non-compliant with foreign noise and emission regulations and were wound down for retirement. The last three remaining aircraft were acquired by US Operator – Omega Aerial Refuelling Services in 2011.



RAAF’s MRTT – The KC-30A is essentially a militarised version of the popular Airbus A330-200 Airliner. The aircraft’s role is Aerial Refuelling and Strategic Airlift. The fleet is operated out of RAAF Base Amberley in Queensland, by No 33 Squadron,  under the control from No 86 Wing.

This year due parking space at a premium at Darwin and Tindal, 33 Squadron are operating from their home base Amberley, Queensland. This makes their daily commute in excess of twelve hours, flying to and from the top end, including tanker operations during the Exercise. Managing their fatigue have been sort by the addition of more crew rotations to ensure that they are well rested. The Squadron motto is appropriately named “Enduring” and uses the call sign “Dragon” during operations, except this Pitch Plack they used “Thumper” in honour of WOFF Chris Hunter, a 33 Sqn Air Refuelling Operator whom had passed away on a previous deployment to Darwin. ‘Thumper’ has also been used to reduce confusion during this deployment as USMC MV22B Ospreys from VMM 268 ‘Red Dragons’ currently at Darwin have been operating with the Dragon callsign.

It is also worth noting that this exercise being the largest to date requires 33 Sqn to conduct the majority of tanker operations in partnership with foreign nations attending. It is a first for 33 Sqn to be refuelling the Indian Air Forces, Sukhoi SU-30 MKI and vice versa for the Indians to be receiving off the KC-30A. One of the RAAF’s KC-30A’s also supported the long trip for French Air Force (Armee De l’Air) Dassault Rafales fighter aircraft to Australia for participation in this years exercise. With the French and the Singaporeans in the process of acquiring their own KC-30’s, Pitch Black 2018, gave them further opportunity to learn and train more with the platform.


IAF Flankers


Detail – The Airbus A330 has been in production for over 26 years and has been a popular choice with airlines with over 1400 airframes built. The crew is comprised of Pilot/Co-Pilot, one Air Refuelling Officer, one Mission Coordinator, and when required, up to eight crew Attendants. The aircraft’s cruise speed is 860km/h, can fly as far as 14,800 km before requiring refuelling and can fly at a ceiling of 41,000 feet.
The twin-aisle, wide-body, medium to long range, twin engine aircraft has a wing span of 60.3m, height of 17.4m at the tail, and a total length of 59m. Engines of choice for the RAAF are the General Electric CF6-80E1A3. These engines have the highest thrust power of the CF6-80 Series family,  with between and up to 68,000 to 72,000 lbf (pounds of thrust) at the ready, giving the aircraft increased performance capabilities.

Maximum take-off weight is a staggering 233 tonnes, with the maximum landing weight of  180 tonnes. The Fuel carried is held in multiple tanks within the length of the wings and center wing tank and even in the horizontal tailplane,  named the trim tank.  A total of 111 tonnes of fuel can be carried without the need of additional tanks and is also the highest capacity of all tanker aircraft. The KC-30A MRTT can remain 1800 km from its home base, with 50 tonnes of fuel available to offload for up to four hours.

Airbus Military – states “The A330 MRTT is the most effective tanker based on its unmatched fuel capacity that allows it to offload more fuel at any given distance than any competitor. More fuel on-board means more flexibility, more range and longer time on station. This enormous fuel capacity allows the A330 MRTT to act as a force multiplier, thus, improving the efficiency and effectiveness of fast jets operations.

Fleet – The Royal Australian Air Force operates six KC-30A’s with number seven currently under conversion for delivery this year. An option of a further two more (No 8 & 9) are under consideration as part of the 2016 White Paper. The KC-30A’s have been in operation with the RAAF since June 2011 and reached their initial operating capability by February 2013. The first five are newly manufactured from Airbus in Toulouse while the remaining frames, six and seven are Ex-QANTAS passenger A330-200 VH-EBH and VH-EBI.

The seventh airframe, under modification has been approved for a ‘Modest’ VIP fit-out to provide support of long-range international government transport and will be the first of its type for the Air Force. It will have the addition of meeting spaces and enhanced communication facilities; however, its role will still be primarily aerial refuelling. In its transport role, the KC-30A can carry 270 passengers. It comes with under-floor cargo compartments which can accommodate 34,000 kilograms of military and civilian cargo pallets and containers.


KC-30A MRTT, Typical Layout Seating Plan – © Airbus Defence Image


The RAAF’s KC-30A MRTT’s have been quickly put in operational overseas deployment in the Middle East. For nearly four years, 33 squadron have had at least one of their aircraft based at all times in the Persian Gulf region to help support the RAAF’s own task group and coalition aircraft. The aircraft type has been powerful force multiplier for the RAAF, proving itself many times and is highly regarded by the coalition forces. Only recently a mile stone was reached, with 33 Sqn tankers offloading 100 Million pounds of fuel so far during Operation OKRA.

Avionics – The MRTT features advanced communication, navigation and mission planning systems, and an electronic warfare self-protection system for shielding against threats from surface-to-air missiles. Aiding on-ground and in-flight mode of operations together with aerial refuelling missions. Equipped with data-link to exchange tactical information and imagery in real time. Directional Infrared Countermeasures (DIRCM) missile warning system and electronic warfare self-protection (EWSP) systems for protection from surface-to-air missiles are also incorporated.

Delivery Systems – The RAAF’s KC-30A’s are fitted with two forms of aerial refuelling delivery methods – Flying Boom and Probe-&-Drogue systems. An Advanced Refuelling Boom System (ARBS) is mounted under the tail of the aircraft; and a pair of all-electric refuelling pods under each wing (outboard). Each aircraft among select other aircraft in the RAAF inventory have a Universal Aerial Refuelling Receptacle Slipway fitted above the cockpit for self-in-flight refuelling, giving the KC-30A almost infinite range capabilities.


20140819raaf8485160_0140 Air Refuelling Operator Warrant Officer Budge Newman oversees the air to air refuel of an F/A-18A Hornet during Exercise Pitch Black
Air Refuelling Operator (ARO) and console – © Commonwealth of Australia – Defence Image


The belly of the MRTT, showing various video and lighting components to aid the ARO and receiving aircraft.


Another view of the underside – All ‘Cleaned up’


Tail Boom – With additional information sourced from Airbus Defence and Space, the ARBS is certified and combat-proven in service and is fully interoperable with all refuelling receptacle-equipped fighters. It is equipped with an all electrical, full fly-by-wire flight control system remotely controlled by an Air Refuelling Operator (ARO) seated behind the pilot/co-pilot in the cockpit. The ARO can view refuelling from a console through advanced 2d/3D high definition/digital enhanced video monitoring system screens. The console is operated to control boom, pods, video systems, mission planning system, communications systems and fuel offload quantities. The boom is around 12m long when retracted and up to 18m when extended and allows the fastest fuel transfer up to 4,600 l/min at 50 psi. Refuelling can be performed at any altitude up to 35,000 feet while cruising at speeds between 180 and 325 knots. The ARBS is considered the most capable new generation boom available today.


Advanced Refuelling Boom System (ARBS)


Pods – The RAAF’s, KC-30A aircraft are fitted with a pair of all-electric Cobham 905E under-wing refuelling pods with a 90ft hose-and-drogue system to refuel probe-equipped aircraft. The refuelling pods feature integral fuel boost pump which provides a fuel transfer capability up 1703 l/min at 45 to 55 psi. Pods operate with aircraft power, or are self-powered by a Ram Air Turbine (RAT). The drogue (The ‘Basket’ at the end) which is the part of the aerial refuelling system, stabilises the hose in flight and provides a funnel to aid insertion of the receiver aircraft probe into the hose. The RAAF have employed a high speed Variable Drag Drogue (VDD) with unique technology allowing for a stable platform for refuelling of 180-325 knots and a patented ‘low Foreign Object Damage’ construction which eliminates any parts that would cause receiver engine damage in case of breakage. The high speed VDD enables a single tanker to support a variety of aircraft from the Boeing V-22 Osprey to the latest generation fast jets such as the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.


One of two COBHAM all-electric 905E under-wing refuelling pods.


Drogue ‘Basket’


The Media Op – Working from previous events, this year was definitely the hardest for being approved to be able to cover media opportunities during Pitch Black. Given that this has been the largest international exercise held in the southern hemisphere to date, it was only natural that it would have the interest of foreign media outlets. Having said that, I am very grateful for all involved for me to be allowed to participate in this year’s media flight to cover aerial refuelling operations during the exercise.

Arriving at the main front gate of RAAF Base Darwin at 1130hrs, there was a lot of things going through my mind as I didn’t know what to expect! I notice the other media representatives mingling just outside the gate waiting for direction. I walk up and notice a few familiar faces, and happily greet and introduce myself . It wasn’t too much longer when we were issued our visitors passes, and motioned to make our way through the secure front gate to a car park off the side where our commuter bus was waiting. We climb aboard and fill the 12 seats available, with the remaining media representatives able to drive their cars following us, as we made our short drive to the RAAF Darwin Air Movements Terminal.
Driving through a small part of the base community, I notice ADF personnel and other military forces from foreign nations going about their day. Arriving we group together, offered bottles of water as we make our way through the entrance to the well-lit departure lounge with other defence personnel waiting. From this room I could see another lounge directly to our right through glass partitions and in front was another room to accept departures and arrivals. Beyond that was air-side, I could make out various aircraft including our ride the KC-30A directly in front, an Airbus A400 on the other side and the RSAF KC-135 tanker which had just arrived, maneuvering between us and our MRTT.


Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) – Airbus A400M, Atlas, M54-04, from 22 Sqn – “The Strong and The Bold”


The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) KC-135R, Stratotanker, from 112 Squadron – “Determined To Deliver”


The Brief – We all spread out in the room taking a seat, shortly after which, our Public Affairs Officer (PAO) and the few personnel that were standing out the front of us, proceeded to give us the brief for our flight in turn. Today the flight was going to be approximately three and a half hours in duration. The plan is to make our way to the airspace south of Darwin and fly in an oval racetrack pattern. It is expected that we will rendezvous with two USAF (United States Air Force) F-16’s, four RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) Hornets , and then three RSAF (Republic of Singapore Air Force) F-16’s. With this array of aircraft, we will be utilising the Tail Boom and the Hose & Drogue systems.
It was also stressed that we were to have the rubber lens hood attached to our lens at all times, as previously briefed in media request emails leading up to the event. Each passenger window is made up of multiple panes, with the inner pane being like a dust cover to take the mistreatment from passengers and prevent the main structural pane from being scratched. It has been noticed that with many flights like these, the inner protecting pane was constantly being damaged, in turn making for needless costs to replace them and making it hard to capture decent images or just look out the window. After the brief they came through and carried out bag inspections to make certain there was no prohibited items coming on-board, as with any aircraft. Then, it was just a matter of waiting for the aircraft to be readied before given the all clear to board. 

Boarding – After about an hour, between 1300 and 1400hrs we were able to make our way to the aircraft awaiting outside. When going air-side and walking up, to, and around aircraft is a weird and wonderful feeling for me, maybe it’s because of the noise and open expanse of the tarmac with nothing else but aircraft and essential equipment. The other reason would be the build-up of anticipation and excitement that I’m about to experience,  something I’m sure not many civilians get to do! (I’m still smiling to myself as I think about it!)




I seek approval of a quick snap as we walk towards our Tanker, KC-30A  A39-004. A quick response of  yes chimes through, – with strict instructions of only within a certain arc, and  not to capture any other sensitive movements happening, and I oblige accordingly to said instruction. Walking forward I notice the airstairs in position at Door 2 Left, making our way up I take in the different perspective, which is exciting, and different. Typically you would normally be entering through a covered aerobridge if it were an operating airline. We are greeted by a crew attendant directing us left, towards what would be ‘Business Class’ seating. We all shuffle in and find seats with another personal bottle of water waiting. The refreshing temperature of the air conditioning, doing its magic to make us more comfortable. I find and sit next to a friend whom I had met on a previous media occasion sitting in the window seat.


Safety Card – KC-30A


It’s not long before cabin doors are closed, engines start to groan to life, while our safety brief is being demonstrated. Seat belts done up low and tight we begin to taxi out of the Air Movements apron towards taxiway ‘Alpha 1’ ready for departure from Runway 11. Lining up with no delay, the engines are fed more combustible liquid, which push us into our seats as we are carried down the tarmac and swiftly climb above the city of Darwin.


Lining up runway 29 – Darwin International Airport/RAAF Base Darwin


In the Air – As we climb to Flight Level 230 (23,000ft) I take in the scenery below seeing Darwin and its surrounding outskirts from the air by day.


RAAF KC-30A MRTT departs during EX Pitch Black 2018


MRTT exposing its belly with centre line stripe underneath, used for visual formation reference 


Climbing out of Darwin, Northern Territory


From May to October is “The Dry Season’ here in the Top End. This year with the dry windy conditions increasing, coupled with very minimal rain over the last few months, the grass becomes very dry and vegetation quite easy to burn, the fire danger risk is quite high. Looking out at the countryside is a little hazy from the smoke generated from the bushfires.


View from the rear seats


We effortlessly reach our cruising altitude and with seat belt signs switched off, we are free to move about the cabin. It was a minute or so and I noticed half the group had already moved rearward to the last rows of seats with windows, as we had been advised earlier that they were best for capturing pictures/footage. Moving down the twin aisle wide body, you forget how big the aircraft really is and the fact it was almost empty with just a handful of people. The port side rear seat rows were the first to fill up, as this is the side for aircraft wanting to refuel. I managed to get 2nd from rear, starboard side for when they transition across after refuelling. It was voiced to us that if everyone shared their spots (seats), we would all be able to capture what we wanted as there would be numerous refuelling ‘contacts’ from the various fighter jets.


Beautiful day for flying


Without really noticing, we were flying in a left-hand racetrack pattern above the clouds.  Before long, the staff had briefed us that we would be making contact shortly with USAF  F-16’s. With this type of aircraft they have to use the tail boom and we wouldn’t be able to see the actual refuelling, other than the aircraft forming up on the port side and then sliding into position one at a time,and directly under the tail of out KC-30A. Whilst flying the boom, the seat belt signs would be on and we were not to move about until hook-up’s were complete and the seat belt signs were  off. 

Sequence – The refuelling sequence generally starts with the tanker on track and the receiving aircraft would then conduct an intercept and join to the rear of the tanker. Once on the wing they will have permission from the ARO to move into the ‘Pre-Contact’ position. Once in position behind the delivery system (Boom or Drogue), the ARO will give further clearance to move forward and make contact. With the drogue they will push forward into what they call a ‘Refuelling Range’ and fuel will offload automatically. The boom system is similar however the receiving aircraft will hold position directly below the boom and the ARO will fly the boom with the flight control stick (joystick), extending the nozzle to engage into the receptacle of the receiving aircraft. When both aircraft are stable the ARO will initiate the transfer of fuel.

USAF F-16’s – With approximately ten people down each side of the rear cabin, and occupying  what window space was left, and a few scattered amongst the centre seating, we virtually had the (two) seats to ourselves each. Before long the seat belt sign came on, and within a few minutes there was action on the port side, with cameras firing and alerting others, something was out there. Although we wouldn’t see anything on our side (starboard) for a little while, I still kept checking, just in case! Soon enough we caught a glimpse of our first subject. USAF F-16C,  90-0711 from the 80th Fighter Squadron, nicknamed the “Headhunters”, based at  Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, proceeds up from behind and moving just rearward and upward of the starboard wing. It was my turn now to put my cameras into overdrive and capture what I could. Having this been a first for me, and not really knowing what to expect I had to ‘wing it’ so to speak, and try my best to get the best angle within the confines of the small inflexible window. Some of the things I came across when trying to shoot,  included a few drama’s that one must overcome and adapt to, and one being, was that the window was just a little bit too low for me when seated,  and trying to contort in every which way to take photos, looking back made it extremely difficult to get the subject in the camera’s frame.  Adding to this, was that the seat backs were usually in the middle of the window, which again, made you work for your shot!  Using the rubber lens hood has its advantages, but it too was something else to factor in with each composition. As we are flying in a circular pattern, the light is constantly changing, so at times you are still going to get light creeping in. If you push a little too much against the window, the hood will bend enough, so that the black shape creeps into frame. I definitely had to think quickly, as you know in your own mind, the aircraft is not going to be there for long. With many shots taken from both of my cameras already, the next jet comes into sight – USAF F-16C, No 88-0549….and we are on again!  After loitering for a short time, the pair slowly climb away until out of sight. Shortly the seat belt sign is extinguished again and its courtesy that we give our seats up for others to get their turn. Slowly we all play musical chairs and I get myself over to port side. We are informed that it will be about 20 minutes before our next engagement and that we can make our way up to mid galley for some pre-packed lunch.


First USAF F-16C


Close up!


Concentrating on formation



USAF F-16C Viper,”HEADHUNTERS”,  from Kunsan Air Base, South Korea


2nd F-16C forms up briefly before departing



A quick bite to eat.


RAAF F/A-18A’s – Five minutes before our next contact,  the drogue hoses from the under wing pods start to wind out and trail behind our KC-30A.  Within a few moments , a pair of RAAF F/A-18 ‘Classic’ Hornets pull up on our 7 o’clock.  To all on board’s delight, F/A-18B Hornet A21-101, wearing the marking’s of it’s former host, the  Australian Research & Development Unit (ARDU), is onside and ready with it’s refuelling probe extended, and without hesitation forms up and slips to the starboard side to hook up.  The second hornet moving in is A21-14 Single seat ‘A’ model still with the markings of former No 3 Squadron (Now deployed overseas at Luke Air Force Base on conversion training for the awaited F-35 II). This time everyone is hastily snapping away, moving around to different positions/seats as we are not restricted with the seat belt sign. The hornets disconnected and moved rearward, to allow for the next pair. By this time the majority of us had got most of the shots needed and it was very easy moving around the cabin asking to move into a seat they wanted. Two more RAAF F/A-18 ‘Classic’ Hornets made contact, with  A21-56 of  No 2 Operational Conversion Unit (2OCU) & A21-54, again with No 3 Squadron livery. The earlier ‘Classic’ ARDU bird also popping in for another go, topping up on the port side, to everyone’s delight on board the media flight.



Switch to Port side


First two Hornets


F/A-18 Hornet A21-14


In ‘Refuelling Range’


RAAF ‘Classic’ Hornets A21-101 and A21-14


‘ARDU’ Hornet


Dual and Single seat Hornets



A21-101 having another turn








Keeping distance


Hornet Tanker Ops completed


RSAF F-16’s – When the Hornets bugged out, it was time to choose a seat again and to buckle up for the Boom deployment. Before the last round there was a noticeable thrust increase, along with a decrease in speed to set the pace again for The Republic of Singapore Air Force F-16’s.  Again, I chose the starboard side, which turned out that I was only able to capture two of the known three which formed up on the port side. The two Vipers that I managed to capture were ‘No 615’, F-16C from 143 Squadron “Phoenix” and ‘No 696’ F-16D ,from 140 Squadron “Osprey”.  The one that got away from me, which I did see, but couldn’t get the angle as he dropped back nearly on our six and never saw again was ‘No 642’ F-16C, from 143 Squadron “Phoenix”.  The remaining two hung off the starboard wing for a brief period in formation before heading off. 


RSAF ‘No 615’, F-16C from 143 Squadron “Phoenix”


‘615’ with ‘No 696’ F-16D ,from 140 Squadron “Osprey”


F-16C (foreground) with F-16D – The Republic Singapore Air Force


It was said to me from someone else, who had previously experienced this, who told me – At some point, just stop, put the camera down, and look out and enjoy the moment!  To which I did, and I must say, it was so surreal, and such an amazing experience to be able to look out the window and see a fighter jet sitting 30m from me, something that you only see in the movies, and i was experiencing this! I must say, looking through a lens and seeing it for real are still two totally different experiences!


General Electric CF6-80E1A3



Return to Base – With the last in-flight refuelling task completed, it was time to head for home. The last three plus hours was just a blur! Where did that time go!? We all collected our things and made our way back slowly to the pointy end, taking the same seats we departed on. Heading back to Darwin was near twenty minutes flying time, giving me a little time to move about the cabin looking out through the various windows. Parts of the coastline came into view on return as we descended, making a straight-in approach for runway 29. Touching down was like any other landing from an airliner, pulling us forward out of our seats while you try to upright yourself, still looking out the window with the International terminal passing us by. Slowing down to what felt like walking pace, we taxied back to the same parking bay on the Air Movements apron past many other various military aircraft. Making our way out of door 2 Left again and down the air stairs along the tarmac I was able to capture a different angle of our ride with permission. We made our way back through Air Movements terminal thanking our hosts, heading towards our minibus. It was a matter of a short bus ride again to the car park just inside of the main gate, again thanking our PAO’s and handing our visitors pass back and walking off base through the main entrance gate.


On finals


Letting it all hang down


Crossing the threshold


Walking back to Air Movements


Media transportation back to Main Entrance


Bloodhound RAAF Darwin
RAAF Darwin Main Gate with Bristol Bloodhound Surface-To-Air-Missiles as Gate Guards


Aviation Spotters Online and myself would like to graciously thank all involved with Pitch Black to make this happen, including The Royal Australian Air Force, United States Air Force, The Republic Singapore Air Force, No 33 Squadron, Darwin Air Movements, The Public Affairs team; Eamon and Marina and all aircrew, ground/support crews and personnel that go unmentioned in background who I didn’t see.

This is my first trip to the Northern Territory, making a lot of firsts for me. Seeing first hand the multinational defence forces operating together and how they co-exist with Darwin’s community and showing what they have to offer. Having the chance to see Mindil Beach with the famous sun setting over the water is something you only see or hear about.


Cheers….Phil Munsel



Read More »

Safety One…. Airside Safety in the Top End

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

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

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

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


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

PB 2018
PB 2018

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

RAAF Super Hornet
RAAF Super Hornet at Exercise Pitch Black 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donghai Airlines B737
On the PRT Apron – Donghai Airlines B737

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alliance Fokker 100
Alliance Fokker 100

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

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

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

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

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

What is the typical daily routine you follow?

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

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

RAAF King Air
RAAF King Air taxi to runway 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you enjoy about being an AOO?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

RWY 11/29 3354m x 60m

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

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


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

RSAF Flightline BRA
RSAF Flightline BRA

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

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

Qantas B737
Qantas B737

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

USMC MV-22B Osprey

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

Maria starts the displaced threshold generator

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

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

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

Displaced Threshold strobes visible for miles.

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

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

DIA plan
Apron aircraft size by gate

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

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

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

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

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

Nankeen Kestrel
Nankeen Kestrel

So birds are one of the day to day challenges?

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

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

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

Most bird strikes involve the Kites

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


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

PAPI Genset
PAPI lights behind the Genset

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

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

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

How does the airport go about runway maintenance?

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

Arrestor Cable western end – maintained by the RAAF

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

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

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

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

Thai Airways B747 diversion
Thai Airways B747 diversion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honeywell B757 Testbed
Honeywell B757 Testbed on pushback

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

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

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

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

Sid Mitchell


Image 1 of 86

Read More »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrap up RAAF Base Darwin
Wrap up RAAF Base Darwin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AC Kitcher
Air Commodore Kitcher hands over

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

Wrap up RAAF Base Darwin
Representatives ready to chat

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

Wrap up RAAF Base Darwin
LACW Fletcher – M

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Image 1 of 33

Read More »

Maligayang pagdating sa Melbourne, Cebu Pacific Air touches down



Cebu Pacific Air has launched its first service to Melbourne Airport, and is the 34th International Airline to operate to the airport.  The airline first launched in March 1996 adding to the huge growth in the low fare airlines models growing around the world. Currently  Cebu Pacific flies to 37 Philippine and 26 international destinations, spanning Asia, Australia, the Middle East, and USA.

Cebu Pacific ASO 2 (1 of 1)

Tourist arrivals from the Philippines has become one of the fastest-growing source markets for Australia, with an average 16 percent increase over the past four years.
Today Cebu Pacific operates a fleet of sixty six​ aircraft. Broken down this includes some 48 Airbus aircraft which includes, four A321ceo, thirty six A320’s and eight A330s. The airline also flies eighteen ATRs, broken down this includes eight ATR 72-500 and ten ATR 72-600s.​
Arriving into Melbourne Airport at approximately 16:05 pm local time, Airbus A330-343 RP-C3347 touched down on runway 34 from Manila.
Cebu Pacific ASO 3 (1 of 1)
Cebu Pacific ASO 5 (1 of 1)
Cebu Pacific ASO 6 (1 of 1)
The service will operate three times per week on the 436 seat configured aircraft. The flights will operate on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. The Manila-Melbourne flight 5J049 will leave at 6:05 am ETD, arriving at 3:50 pm ETA. The return flight Melbourne-Manila 5J050 will leave at 5:05 pm ETD, arriving at 11:15 pm ETA.
Cebu Pacific ASO 7 (1 of 1)
The aircraft is powered by the Rolls Royce Trent 772B-60.
Cebu Pacific ASO 8 (1 of 1)
Cebu Pacific livery is a welcome addition to the Melbourne Airport flightline.
Cebu Pacific ASO 9 (1 of 1)
Airbus A330-343 c/n 1712, this 2016 build aircraft was delivered to the airline on the 12/12/16.
The aircraft was on the ground and turned around for the outbound flight as 5J050 for a departure and return to Manila at 17:41.
Cebu Pacific ASO 11 (1 of 1)
Cebu Pacific is turned around with the help of Gate Gourmet and Aerocare handling catering and ground services respectively.
Cebu Pacific ASO 12 (1 of 1)
Flight 5J050 heads for the runway on the return leg to Manila.
Cebu Pacific ASO 13 (1 of 1)Cebu Pacific ASO 14 (1 of 1)
Aviation Spotters Online again wishes to thank Melbourne Airport for their help and preparation of this article
Read More »

Exercise Pitch Black 2018 – Mindil Beach Sunset Display

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

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


The crowd waiting in anticipation at Mindil Beach


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Two USMC MV-22B Osprey
Cross over
Sweeping in


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


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


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


Moving into position
Cooling spray for the beach-goers


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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

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

Your ASO team in Darwin.


Packing up after a successful evening



Contracted CHC/Lloyds S-76A Rescue Helicopter

Image 1 of 168


Read More »

Exercise Pitch Black 2018 Open Day – what a display!

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

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

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

front line display
Lining up

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


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

PC-9A A23-022
Morning wave

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

USMC MV-22B Osprey
Pre crowd chats

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

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

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

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

Time for a Team Photo – Indian Air Force

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

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

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

TUDM A400M Atlas
A400M Atlas

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

TUDM A400M Atlas
A400M Atlas refuelling pods

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


TUDM A400M Atlas
Atlas ramp
TUDM A400M Atlas
TUDM A400M Atlas

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

RAAF C-27J Spartan
Spartan adaptable cargo space

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

Spartan Main Gear and countermeasures
Adaptable mains and counter measures

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

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

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

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

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

RAAF Spartan
RAAF Spartan A34-010

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Merc 6x6 Comms Unit
Dial up the data

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Vectoring exhaust nozzles

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

USMC KC-130J Hercules
Sumo – KC-130J

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAAF C-17 Globemaster III
RAAF C-17 cargo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bomb Disposal Robot
Bomb Disposal
Segwey by two
Segwey for two

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

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

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

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

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


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




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

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

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

@RoyalAustralianAirForce (#ExPitchBlack18)

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




Image 1 of 91


Read More »

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

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

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

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

WCdr Steve Parsons
WGCDR Steve Parsons

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

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

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

Indian Air Force KC-130J

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

French Air Force Dassault Rafale
French Air Force Dassault Rafale

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

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

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

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

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

PB Brochure

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

PB 2018 display at Mindil
Mindil Beach Display PB2016

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

USAF F-16C Falcon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cheers from Sid in the Top End.



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

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


Read More »

Within the cargo hold of a 747

During 2006, I was fortunate enough to have been employed as a driver for a transport company that dealt with many customers who relied upon air freight in and out of the country.
Almost daily I would sit in long queue’s awaiting my turn to make it to the clerks office at many of the freight forwarding companies that where situated at Melbourne Airport at the time, such as Menzies, Patrick’s, DHL and Australian Air Express to name but a few.
Being an avid aviation enthusiast this didn’t worry me at all as I was content with keeping an eye on the coming’s and going’s at the airport, and would at times bring my video camera along to catch anything special that was passing through.
Naturally word had got around at work that I was a keen aviation nut,and through some contacts at work, they had organised for myself, through Menzies Air Services, a guided tour through a Cathay Pacific Cargo Boeing 747 Freighter.

Boeing 747-267F B-HVZ on finals. Image credit Richard Pourzenic

I was one happy man and couldn’t wait for the day to arrive. I was given prior permission to bring my video camera along and film the occasion. This meant going back to hand held as lugging a tripod around wasn’t going to happen inside the confined space of a 747 full of freight.
The day had arrived and was told to be at Menzies Air Services around 3pm for a quick run down on the do’s and dont’s about being airside, and once in and around the aircraft.
Sadly with the passing of time, I have forgotten the name of our gracious host whom you’ll see in the video, as he was very informative and very welcoming. Hopefully someone out there will be able to shed light on this matter.
As you’ll see in the video, there is a lot of planning that goes into how an aircraft is loaded, such as keeping its centre of gravity, and how it will react when taking off or landing, as well as whilst in flight. Another point of interest was how the pallets where loaded with freight, and the way they were stacked, and done in a way that it conformed to the shape of the 747.

Touchdown of B-HVZ at Melbourne Airport. Image credit Richard Pourzenic

Boeing 747-267F (SCD)
This particular 747, registered B-HVZ is one of four 747-267SF freighters that where operated by Cathay Pacific Cargo that featured the Side Cargo Door(SCD). HVZ started life as line number 687, and was given construction number (MSN)23864, and wore the test registration of N6005C for its first flight in September of 1987 before final delivery to Cathay Pacific Cargo and registered as VR-HVZ. After 22 years of long and loyal service,  B-HVZ was retired and last noted as stored/scrapped at the Southern California Logistics Airport near Victorville (VCV).

Boeing 747-2F VR-HVZ. Image credit Wilkes Aviation Collection

Cathay Pacific Cargo
The Cargo subsidiary was established in 1981 operating twice weekly on the Hong Kong – Frankfurt – London route that was jointly operated in partnership with Lufthansa.
Between its passenger and cargo routes, Cathay Pacific serves more than 80 destinations.

With special thanks to Melbourne Airport and staff from Menzies Air Services and Cathay Pacific Cargo for their time and opportunity.
Aviation Spotters Online would also like to thank Photographers Richard Pourzenic and Brian Wilkes for the use of their images in this article.

Read More »

Wings Over Illawarra 2018-Aerobatics

No airshow would be complete without the thrilling spectacle of high performance aerobatics and WOI 2018 certainly didn’t disappoint, with a gathering of the very best solo and formation displays that Australia has to offer dazzling the crowds with their physics-defying gyrations and coordinated formation maneuvers.Mottys-Aeros-Paul Bennet-WOI-2018-16282-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Russian Roolettes-WOI-2018-14700-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Matt Hall-WOI-2018-20465-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Glenn Graham-WOI-2018-05577-001-ASO


Mottys-Aeros-Tim Dugan-WOI-2018-17340-001-ASO

PM.WOI2018.Sat.PBA (5)


Glenn Graham, Rebel 300, VH-TBN

In between the seemingly endless tasks of planning and organising events for the Paul Bennet Airshows (PBA) team, two-time Australian Advanced Aerobatic Champion Glenn Graham somehow finds the time to maintain his skills as an aerobatic display pilot as well.Mottys-Aeros-Glenn Graham-WOI-2018-07740-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Glenn Graham-WOI-2018-05429-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Glenn Graham-WOI-2018-05190-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Glenn Graham-WOI-2018-07287-001-ASO

The first of the aerobatic performers at the show, Glen flew a very crisp routine in the Rebel 300; a machine which is unique in the PBA aerobatic fleet as the only monoplane amongst the flock of Pitts Special biplanes. Mottys-Aeros-Glenn Graham-WOI-2018-04930-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Glenn Graham-WOI-2018-07702-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Glenn Graham-WOI-2018-07853-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Glenn Graham-WOI-2018-07469-001-ASO


Chris Clark, Stearman, VH-ILW

Chris Clark, from Southern Biplane Adventures, displayed his Boeing Stearman; a large biplane which was originally designed and built as a primary trainer for the US and many other air arms during WWII.Mottys-Aeros-Stearman-WOI-2018-16798-001-ASO



Despite the Stearman’s large size and seemingly sedate performance, Chris showed the type’s true agility with a graceful and flowing routine of rolls, loops and turns in the big, bright red machine and its trail of thick white smoke. A striking sight against the clear blue sky.Mottys-Aeros-Stearman-WOI-2018-16820-001-ASO




Paul Andronicou, Extra 330SC, VH-IXC

Paul Andronicou displayed his new Extra 330SC to great effect at WOI 2018. Only built last year, Paul’s is the latest version of the well-known aerobatic type manufactured by Walter Extra of Germany and is designed specifically for Unlimited category aerobatic competition with improved roll rate and easier roll stops over earlier models.Mottys-Aeros-Paul Andronicou-WOI-2018-07687-001-ASO

PM.WOI2018.Sat.Aerobatic (2)

Mottys-Aeros-Paul Andronicou-WOI-2018-07651-001-ASO

PM.WOI2018.Sat.Aerobatic (1)

Based in Victoria, Paul has secured wins in both the Australian Aerobatic Championship (unlimited category) and Australian Freestyle Championship as well as being the most successful Australian pilot at two World Aerobatic Championships, since he began performing in the 1990s. Skills which were well demonstrated during his amazing displays at Illawarra.Mottys-Aeros-Paul Andronicou-WOI-2018-10856-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Paul Andronicou-WOI-2018-10745-001-ASO

PM.WOI2018.Sat.Aerobatic (7)

Mottys-Aeros-Paul Andronicou-WOI-2018-10927-001-ASO


Paul Bennet, Wolf Pitts Pro, VH-PVB

Head of the aptly named Paul Bennet Airshows team, Paul has been a regular performer at Australian airshows for many years now, in ever more powerful versions of his favoured type, the Pitts Special, which has culminated in his current mount, the bright yellow Wolf Pitts Pro, which is a far cry from the type’s simple origins with its hand-crafted lines and raw power.Mottys-Aeros-Paul Bennet-WOI-2018-11947-002-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Paul Bennet-WOI-2018-11892-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Paul Bennet-WOI-2018-16448-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Paul Bennet-WOI-2018-12413-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Paul Bennet-WOI-2018-15820-001-ASO

Paul used the Wolf Pitt’s performance to full advantage in his solo display as he threw the machine into maneuvers that looked like an aeroplane really shouldn’t be able to do, with tumbles end-over-end, flat turns climbing from a knife-edge pass and more.Mottys-Aeros-Paul Bennet-WOI-2018-15814-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Paul Bennet-WOI-2018-15756-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Paul Bennet-WOI-2018-15800-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Paul Bennet-WOI-2018-12809-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Paul Bennet-WOI-2018-12704-001-ASO


Tim Dugan, Pitts Model 12, VH-TYJ

Also with PBA, Tim Dugan displayed the Pitts Model 12, yet another variation within the team’s Pitts fleet. The Model 12 is a relatively large member of the Pitts family and is somewhat unusual in having a radial engine, rather than the in-line power plants more commonly seen on the type, which gives it a somewhat “classic” look, suggestive of some 1930s designs.Mottys-Aeros-Tim Dugan-WOI-2018-17422-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Tim Dugan-WOI-2018-14089-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Tim Dugan-WOI-2018-13790-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Tim Dugan-WOI-2018-17233-001-ASO

Its performance is certainly not that of a sedate classic machine though and Tim used this to full advantage to put on a great display, all with the added benefit of that radial “sound of round”.Mottys-Aeros-Tim Dugan-WOI-2018-17079-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Tim Dugan-WOI-2018-17291-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Tim Dugan-WOI-2018-17186-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Tim Dugan-WOI-2018-17421-001-ASO


Russian Roolettes, Jim Eaglen, Egon Mahr, Sean Trestrail, Al Pickering and Niall Higgins; Nanchang CJ-6s, VH-NNG, VH-CJX & VH-CPX and Yak-52s, VH-VHV & VH-XRO

Another popular act at many Australian shows is Australia’s largest civilian formation display team, the Russian Roolettes, in their mix of Yak-52 and Nanchang CJ-6 warbirds . Being based just a few minutes away at Mittagong, it was only natural that the team would look forward to supporting Australia’s largest annual airshow just down the road.Mottys-Aeros-Russian Roolettes-WOI-2018-14471-001-ASO  Mottys-Aeros-Russian Roolettes-WOI-2018-15159-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Russian Roolettes-WOI-2018-19122-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Russian Roolettes-WOI-2018-19700-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Russian Roolettes-WOI-2018-18717-001-ASO

Following their show entrance, the team split in two (into Yak and Nanchang formations) and performed a very well-coordinated series of maneuvers, and  the clever use of the separate formations ensured that there was always something happening for the crowds to enjoy.Mottys-Aeros-Russian Roolettes-WOI-2018-24372-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Russian Roolettes-WOI-2018-19651-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Russian Roolettes-WOI-2018-14872-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Russian Roolettes-WOI-2018-14508-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Russian Roolettes-WOI-2018-14698-001-ASO


Sky Aces, Paul Bennet, Glenn Graham & Ben Lapin, Wolf Pitts VH-PVB, Pitts S-1Ss VH-UDP & VH-IPB

As if their individual displays weren’t impressive enough, the PBA team also perform high energy formation aerobatics in a trio of Pitts Specials as the Sky Aces, led by Paul in his bright yellow Wolf Pitts.Mottys-Aeros-Sky Aces-WOI-2018-17045-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Sky Aces-WOI-2018-16910-001-ASO

PM.WOI2018.Sat.PBA (7)

PM.WOI2018.Sat.PBA (11)

PM.WOI2018.Sat.PBA (10)

Their routine is a combination of traditional formation maneuvers such as loops and rolls combined with more dynamic elements which highlight the power and agility of their mounts. This is evident from the very beginning when, immediately after take-off, the team separate for a set of opposing passes where Paul threads the gap, head-on, between wingmen Glenn Graham and Ben Lappin; to the very end where the three of them enter a vertical climb into stall turns off the end of the runway threshold before making their landings on the decent.  Mottys-Aeros-Sky Aces-WOI-2018-16441-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Sky Aces-WOI-2018-20771-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Sky Aces-WOI-2018-21404-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Sky Aces-WOI-2018-16768-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Sky Aces-WOI-2018-17113-001-ASO


Matt Hall, Extra 300L, VH-IOG

Fresh from his win in the Red Bull air race competition at the inaugural French event at Cannes on the French Riviera, Matt Hall performed an amazing routine as the final aerobatic display each day. While his Red Bull racing machine, an Edge 540, was on static display at Illawarra, Matt flew his more familiar (to us back here in Australia) Extra 300L for his performances.Mottys-Aeros-Matt Hall-WOI-2018-19427-001-ASO

PM.WOI2018.Sat.MattHall (1)

PM.WOI2018.Sat.MattHall (5)

Mottys-Aeros-Matt Hall-WOI-2018-19568-001-ASO

PM.WOI2018.Sun.Hornet (20)

PM.WOI2018.Sat.MattHall (3)

PM.WOI2018.Sat.MattHall (23)

Matt’s display gave a great feel for the skills which have brought him such success on the racing circuit with high energy, low level snap turns, loops and rolls, along with more typical aerobatic maneuvers (and those fortunate enough to be at ASO’s “premium Spotter” location were given a great view as well). To top off his great performance at Illawarra, Matt went on to score a back-to-back victory in the third race of the season at Chiba, Japan, just a couple of weeks later and currently (as at the time of writing) leads the 2018 Red Bull Air Race World Championship.Mottys-Aeros-Matt Hall-WOI-2018-20128-001-ASO

PM.WOI2018.Sat.MattHall (9)

Mottys-Aeros-Matt Hall-WOI-2018-20459-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Matt Hall-WOI-2018-20086-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Matt Hall-WOI-2018-20367-001-ASO

PM.WOI2018.Sat.MattHall (22)

Our thanks go out to all the pilots and their teams and congratulations to the WOI 2018 crew for the spectacular displays of aerobatic skills and performance that wowed the crowds and fosters a greater passion of aviation in all its forms.Mottys-Aeros-Paul Andronicou-WOI-2018-11440-001-ASO


Mottys-Aeros-Russian Roolettes-WOI-2018-15156-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Tim Dugan-WOI-2018-17628-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Russian Roolettes-WOI-2018-14704-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Paul Bennet-WOI-2018-15731-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Russian Roolettes-WOI-2018-19747-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Glenn Graham-WOI-2018-07344-001-ASO

Mottys-Aeros-Matt Hall-WOI-2018-20370-001-ASO

PM.WOI2018.Sat.PBA (13)

Please click HERE to see the full gallery of images.


Read More »