The skies over the Northern Territory are usually fairly uncluttered, but when Australia’s premier multi-nation exercise Pitch Black gets under way, the heavy metal traffic hits high gear. ASO takes a glimpse at those larger work horses that perform an important role in maintaining the airborne logistical element on deployments, often far from home.

Prior to the exercise’s launch, transport aircraft from the Republic of Singapore, United States, Thailand, Indonesia, Canada and Australia flew into the Northern Territory, bringing operational support equipment, spares and test gear for their respective deployments to Darwin and Tindal.


Royal Thai Air Force C-130H

By far the most numerous transport aircraft were the different versions of the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. The USAF, RSAF, RTAF, TNI-AU, RCAF and RAAF all deploy the Hercules as a transport workhorse. Various models from early H through to recent J models were seen flying in and out of Darwin. Even a civilian version made by Lockheed, the L100-30, was used by the TNI-AU to move gear.


RSAF C-130H from 122 Sqn

During the exercise these cargo haulers were kept busy performing their various roles keeping the Red and Blue forces topped up with fuel, supplies and combat personnel. Night operations were also carried out including landing at RAAF Base Darwin under cover of darkness – no navigation or landing lights while utilising Night Vision equipment.

RAAF Hercules

RAAF C-130J from 37 Sqn

Between all the PB2016 movements the Marine Rotational Force Darwin was kept supplied by the USMC KC-130J from VMGR-152 ‘Sumo’s, a regular hauler to the Top End. Due to limited military apron space, the “Sumo” was temporarily relegated to Darwin Terminal apron.

KC-130J 'Sumo'

USMC KC-130J parked at Darwin Terminal

The second most frequent lead up heavy lifter was the C-17A Globemaster III. The Royal Canadian Air Force, United States Air force and Royal Australian Air Force versions were observed coming and going from Darwin and Tindal. The Globemaster, as it’s name suggests, already has the range to traverse large expanses of ocean when required, add to that the ability to refuel mid air, and you have a true long distance capability.

RCAF C-117

RCAF CC-117 from 429 Transport Squadron

The C-17A also played a major new role during this latest exercise by adapting from a strategic asset to acting in a local capacity as a troop and combat equipment mover. During Pitch Black, for example, the C-17 performing a number of troop insertions into unsealed remote airstrips in the Bradshaw Field Training Area.


RAAF C-17A A41-206 from 36 Sqn starting up

With the long distances required by small fighter aircraft to travel from places such as Iwakuni and Misawa in Japan, and even from locations as close as Singapore, the need to refuel while in transit often presents itself as a training opportunity. This year the RAAF provided some aerial support capability for the USAF F-16’s from 14 Fighter Squadron, by aiding their transit from Japan, a distance of approximately 6000km.


RAAF KC-30A MRTT following the USAF F-16’s from Japan

The KC-30A  flew to Japan more than once to bring back multi-ship flights of F-16’s to Australia using the boom refuelling system. With the need to refuel the USAF fighters up to six times during the long haul flight, the MRTT was kept pretty busy on the trips back to Darwin. This sharing of assets is one opportunity in which allies can train together and share particular skills employed by the different Air Forces.


USAF F-16 from 14 Fighter Squadron, 35 Wing

The USAF F-18s of VMFA -122 were supported by the KC-135R from 186 ARW. This aircraft was fitted with the boom kit that permits a hose and drogue system to be used by the F/A-18’s refuelling probe. It was quite unusual to see the KC-135R with 20′ of hose and drogue dangling from the boom, just clearing the runway surface on landing. The USAF KC-135R didn’t remain in Darwin long as the F-18’s began relocating to Tindal for the period of the exercise.

USAF 185 ARW KC-135R

USAF 185 ARW KC-135R sporting the boom to drogue kit

The other country to succesfully use the KC-135R Stratotanker for refuelling it’s F-16’s is Singapore. The RSAF KC-135R remained based at Darwin and provided tanker support for various aircraft during Pitch Black, often departing up to an hour before and landing well after the fighter aircraft returned to base.

RSAF KC135R departing Darwin

RSAF KC135R departing RAAF Darwin

For the second exercise in a row, the French Air Force – (New Caledonia) have brought their CASA/IPTN CN-235, a twin turboprop, short take-off and landing transport aircraft. This aircraft was generally seen departing between Hercules and the RSAF G550 heading out to perform some covert manoeuvres in the training areas.

French New Caledonian CN-235

French New Caledonian CN-235

It’s not always defence force aircraft that arrive in Darwin as part of the heavy metal crowd. Cargo and personnel are often brought by contracted logistics companies. Kalitta Air and Atlas Air both landed in the Northern Territory as part of the lead up.


Kalitta Air Boeing 747-481F arrives with cargo into Darwin.

The 33 Sqn Airbus KC-30A was also the refueller of choice throughout the exercise due to is dual capacity to refuel not just from a fuselage mounted boom, but from a hose and drogue system, one mounted under the each of the outboard wings.


Moon slipping past the KC-30A wing mounted refuelling pod

ASO was privelidged to take a ride during the refuelling operations, a rare opportunity offered by the Royal Australian Air Force. USAF F-16’s were topped up from the boom and shortly after, RAAF F/A-18F Super Hornets were seen taking on fuel using the drogues.

RAAF Super Hornets on KC-30A wingtip

RAAF Super Hornets after topping up their tanks

With Pitch Black 2016 in the process of wrapping up, each of the participating Air Forces have the task of packing up and sending their aircraft, personnel and equipment home. Just as they did leading up to the exercise, each of the transport squadrons will again ramp up their activities to make it all happen.  Until next time…..


TNI-AU C-130H departing Darwin for Indonesia

As a way of thanking the local Darwin community, and in what has become a feature of Pitch Black exercises, the participating Air Forces performed a sunset display. But the display wasn’t limited to the fast movers – 36 Sqn RAAF showed the agility of the C-17A in a performing a flypast of Mindil Beach.


RAAF C-17A performing at the Mindil Beach sunset display

Although neither a tanker or transport aircraft, the RAAF AP-3C Orion from 11 Sqn was another of the non jets that flew past at sunset.


11 Sqn RAAF AP-3C – part of the sunset display

Even after all the visiting nations have departed, there will still be some heavy metal passing through Darwin. That is the appeal of this Northern Territory location, you never know what will show up next but you can be assured…. it’s never boring in the Top End

RAAF KC-30A from 33Sqn

RAAF KC-30A from 33 Sqn about to lift off

I would like to mention a huge thank you to all the visiting squadrons for allowing ASO to share their Pitch Black experience this year. ASO have had a rare behind the scenes look at the many areas of the ground and air operations, and we also appreciate the effort that the RAAF PB2016 media team went to when organising our two weeks of access.

Sid Mitchell

Nikon D7100, Nikon 70-200mm, Nikon 200-500mm, Sandisk 32GB Extreme.