On Monday ASO and local media were invited to join the 1st interview session, with one of the Royal Australian Air Force’s Pilots , SQNLDR Leon from 77SQN, there to provide information to the media about the start of Exercise Pitch Black 2016.

Below is the full transcript of the interview where everyone was allowed to ask Questions of the SQNLDR.

ASO is very grateful to the Royal Australian Air Force to be able to cover this and every media event throughout the Exercise. ASO will be the only media service other than the major Radio and TV stations with a photographer/ reporter present for the whole period of the exercise. As you can see, it’s still nice and warm during “winter” in Darwin with its characteristic dry, yellow grass and almost permanent smoke haze (which can make photography a little tricky at times) but we’ll “suffer” through it to bring you the coverage. ;). ASO looks forward to bringing you the action as it happens with current, on-location photos and information.

If the rumors are true and all goes well, we are also hoping to join the other media teams on the only Air to Air opportunity for media that will be available during the exercise, very soon.

Media brief by SQNLDR Leon – Call-sign “Fats”

SQNLDR Leon "fats" conducting the interview

SQNLDR Leon “fats” conducting the interview

Location was the Media room in the Truscott Club, RAAF Base Darwin. 1145 01AUG2016

SQNLDR Leon is from 77Sqn RAAF Base Williamtown, NSW (His surname will not be used for security reasons)

“Good morning all, I’m SQNLDR Leon, I’m from 77Sqn and a current F-18 pilot. I’m here to talk about some of the tactical squadron level considerations for the exercise and answer some of your questions.

Firstly, I want to start by apologising. Most people have a perception of fighter pilots as suave and debonair with cool nicknames; mine is “Fats”.

SQNLDR Leon "fats" conducting the interview

SQNLDR Leon “fats” conducting the interview

There’s a few key things I want to discuss from a squadron level for Pitch Black and the first one is it’s an unprecedented training opportunity for us – so to give you some perspective on that, when people come through the training system and convert onto the hornet for the first time they have basically spent 3 years in training of various aircraft types, but when they arrive at the squadron what does that mean?-  that means they are basically safe to fly in the F18 and then convert and become a fully operational. That process after arriving at the squadron is about a 2-year integration… so we start off with guys coming straight out of training basically able to fly around as part of a two ship – so that’s two aircraft. We work them up through that two-year process to be four ship leads, so tactically proficient to lead a four ship of aircraft in a complex dynamic environment and able to integrate into large force packages. So what does that mean to us? We basically need these large force exercises like Pitch Black to get that high end training level that we don’t get within our own training schedules. So Pitch Black provides, you would have heard the statistics out there, about 2500 people and up to 115 aircraft, so there’s quite a complex environment that really ticks that high end level training. There’s also the ground – there’s simulated ground threats which make the environment more complex. There’s also a range of simulated targets that they have to operate against to complete that training.

RAAF F/A-18A Hornet A21-51 77SQN

RAAF F/A-18A Hornet A21-51 77SQN

The second aspect I wanted to talk about is the international engagement kind of aspect, and I’m sure there are different levels of understanding for that, for the higher level of defence, but down at the squadron level what does that mean? For me, I’ve been involved with Pitch Black since 2004 and so I’ve been on a number of Pitch Black operations from first joining the squadron all the way through to now where I’m one of the squadron’s executives, and I’ve also been involved with planning and execution. But at each of those points along the way of the 4 or 5 exercises I’ve done, I worked with directly the counter parts from the other nations that have participated in this exercise so I have developed with people over the years a way of communicating, so I think from a squadron level we just developed paths of communication and develop an understanding of the people we work from coalitions and allied partners. At a higher level, what does that mean for us?  It means that in the future when we want to operate with our coalition partners that we are able to on the first day of operations or exercises is jump straight into that as an opposed to… Pitch Black kind of allows us to iron out those bugs in the communication and the way that people do things, so that we have a good understanding. So from my perspective and from a squadron level the key take away is that it’s an unprecedented training opportunity for us, it allows us to give our aircrew the absolute high end of training and it’s probably one of two opportunities we have in every two year cycle. The other side of that is just building relationships with the people that we work with or likely to work with in the future.

RAAF F/A-18 Hornets under the "carports" RAAF Base Darwin

RAAF F/A-18 Hornets under the “carports” RAAF Base Darwin

That’s pretty much all I’ve got to say so if you have any questions ….”

Local Media Outlet-  how long does the training go for?

“For the exercise – it’s a 3-week activity. There’s a week at the beginning that we call ‘Force integration training” which is a lower level of training to get everyone into the procedures so they know how to get into and out of the airfield. Then there’s 2 weeks of what we call “Force Employment” so it’s 40 aircraft verse 40 aircraft all combined in the airspace for day and night operations.”

So you are mixing different nationalities with in flight?

“So in the first week with the force integration training it’s really key that we mix formations – say we have a 2 ship of Australian Hornets and there might be a 2 ship of Indonesian F16’s and they will go out and do a mission together. So that kind of gets us to work a lot more closely than if we just went out and did large package stuff where it’s easier to stay isolated in your specific planes.”

Indonesian Air Force F-16MLU

Are there any issues with miscommunication between the different nationalities?

“I guess the basic communication issue is that we speak “Australian” English, the Americans, they probably understand 70 or 80 % of what we say, which is where we are all speaking the same language, then you have nationalities that come from varying levels of understanding English. So when you get on a radio and there are 20 aircraft all trying to talk at the same time with varying levels of English, it’s really key that we understand procedures so that is doesn’t eventuate into so much of a problem.”

Aircraft everywhere

Aircraft everywhere

How long for you and the squadron has preparations been for this next couple of weeks?

“So for the exercise itself planning starts for the next Pitch Black in two years’ time – planning starts about now. For the squadrons specifically getting directly involved in the planning for the work up, it’s about a 3 to 4 month process.”

Hypothetically what are you training for?

“We’re just training for the most complex threats, we take the highest level threat we can find, the threats on the ground and in the air, and we make that into a worst case scenario… that we train for.”

Such as?

“So for Pitch black it’s an “Offensive Counter Air Activity”, so what we are doing there is we’re basically going down into a contested air environment, so we are clearing out all the “RED” air threat and dropping bombs on targets in that environment.”

Royal Thai Air Force F-16D , 403 SQN

Royal Thai Air Force F-16D , 403 SQN

Is everyone at the same level in training?

“No, so even in our squadron we have people at different levels, so some people have been away from flying for a while, and need to integrate them back into the squadron and get them up to the level. So everyone comes in at the end of what they have been doing prior to the exercise, with different levels of experience.”

Is there a qualification process for the guys using this exercise as part of their progression through training?

“So at any level for the squadron you are able to slot into the exercise. The only caveat on that is if you are a guy straight off course, what we call a D category pilot. All of the nations agree that they are not appropriate to stick into such a large complicated environment but pretty much anyone else from within the squadron will be programmed appropriate to their experience within formations.”

USAF F-16C launching into flight

USAF F-16C launching into flight

As part of their development?

“Yep, and that’s the key so that we can train everyone and ideally put them in the next level up, if we can, so they get as much exposure.”

With operations flying overseas, how much of a step up again is it from this kind of exercise?

“I guess depending on what we go away and do, they’re all subsets of what we’re trying to do here. So Force Integration week has close air support (CAS) which is a small subset of what we do, and sometimes we go away and do that, but this exercise covers pretty much the full gambit of what we do and so when we go away on operations generally they are subsets of what we are training to do here.”

RAAF F/A-18A Hornet A21-51 77SQN

RAAF F/A-18A Hornet A21-51 77SQN

How were the participating countries selected?

“I really don’t have any insight into that – there’s a whole level of international communication that goes on to determine who comes. I’ve just got from this Squadron down.”

How do the Australian planes stack up?

“We do alright, without bias (smiling)”

Royal Thai Air Force F-16

Royal Thai Air Force F-16

 Sid Mitchell ASO – On a personal level, what made you join the Airforce?

“I can think of a number of reasons but I was working as an engineer before getting in I decided that I didn’t want to work in front of a computer for the rest of my life and I had a little exposure to flying which seemed like the logical thing to do. I have been fortunate to combine my flying and engineering background and they came together quite nicely. Very fortunate.”

Have any of your guys learnt anything from these other participants from different countries?

“Absolutely..absolutely, and part of that is when I talk about force integration, that is looking at the way we do things and looking at the way all other nations do things and developing our procedures together so that they’re better, so that we don’t necessarily  think that the way we do things is the ultimate way , it’s great to see the variety, move along and improve procedures as we go. It’s a great opportunity in that respect.”

Do you have an example?

“Just simple things for how we fly formation. Out the back we might fly an aircraft at a certain position and another nation might fly different for a reason – de-conflicting or safety, or might just be easier to see and that will work through to the high end tactics.”

Republic of Singapore Air Force F-15SG

Republic of Singapore Air Force F-15SG

That was it for the brief, after which we all drove down to the OLA to view the operations on the flight line end of things.

We were able to watch and photograph a Hornet as it taxied in, parked and shut down next to another aircraft in an OLA (Ordnance Loading Area/Apron). The Atechs and Avtechs went about performing an after-flight service (AF) which can include some fluids checks, inspections for damage, fuel replenishment and system checks or repairs if flagged by the pilot or the fault/maintenance recording system.

ASO would like to pass on our sincere appreciation of the time given by SQNLDR Leon- “Fats” in letting us have an insight into Pitch Black from 77 Squadron’s point of view.

Big thanks as well to SQNLDR Andrew Anderson, FLTLT Daniel Phillips and LACW Amy Richardson from PB.Media@defence.gov.au for arranging the day.

Sid Mitchell.