Friday, August 19, 2016

RAAF Exercise Pitch Black 2016 Sets the Skies Above Darwin Alight

The CQ Plane Spotting Blog (in association with Aussie Aircraft Spotters) was recently in Darwin, embedded with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) during Exercise Pitch Black 2016.

Exercise Pitch Black 2016 is a three week multi-national large force employment exercise that is conducted from RAAF Base Darwin and RAAF Base Tindal from 29 July to 19 August 2016.  The RAAF is hosting in the Northern Territory up to 2500 personnel and 115 aircraft from around the globe for the exercise including participants from Australia, Canada, France (New Caledonia), Germany, Indonesia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand and the United States.

Exercise Pitch Black 2016 uses airspace over Bradshaw Training Area and Delamere Air Weapons Range to practice large formation offensive and counter air and offensive air support operations.  This involves day and night flying from both Darwin and Tindal, as well as a number of land elements in each location.

To thank the public, the RAAF hosted a spectacular handling display over Mindil Beach at Darwin, as well as a very successful Open Day at RAAF Darwin last weekend. Both events allowed the community to enjoy the many capabilities on display during the exercise.

Last week, we had the opportunity to listen to the RAAF’s Air Commodore Owen speak about the unique ‘spiderweb’ that is Exercise Pitch Black 2016.  He outlined the objectives of the exercise which he sees as an education experience rather than a training experience, along with the structure of some of the scenarios which are seeing the Blue Force trying to defeat the evil Red Force.

The RAAF is by-far the main player in Pitch Black 2016 with 1 Squadron Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets based at RAAF Base Darwin being joined by classic McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F/A-18A/B Hornets from 4, 75 and 77 Squadrons based at both Darwin as well as RAAF Base Tindal.

Despite their age, 77 Squadron Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Burr, proudly boasted that the classic Hornets are more than holding their own against their younger counterparts given the avionics and weapons upgrades under the recent Hornet upgrade program.

The Hornets and Super Hornets are also participating in air-to-air refuelling drills with RAAF Airbus A330-203 / KC-30A (MRTT) tankers, as well as the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker  ‘752’ and, for the first time ever in Australian skies, Royal Canadian Air Force Lockheed KCC-130H Hercules Tanker/Transport 130341 RCAF 435 TRS Squadron, which have deployed to Darwin and Tindal respectively.

Other RAAF capabilities participating at Pitch Black 16 include 38 Squadron Beech B350 Super King Air turboprops, 10 Squadron Lockheed AP-3C Orions, 36 Squadron Boeing C-17A Globemaster III and 37 Squadron Lockheed C-130J-30 Hercules transport aircraft all operating from Darwin.

While based at Tindal are 3 Squadron Boeing B737-7ES / E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) aircraft and 4 Squadron Pilatus PC-9/As, while making its Pitch Black debut also out of Tindal is the RAAFs  No. 5 Flight Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Heron Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

Of interest, 1, 2, 3 and 4 Squadron are all celebrating 100 years of service with the RAAF as shown on the nose art applied to Wedgetail A30-005.

Meanwhile, the RSAF has a strong showing at Pitch Black 2016 again with 8 Boeing F-15SG “Shikra” Strike Eagles of 149 Squadron out of Paya Lebar Air Base joining 6 General Dynamics (Lockheed Martin) F-16C/D Fighting Falcons of 143 Squadron out of Tengah Air Base.

These are joined by the heavily modified Gulfstream/IAI G550 AEW&C aircraft along with the KC-135.

As we’ve reported before, following their participation in Pitch Black 2016, the RSAF will deploy the F-15SGs to Rockhampton Airport to participate in the Singapore Armed Forces Exercise Wallaby 2016.  These will be joined by RSAF Boeing CH-47SD Chinook and Boeing AH-64D Apache helicopters from Singapore, along with Eurocopter/Aerospatiale AS332 Super Puma helicopters from Oakey.

The other significant player in Pitch Black 2016 is the United States of America with 14 United States Air Force (USAF) F-16C Vipers of 14th Tactical Fighter Squadron “Samurai’s” from Misawa Air Base in Japan based at Darwin.

Of interest, the USAF F-16s deployed to Darwin from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan in three waves, supported by RAAF KC-30A tankers to complete air-to-air- refuelling.  The Vipers are also being refuelled by the KC-30 during their Pitch Black 2016 sorties prior to entering the attack zone.

The F-16Cs are joined by United States Marine Corp (USMC) F/A-18C Hornets of VMFA-122 “Werewolves” which have deployed to Tindal.

The USMC also has Lockheed KC-130J Hercules flown by the Marine Aerial Refueller Transport Squadron 152 (VMGR-152) “Sumos” ‘on call’ and capable of refuelling any aircraft at any time.

Of smaller players in Pitch Black 2016 is a deployment to Darwin of 4 Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) F-16A/Bs of 403 Squadron based from Takhli.  These were supported on their deployment by C-130J Hercules transport aircraft.

Also participating in the flying program for the first week of Pitch Black 2016 was Indonesia with 5 F-16s which were also supported by C-130H Hercules transport aircraft.

Finally, a lone French Air Force (Armée de l'air) CASA CN-235 based at New Caledonia  is being used in a general support role as well as for troop insertion into the field.

It should also be noted that the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) were to also provide an air-to-air aircraft refuelling platform with one of their McDonnel Douglas KDC-10 aircraft reportedly becoming unserviceable and not being able to fly to Australia.

Germany is also participating in Pitch Black 2016 in a ground support role.  New Zealand have ground-based support personnel attendance too.

It was an amazing couple of days embedded with some of the major players in Pitch Black 2016.  Our thanks must go to Squadron Leader Briggs from RAAF Media Operations for the opportunity provided to us to view these capabilities up close and to gain a better understanding of their role in Pitch Black 2016 and in domestic and international military operations.

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