Memoirs from Exercise Pitch Black

There are many stories from the Exercise and some have been recounted during Pitch Black online.
Air Force has hosted 21 Pitch Blacks since 1981, and in that time tens of thousands of Australian and International personnel have worked together on the Exercise. Pitch Black is a both a challenging and rewarding experience for personnel and our personnel look forward to its return in 2022.
 
There are many stories from the Exercise and some have been recounted during Pitch Black online.
 
Air Commodore Tim Alsop, Commander Air Combat Group, recounts his Exercise Pitch Black experience:
 
Pitch Black has always provided great large force training, but it’s the relationships that stay with you. On 23 July 2004, I was programmed to lead a Hornet four-ship supporting another four-ship of Royal Thai Air Force F-16 strikers; the eight of us were opposed by four Red Air. The Thais did a great job working their way to the target and we protected their egress with a coordinated ‘delouse,’ getting everyone out safely.
 
In the debrief, we discovered that the flight lead ‘Marcus’ was being assessed for an important leadership qualification by his three senior commanders – a lot of pressure, but he passed with flying colours. The next day, Marcus appeared at our squadron and invited me to lunch - a Thai feast made by their Air Force cooks, including Red Curry Kangaroo! Incredible.
 
That friendship endured for years and Marcus made a point of tracking me down when we deployed to Korat, Thailand, the year after. Our ability to integrate with regional partners has increased every two years – that comes from shared trust, shared procedures and human relationships (through Pitch Black).
 
Wing Commander (retired) Matt Hall recounts his Exercise Pitch Black experience:
 
The airspace and area (is) massive. We would start our flight out of Darwin, then generally push out to the South West, prior to turning around and fighting our way South East toward either Tindal or Delamere Range. We could fly as high as 50,000 feet, and as low as 150 feet. We could be engaged by SAM (Surface-to-Air Missile) simulations, enemy aircraft, or even friendly fire - hence why we train!
 
The night missions were especially memorable. We would launch in full afterburner just at sunset out of Darwin, then marshal at 30,000 feet watching the classic Northern Territory colours change in the West. As we pushed toward the target, you could look behind you and see all of the contrails glowing red in the sunset, and in front of you it was as dark as anyplace in the World. The stars would be the brightest you could ever imagine.
 
Flight Sergeant Gordon Ross left the Air Force in 1994. He recounts his Pitch Black experience:
 
From February 1983 to July 1984 I was posted into 1 Squadron as a Corporal Radar Technician and participated in all 1 Squadron deployments during that period. In February 1983, 1 Squadron had established its own organic maintenance element which commenced a period of frenetic activity. There was a real impetus amongst ground crews and aircrews to prove the value of the Squadron having its own organic maintenance and a whirlwind of deployments commenced even before the unit could establish an operating rhythm.
 
No. 1 Squadron’s participation in Pitch Black 83 was planned to be conducted out of RAAF Base Tindal. A week after the Squadron had departed a C-130 was tasked to transport a replacement engine from Amberley to Tindal. An F-111 engine had ingested debris from the tarmac, causing significant Foreign Object Debris (FOD) damage in the process. Arriving at Tindal late in the afternoon, the engine change on the stricken F-111 commenced as soon as the change kit and spare engine rolled off the C-130.  The sumpies (engine maintenance technicians) worked on the aircraft late into the evening, the sounds of the TF-30 engine roaring well past midnight as it was test run and trimmed. 
 
The noise didn’t cause any concern as the mosquitos and humidity made it impossible to get any sleep in the galvanised iron tin sheds that were our accommodation.  This was despite the sheds being well equipped with fold out metal panels for windows and rough concrete floors, reminiscent of chicken coops.  Unlike chicken coops, the sheds had no heating, cooling or running water.   Showers, in a separate building, were cold water only.  Apparently, hot water was considered an unnecessary luxury around Tindal. 
 
In light of the considerable damage caused to the engine by FOD, Tindal hardstand surfaces, in their current form, were considered unsuited to F-111 operations, so the entire squadron packed up next morning and deployed to Darwin. Some travelled by road whilst others travelled by C-130.
 
Transit accommodation was provided on arrival at Darwin and in comparison to Tindal, was sheer luxury.  Hot water, ceiling fans and best of all the Truscott Club, or Airmen’s Club a few hundred metres away.  This on base recreational centre for enlisted personnel was named in honour of World War Two legend Squadron Leader Bluey Truscott.
 
All exercises in Darwin centred around the Truscott Club.  This was the place to be when on exercise.  It was also the place to be when not on exercise.  The drinks were cheaper than anywhere else, the lies told were bigger than anywhere else, the laughter was louder than anywhere else, and there was always a great crowd with a party atmosphere. You were guaranteed to catch up with buddies from other units or make new friends and have the opportunity to tell yet more stories or embellish those you’d told before. 
 
And so it was at the Truscott Club we found ourselves talking with some USAF KC-135 crew chiefs and we put it to them, “Could they get us on an air-to-air refuel flight?” 
 
A couple of days later the offer was put out to base personnel and squadrons on the deployment if anyone wanted to go on a sortie. Acceptance came with conditions; it was not to interfere with our day jobs.
 
No. 1 Squadron maintenance had settled into a customary two shift routine to support day and night operations. It was a simple matter and a promise of a beer to organise a swap with a buddy so I could be on night shift in order to take advantage of a day-time flight.
 
On 11 May 1983, I arrived down at the KC-135 flight line at leisurely 10am for pre-mission brief, which largely consisted of “don’t touch too much, always do what you’re told and we should have a good time”. RAAF faded blue/grey overalls doubled as a flight suit. On board the aircraft we were pointed towards parachutes and helmets and given a quick two-minute group brief by a boom operator from Texas. And with a dry Texas drawl it started: 
 
“Y’all now pay attention. In the unlikely event you will need to use this, you clip it on this way; be sure to tighten these straps around your thighs – ‘cause when this ‘chute here opens yah going to be travelling around 120 miles an hour, all by yourself.  Now when that happens these straps pull up real fast and real tight and yah don’t want them snapping up to damage anything.  Your parachute has a barostatic initiator guaranteed to open your chute at 14,000 feet, trust me.  So you can pull this handle here before you jump.  Yah also have an oxygen bottle, right here, in the parachute harness, that will last a whole 3 and a half minutes.  So if we have to jump out at 40,000’ you’ll have three and a half minutes to get yourself down to 14,000 where y’all can breathe.  Any questions?” – “No? good.”
 
“Now don’t worry if this is all a bit much to take in.  If something happens just follow me and yah’ll have plenty of time to work it all out on the way down.” 
 
“And if the chute don’t work, bring it back into Uncle Sam and he’ll be good for a refund”.
 
A flight on a KC-135 tanker is best described as hours of boredom interspersed with interesting moments. You can only spend so much time on the flight deck gazing at the instruments, even less time wandering around a cavernous, almost windowless cabin and then for a few minutes, it’s “show time”. “We have a thirsty customer coming in”.
 
First it was just a speck and then it got bigger and bigger and just kept growing until the B-52 flight crew was within about 10 meters of our faces and the entire panoramic window was filled with bomber. Laying on your stomach, looking out the back of an aircraft and peering face to face with another flight crew, in another aircraft is an almost comical circumstance. The entire activity lasts for about 20 minutes and then the B-52 gracefully slides away below us, with flurry of fuel spilling out of the boom over the back of the old bomber as we disconnect.
 
Refuelling relatively smaller aircraft, like F-111s, are a different ball game. Travelling in groups some will take up formation with the tanker whilst one of the flight refuels. A couple of our F-111C aircraft took up station, again insanely close and posed for photographs. All the while in the back of my mind I’m thinking “Yup, and I’m going to fixing and refuelling you guys tonight after we get back to Darwin this afternoon”.
 
It’s now a matter of record that I never got to test whether or not my thigh straps on the parachute were cinched up tight enough, or that you can travel from 40,000’ to 14,000 feet in three and a half minutes, or that barostatic initiators, really do open parachutes at the assigned altitude.
 
The arrival back at Darwin was concluded with an impromptu certificate ceremony before leaving the aircraft and then it was back to nightshift to prepare the F-111s that I’d recently flown in formation with.
 
Group Captain Lyle Holt, a former Navigator on F-111s, recounts his Exercise Pitch Black experience in the mid-1990s:
 
Exercise Pitch Black 97 was the first exercise where I flew with support of a Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) E-2C Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft. It reinforced for me the value of having an airborne air battle management capability to supplement No. 114 Mobile Control and Reporting Unit’s persistent ground-based coverage. I recall being impressed by the RSAF’s professional, driven approach to generating air power – whilst taxiing on a mission in an F-111, I observed the maintenance team’s sprinting across their flight line to launch their aircraft.
 
I have fond memories getting to know the Singaporean aircrew at Pitch Black 97 social functions, building empathy and understanding. This was valuable to me when I worked alongside Singaporean officers in Headquarters International Security Assistance Force (Afghanistan, 2009) and later collaborated with them on our Heron Unmanned Aerial System program in 2014.
 
Wing Commander Jason Brown recounts his experience deploying into the field in the Northern Territory for Exercise Pitch Black in the mid-to-late 90s:
 
As a Ground Control-Intercept (predecessor to Air Battlespace Manager) who never really went on trips anywhere, going to the Northern Territory and operating out of No. 2 Control and Reporting Unit was a great experience.
 
The characters, the wildly old technology of overlapping dots of uncorrelated radar data from multiple sources would make four aircraft look like 16.
 
It was these challenging and unique experiences that made participation in PB during that time memorable and enriching; enhancing problem solving skillsets and building resilience and adaptability.
 
There was usually one and sometimes two radars parked in the field with lots of 114 Mobile Control and Reporting Unit folks deployed to Timber Creek, and other various hills where people spent a solid month in field conditions in the territory. These radars would send back their data (usually – it was not solid) over a parakeet or similar satellite up-and-down-link device that would take the techs an eon to set up manually adjusting the angles millimetre by millimetre until they could get it aligned with the satellites.
 
Out at the deployed radar, you were limited only to what one radar could see, and the limited communication that came with the radar. That was usually a pretty emotional experience. ‘Due to being a ground-based radar there was a truckload of low flying, and the Pigs (F-111s) particularly would launch out of RAAF Base Curtin in Western Australia and streak in under the radars trying to get to Tindal. Red Air were always playing some low ingress and pop up targeting of Blue, and this made for some cool fighting in the airspace.
 
Squadron Leader Trent Baldry has participated in several Pitch Black exercises as a Weapons Systems Officer on the F/A-18F Super Hornet, and was lead planner for the exercise in 2018. He recounts his Exercise Pitch Black experience:
 
My strongest and fondest memories about Pitch Black are the people. It is an exercise that brings militaries together from nations that would not ordinarily interact or work together and is an opportunity to meet people from a variety of cultures; It provides you the opportunity to form enduring relationships with people that I have worked with on subsequent Pitch Black exercises or other bilateral exercises – those relationships break down barriers and permit much closer working relationships between our militaries and nations.
 
This is not just the relationship between senior officers or even the aircrew from international air forces – it’s the opportunity to meet and interact with the people from all the partner nations is a unique opportunity that Pitch Black provides. These relationships are essential to the RAAF building a reputation as a professional, capable force who should be the partner of choice for the nations throughout our region.
 
Corporal Graeme Szynal recounts his first trip as a Hornet aircraft technician to Exercise Pitch Black 2010:
 
“It was my first trip with the RAAF. I remember us being crammed onto a H-model Hercules, leaving behind a freezing cold Williamtown. The experienced techos were much better prepared for the long trip than I was with their noise-cancelling headphones, portable DVD players and iPods. I brought a Wheels magazine but to be honest I was too excited to read it.
 
When the ramp opened at RAAF Base Darwin I remember the rush of warm tropical air flooding into the aircraft. Walking out onto the hardstand I squinted at the glare from the sun forcing its way through the distinct haze of red dust in the air.”
 
“We were taken to our on base accommodation… two to a room in ‘Tin City’. Though others grumbled, the cramped conditions and the rattle of the old air-conditioning unit couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm. The mess at Darwin has RAAF cooks and had options far superior to anything I had ever been offered at RAAF Base Wagga or Williamtown.”
 
Being a fitter, I was assigned to Flightline for the four weeks of the exercise. Working out of OLAs  (Ordnance Loading Areas) was a brand new experience for me, where the Flightline Co-ordinator is blind to the actual goings on with the fleet. This increased the responsibility placed on us technicians as it forced us to carry out our servicing of the Hornets efficiently and with a lot less supervision than we were used to. It was also imperative we provided good communication back to the Flightline Co-ordinator in the command bunker.
 
Out at my OLA I watched the conga line of fighter jets from many nations trundle up the taxiway, and then one after the other blast off into the sky. This included watching our F-111s do side-by-side take offs at night. It would be the Pig’s last Pitch Black, the glow of their afterburners and the sound they made as they tore the air into submission made our Hornets almost sound whisper quiet.
 
Pitch Black meant spending your downtime exploring Darwin and the surrounding National Parks. We’d go out on Friday nights and on Saturdays get the motivation to get out of town and go for a refreshing swim at Berry Springs, go on a bushwalk at Litchfield National Park, or just chill out at the Darwin Lagoon. The International Night where we all share our cultural food, drinks and laughs with airmen from foreign nations was also a blast!
 
I have found every Pitch Black has improved squadron morale, built friendships and put our maintenance procedures to the test. I believe operating away from home, doing high tempo, long hours in the heat, whilst living in cramped accommodation prepared our Hornet squadrons for our later deployments to the Middle East Region.
 
Exercise Pitch Black not only builds resilience and provides excellent training for our people. It leaves its participants with memories you just cannot get in any other job.
 
Air Vice-Marshal (retired) Mark Skidmore recounts his Exercise Pitch Black experience going back to 1983:
 
I have been involved in Pitch Black exercises since 1983. Initially flying the mighty F-111, and always it seemed as the bad guy, in the early 80s and 90s and then as Joint Force Air Component Commander and Air Commander Australia, scheduling and running the exercises in late 2000s and early 2010s.
 
It has been amazing to see the exercises evolve from a relatively simple fighter/bomber exchange to a multi-national complex war fighting scenario. We have also seen the transition from one or two base operations to multi base operations requiring better integration of Military and Civil Air Traffic Control given the vast distances that were being traversed. I have been able to watch and support the involvement, development and growth of our close allies and friends including United States, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia to name a few.
 
The early days of flying F-111s as a single or formation dodging fighters to strike a target led to multi package formations involving bombers, fighters, transport, air defence and land forces to achieve an objective. The exercise has provided an opportunity for not just the RAAF to develop and better integrate but has led to the development of combined and integrated tactics, not just within the Australian Defence Force, but with our coalition partners.
 
Squadron Leader Mel Free, Executive Officer for No. 13 Squadron at RAAF Base Darwin, was involved with planning and conducting support to Exercise Pitch Black 2018. She recounts her experience with the exercise:
 
No. 13 Squadron starts its planning for Exercise Pitch Black the year prior. From January of the exercise year, we have monthly unit meetings with our flight commanders and Base Management. The base is pushed to its limits in terms of domestic and working accommodation. All permanent buildings are occupied – all deployable facilities must be checked and prepared for the occupying forces – and this job falls to No. 13 Squadron.
 
Additional working accommodation is required (demountable buildings), which puts pressure on the base infrastructure – power, sewerage and water. There are a lot of pedestrians around base which can cause traffic hazards.
 
The base is quite dispersed too, so there is a lot of extra vehicle traffic. Meal times have to be staggered to minimise delays, especially during the lunch break. We also provide in-flight meals to support those forces who cannot make it to the mess for a meal period. Pitch Black 2018 was one of the most exciting activities I have ever been involved in. To see it from early stage planning through to execution and wrap up was very satisfying.
 
Wing Commander Lynette Horne has participated in every Pitch Black exercise since 1983, first as an Air Traffic Controller then an Air Defence Officer, and now an Operations Officer, working at Delamere Air Training Area. She recounts her experience of the exercise:
 
I have seen many changes in Pitch Black during the years. But my most memorable experience was when I was employed as an Air Traffic Controller in Darwin before RAAF Base Tindal had opened or Delamere Air Weapons Range was built. It was one night when every aircraft participating got airborne and either protected or tried to mock attack the airfield at RAAF Base Darwin. There were fighter jets, transports, and helicopters participating from every nation. All aircraft got safely airborne, there was a mock attack on the airfield and all aircraft landed safely and taxied back to their lines in total communications silence and darkness. The Air Traffic Control section controlled all of those movements whilst still controlling civilian movements into and out of Darwin without a single incident. (It was) probably one of my most memorable and proud moments as a military Air Traffic Controller.
 
Another memory, years later, was sitting on a hill in the middle of the Top End, just north of Delamere Air Weapons Range, beside an Air Defence radar. I was sitting outside under the camouflage net beside the Warrant Officer Engineering as we watched a pair of F-111s fly straight past us (using Terrain Following Radar) almost close enough for us to reach out and touch them; or so it seemed.
 
But most of my memories are the arguments and friendly banter about who was best, who shot who down and which side was winning. Particularly the night the C-130 crew bragged because they had been credited by the umpires with the 'kill' of an Australian fighter. Maybe a tall story but it makes for great bragging rights.
 
Or sitting around after a mission and listening to guys from Alaska who are scared of our creepy crawlies and dangerous snakes and wildlife whilst complaining because their spouse has just rung saying a bear broke into the freezer on the deck of the house; and they think we have scary wildlife.
Sampling all the foods from the differing nations has made me the richer for all my Pitch Black experiences.
 
Flight Lieutenant Sally Knox's first Exercise Pitch Black was in 2014 as a Royal Air Force officer. She recounts her experience with the exercise:
 
I arrived in Australia as an exchange officer having never visited Australia before, and within seven days I was up to Darwin to visit the No. 3 Control and Reporting Unit team on Exercise Pitch Black. It was a tremendous jolt to go from the United Kingdom to the Northern Territory.
 
Although the job of controlling in the UK and Australia is very similar, the sheer size of the airspace was a mindset change, as was the heat, wildlife, food (who knew vegemite and tim-tams were so good?) and numerous other things.
 
I again took part in Exercise Pitch Black 2016, but this time with a little more knowledge about Australia and the RAAF. This time, we remotely controlled from RAAF Base Williamtown. It was the combination of professionalism, dedication and teamwork, showcased at Exercise Pitch Black but also present throughout my exchange tour, which made the decision to laterally transfer to the RAAF in January 2017 an easy one.
 
Flight Lieutenant Cameron Sheridan recounts his experience at Exercise Pitch Black 18:
(Pitch Black) is a unique opportunity to engage with and collaboratively work alongside visiting nations. Of note, No. 77 Squadron shared the Ordnance Loading Area 'wagon-wheels' with the French, Indians, Malaysian, and Singaporeans.
 
 In many cases, the communal working environment offered our junior enlisted/officers their first exposure of international engagement. Our maintenance, logistics and administrative staff demonstrated exceptional technical, professional and social mastery through their almost daily liaison with their foreign counterparts as they cooperatively, through the centralised maintenance operations command (MOC) within the Task Unit Headquarters (TUHQ), resolved both expected and emerging issues to ensure Exercise objectives were achieved.
 
Group Captain Robert Graham has seen changes to Exercise Pitch Black from the 1990s through to the 2010s. He recounts his experience of the exercise:

I have experienced Pitch Black in many different ways. I have participated at every rank from Pilot Officer to Wing Commander, in roles ranging from Air Traffic Control (all control positions and as the Senior Air Traffic Control Officer), Commanding Officer of the local reserve squadron at Darwin, and commanding the airbase operations squadron to provide all aspects of airbase support – airfield management, fuel, catering, security, explosive ordnance management, and base command and control. 

My first real task in the first weeks of my initial posting to Darwin was to escort the media onto the airfield to film the arrival of the Singaporean jets for Pitch Black ‘91. Literally two weeks after graduating basic Air Traffic Control course I found myself responsible for half a dozen excited camera crew standing next to the runway watching a formation of A-4SU Skyhawks land after a four-hour transit from Singapore. It was at that moment that it dawned on me that here I was, a 19-year-old just over a year out of school, playing in the largest Air Force exercise going at the time. And it was just brilliant!

Pitch Black 91 was my first experience of an international exercise and what opportunities that brought with it. Working and socialising with a range of people from the participating nations (United States, Singapore, and New Zealand in the 90s particularly) was great exposure to how other nations operate. It was also an opportunity to meet people from across the RAAF as it seemed that nearly everyone in the Air Force came to the Northern Territory for a Pitch Black.

The obvious difference for me with comparing Pitch Black then and now is the capability of the platforms (air and ground) being fielded. Thirty years ago, you would see an interesting mix of leading edge fourth generation aircraft participating from the United States Air Force (USAF) such as F-15 Eagles, Australian F/A-18A Hornets (before they were called Classics, and back when the fleet had an average age of three to four years) and F-111s (only halfway through their service). Then there were the older generation A-4 Skyhawks and F-5 Tigers from Singapore. 

Air Battle Management was largely the purview of ground-based air defence systems, sometimes supplemented by airborne command and control platforms from the USAF when they were available. Air-to-air refuelling capability was also limited, and heavily reliant on USAF participation. Integration of these disparate capabilities was challenging (something that remains constant to today).

A key change from the early PBs to now is the consideration of the local community in how the exercise is conducted. In the 80s and 90s, it was no uncommon for Red Air to ‘target’ critical defence and local infrastructure and actually fly profiles against those targets. The Channel Island Power station 10 nautical miles south of Darwin was often a ‘target’. 

One notable example that I observed was an attack on the No. 2 Control and Reporting Unit radar at Lee Point; Red Air approached at an altitude below 1000 feet using the Darwin Hospital to cover its approach, knowing that the radar was sector blanked in that quadrant due to the proximity of the hospital. Low-level fast jets over the suburbs and around the hospital doesn’t happen anymore. A number of other noise abatement procedures have been implemented in successive years to ensure the relationship with the local community is balanced.

As partner nations and the RAAF have modernised, the third generation fighter aircraft disappeared from Pitch Blacks. Moving on from the 90s, the focus changed from engagement with just the United States and regional partners, to seeing more nations contribute or come to Pitch Black as observers.