There's a lot that happens in just one day at Exercise Pitch Black. During this years' Pitch Black online retrospective, Air Force has recounted a snapshot of a typical Exercise day.
Much of the work is conducted by day and night-shift, although some roles require around-the-clock support too.
0830 hours: Gently does it! RAAF armament technicians raise an external fuel tank onto an F/A-18F Super Hornet.
Maintenance teams will typically know a day in advance how many aircraft are required for each mission at Exercise Pitch Black, as well as the necessary configuration for each aircraft.
This gives them time to conduct necessary repairs or servicing, as well as equip items such as external fuel tanks, sensors and instrument pods, and even ordnance to be dropped on the range.
0900 hours: Did you know there are arrestor cables on the main runways at RAAF Bases Darwin and Tindal?
The main runways at RAAF Bases Darwin and Tindal are 3300 metres and 2700 metres long respectively. In an emergency, some fighter aircraft can deploy an arrestor hook that will 'catch' the arrestor cable on a runway, bringing them to a safe halt.
Trained technicians must inspect and service these cables to ensure they’re ready. Some RAAF Bases are open to military and civilian traffic alike, which means the work of a 'Cable Party' must be carried out efficiently and carefully.
1000 hours: One last chance for questions in the mission brief.
Each mission for Exercise Pitch Black is the product of several days of planning, with a specific set of training objectives to be accomplished in the exercise area. This planning requires coordination across squadrons of aircraft and a variety of agencies on the ground, and is essential for the safety of all participants.
The formation mission brief is the last opportunity for aircrew to run through essential information like mission times, radio frequencies, the route to the exercise area, and safety actions before stepping out to the aircraft
1100 hours: Normally it's the bigger aircraft at Pitch Black that take off first - like an E-7A Wedgetail, departing from RAAF Base Tindal.
The ‘heavies’ – encompassing surveillance aircraft, refuelling tankers, and transports - typically have a longer flying endurance than the fighters and strike jets flying in Pitch Black missions. The ability to stay airborne for longer means they're often the first to depart and last to return.
1115 hours: Even Exercise Pitch Black has peak hour. At RAAF Base Darwin, more than 50 aircraft depart for each Pitch Black mission. Whilst not all aircraft are required to arrive at the exercise airspace at once, their departure must be coordinated by RAAF Base Darwin’s Air Traffic Control, which is also managing civilian airliners and other general aviation.
1120 hours: Cleared for take-off.
Normally, the first week of each Exercise Pitch Black will involve a morning and afternoon mission. This builds familiarity for aircrew with the bases and exercise airspace, and ensures everyone is able to work together ahead of more complex scenarios. During the final two weeks, flying missions shift to a day-time and night-time wave.
1130 hours: RAAF Base Tindal doesn't have quite the same peak hour traffic as Darwin - but it still gets busy.
Up to 35 aircraft might depart from RAAF Base Tindal for each Pitch Black mission, and as they thunder into the air, the crew often has a short trip to the mission airspace – for example, Delamere Air Weapons Range is located close by to RAAF Base Tindal, so a gentle bank by the pilot after take-off and a short transit is often all that is required to arrive on the scene.
1145 hours: Meanwhile, in the exercise airspace…
After taking off from RAAF Base Darwin, aircraft on a Pitch Black mission will typically fly south toward the exercise airspace, where they marshal in preparation for the mission.
The flying distances and the flying times required to complete each Pitch Black mission mount up, so tanker aircraft like this RAAF KC-30A necessary. This refuelling stop allows aircraft to remain ‘on station’ in support of mission objectives for longer periods, providing protection of critical elements of the larger force.
1200 hours: The aircraft aren't the only ones who need to be refuelled at Pitch Black.
Once each mission is launched, there's time for many in the Exercise Pitch Black workforce to grab some lunch.
Feeding more than 4000 personnel in the exercise requires careful coordination. Fortunately, the workforce is spread out over two bases, each with three Messes, and with additional dining facilities established during the exercise to cater for the greater numbers.
1220 hours: Everything that happens in the air at Pitch Black is closely coordinated.
Teams of Air Battle Managers and Air Surveillance Operators are responsible for directing aircraft movements in the exercise airspace - which covers approximately 225,250 square kilometres of the Northern Territory, plus an additional 27,000 square kilometres over the Timor Sea.
These Teams can work in support of Blue or Red Force.
Mission scenarios can be highly complex, with more than 80 aircraft in the exercise airspace flying in different roles and with unique objectives. Fighters must engage their opposition within strict rules of engagement, ensuring strike aircraft can hit their targets, or clearing a path for a high-value air mobility assets to land at an airfield to deliver or evacuate personnel.
Likewise, the 'enemy' forces are given direction from Air Battle Managers to attack friendly forces at their most vulnerable, and can even be directed to ‘’re-generate’ if they are shot down.
1230 hours: There’s an invisible enemy at Exercise Pitch Black - radar.
The Joint Combined Training Centre (JCTC) provides electronic warfare and opposition forces (EW/OPFOR) functions in the exercise area. It simulates a variety of threats found on operations, including enemy radars used with surface-to-air missile systems, and anti-aircraft artillery.
These radars can ‘threaten’ Blue Force aircraft in the exercise airspace, and are often coordinated with mobile hard-skin and inflatable targets that provide the correct visual and radar signature for aircrew flying overhead.
1240 hours: Falcon 16, In Hot.
Not every aircraft in an Exercise Pitch Black mission carries live ordnance - in fact, the majority do not. A select number of aircraft during each mission may carry inert weapons. This allows crews to recreate the practice of delivering a ‘live’ bomb to the weapons range – all without the big explosion on the ground.
For example, the Republic of Singapore Air Force crew of an F-16D have dropped inert GBU-49 bombs, which uses a combination of laser-guidance and GPS signals to hit its target during the Exercise. On select occasions, some crews may have the opportunity to deliver 'live' weapons to the range during Pitch Black.
1300 hours: Exercise Pitch Black missions take place on the ground as well as in the air.
Mission scenarios might require a high-value asset to deliver personnel to an airfield - like a Hercules, to deliver a No. 4 Squadron Combat Control Team at the Delamere Range Facility.
Once on the ground, a Combat Control Team can coordinate with strike aircraft to attack ground targets; alternatively, aircraft like the Hercules or Globemaster can evacuate personnel.
Elsewhere, air mobility crews might role-play as 'enemy' aircraft or even neutral parties, testing rules of engagement for the friendly 'Blue' Team.
For the air mobility crews and their passengers, this often requires a lot of heavy manoeuvring in a hot and windy Northern Territory environment. The missions are important however. Practising Air Land Integration in Exercise Pitch Black ensures participant nations are better equipped to plan and conduct real world operations.
1330 hours: The Australian Army is also represented at Exercise Pitch Black.
The Australian Army's 16th Air Land Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, provides ground-based air defences in the exercise airspace. Because of the nature of this role, they've participated in Pitch Black exercises dating back to the 1980s, and other nations - including the United States and Singapore - have sent their equivalent own air defence units to train during Exercise Pitch Black.
16th Air Land Regiment personnel will typically deploy into the field to provide air defence cover - like with an RBS70 at Nackeroo Airfield in Exercise Pitch Black 2018.
1400 hours: Yes, there are dogfights at Exercise Pitch Black.
During Large Force Employment missions, formations of aircraft will engage one another, simulating the use of various air-to-air weapons as the scenario and rules of engagement require. Sometimes this is done at Beyond Visual Range (BVR); or it may be done Within Visual Range (WVR), allowing crews to conduct Air Combat Manoeuvring with their opposition. Opportunities for dedicated Dissimilar Air Combat Training - or DACT – are also conducted in the first week of Exercise Pitch Black, allowing aircrew from different squadrons, on different aircraft, and even different Air Forces to practice their air combat skills against one another. These engagements are planned in advance to maximise training value for participants.
1420 hours: Coordinating military and civilian aircraft alike like means Air Traffic Control have a lot of responsibility to get people safely on the ground.
At RAAF Base Darwin, Air Traffic Controllers with No 452 Squadron are responsible for aircraft approaches to Darwin as well as the immediate airspace. This means they need to coordinate up to 70 aircraft returning from the exercise airspace, as well as civilian airliners departing and arriving at Darwin, and other general aviation movements.
With a finite amount of fuel remaining on board many of these aircraft, efficient coordination is essential.
1430 hours: A pair of Republic of Singapore Air Force F-15SG Eagles demonstrate an 'Initial and Pitch' at RAAF Base Darwin.
Initial and Pitches allow for a quicker and safer recovery of large numbers of military aircraft from a mission. This typically involves the aircraft returning overhead the base before ‘breaking’ formation to decrease speed and make a landing approach.
The alternative is for these formations to make regular landing approaches – which are much slower, and can create potential domino effects that delay other aircraft attempting to land.
Initial and Pitches makes for some spectacular returns by aircraft during every Pitch Black, and is a commonly-used method of air traffic control at bases around the world.
1445 hours: A RAAF F/A-18A Hornet is marshalled into its parking position at RAAF Base Darwin after returning from a sortie during Exercise Pitch Black 2010.
Once each aircraft is shut down following a mission, the maintenance crews move in to conduct post-flight servicing and rectification of any faults that may have occurred. The aircraft might be required to fly a night-time mission in a few hours, and any changes to the number of available aircraft will have consequences for mission planning and coordination.
1630 hours: Refuelling Exercise Pitch Black is a critical job.
With large numbers of aircraft participating in each mission at Exercise Pitch Black, the demand for refuelling services and other consumables (such as resupply of liquid oxygen) must be carefully coordinated.
1700 hours: Logistics sits at the heart of every Exercise Pitch Black.
A handful of units at Exercise Pitch Black have a 'home field' advantage, working in facilities they use throughout the year. But the vast majority of participants are working thousands of kilometres away from the source of their logistics supply. Everything they require for Exercise Pitch Black - people, spare parts, and specialist equipment - needs to be transported to the Northern Territory.
The beginning and conclusion of Exercise Pitch Black is typically the busiest period for logistics teams like Air Movements personnel. During the exercise, the resupply and 'changeover' of people and equipment continues at a busy pace, especially as some squadrons redeploy their personnel in-and-out of exercise areas.
1830 hours: Here comes the night shift.
Much like their day-time counterparts, personnel supporting the night-time missions at Exercise Pitch Black may have spent days planning and coordinating their mission, and are looking to achieve similar training objectives, albeit in darkness over the Northern Territory.
The first week of Exercise Pitch Black is entirely day-time flying; the second and third week switches to a day-time mission and a night-time mission.
Depending on training objectives for each squadron, aircrew and maintenance personnel who support night-time missions in one week might find themselves assigned to day-time shifts the following week. This ensures the experience is spread across the wider workforce.
1900 hours: Night-time launches at Exercise Pitch Black are spectacular.
Many of the aircraft participating in Exercise Pitch Black missions are equipped with an afterburning engine, which provides additional engine thrust by adding fuel to the engine exhaust. The additional power it provides is necessary to get these aircraft like the Republic of Singapore Air Force F-16 into the air quickly.
2000 hours: Night-time missions at Exercise Pitch Black reinforce the need for cooperation and good directions.
Air Battle Managers and Air Surveillance Operators remain essential for providing tactical command and control of aircraft over hundreds of kilometres as the mission scenario develops – all in darkness.
It’s not only RAAF personnel providing this direction but also the Royal Australian Navy's Fleet Fighter Control Element, and the German Air Force who monitored and controlled the air space during Exercise Pitch Black 2016.
2030 hours: Exercise Pitch Black uses one of the biggest overland airspace training environments in the world - but we still take precautions to make it run as safely as possible.
The size of the Exercise Pitch Black airspace allows aircraft to fly at high speeds and over long distances, without many of the same space restrictions they might find on other exercises.
Aircrew operate under strict rules – by day and night - that dictate how they fly in a formation and conduct manoeuvres. Each aircraft is equipped with anti-collision lighting, and some even have 'formation lights' that provide a visual cue for the aircraft's orientation and direction when it's dark.
Information passed along to each aircraft - whether it be received as voice or data - is also essential for monitoring and directing aircraft in the exercise airspace.
2100 hours: How do Pitch Black crews see at night? With their eyes, of course.
A number of aircraft can be operated with Night-Vision Goggles, which amplify available sources of light - from stars and the moon, from towns, and even other aircraft. Depending on the mission, the Night Vision Goggles can help crews to identify targets, airfields, or other visual cues on the ground.
A large number of crews during Exercise Pitch Black however carry out their mission largely through the information presented to them in their cockpit - from the instruments, radar, and other sensors - along with radio instructions and networked information.
2200 hours: Recovery.
Night-time missions at Exercise Pitch Black plan to have aircraft back on the ground early enough to lessen disturbance to the community, whilst also ensuring exercise participants can complete training objectives.
Once the aircraft are on the ground, maintenance teams on the night-shift need to set about the task of servicing the aircraft and conducting any maintenance ahead of the next day’s flying.
2330 hours: Security doesn't sleep at Pitch Black.
The concentration of military hardware at RAAF Bases Darwin and Tindal during the exercises means around-the-clock security is required. This is largely supplied by the RAAF’s Combat Support Group, but other participants – including the New Zealand Defence Force – contribute to this effort.
All of that is just one average day on Exercise Pitch Black!