Exercise Pitch Black is the Air Force’s largest biennial exercise. It aims to strengthen regional partnerships, improve interoperability between nations and promote regional stability. The exercise has origins back to 1981 and has seen an evolution in people and technology through the years.
The exercises were first held from RAAF Base Williamtown over 15-16 June 1981 and 28-30 July 1982 between different RAAF units, and are believed to have focused largely on air defence.
Local squadrons (No. 77 Squadron) flying Mirage IIIO fighters were coordinated by surveillance from No. 3 Control and Reporting Unit to defend against ‘enemy’ F-111C attack.
Exercise Pitch Black 83 (9-13 May 1983) was held in Darwin with No. 1 Squadron and No. 77 Squadron, marking the first time the exercise was conducted in the Northern Territory. It was also the first major RAAF exercise to be held in Darwin after Cyclone Tracy in December 1974.
The exercise also saw the debut of an international partner – the United States Air Force, which brought B-52 bombers and KC-135 tankers to participate alongside RAAF Mirage IIIs and F-111Cs.
No. 114 Mobile Control and Reporting Unit, equipped with AN/TPS-43 radars, were deployed to Mount Goodwin Wadeye in the Northern Territory to provide airspace surveillance.
Exercise Pitch Black 84 (May 1984) was a bigger exercise than its predecessor, held again from RAAF Base Darwin and introducing the Royal New Zealand Air Force with its A-4K Skyhawks. They were joined by United States Air Force KC-135A tankers and B-52 bombers, along with F-4E Phantom strike fighters in their debut appearance.
The United States Air Force also brought an E-3A Sentry surveillance aircraft, equipped with an Airborne Warning and Control System that provided radar coverage of the exercise area.
The RAAF participated with F-111Cs and Mirage IIIs, and was also able to use its CH-47C Chinook helicopters to lift mobile radars operated by No 114 Control and Reporting Unit around the exercise area. The Royal Australian Navy also flew a HS748 in an electronic warfare support role at the exercise, and Australian Army Porters, Nomads, and Kiowas also participated.
The undercarriage of a RAAF Mirage became jammed after one afternoon combat session, resulting in it being ditched in swampy scrubland east of Darwin, and the crew ejecting to safety. The Mirages were grounded for the remainder of the exercise until further investigation could take place.
Airspace surveillance was led by No. 2 Control and Reporting Unit for the exercise.
Exercise Pitch Black 86 (4-21 April 1986) saw the exercise return to RAAF Base Williamtown, which allowed for the RAAF’s recently-delivered F/A-18 Hornet to participate in the exercise for the first time. The new Hornets were limited however to participating in Dissimilar Air Combat Training – essentially dogfighting practice with other participants – and did not support the Air Defence component of the exercise.
Once again, the United States Air Force returned with eight F-4E Phantoms, which deployed to Williamtown non-stop from Taegu Air Base in South Korea with a KC-10A Extender tanker. They participated alongside the RAAF’s own F-111Cs (from RAAF Base Amberley). No. 114 Control and Reporting Unit meanwhile located itself near Walcha in New South Wales to provide remotely deployed area defence. This was the first time a sector area defence commander had operated from a remotely deployed Sector Area Defence Operations Control (SADOC).
In the field, the Australian Army’s 16 Air Defence Regiment with Rapier missiles worked alongside the American Army’s 1BN 62nd Air Defence Artillery with Redeye Missiles. Off the coast, the Royal Australian Navy’s guided missile destroyer HMAS Hobart also provided support.
Exercise Pitch Black 87 (8-19 June 1987) saw the exercise return to the Northern Territory. The RAAF’s F/A-18 Hornets (from No. 3 Squadron) participated in the Air Defence component of the exercise for the first time, and were once again joined by United States Air Force F-4 Phantoms (from the 90th Tactical Fighter Wing) along with B-52s, KC-10s, and KC-135s.
The RAAF also participated with F-111Cs, Mirage IIIs, Orions, B707s, C-130 Hercules, Caribous, Chinooks, and even Squirrel helicopters. ‘Blue Force’ Hornets and Mirages cooperated with No. 2 Control and Reporting Unit and No. 114 Control and Reporting Unit (Mobile) to provide air defence against ‘Orange Land’ F-111s, F-4Es, B52s, Orions, Hercules, and even a Royal Australian Navy HS748.
On the ground, Blue Force also comprised the Australian Army’s own 16 Air Defence Regiment, which worked with the American Army’s 25th Infantry Division. No. 114 Mobile Control and Reporting Unit provided 24-hour operations for a significant period of the exercise, deployed in the field to Port Keats in the Northern Territory, and transmitting data from the site via satellite communications link.
For the first time at Exercise Pitch Black, a RAAF Hornet conducted an aerobatic display during the RAAF Base Darwin Open Day.
Exercise Pitch Black 88 (18-22 July 1988) saw the debut of the United States Marine Corps, which brought a KC-130 Hercules tanker as well as A-6 Intruder strike jets and EA-6B Prowler electronic attack jets.
The United States Air Force meanwhile debuted the F-15 Eagle in the exercise, as well as returning with the B-52 bomber and KC-135 tanker.
By 1988, the Australian Government had expressed an interest in acquiring its own Airborne Early Warning and Control platform, and USAF participation in Exercise Pitch Black 88 included the return of an E-3A Sentry surveillance aircraft (which had participated in the exercise in 1984). The RAAF’s participation in Exercise Pitch Black 88 included Hornets, F-111Cs, and for the last time, the Mirage III.
Exercise Pitch Black 90 (16 July to 3 August) witnessed the first participation by the Republic of Singapore Air Force, which has returned to every subsequent Pitch Black exercise as of 2018. Singaporean F-5E Tiger fighter jets flew alongside RAAF F/A-18s and F-111Cs.
Another major first was the introduction of RAAF Base Tindal to the exercise, following its completion as a permanent base in October 1988. Exercise Pitch Black 90 also involved tactical transports like the Caribou delivering Special Air Service personnel into the exercise area and ‘probing’ ground defences.
The United States Air Force also participated with B-52 and B-1 bombers, as well as KC-135 and KC-10 tankers. The Royal Australian Navy was represented with HS748 aircraft and the guided missile destroyer HMAS Brisbane.
Once again, a United States Air Force E-3A Sentry surveillance aircraft helped provide an integrated ‘air picture’ alongside ground-based radars from No. 2 and 3 Control and Reporting Units, No. 114 Mobile Control and Reporting Unit, and the (then) developmental Jindalee Over the Horizon Radar (JORN), providing the most comprehensive coverage of northern Australia since World War II.
Exercise Pitch Black 91 (16-30 August 1991) saw the RAAF introduce its own air-to-air refuelling capability, with a recently modified Boeing 707 tanker able to refuel RAAF Hornets during missions.
The exercise also saw the first major participation of RAAF Base Curtin – a bare base in the north of Western Australia, which had been completed in 1988. Curtin became home of ‘Orange Force’ during the exercise, which played the role of the enemy forces in the exercise scenario, and supported 110 personnel and about 50 aircraft including 76 Squadron Macchis and 75 Squadron Hornets.
‘Blue Force’ aircraft operated from RAAF Bases Darwin and Tindal. The latter base’s defences on the ground were tested, with No. 2 Airfield Defence Squadron facing off against elements of Army’s 3RAR and the Special Air Service Regiment.
Returning to Exercise Pitch Black were the United States Marine Corps A-6E Intruder and EA-6B Prowlers, Republic of Singapore Air Force F-5E Tigers (along with A-4 Skyhawks jets and E-2C Hawkeye surveillance aircraft; and United States Air Force F-15C Eagles, supported by a KC-10A Extender tanker.
Exercise Pitch Black 93 (26 July – 13 August 1993) saw the debut of the Republic of Singapore Air Force F-16 fighters at Pitch Black. They were joined at Darwin by Singapore’s A-4 Skyhawks and an E-2C Hawkeye.
The United States Air Force participated from RAAF Base Darwin with a squadron of 18th Wing F-15C Eagles from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, and a pair of B-52 bombers from the 596th Bomber Squadron.
RAAF Hornets operated form RAAF Base Tindal, where they were also supported by a No 33 Squadron detachment providing Boeing 707 tanker air-to-air refuelling. Radar surveillance was provided by 1 Radar Surveillance Unit at Jindalee.
Exercise Pitch Black 94 (4-18 August 1994) involved a return from the United States Marine Corps, this time operating AV-8B Harrier strike jets from RAAF Base Darwin. Alongside them were Republic of Singapore Air Force F-16s, A-4s, F-5s, and E-2C Hawkeye.
RAAF Base Curtin was once again used, this time housing RAAF F-111Cs from Nos 1 and 6 Squadrons in the role of ‘Orange Force’ enemy strike jets. F/A-18s from Nos 3 and 75 Squadrons were exposed to a wide range of opposing aircraft.
Held from 15 July to 2 August 1996, Exercise Pitch Black 96 involved approximately 4000 people, including a greater American presence with the return of United States Air Force F-16s, KC-10s, B-52s, and an E-3A Sentry surveillance aircraft in the exercise.
The Republic of Singapore Air Force returned with F-16s, a pair of E-2C Hawkeyes, KC-130B Hercules tankers, and A-4 Skyhawks. RAAF involvement included staples such as its F/A-18s, F-111Cs, and Boeing 707 air-to-air tankers.
United States Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornets flew alongside No 75 Squadron RAAF Hornets from RAAF Base Tindal.
Once again, the subject of an Airborne Early Warning and Control capability for the RAAF was brought into focus by the exercise, which saw both friendly Blue Force and opposition Orange Force employing their own airborne surveillance aircraft for the first time.
Exercise Pitch Black 97 involved just the RAAF and the Republic of Singapore Air Force.
It once again included RAAF F-111Cs from Amberley along with F/A-18 Hornets from Nos. 75 and 77 Squadron, and Boeing 707 air-to-air refuelling tankers and C-130 Hercules.
Singapore participated with F-16s and A-4 Skyhawks, along with a pair of C-130 Hercules.
Exercise Pitch Black 98 (17-28 August 1998) introduced the Royal Air Force to the exercise, bringing an E-3D Sentry surveillance aircraft and two C-130K Hercules transports.
It also involved Republic of Singapore Air Force A-4 Skyhawks, F-16s, E-2C Hawkeyes, and KC-130Bs.
The exercise involved RAAF F/A-18s, F-111s, C-130s, Machhis, B707s, and a P-3C It was also the finale for the RAAF’s MB326 Macchi jets involvement in a Pitch Black exercise, operated by No. 79 Squadron from RAAF Base Tindal.
While past Pitch Black exercises involved AEW&C aircraft in the air defence role, this year saw the E-3D and E-2C used extensively in the strike direction role.
Australian aircraft included F/A-18 Hornets, F-111 strike aircraft and C-130 Hercules, as well as Boeing 707 refuelling aircraft.
The Royal Air Force returned to Australia for Exercise Pitch Black 2000 (22 Jul – 5 August 2000), this time bringing an increased contingent – Tornado GR.4 strike and F.3 fighter jets, along with two VC-10 tankers and E-3D Sentry surveillance aircraft.
The Republic of Singapore Air Force likewise returned with F-16 fighters, RF-5s tactical reconnaissance jets, and an E-2C Hawkeye surveillance aircraft. The United States Marine Corps also participated with 12 F/A-18D Hornets coming from Hawaii. Both provided KC-130 refuelling aircraft.
Infamously, a 1974 Landcruiser was destroyed in Darwin when an AIM-7 Sparrow training device detached from a RAAF Hornet as it was returning to base – happily, without injury.
Exercise Pitch Black 02 (15 July to 02 August 2002) returned to the Australian East Coast for the first time since 1986, with the Republic of Singapore Air Force being the only international participant. Singapore returned to the exercise with its F-16s, F-5s, and a KC-135 tanker.
For the first time, the RAAF participated with the Hawk 127 Lead-In Fighter, as well as with the Hornet and F-111.
The Army’s 16th Air Defence Regiment from Woodside in South Australia deployed to Coonabarabran, bringing their deadly accurate surface-to-air missiles into the mix.
Exercise Pitch Black 04 (18 July to 6 August 2004) involved two debut participants – the Royal Thai Air Force (which brought F-16 jets) and Armee de l’Air (French Air Force, bringing a C-135 tanker and Mirage 2000-5 jets).
The Republic of Singapore Air Force returned with a KC-135 tanker along with an E-2C Hawkeye surveillance aircraft and F-16s.
RAAF involvement included the return of the Hawk 127 along with the recently delivered C-130J Hercules, as well as PC-9s, F/A-18s, F-111s, Orions and Boeing 707 tanker.
Held from 28 July to 18 August 2006, Exercise Pitch Black 06 saw the return of the Royal Air Force with an E-3D Sentry surveillance aircraft, and the participation of RAAF Base Curtin in Western Australia – once again housing RAAF F-111 strike jets.
The Royal Thai Air Force returned with its F-16s and the Republic of Singapore Air Force once again participated with F-16s, F-5s, KC-135s, and the E-2C Hawkeye surveillance aircraft.
RAAF participation once again involved the Boeing 707 tanker, C-130 Hercules, AP-3C Orion, and F/A-18 Hornet.
Exercise Pitch Black 08 (6 June to 27 June 2008) farewelled a number of aircraft from the exercise – the RAAF’s own Boeing 707 tanker (retired from service immediately after the exercise), the DHC-4 Caribou (retired in 2009 after 45 years of Australian service), and the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s own F-5 Tigers – regular Pitch Black participants since 1990, and retired in 2015.
2008 however also introduced a number of new Pitch Black participants. The Royal Malaysian Air Force brought F/A-18D Hornets and a KC-130M Hercules tanker to RAAF Base Darwin, whilst an E-3A Sentry from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Early Warning and Control Force also came to Darwin. The Armee de l’Air also brought with it an E-3F Sentry from France.
Elsewhere, the Royal Thai Air Force returned with F-16s, the Republic of Singapore also brought its F-16s, KC-135, and E-2C Hawkeye, and the United States Marine Corps participated with F/A-18 Hornets and KC-130J Hercules. The RAAF meanwhile participated with its own Hornets,
Exercise Pitch Black 10 was held over 16 July – 06 August 2010, and marked the final involvement from RAAF F-111s in the exercise before their involvement later that year. The Royal New Zealand Air Force meanwhile participated in the exercise with a C-130H Hercules, providing airlift support to Pitch Black bases and even role-playing as a high-value asset and non-combatant during exercise missions. RAAF participation once again involved the F/A-18 Hornet, Hawk and PC-9/A aircraft, with the Royal Thai Air Force bringing its F-16s, and Republic of Singapore Air Force bringing F-16s, an E-2C Hawkeye, and KC-135 tanker.
Held from 27 July to 17 August 2012, Exercise Pitch Black 12 brought in some big introductions for the exercise. The Indonesian Air Force participated for the first time, bringing with them four Flanker fighter jets – a pair of single-seat Su-27s, and a pair of two-seat Su-30s.
They weren’t the only first-timers however. The Republic of Singapore Air Force brought its F-15SG Eagles and Gulfstream G550 Conformal Airborne Early Warning (CAEW) aircraft to Pitch Black for the first time (along with their returning F-16s and KC-135). The RAAF meanwhile debuted its F/A-18F Super Hornets as well as the KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport.
Elsewhere, the United States Marine Corps (with its F/A-18s) and Royal Thai Air Force (with its F-16s) also returned. Exercise Pitch Black 12 however also saw the end of an era for the RAAF’s own C-130H Hercules, retired the following November. The C-130Hs had run a range of missions throughout Pitch Black history, from ‘high-value asset’ during missions, to delivering ‘enemy’ soldiers into the exercise area to test ground defences.
Exercise Pitch Black 14 (1-22 August 2014) saw the realisation of a goal long sought after throughout the exercise’s history – a RAAF airborne early warning and control capability. The E-7A Wedgetail was utilised in the exercise by No. 2 Squadron from facilities at RAAF Base Tindal, providing an airborne ‘picture’ of the exercise airspace.
Other newcomers included the United Arab Emirates Air Force (with its six Mirage 2000-9s and one A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport), and JAS-39 Gripens from the Royal Thai Air Force. The New Caledonian Armed Forces too sent a CASA CN235 transport for the first time, providing air mobility and a variety of role-playing functions in exercise scenarios.
The United States Marine Corps and Republic of Singapore Air Force also participated in Exercise Pitch Black 14, with the New Zealand Defence Force sending a combat support contingent to help with the running of the exercise.
For Exercise Pitch Black 16 (29 July to 19 August) it was the Royal Canadian Air Force’s time to debut, bringing a CC-130T Hercules tanker to RAAF Base Tindal and providing air mobility and air-to-air refuelling in the exercise area. The Indonesian Air Force returned to Pitch Black, bringing with them their F-16A and B jets.
The RAAF debuted the Heron Unmanned Aerial Vehicle in the exercise from RAAF Base Tindal, whilst the C-17A Globemaster participated in exercise missions for the very first time. Until now, the C-17A had been limited to providing logistics support to units deploying on the exercise.
Germany and the Netherlands sent personnel to work alongside Australian Fighter Controllers and Air Battlespace Managers in the exercise. The exercise also involved the Royal Thai Air Force (F-16s), Republic of Singapore Air Force (F-15SGs, F-16C and Ds, G550 and KC-135), New Caledonia Armed Forces (CN235), and United States Air Force (F-16Cs) as well as the RAAF’s own Hornets, Super Hornets, KC-30As, C-130Js, King Airs, Wedgetails, and PC-9s.
Exercise Pitch Black 2018 (27 July until 18 August 2018) was perhaps the biggest Pitch Black in the exercise’s history. It brought together 4000 personnel and 140 aircraft, including first-time participants from the Indian Air Force – flying Su-30MKI Flanker jets and a C-130J Hercules. The French Air Force returned to Pitch Black with a trio of Rafale B jets in their debut appearance. Likewise, the Royal Malaysian Air Force returned for the first time since 2008, bringing F/A-18D Hornets and an A400M Atlas (the latter’s first time at Pitch Black).
For the RAAF, it was the first time out at Pitch Black for the E/A-18G Growler and the C-27J Spartan, which was put to good use in supporting the establishment of a remote deployed base at Batchelor Airfield, a small airstrip approximately 100 kilometres south of Darwin.
The United States Marine Corps once again flew F/A-18D Hornets from RAAF Base Tindal, however the introduction of the Marine Rotational Force – Darwin allowed for MV-22B Osprey tilt-rotors to be used in some exercise scenarios for the first time.
The exercise also involved the Royal Thai Air Force (bringing back its Gripens), Republic of Singapore Air Force (F-15SGs, F-16C and Ds, G550, and the KC-135 – the last time the tanker would be flown by Singapore in the exercise), New Caledonia Armed Forces (CN235), Royal Canadian Air Force (CC-130T Hercules) and United States Air Force (F-16Cs) as well as the RAAF’s own Super Hornets, KC-30As, C-130Js, King Airs, Wedgetails.
Exercise Pitch Black 18 farewelled two RAAF types from its line-up – the PC-9, retired from No. 4 Squadron service in 2019; and the F/A-18A and B Hornet, which had been slated for Exercise Pitch Black 20 until that exercise was cancelled.
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