Air Vice-Marshal Joe Iervasi, Air Commander of Australia.
I remember the first time I stepped onto the flightline at Darwin, just to see so many air combat aircraft from all over the world, and going “wow, we’re all going to be airborne at the same time in that airspace”. The key lesson I learned from those early days is ‘get your head out, and have a look around, because chances are you’re going to see someone coming before the radar finds them as well.
One aspect that I’m really fond of are the wonderful people I’ve served with over that time, not just through our Air Force but also with visiting forces as well.
Some of the best memories I’ve had from the flying perspective are the most complex missions where it’s an intensive planning process over the course of a day.
You spend a few hours briefing that up and then you might actually step through the entire mission itself without saying a single word on the radio through no – or limited comms procedures as well.
The ability to take off with the formation that you started with without talking in the middle of the night, finding the tanker, refuelling at night, marshalling and then pushing together as 50- or 60-aircraft package, fighting your way through to the target, coordinating across airspace lanes, (then) finding your target, destroying your target, getting off target, fighting your way home with no fuel and no weapons left, and get back to home-plate at Darwin – there’s no greater sense of achievement than having a successful mission.
It’s wonderful – and it’s different both at day and night.
Flying Officer Matthew Hall, an F/A-18A Hornet pilot with No. 77 Squadron, speaks to a journalist on the flightline at RAAF Base Darwin during Exercise Pitch Black 96
Wing Commander (retired) 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 Lieutenant Paul Jarvis and Flying Officer Mike Sullivan on the F-111 flightline at RAAF Base Darwin during Exercise Pitch Black 98.
Group Captain Lyle Holt, a former Navigator on F-111s
Group Captain Lyle Holt recounts his 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.
A ground crewmember from 3 Squadron completes after-flight checks on an F/A-18 Hornet on the RAAF Base Darwin flightline during Exercise Pitch Black 2004.
Air Commodore Tim Alsop, Commander Air Combat Group
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).