The thunder of fighter jet afterburners over the Top End was silenced on August 16, with the conclusion of the last of around 1120 Pitch Black air combat missions.
The three-week Pitch Black exercise formally wrapped up the following day and aircraft from the RAAF and partner nations began returning to their home bases, drawing the most successful and diverse exercise in the series to an end.
Altogether almost 140 aircraft from nine countries flew missions during Pitch Black, flying from Darwin, Batchelor, Tindal, Kununurra and Amberley. But Pitch Black 18 was much more than large numbers of aircraft launching each day to fight one another. It was also about the people.
16 nations and an estimated 4,000 people – 2,500 Australians and 1,500 partners and allies, including observers - were involved in the exercise. For the junior aircrew, it was a priceless opportunity to learn from their colleagues from different nations, from different cultures and backgrounds, and forge ties which can only bode well for regional stability and co-operation in years to come.
But according to Officer Conducting Exercise, Air Commodore Mike Kitcher, only 200 of those 4,000 people involved were aircrew members. The other 3,800 people were support staff – from aircraft maintenance personnel to logisticians, from aircraft refuellers to security detachments and from cooks to medical personnel.
“Whilst it’s very easy to focus on the aviators flying the aircraft, they are but a very small part of what is a very big machine here,” he said. “Without those 3,800 support personnel we would get nowhere, so I think that’s a really important thing to understand.”
A further example was provided by Wing Commander Andrew Tatnall, Senior ADF Officer at RAAF Base Tindal during the second week of Pitch Black. Tindal was home to 34 aircraft and personnel during the exercise, including the RAAF's 75 Sqn and deployments from the Royal Canadian Air Force and US Marine Corps.
“We have about 800 personnel operating from the air base at the moment,” he told ADM during week two. “We have already delivered about 4,500 meals and 2.5 million litres of aviation fuel, so it’s an exciting time to be working and operating on the air base.”
The ADF personnel at Tindal were augmented by support personnel from the NZ Defence Force (NZDF), which did not deploy any aircraft of their own, but nevertheless played an important role in the success of the exercise.
Altogether 62 NZDF personnel took part in Pitch Black, under the command of Flight Lieutenant Daniel Hook, RNZAF. In Darwin, the detachment included two Geospatial Intelligence Analysts, three communications operators, four air movements personnel, five Ground Support Equipment GSE) technicians, seven aviation refuellers, seven Army chefs, a medic and 19 force protection personnel – complete with two military working dogs.
A smaller cadre at Tindal included five Navy chefs, four aviation refuellers, three Aircraft Rescue Fire Flighting Service (ARFFS) personnel and a single medic.
“The experiences, knowledge and networking opportunities gained from this exercise have been invaluable, as NZ does not have an exercise on this scale that included the national diversity,” FLTLT Hook said.
“One important note is the interoperability between the NZDF and RAAF, highlighting the ease at which the Kiwis embedded into the Australian teams, a legacy left by the Anzac spirit.
“I have heard on several occasions from Australian and NZ commanders how essential our support and expertise was during this exercise. It gives me a great sense of pride that the NZDF’s reputation continues to grow and, without our support, this exercise would not have been the success that it was.”
A detailed review of Pitch Black 2018 will appear in the October issue of ADM.
ADM would like to thank the Pitch Black media team for their generous assistance during the exercise period.