Australia & Singapore 2018
We had already considered the large bi-annual exercise Pitch Black in northern Australia a couple of times but never executed the tour as we deemed it a bit too risky to venture to the other side of the world without any support of the Royal Australian Air Force. Also, this time the RAAF had no interest in supporting our request for access to Darwin, but we decided to go anyway as the line-up for the exercise was very interesting and we had a small group of enthusiasts willing to take the risk. We planned almost a week in Darwin, followed by a week in eastern Australia and conclude with a couple of days in Singapore for the 50th Anniversary of its Air Force. The latter was a new destination for 4Aviation, the 56th country in our 10 year of existence.
On Sunday 29 July the group of six gathered at Schiphol airport for the long flight to Down Under. In the first leg a KLM Boeing 777 brought us to Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) where we arrived on Monday 30 July. After a short stop a Malaysian Boeing 737 brought us to the destination of that day, Singapore. Here we spent the night and enjoyed our first, of many, sociable meals of the trip.
On Tuesday 31 July we had an early start and Silkair brought us to Darwin in little under four hours. Here we were very lucky as we taxied past the ramps filled with MV-22 Ospreys, RSAF F-15s and F-16s and a quartet of Indian Air Force Su-30MKIs. We were also overtaken by a couple of Australian Hornets on their way out for a mission. Customs, claiming our luggage and picking up our rental cars went very smooth. Within an hour after landing we found ourselves at the approach end of the runway to take our first pictures. We also made a small recce tour of the airfield to prepare ourselves for the next couple of days and found several great vantage points. After that it was time to find our hotel for the next four nights. This was in a street with many bars and restaurants, great to spend time after a hard day’s work. Especially convenient to celebrate the tour-guides 50th birthday.
Wednesday 1 August, was our first full day at Darwin. Flying started early with several transport and tankers leaving the base. We found a spot for take-offs with the sun in our back at a fairly good distance of the aircraft. Before nine we heard the jets start up and taxi to the western end of the runway. After their take-off we moved to the western approach for great landing shots.
Darwin is located at the Timor Sea and each day the wind direction is from the east in the morning changing to the west in the afternoon. The sun turns over the runway around 3pm, after that photography is only possible on the eastern end. Some participating jets decided to fly a pattern for their approach giving a chance for some banking shots.
The fighter aircraft took off in several waves during the day. The first week of the exercise was used for familiarisation flights among the participating units and a reconnaissance of the exercise area. Often Australian aircraft teamed up with foreign aircraft for these flights. During the lunchbreak we also made a small detour to nearby Robertson Barracks. This is the main base for the Australian Army Tigers. These are very well camouflaged as we had great difficulty to identify the single Tiger outside on the ramp.
Thursday 2 August, was a copy of the previous day, for the morning. We saw dozens of jets and transport aircraft take off and land. For us all the aircraft were exotic and not often seen in our part of the world.
10 x F / A-18F, 3 x E / A-18G, 15 x F / A-18A, 2 x C-130J, 1 x C-17, 1 x KA350, 2 x C27J, 1 x E-7A (from Williamtown), 2 x PC-9 (from Tindall, 1 x KC-30
1 x CC130TT
3 x RAFALE, 1 x CN-235
4 x SU30MKI,
1 x C130J
8 x F-16
5 x F / A-18D, 1 x A400M
6 x F-16, 5 x F-15, 1 x KC-135, 1 x G550
6 x GRIPEN
12 x F-16CM, 2 x B-52 (from Guam)
10 x F/A-18C / D (from Tindal), 2 x KC-130J (from Tindal), 8 x MV-22
Today the RAAF also organised a flypast and handling display over the Mindil Beach, this is situated on the Darwin outskirts. Except Malaysia all participating countries joined in this event. We left the airfield around 16.15 and found a spot southwest of the beach. In this way we would have a bit of an angle on the aircraft, with a bit of sun in our back. First to appear around 5:00PM was a RAAF C-27J, followed by a variety of aircraft and formations. Two USMC KC-130Js came in from RAAF Tindal for a flyby. Australian Hornets teamed up with Indian Flankers. A French Rafale lead two Thai Gripen to the beach and many more aircraft flew by. It was great to see, but hard to photograph. But with a bit of patience some shots were possible.
Friday 3 August, was a non-flying day for Pitch Black, so perfect to visit the Darwin Museum at the outskirts of the airfield. We had made an appointment with one of the volunteers of the museum to show us around and he also brought us to their workshop and storage yard in town afterwards. The displays are kept in great condition and you can learn a lot from the aviation history in this area.
In the afternoon we drove about 100km south to the Litchfield Park. But first we drove past Batchelor, as there was an airstrip also in use for the exercise. Besides a few relaxing military personnel, we noted no aircraft of interest. Then onwards to the park, which is a big nature reserve with, amongst others, many dozens of huge termite mounds and several waterfalls where we enjoyed a relaxed swim.
On Saturday 4 August, the RAAF had organised another Pitch Black event, an open house at the airbase. All participants had put one, or more, aircraft on display and many aircrews were available for a chat. On the static were a couple of aircraft not seen on the days preceding the show. The RAAF E-7 Wedgetail flew in all the way from RAAF Williamtown, an Army Tiger arrived the day before from nearby Robertson Barracks, a grey PC-9 from 4 Ssquadron had dropped in that morning and the Canadian C-130 and Malaysian A400M were dragged from their parking spots for the public. RAAF Tindal is also in heavy use during the exercise and the US Marines have set up camp over there. They brought two KC-130J, which we had seen earlier in the week at the beach, and ten F/A-18Ds from VMFA(AW)-242. One of these arrived on Thursday afternoon at Darwin and was also on static.
The static was situated on the ramp used by the Singaporean F-15s, F-16s and Gulfstream as well as the Indian Su-30MKIs, so all these could be inspected up close.
We were at the show early and spent a couple of hours near these interesting airframes. Around midday we headed east for another touristic attraction at Corroboree Park. We boarded a small boat and floated around the beautiful rivers in the area. The captain pointed us to the varied wildlife along the waterfront and in the sky. We were lucky to see several crocodiles as well as many different birds, flowers, etc in a fantastic landscape. The tour ended with a beautiful sunset. It was time to head back to Darwin, but not before we stopped in the middle of nowhere, dimmed all the lights and enjoyed viewing the Milky Way and millions of other stars in the sky.
It was still not time to go to bed, as we set for the airport for our flight to Sydney, which would be very early in the morning.
Our plane left just before 2.00AM on this Sunday 5 August, to land almost four hours later at Sydney-Kingston airport. Here we started the second part of our tour. We picked up an 8-seater van and headed straight for the main touristic attraction, the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. We found some great vantage points on the east side of the river to make some shots. Then it was time to enjoy a full breakfast close to the bridge. We had another look at the Opera House, but now from up close and then we started looking for aircraft. At Bankstown we found a few little gems and RAAF Richmond revealed a Beech 350, three C-27Js and four C-130Js as well as some remains of a DHC-4. Then it was time to go to our hotel in Mayfield and enjoy a lovely meal in the nearby pub.
Monday 6 august started with a visit to the Coles supermarket to get some supplies for the day. The weather was a bit cloudy with sunny spells, but the temperature was the main difference for us. From a lovely 30° Celsius at Darwin to a windy and cold 12° Celsius on the east coast.
We had extended our stay in Australia to see some more military aircraft action. We put our cards mainly on RAAF Williamtown, knowing that we might be disappointed as a lot of Hornets were present at Darwin.
Upon arriving at the base, we saw two E-7 Wedgetailss, one of them was familiar to us as we had seen it at Darwin only two days before. Around 9.00AM we heard several engines start up and fifteen minutes later two Hawks took off, followed a little later by an E-7. We moved to the approach end for some landing shots and were entertained by a couple of kangaroos until the Hawks arrival just before 10.00AM. Then it was also time to relocate to the Fightertown Museum. This museum has an impressive collection and all aircraft inside are in immaculate shape. They have already been allocated a PC-9 and two F/A-18s (A+B) when they will be withdrawn from service. The volunteers know a lot about their aircraft and are keen to share their knowledge. Besides the aircraft the museum has a great ‘tool’ for aviation enthusiasts, an outside viewing deck with a view on the last chance ramp, taxi- and runway as well as the approach. From here we witnessed the flying for the rest of the day. A total of ten different Hawks flew several missions, mostly in pairs. The Wedgetail return just before dark. So unfortunately, no Hornets, but we had another day scheduled here.
Tuesday 7 August was our second chance for Hornets, and we were not disappointed. First aircraft of the day was again a Hawk, followed by four different Hornets. Single seat and dual aircraft in different squadron markings. A beautiful sight to see. The first line up was concluded by an E-7. Not long after that another four Hornets came popping around the corner, an amazing sight. This was followed by another six Hawks. All these returned within the hour. Take offs were now viewed from the fence and the landing, again, from the museum viewing deck. In the early afternoon another three Hornets took off, two Beech 350s visited and the E-7 returned from its round trip to Melbourne. The latter we saw at ADSB.
Next on our schedule was RAN Albatross near Nowra. For this we had to drive about 350km through the Sydney area during rush hour. This took about 5 hours and we arrived at our hotel in the evening. Here we enjoyed a Chinese meal, with the usual beer, and went to bed.
Wednesday 8 August was another lovely day. We were greeted by a UH-1 in preserved in town and the drove to the airfield to see if there was any activity. During our ride we saw an Army Blackhawk in the distance flying in the direction of the airfield and return only a couple of minutes later. Upon arriving at Albatross we noted a Bell 429, a Seahawk and two EC135s on the ramp, but no activity. As the museum was not open yet we visited two nearby S-2 Trackers hidden in the bushes. We again took some time to enjoy the beautiful wildlife of Australia and saw a couple of birds and dozens of kangaroos along the road. We entered the museum just before the official opening times and enjoyed the lovely collection.
This museum also has a viewing deck on the first floor. Flying had also started, but this was too far away and the single EC135 that did come a bit closer was way too high and against the sun. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see these different types of helicopters operated by the Royal Australian Navy. In the end we saw a single Bell 429 and two of each EC-135, MRH-90 and SH-60R.
Around midday we drove north, about 50km, to Illawara for the HARS collection. It is amazing to see how many historic collections are saved for prosperity. Almost all are run by volunteers who spend a couple days a week/month on these projects. Most of the HARS (Historical Aircraft Restoration Society) collection aircraft are airworthy that is why they only give guided tours. We were happy to be guided by Wouter, a Dutch guy living in Australia. He soon discovered that the group was quite knowledgeable and did everything possible to show us the complete collection and enough time to take photographs. Thanks again Wouter!
Illawara was our final destination for the east coast part of the trip. Now it was time to go south. We returned to Sydney to hand in our car, but not before looking for a Beech 350 which we had seen approaching into the airport. It was easily found, and we could go to the terminal happy. Tiger Air brought us safely to Melbourne where we would spend the last two nights of our Australian part of the tour.
Thursday 9 August started with a preserved Vampire at a former airfield, now shopping centre. At Werribee the B-24 Liberator Memorial Restoration group is doing great work on a B-24 who had served as a training aircraft for the RAAF during WW2. They are operating out of a heritage hangar. A similar hangar is built a few hundred meters away. They are now looking into breaking that hangar up and rebuilt it behind their current hangar. The B-24 would then be displayed in full in the ‘new’ hangar as there is not enough space now.
Then it was time for the official RAAF museum at Point Cook. Although it is a great collection, there is something missing for the serious aviation enthusiast. Aircraft are parked very close together, so very difficult for photography. The collection has many more aircraft which are not on display. These are hidden in several hangars and in open storage mostly out of view. Emails and telephone calls from home to view these were kept unanswered. A request on the spot was also denied as this was simply not done. If you compare this to the other museums, it is a real shame. A great example of how easy it can be done was shown at Moorabbin. A different kind of museum, with other resources. We contacted them in advance and they were happy to show us everything they had. All gates and doors were opened, and the volunteers shared their stories on the aircraft and their experiences on working on the different machines. This was very refreshing and very much appreciated. Their pride and joy, the Bristol Beaufort looked in great shape and we ended the tour with a group photo on top of the Canberra wing! Thanks guys for the great time. We went on with a little tour of the airfield and spotted a former Singapore AF Airtourer and USAAF PT-17 in one of the hangars. Taking a picture was no problem. We then drove a little further south for a preserved MB326 at an RSL post and US Army Huey in Australian markings at a memorial. Both were easily found. Time to head back into town for the final night in Australia. The group went downtown for a typical local dish: Wiener Schnitzel and German beers…
Friday 10 August would be a travel day. On our way to the Melbourne airport we drove past the Essendon airport and spotted a former RAAF C-47 in immaculate condition. Most of the day was spent in a Boeing 787 for the eight-hour flight to Singapore. Segment three of our tour had started.
Saturday 11 August, we had added Singapore to the itinerary of the tour as the Air Force was celebrating its 50th Anniversary. During this weekend they would perform two fly passes a day over the Marina Bay area on the coast. A rare chance to see a variety of RSAF aircraft.
A Grab, Asian version of Uber, brought us to the Marina Bay. Here we looked for a spot to watch the fly past which was about to start at 11.00. We were a bit surprised by a low and fast-moving F-15SG at 10.30. At 11.10 the show started with a single high flying IAI Heron 1 UAV from 119 Sqn, this was followed by four Diamond DA-40s of the Singapore Youth Flying Club. Next up was a formation of six helicopters. In the lead a 127 Sqn CH-47SD Chinook, flanked by pairs of 120 Sqn AH-64D Apaches and 125 Sqn Super Puma/Cougar. The formation was completed by a 123 Sqn S-70B Seahawk. This was followed by the venerable 122 Sqn C-130H, flanked by two 121 sqn Fokker F50 Maritime Enforcers. The second to last segment of the flypast consisted of a 112 Sqn KC-135R Stratotanker flanked by a pair of 145 Sqn F-16D Fighting Falcons, these were closely followed by a 111 Sqn G550 Airborne Early Warning aircraft. This was probably one of the last public assignments of the KC-135R as the first EADS KC-30A arrived at Changi IAP only days later.
Closing the flypast was a formation of six Boeing F-15SG Eagles from mainly 142 Sqn, as 149 Sqn had deployed a number of aircraft to Darwin for exercise Pitch Black 2018.
Next up were another two AH-64Ds performing an impressive display routine over the water. This was concluded with a low and slow flypast over the Marina Barrage in which the aircrew proudly showed the Singaporean flag and banner in the front cockpit.
It became a bit louder after that when two former Black Knights F-16Cs (from 140 and 143 Sqn) entered the arena together with a smartly painted F-15SG. The latter was painted blue, representing the skies it is defending. On top of the airframe the digits 50 are presented very big, underlined with the iconic Singapore skyline. One other detail are the three past and present roundels used by the RSAF. The trio showed some of the capabilities of these aircraft and all were looked at in awe by the large crowd.
The event was concluded by five F-15SG returning to the waterfront for a final manoeuvre, the bomb burst. After this the Eagles headed to its nearby home, Paya Lebar and the crowds also went home after an impressive and flawless performance by the men and women of the Republic of Singapore Air Force.
Now we had some time to relocate and enjoyed the beautiful waterfront park near Marina Bay. The above would repeat itself around 14:30 after which we had a snack and a drink in the park before heading back to the hotel.
Sunday 12 August, we started with the Air Force museum at Payar Lebar. Most of the group took their time here, while one rushed to the waterfront to watch the flypast. At Payar Lebar we witnessed the take off of the F-15s, C-130 and demo F-15 and F-16s. All then headed to the Marina Bay for the afternoon fly past. As we had seen the fly past already three times now everybody chooses their favourite part for the final one. Some went close to the waterfront for the F-15/F-16 display, some a bit further back and some of the group decided to take their chance on the viewing deck on top of the exclusive Marina Bay Sands hotel, about 340 meters above the sea. All had a great time and the pictures to prove it. We shared our experiences in the taxi to the hotel where had a shower before starting the long flight home, via Paris.
Monday 13 August, we landed in Paris in the early morning and waited a short time for our connecting flight to Amsterdam. Here we arrived safely and said our goodbyes. Another successful 4Aviation trip had ended with lots of great pictures and memories.