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Troubled helicopter involved in horror crash


A troubled military helicopter whose decades-long service was cut short by more than 10 years by the ADF has been involved in a horror crash.

Four military personnel are feared dead after the MRH-90 Taipan helicopter was ditched into the ocean off Hamilton Island in Queensland on Friday night.

Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles confirmed the crash on Saturday, with search and rescue operations launched across the area.

The crash comes as armed forces from Australia, the US, and 13 other nations gather in Northern Australia for the Talisman Sabre war games.

Labelled by Talisman Sabre director Brigadier Damian Hill as a “terrible moment”, the crash is not the first involving the troubled helicopter.

The Australian Army temporarily grounded its fleet of 47 MRH-90 Taipans earlier this year after a helicopter crashed off Jervis Bay in March.

Special forces personnel were on board when the Taipan crashed during night-time counter-terrorism training exercises near HMAS Cresswell.

The Australian Defence Reporter wrote in March the crash was caused by an engine failure potentially due to un-updated software on-board.

First purchased by the Howard government in 2004, the MRH-90 Taipans have been plagued by controversy for much of its service.

In a damning report, the Australian National Audit Office revealed the department had favoured the US-made Black Hawk helicopters.

The audit office stated in its report that the decision to launch the Taipans had caused “significant implications” on the fleet’s use.

The report cited the “unforeseen immaturity” of the Taipan design and support system, as well as high running costs.

In the decade and a half since the purchase, the Taipan fleet has been grounded on multiple occasions after crashes and other errors.

In 2010, an MRH-90 Taipan experienced engine failure while in-flight near Adelaide’s RRAF Edinburgh air base.

The helicopter was able to land back at base with just one engine, but the incident triggered the grounding of the Taipan fleet.

The fleet was again grounded in 2019 in order to fix the tail rotor blades, before about half the fleet were again shuttered in 2020.

The helicopters were grounded again that year because of an issue with some sliding cabin door rails which were deemed unserviceable.

The following year, Defence revealed it was spending $37 million to hire private helicopters due to low availability of Taipans.

The Morrison government announced in late-2021 that it was finally dumping the European-backed Taipans for the US-made Black Hawks.

Following the 2022 election, the Albanese government agreed to spend an estimated $2.8 billion acquiring 40 Black Hawks from US.

The move reflects not only a move away from the Taipans, but the greater geopolitical shift under the newly-minted AUKUS pact.

The United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom announced in 2021 they would enter into the new security and military partnership.

The deal will see the three governments working more closely together on a range of defence matters, including production and procurement.

The Taipans are developed by an Australian company backed by the manufacturing branch of French aero giant Airbus.

The Australian government infamously drew the ire of Élysée Palace in 2022 when it cancelled the French submarine deal.

The Black Hawks, whose use in the US Military has been longstanding, are manufactured by a branch of US weapons giant Lockheed Martin.

The purchase will also bring an early end to the Taipan program which prior to the 2022 Black Hawk deal was due to end in 2037.

For now, it is unclear whether the 47-strong Taipan fleet will again be grounded following Saturday’s air disaster.

Australia’s worst peacetime military disasters

The crash is only the latest in a number of serious peacetime military incidents, which included:

Townsville helicopter crash, June 12, 1996

Australia’s worst military accident in more than three decades shocked the Queensland community of Townsville in mid-1994.

As many as 18 soldiers and aircrew based out of Perth were killed when two Black Hawk helicopters collided on June 12.

Of those killed, 15 were from the SAS and a further three were from the RAAF’s 5th Aviation Regiment.

Corporals Dominic Boyle, Gregory Kirkham, and Gary Proctor all received the Star of Courage for their actions after the crash.

Another 10 officers received a range of other distinctions, including medals bravery and Defence Force Commendation.

Port Moresby airplane crash, August 28, 1972

More than two decades earlier, 25 Army cadets ranging in age from 16 to 18 were killed after their plane crashed in Papua New Guinea.

The cadets, along with 25 Papuans, were killed after the Air Force Caribou A4-233 crashed on its way to Port Moresby from Lae on August 28.

In an August 2022 article, the ADF wrote that the men had been considering a career in the military prior to the horror crash.

The students had been attendance of the De La Salle Secondary School and Popondetta High School in Papua New Guinea.

Three RAAF aviators and an Australian Army liaison officer were also killed in the crash.

HMAS Voyager collision, February 10, 1964

More than 80 people were killed when the HMAS Voyager collided with aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne off Jervis Bay.

The HMAS Voyager had been given the task of “plane guard” while the HMAS Melbourne carried out night-time exercises.

About 8.40pm, the HMAS Melbourne changed course to “chase the wind” to enable flight and signalled to the HMAS Voyager.

For unknown reasons, the HMAS Voyager turned in front of the HMAS Melbourne causing the HMAS Melbourne to slice it in two.

Two Royal Commissions failed to determine the exact cause of the incident, which is widely considered Australia’s worst peacetime accident.

More recent incidents, 2020-2022

A number of smaller, more recent incidents involving Australian military personnel have resulted in fatalities and grievous injuries.

In January 2020, a EC-120Q large air tanker was conducting bushfire operations near Cooma in the NSW Snowy Mountains when it crashed.

Three aircrew were tragically killed in the collision amid widespread firefighting efforts battling the Black Summer bushfires.

In August 2021 a further two defence personnel were killed when their vehicle rolled over near Dotswood in North Queensland.

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