By Olivia Ireland
An Australian Army helicopter has crashed into Jervis Bay on the NSW South Coast during a late-night counterterrorism training exercise, the Australian Defence Force said.
Ten Defence Force personnel were on board the MRH-90 Taipan helicopter when it made an emergency landing in the water about 9pm on Wednesday. Two people suffered minor injuries.
Michael, a fisherman who saw the incident, told Nine News the crash looked very controlled.
“And then all of a sudden … all hell broke loose and they had choppers flying in, they had two or three other choppers flying in,” he said.
“They had boats coming in and they had this really big navy ship coming in so they were really quick to the scene and everything but yeah, crazy. It was so surreal.”
All 10 personnel on board the aircraft were recovered and were assessed by medical personnel at HMAS Creswell, south of Nowra.
ACT Police assisted the Defence Force in response to the incident.
Speaking on Nine’s Today program, Defence Minister Richard Marles said the main rotor lost power while the helicopter was doing a routine extraction.
“The crew were able to shut down the rotor … in really a textbook fashion and were able to ditch the helicopter in Jervis Bay itself,” he said.
“This was an extremely professional textbook response to obviously a terribly frightening situation.”
The Australian National Audit Office has listed the Taipan as a “project of concern” and in January the government announced the acquisition of 40 UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters to replace the MRH-90 fleet 13 years earlier than planned.
“We’ve had the MRH-90s in the Defence Force for a considerable amount of time … this is a helicopter that we are going to be replacing with Black Hawks,” Marles told Today.
Defence and national security expert Professor John Blaxland from the Australian National University said the Taipans had been “enormously problematic”.
“They have a long track record of being very difficult and very expensive to maintain, with a high rate of being unserviceable,” he said.
“The helicopters for a large chunk of their lives have been spending their time more in maintenance than being available for use.”
In 2019, the entire 47 Taipan helicopter fleet was grounded to fix the tail rotor blades. In 2020, more than half the helicopters were grounded after cabin sliding door rails were deemed unserviceable.
Speaking to media on Thursday morning, Commander of Aviation Command Major-General Stephen Jobson responded to questions about the Taipan’s safety concerns and its history of issues.
“We are undertaking a safety investigation so it’s important that we ensure that we refrain from speculations,” he said.
“Further indication of the professionalism of Defence’s safety management system is the Defence Force Safety Bureau investigation to ensure that we comprehensively understand what has occurred here so that we can restore the aircraft system to safety and continued service.”
While the helicopters will be grounded, Jobson confirmed the region can still expect army exercises to continue.
“This style of training is extremely important to ensure the readiness of Australia’s counterterrorism forces and we can expect these exercises to continue beyond this current exercise,” he said.
Earlier in a media release, Chief of Army Lieutenant-General Simon Stuart thanked emergency responders for their quick action.
“Tonight quick responses from ADF personnel and emergency services and well drilled teams prevented a potential tragedy,” he said.
“We will conduct a thorough investigation into this incident to determine the cause and ensure the platform remains safe to operate.”
As a precaution, the ADF temporarily paused training activity and will ground the MRH-90 Taipan fleet while the cause of the crash is investigated.
The crash site is being contained by Australia Federal Police and port services personnel.
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