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Investigation into fatal army helicopter crash

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A Taipan Army helicopter that crashed off the coast of Queensland, killing four servicemen, had gained altitude before plunging nose-first into the water, an independent inquiry has heard.

The MRH-90 Taipan helicopter crashed near Lindeman Island, near the Whitsundays, during a night training exercise on July 28 last year, killing all four soldiers on board.

They were Captain Danniel Lyon, Lieutenant Maxwell Nugent, Warrant Officer Class 2 Joseph Laycock and Corporal Alexander Naggs.

The Inspector General of the Australian Defense Force (ADF) has appointed former judge Margaret McMurdo to lead the independent investigation into the fatal training accident.

On Tuesday, the first day of the public hearing into the fatal accident began with a minute of silence for each of the four police officers killed.

The families of the four police officers broke down in tears during the emotional start of the proceedings.

Judge McMurdo will be supported by Air Vice Marshal Joe Iervasi and Colonel Jens Streit at the public hearing which began on Tuesday at the Brisbane Convention Centre.

The MRH-90 Taipan helicopter was being used for night training as part of Exercise Talisman Saber before it crashed.

The investigation found that the defense training operation consisted of four MRH-90s flying in formation to Lindeman Island as part of an organized exercise to bring together ADF personnel.

Col. Streit said all four helicopters changed their flight plans to avoid weather conditions the night of the crash.

He said the crashed Taipan, given its call sign Bushman 83, was observed by the helicopter flying directly behind it in formation to increase its climb before suddenly descending “rapidly towards the water” .

The inquest heard that the fourth helicopter that saw this unfold, the Bushman 84, had radioed the Bushman 83 to “up, up, up” before those on board saw the Bushman 83 hit the water high speed.

Hundreds of ADF and emergency service personnel spent three months searching the waters around the Whitsunday coast for the helicopter.

In a statement released on November 9 last year, the ADF said “all wreckage and practical remains” of the helicopter had been recovered.

The MRH-90 Taipans, which were due to be retired by the Albanian government in December 2024, were grounded last September after the shocking crash.

Air Vice Marshal Iervasi said the job can be “dangerous at times”, revealing he has lost friends during defense operations.

“I’ve had a few near misses myself where a major incident was avoided by a few seconds or a few feet,” he said.

“I have witnessed the impact these deaths have had on my friends, family and colleagues.

“When something happens, it’s up to the people involved to speak out.”

Lt. Col. Tony Cameron, commander and chief instructor of the Army Aviation School, said at the hearing that training aviation officers on the MRH-90 could take six to nine months at the facility based in Oakey, Queensland.

Lieutenant Colonel Cameron told the inquest that he had known Captain Lyon, Warrant Officer Laycock and Lieutenant Nugent in some capacity during his role. He didn’t know Corporal Naggs.

But it was his personal connection with Warrant Officer Laycock, with whom he had flown in the same unit commanding the Black Hawks for around nine years, that led him to regard the late officer as one of the finest members of crew he had ever met.

“He was one of, if not the most, professional and had the superior aircrews we had,” Lt. Col. Cameron said.

Lt. Col. Cameron said officers go through four “phases” of training before obtaining MRH-90 training.

The inquest heard that the Defense Aviation Safety Authority (DASA) published new regulations in February 2023 relating to night vision devices, lighting capabilities and weather emergency plans.

“We had to write new rules to comply with aviation regulations,” Lt. Col. Cameron said.

“Then there were more restrictive rules until the result of the accident investigation was made public.

“These rules are currently being reviewed and an external investigation is underway into them.”

Lieutenant Colonel Cameron confirmed that special flight instructions issued by DASA were to impose additional restrictions on certain lighting capabilities and weather conditions.

He added that “proactive measures” were taken in October after the July crash.

Asked by Air Vice Marshal Iervasi about the apparent “eight-month gap before anything changed” between when DASA ordered new regulations to be adopted and those changes were made, Lieutenant Colonel Cameron said the changes were a “consequence of DASA regulations”.

Asked about the differences between the MRR-90s and previously deployed Black Hawk helicopters, Lt. Col. Cameron said there were many “different camps” of opinions on the two aircraft within military aviation.

“I could generalize, but here some of the older people had an affinity for the Black Hawk, while some of the newer generation who were familiar with the Black Hawk preferred the MRH-90,” he said.

“They both had their pros and cons, but when it came to culture, whether one platform was preferred over the other, there were mixed opinions within the community.

“I had more experience on the old Black Hawk, it was basically an analog helicopter, so I found it easier to fly than the MRH-90, but I didn’t have as much experience on the MRH -90.

“As far as a battlefield helicopter goes, the Black Hawk had a certain advantage and was easier to fly.”

However, Lieutenant Colonel Cameron said there had been “a great loss of confidence in the safety of the aircraft” among members of the “MRH-90 community”.

“There were issues with supply chain maintenance… resulting in them being able to fly at certain times,” he said.

“However… we wouldn’t fly if we weren’t sure about it and if we didn’t manage risk in everything we do.

“As far as trusting the safety of the plane goes, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t trust it.”

Captain Andrew Balaam of the Five Aviation Regiment also gave evidence on Tuesday, explaining his role as a qualified flying instructor for the regiment.

The investigation found that Captain Balaam was one of the first two Australian Army officers to learn to fly the MRH-90 in France in 2009.

Captain Balaam said pilots were required to undergo annual training on emergency scenarios, which generally took place every six months depending on the type of training module required.

“In all the scenarios we did, we always used emergency scenarios because they were worst-case scenarios and the simulators allowed us to ensure that safety,” he said.

“We had to do a flight skills assessment every year. Then, on top of that, you had to complete annual simulated emergency training.

When asked why emergency scenarios are important training tools, Captain Balaam responded that human error must always be taken into account since “humans are not designed to fly.” .

He explained that he had also not experienced any “arrogant captains” during his time in the regiment.

“I think the days of these arrogant captains are over,” Captain Balaam said.

“It’s not something I encountered in this regiment. I have not been informed of this or seen anything that would not tell me otherwise.

The inquest will resume in Brisbane at a later date, which is yet to be determined.

Read related topics:Brisbane

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