Crashed military chopper has history of safety issues

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The military helicopter involved in a horror crash off the coast of Queensland, leaving four feared dead, has a problematic history with nearly a dozen recorded safety incidents linked to MRH-90 Taipan helicopters.

The helicopter ditched into the water about 10.30pm on Friday off the coast of Hamilton Island while on a two-helicopter mission as part of the Talisman Sabre exercise.

MRH-90 Talisman Sabre exercises were conducted week from RAAF Base Townsville.Credit: Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images

It is the second incident this year, following a crash in Jervis Bay in March during a counterterrorism military training exercise.

That helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing after an engine failure. All ten soldiers on board suffered minor injuries.

Defence Minister Richard Marles confirmed at that time that a decision had been made to replace the helicopters and argued that they had been in use for a “considerable amount of time”.

In 2021, then-defence minister Peter Dutton announced the European-made helicopters would be replaced with new Black Hawks and Seahawks imported from the United States.

“Taipan has been a project of concern for the last decade; it’s had nine instances where it’s been unsuitable to fly,” Dutton said at the time.

The multi-role helicopters, which weigh over six tonnes, were added to the Australian Defence Force fleet in 2007 and have been involved in a raft of other safety incidents.

In 2019, the 47-strong Taipan fleet was grounded after a helicopter was forced to land due to a tail rotor vibration.

The fleet was also limited on certain missions due to problems with the auxiliary power unit that prevented the aircraft from shutting down its main engines.

In 2020, 27 helicopters were grounded after cabin sliding door rails were deemed unserviceable. Officials later revealed the doors were too narrow to allow its gun to fire while troops were descending from the aircraft.

In 2021, Defence revealed it hired civilian helicopters in Townsville to maintain capacity due to long-running issues with the MRH-90, at a cost of over $37 million.

The Australian National Audit Office has listed the Taipan as a “project of concern”. A 2014 report found the MRH-90 Program was “dealing with a range of challenges related to immaturity in the MRH-90 system design and the support system”.

The helicopters needed a range of design reworks to enable them to operate in high-threat environments, leading to costs ballooning to over four times the original $1 billion budgeted, the report found.

Australian Defence Force chief Angus Campbell said the crash was a terrible moment.

“Our focus at the moment is finding our people and supporting their families and the rest of our team,” he said.

Marles said on Saturday morning his hopes were with the efforts of the search and rescue crews. “As we desperately hope for better news during the course of this day, we are reminded about the gravity of the act which comes with wearing our nation’s uniform.”

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