Two elite defence force personnel have sustained minor injuries after an army helicopter ditched into the water during routine counterterrorism training near Jervis Bay on the NSW south coast.
- All 10 personnel on board the Australian Army MRH-90 Taipan multi-role helicopter were recovered from the water
- The Chief of Army says the quick response helped avoid a “potential tragedy”
- The training is on pause and the fleet is grounded while the cause is investigated
All 10 personnel on board the Australian Army MRH-90 Taipan multi-role helicopter were recovered from the water on Wednesday night and assessed at the HMAS Creswell naval academy, the Department of Defence said.
The Chief of Army Lieutenant General Simon Stuart said the incident had the potential to end in “tragedy”.
“Quick responses from ADF personnel and emergency services and well-drilled teams prevented a potential tragedy,” Chief Stuart said.
“We will conduct a thorough investigation into this incident to determine the cause and ensure the platform remains safe to operate.”
Defence Minister Richard Marles said the two injuries involved one person hitting their head and another taking on sea water.
“They’re being looked after and essentially people have been able to get out of this without any serious injury,” he said.
“That represents an incredible achievement on the part of the crew — this was a textbook response to a loss of power.”
Elite personnel involved
The Royal Military College at Duntroon had been carrying out military training around Jervis Bay for the past two weeks, and Mr Marles said that elite personnel were on board the helicopter when it crashed. The ABC understands many were wearing and carrying heavy equipment at the time of the crash.
“It’s part of routine exercises, which is done by the Tactical Assault Group East. There were both Navy clearance divers and Army Special Forces on board,” Mr Marles said.
“We should be thankful for the professionalism of the men and women of our Defence Force. In this instance, they responded to a pretty terrifying situation and in the midst of a crisis managed to act in a way which has kept everyone alive.”
Witnesses reportedly heard a “big flash, a big bang, and a bit of fire on top of the chopper” before the helicopter ditched.
Shoalhaven resident Col Evans, who was camping at a popular nearby campsite Green Patch, said he watched the military carrying out exercises in the area last night.
“We were sitting around the campfire, and we actually saw choppers coming overhead and half a dozen guys dangling from ropes from the chopper obviously carrying out an exercise,” he said.
“They were only about treetop height, so they were really, really close.”
Mr Evans said his wife discovered the downed helicopter early this morning.
“My wife came down to the beach to walk around 7am and said, ‘Come on down to the beach. This thing has been beached.'”
The incident site was being contained by the Australian Federal Police and port services personnel.
The training activity has been temporarily paused as a precaution and the MRH-90 Taipan fleet will be grounded while the cause of the incident is investigated, defence said in a statement.
“At this time defence’s priority is supporting the ADF members involved in the incident and their families,” the department said.
An ACT police spokeswoman said they were assisting the defence-led response to the incident in a support role after receiving a call at 9:10pm.
NSW Ambulance also responded to the incident.
Taipans plagued with problems
The MRH-90 Taipan has been plagued with issues since the Howard government ordered 46 of the European-designed helicopters in the mid-2000s.
In 2015, the Defence Department acknowledged there were problems with the MRH-90 Taipans.
The then-new army and navy helicopters had been proving difficult to start and stop in strong winds.
Earlier this year, the federal government announced that the Taipans would be phased out in 2024 — 13 years ahead of the intended end of the project.
Defence grounded some or all of the fleet in 2019, 2020 and 2021 due to safety and maintenance concerns.
At a press conference, Major General Stephen Jobson would not be drawn on where exactly the chopper went down, how high it was flying, whether it went under water, or the cause of the crash.
Major General Jobson also refused to comment on the future of the MRH-90 Taipan helicopters, saying it was too soon to speculate.
“It’s important we ensure that we refrain from speculations and focus on supporting the team that is going to undertake the investigation and point us into the direction to ensure that we can safely operate this aircraft system into the future,” he said.
He said this particular exercise would be paused until the safety investigation by the Defence Flight Safety Bureau had been completed.
“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 these current exercises,” he said.
He said the chopper was likely to remain on the beach while it was examined by engineers with the Defence Flight Safety Bureau.
“The Defence Flying Safety Bureau and the engineering assessment that is being undertaken will determine how long we will see the aircraft remain in its present position towards being recovered,” he said.
The helicopter is resting in shallow water at Iluka Beach near Green Patch Campground.
Major General Jobson said the ADF was mitigating risks to the environment from the helicopter, and was working to remove it.
“Defence takes its obligations to the environment very seriously, and right from the outset has ensured environmental protections have been in place to mitigate any effects on the local environment,” he said.
“Further to that there is an engineering assessment being undertaken that will both look at the environmental aspects and the recovery of the aircraft.”