Government scrambles to secure US helicopters after retiring Taipan fleet

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The federal government is scrambling to speed up the delivery of new army helicopters from the United States after deciding to ground the entire fleet of MRH-90 Taipan helicopters permanently following a fatal crash in the Whitsundays this year.

Defence Minister Richard Marles announced on Friday that the Taipans would not return to flying operations, a move that comes more than a year before their planned withdrawal date of December 2024.

The MRH-90 Taipan helicopter has been plagued by technical difficulties since entering service in 2007.

The permanent grounding of the fleet of 47 Taipans will leave the Defence Force with a capability gap until the full supply of replacement Black Hawk helicopters arrives from the US.

The government said it has been exploring options to accelerate the delivery of Black Hawks to Australia to mitigate the impact on the army’s operations and training.

The troubled helicopters were not expected to fly again following the July crash, which led to the death of four crew members, because of the length of time four separate investigations into the crash would take.

“The MRH-90 has been an important capability for our country and Defence Force, and I recognise the hard work of the hundreds of people who dedicated themselves to acquiring, operating and sustaining the aircraft,” Marles said in a statement.

“The first of the 40 Black Hawks that will replace the MRH-90 have arrived and are already flying in Australia. We are focused on seeing their introduction to service as quickly as possible.

“The government’s highest priority is the safety and wellbeing of our people.”

The July crash – which caused the death of Captain Danniel Lyon, Lieutenant Maxwell Nugent, Warrant Officer Class Two Joseph Laycock and Corporal Alexander Naggs – was Australia’s worst peacetime military accident in almost 20 years.

Speaking earlier on Nine’s Today show, Marles said the decision was “inevitable” in many ways.

“We were planning to retire the Taipans at the end of next year anyway and so there is no world in which we should be flying these helicopters again,” he said.

“Had this tragedy not occurred, there would have been 19 in operation now and that would have gone down to 16 from 1 January.”

The Taipan had already suffered a series of technical issues during its service, before the fatal July crash that occurred during the Talisman Sabre military exercises.

One of the helicopters crashed during late-night exercises in Jervis Bay, on the NSW South Coast, in March, with two of the 10 service members on board suffering minor injuries.

The fleet was also grounded in 2019 because of tail rotor blade issues and was labelled a “project of concern” by the Australian National Audit Office.

Defence is spending an estimated $2.8 billion on the 40 Black Hawk helicopters from the US to replace the Taipan fleet.

The first three Black Hawks arrived in Australia and started flying in September.

The government said in a statement that the Defence Force would continue to operate its CH-47F Chinook, Tiger and MH‑60R Seahawk helicopters.

“Together, these helicopters will continue to provide a robust and ready aviation capability to the Australian people,” the government said.

The government stressed that the announcement to ground the fleet did not presuppose the outcome of the investigations into the cause of the July 28 crash off Lindeman Island, in Queensland.

The inquiries have been hampered by an inability to recover crucial parts of the aircraft from the ocean, with the Defence Flight Safety Bureau investigation expected to take about 12 months to complete.

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