31 July 2023
SUBJECTS: MRH-90 incident.
ANDREW CLENNELL, HOST: Well, let's go back to that terrible military chopper disaster now, and joining me at the desk is the Assistant Minister for Defence and Veterans' Affairs, Matt Thistlethwaite. Thanks so much for your time, what can you tell us about the situation with the chopper crash at the moment?
MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Well, our thoughts and prayers are firstly with the families and friends of the four aviators who are now presumed to have lost their lives. Up until this morning, it was a search and rescue operation, but given the time factor now and the fact that wreckage from the helicopter has been recovered, they've recovered the rotor and they've recovered one of the engines, it's almost impossible that they would have survived, unfortunately. So, it's now very much a recovery operation. We've got members of the Australian Defence Force working in concert with the US defence force and the Canadians and indeed civil air crash investigators that are now combing the site. Some sonar has been used to identify some wreckage in the vicinity and we're now trying to get divers down as quickly as possible to recover the remains of that wreckage. So, very much a recovery operation, but again, thoughts and prayers are with the families.
CLENNELL: And a difficult operation by the sound of things?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Yeah, it's difficult because it's in deep water and the helicopters were operating in the vicinity of Lindeman Island. That was their destination. This chopper crashed into deep water, so we anticipate that it's about 40 metres down, which means that to get a diver down there, you can't use the average diver, they need to be specialist divers and we're using sonar equipment as well to try and locate that. So, it's made all the more difficult by the fact that the weather conditions haven't been favourable either and there are strong currents in the area. So, it's a difficult recovery operation.
CLENNELL: We had David Shoebridge on before. He said why were they put back in service, the Taipan helicopters after March? Why was that?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: So, there was an incident in March in Jervis Bay where the helicopter had to ditch. Thankfully, there were no serious injuries out of that. As a result of that, the use of those helicopters were suspended and a thorough investigation was undertaken. The issues that were identified were rectified and they were put back into operation after those safety concerns were addressed.
CLENNELL: Can you tell us what those issues were?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: I don't really want to go into that at this stage out of respect for the families, because there's still an investigation that will need to occur, and out of respect for the family members I don't think it's appropriate. I'm happy to do it at a later date, but I don't think it's appropriate to do it at the moment. But those safety issues were rectified and I want to stress that these helicopters that flew on the weekend were certified as safe to fly. And I was at Talisman Sabre last week, last Saturday, I flew on a Chinook helicopter out to HMAS Adelaide. I can attest to the safety and the protocols and the procedures that the Australian Defence Force go through. They are top notch before anyone gets in one of these aircraft.
CLENNELL: Is there any belief then that any of these faults that have been found previously from other incidents might be at fault here?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: It's too early to tell. Obviously, there's an investigation that has to be undertaken and we can't speculate on what the outcomes will be of that, but a thorough investigation will be undertaken.
CLENNELL: How long will that take? A year?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: I can't give you an answer to that. What we need to do firstly is recover the wreckage, hopefully recover the bodies of the aviators as well, and then an investigation will occur, and it will be done with Defence acting in concert with the civil aviation safety authorities.
CLENNELL: The fact we were looking to replace the Taipans with the Blackhawks, that in itself says they weren't really top notch, they weren't perhaps even up to scratch, doesn't it?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, obviously, the Defence Force and the Government make decisions about the replacement of capability as it comes up and this capability was coming to the end of its life cycle. We needed to make a decision about capability moving forward. The advice that we received from the Defence Department was that the Blackhawks will be the best option moving forward and that's the acquisition that we'll make from 2024 onwards.
CLENNELL: Could we not have enough choppers in the air from now till 2024? I mean, this is a worst case scenario, but we're looking down the barrel of it, potentially, after the Defence Minister's remarks today, aren't we?
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, we have 47 of the MHR Taipans, and they will obviously be suspended at the moment and those safety investigations will take place, but we do operate other helicopters, I might add. Chinooks, for instance, are very capable and the rest of the fleet is very safe and that will continue to operate.
CLENNELL: Assistant Defence Minister Matt Thistlethwaite, thanks so much for your time.
ASSISTANT MINISTER: Thanks, Andrew.