The potentially ‘catastrophic’ reason choppers were grounded
Defence insiders have made explosive claims surrounding the "defunct" Taipan helicopters, for the first time revealing the reason why the entire fleet was grounded in 2019.
In July 2019 a Taipan was en route to pick up Chief of Defence Force General Angus Campbell and was flying off the coast of Shoalwater Bay when it had a critical malfunction and had to return to HMAS Adelaide.
An investigation was launched into the malfunction and the entire MRH-90 Taipan fleet was forced to undergo repair to the tail rotor.
The revelation comes as the Australian Defence Force (ADF) confirms to the Bulletin it's seeking to source an interim fix in response to the ongoing issues with the MRH-90 Taipan.
The Taipan was introduced into the navy and army in 2004 as a future replacement for the Black Hawk helicopter that is expected to be phased out by 2022.
Last week a Senate Estimates hearing was told there had been several issues with the Taipan, including a safety and protection issue that did not allow for the helicopter's mounted gun to be fired, while troops rappelled from the chopper.
Defence sources told the Bulletin the availability of parts to maintain the Taipan had become a serious issue, due to the high number of flight hours being put on the aircraft.
The source also revealed the incident in 2019 could have been "catastrophic".
A Defence spokesman confirmed the incident happened on July 11, 2019, which led to the grounding of all Taipans until an investigation was complete.
The spokesman said the fleet returned to service in December 2019 after all tail rotor hubs on the helicopters were replaced.
"Two MRH-90 helicopters were en route from HMAS Adelaide off Shoalwater Bay in Queensland for a task with the Chief of the Defence Force," the Defence spokesman said.
"While flying, a vibration was felt on one of the helicopters, which then returned to the ship as a precaution. The eventual problem was a tail rotor malfunction.
"Defence's MRH-90 fleet subsequently underwent a precautionary cessation of operations pending an investigation.
"All tail rotor hubs on the MRH-90s were then replaced with a simple modification to return the fleet to flying operations from 19 August 2019 - with the whole fleet completed in December 2019."
Speaking to the Townsville Bulletin on the grounds of anonymity, two army aviation members said the ADF had "downplayed" the seriousness of why one of the Taipans made a "precautionary" landing in 2019. The ADF source said the result could have been "catastrophic" and was through "sheer luck" that it didn't end in a loss of aircraft and loss of life.
"The 'precautionary landing' almost resulted in the loss of a tail rotor blade over water when it was on its way to pick up General Campbell," the ADF insider said.
"The damage was caused by the blade slamming into the hub.
"If that web had broken through, the blade would have let go and the aircraft would have crashed into the ocean off Shoalwater Bay."
He said there was no particular person at fault, but rather a reflection of how Defence was managing the aircraft and the fact there are a designated amount of spare parts per helicopter.
"When they pinpointed the part that was failing, you know how catastrophic that could have been, but no one explicitly mentioned it," the insider said.
"It took a very long time for them (Taipans) to return to flying because every single aircraft needed some maintenance.
"I still don't believe they've got all aircraft flying just due to spare part availability."
The ADF source said this was one of "myriad of issues" with the multi-role helicopter since Defence began its acquisition for the army and navy in 2004.
It's understood the navy will withdraw from using the Taipan over a lack of spare parts availability. The ADF source said it was "ultimately a lack of foresight and future planning" by policy makers which meant the aircraft would no longer be used.
"Unfortunately the way army has introduced it has made it very convoluted and it's a hard aircraft to manage," he said.
"It was sold off prematurely in its life and that was done as a cost-saving method, but its been to our detriment, because we are burning through spare parts faster than what's allocated to the aircraft.
"MRH is still a trial aircraft and not supported enough for the flight hours expected of an immature platform."
The Defence spokesman confirmed under Plan Corella a tender is expected to be released shortly to lease three rotary wing aircraft and to provide training for the Townsville based 5 Aviation Regiment (5 Avn Regt).
"Plan Corella does not intend to replace the MRH-90 Taipan but to provide additional aircraft in 5 Avn Regt to support aircrew currency and flight experience," the ADF spokesman said.
"Availability of MRH-90 at 5 Avn Regt has necessitated this approach."
The Defence spokesman said the MRH-90 Taipan, which was bought to replace the Black Hawks, has remained on defence's "Project of Concern" list since November 2011.
"The Black Hawk will be withdrawn from service in 2022," the ADF spokesman said. "This will not be extended and the MRH-90 is the replacement for Black Hawk."
The Taipan's shortfalls were brought into question during a Senate Estimates hearing recently where it was revealed a third round of work was being carried out on the fleet that was bought from Airbus for $3.8 billion. A point of major contention was the inability for the army's MRH-90 gunfire while troops descended from the aircraft due to the narrow door frame.
Head of helicopter capability and sustainment for Defence Shane Fairweather told the committee the problems were due to the width of the door, not the gun mount design.
The Chief of Army Lieutenant General Rick Burr said "tactical workarounds" were in place.
Senate Estimates was also told the cargo hook on the navy's MRH-90s had been an "ongoing problem".