Following the tragic Blackhawk accident off the coast of Fiji last night, today’s Age carries a detailed story about the helicopter’s “chequered record in Australia.” The Daily Telegraph follows suit, telling readers about the Blackhawk’s “dark history” in Australia.

But Neil James, Executive Director of the Australian Defense Association, says such stories wrongly suggest the Blackhawk is an unreliable and dangerous piece of military equipment.

“People automatically recall the Blackhawk crash in 1996, but that had nothing to do with the helicopter,” James told Crikey. “The Blackhawk is a reasonably crash-worthy helicopter. In a crash south west of Brisbane in 2004, all on board walked away but the wreckage was terrible. People are quick to blame the platform, which in the case of this incident is premature. The fact is, we don’t know what caused it yet.”

James says that the operational record of the Blackhawk is very good. Australia has a lower incident rate with the Blackhawk than other nations using it, such as the US. He cautions that helicopter operations are inherently dangerous and says that any comparison to the 2004 Sea King disaster is unfair.

“The Sea Kings were second generation aircraft approaching retirement age, whereas the Blackhawks are only two thirds of the way through their operational life. These aircraft have done a lot of flying in their 18 years of service, and when you put the incidents involving them into that context, claims that they are inherently unsafe or faulty are easily dismissed.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston has today come out strongly in support of the Blackhawk, telling reporters at a lunchtime press conference that he has “complete confidence” in the helicopter, and that he won’t be grouding the rest of the fleet.

“All aircraft that fly off ships go through a rigorous qualification process and the Blackhawk is very well suited to that process.” According to Houston, the search for the missing soldier continues and the investigation into the incident is “well under way”.

Dr Carlo Kopp, Research Fellow in Regional Military Strategy at the Monash Asia Institute, agrees that the Blackhawk has a far safer record than reports today suggest. 

“The crash-worthiness of modern assault helicopters is modelled on the Blackhawk. It was huge leap in safety when it came onto the market,” Kopp told Crikey.

“When the US military was looking to replace the Vietnam-era ‘Huey’ helicopter, it wrote an incredibly tight spec on the replacement helicopter. The Blackhawk is the result. One of the main reasons there is such a big argument surrounding the replacement of the Blackhawk is that they are so robust and have so many supporters.”

Kopp adds: “In the end, someone is going to have to convene an objective board of inquiry to find out what caused it. The Blackhawk will be a part of that inquiry, but ultimately the cause of incident will not be known until the inquiry is completed. Inexpert media speculation about what caused it is unhelpful.”

Not least to the families of the dead or injured soldiers.

Peter Fray

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