Defence insiders claim the Australian Army’s Taipan helicopters are “no longer safe to fly”, revealing “potentially catastrophic” maintenance issues behind their suspension.
The MRH-90 Taipan fleet is used to transport troops and provide fire protection during special operations and counter-terrorism missions. But the entire fleet has been out of action and grounded since the beginning of June.
Australia’s defence department confirmed an investigation has been launched into the reasons behind the maintenance faults, suspending 47 helicopters from flying as a “precaution”.
“Defence has temporarily suspended flying operations of the MRH-90 helicopter fleet,” a defence spokesman said.
“The fleet was suspended as a safety precaution. The issue relates to the application of the helicopter’s maintenance policy in the helicopter’s IT support system.
“Defence and Airbus Australia Pacific are currently working collaboratively to remediate this issue.”
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Speaking to news.com.au on the grounds of anonymity, multiple MRH-90 trained aviators claimed the cause of data mismatches was far worse than a software glitch.
“The aircraft transmission is required to undergo a complete overhaul on every second major servicing,” an insider said.
“That is meant to occur by Airbus in France but there is a global transmissions shortage so they’ve been rotating spare parts and refitting them as zero hours.
“That means there are aircraft flying as if they’re brand new which is a huge issue because there’s no accurate way of ensuring its safety.
“Obviously Defence isn’t getting what they paid for, but a main transmission failure is potentially catastrophic.”
MRH-90 Taipan helicopters no longer being used
A Defence spokesman confirmed members of Townsville-based 5 Aviation Regiment were no longer expected to be flying the MRH-90 Taipan in Australia’s largest bilateral war games with the US, after also missing out on this week’s Exercise Sea Explorer.
The spokesman said army and navy aviation would “continue to support their exercise and operational commitments with Tiger, Chinook, Black Hawk and Sea Hawk helicopters”.
The latest incident comes as defence officials concede a fault found in one of the helicopters in 2019 amid serious concerns about the tail rotor blades – when it was on its way to pick up the Australian Defence Force chief, Angus Campbell – could have led to “catastrophic consequences” if left unfixed.
A spokesperson for Airbus Helicopters said it is working closely with Australia to resolve the situation and end the suspension as soon as possible. They said the integrity and safety of the MRH-90 fleet and the members of the ADF operating them remain their priority.
Taipan brought in to replace Black Hawk
The Taipan was introduced into the army and navy in 2004 as a replacement for the Black Hawk helicopter which was expected to begin being phased out from August this year. The navy has already moved to offload its share of the aircraft to the army due to lack of spare parts availability and running costs.
Defence sources say that was now unlikely given the Sydney-based 6 Aviation Regiment was already experiencing delays in incorporating the Taipan into its dedicated special forces support role.
“Defence has already begun advertising to sell off Black Hawk which are due to be gone by the end of the year so that leaves no troop airlift capability for Special Operations Command,” the source said.
“That has massive implications on our Special Forces to deliver a counter-terrorism capability domestically.”
Previous figures provided by the Defence Department estimates the total cost of the MRH-90 Taipan program will be $15 billion by the time the helicopters are due to be withdrawn from service in 2037, including $3.7 billion for the purchase and $11.3 billion to sustain them.
Defence has also begun flying two Leonardo AW139 helicopters in Townsville after a contract was signed to lease from Helicorp, known as Toll Helicopters, as an interim measure to ensure pilots remain up to date with flight hours.
“The total cost of the contract, until June 30, 2023, is $37 million,” the department said in questions on notice from Senate estimates hearings earlier this year.
Kate Banville is a freelance writer.