The Hon Ian McLachlan AO MP
Minister for Defence
Outcome of the Board of Inquiry
into the Black Hawk Training Accident of 12 June
6 March 1997
Mr Speaker, I seek leave of the House to make a statement
on the Report of the Board of Inquiry on a Training
Accident at the High Range Training Area, Townsville,
on 12 June 1996 and to table a Report by the Chief of
Army on that accident.
Honourable Members will recall the sadness and dismay
with which the nation heard the news of the accident
at the High Range Training Area near Townsville shortly
after dusk on 12 June 1996.
The accident occurred during an exercise to practise
the recovery of Australian citizens held hostage by
Six Black Hawk helicopters and 24 aircrew from the
5th Aviation Regiment and 43 soldiers of the Special
Air Service were conducting a live-fire airmobile
assault on a simulated terrorist position.
As the formation reached the target zone, two helicopters
collided. The lead helicopter crashed to the ground
upside down and was consumed by fire. The second helicopter
entered a flat spin before crash landing in an upright
position. It too was destroyed by fire.
Eighteen Australian servicemen perished and a further
12 were injured - some critically. Equipment worth
$37 million was destroyed.
There were heroic acts in the face of this terrible
accident. The reaction at the crash scene was cool
headed, courageous and swift. Despite the confusion
of the collision and the crash and the danger of flames
and exploding ammunition, those at the scene acted
quickly and decisively to evacuate the injured.
I am advised that the Army will be proposing a number
of awards to recognise brave and conspicuous service
in the immediate aftermath of the accident.
The professional response of local ADF units, the
Queensland Emergency Service, the Queensland Police
and staff at Townsville General Hospital undoubtedly
saved further lives.
The Defence Department acted swiftly to ensure that
the injured survivors and the families of those who
lost their lives were paid such compensation and provided
with as much ancillary support as existing legislation
allowed. This was done as quickly as was possible.
I know from letters which have been sent to me that
the sensitive assistance of family support bodies
and the overwhelming support of the Australian community
were of great comfort to the families of the victims,
to their comrades and to those close to them.
This was the largest peacetime disaster to strike
our armed forces since the Voyager collision of 1964.
Nevertheless, the training activities which so unfortunately
culminated in this accident are essential to our national
security. This is particularly true with just three
years remaining before the Sydney Olympic Games.
Training for counter terrorism operations is inherently
dangerous. It takes our forces to the cutting edge
of capability. It demands degrees of speed, stealth,
precision, accuracy and lethality beyond those required
of any other element of the Army.
But such training also demands a careful balance
between safety and realism. This can only be achieved
through meticulous military preparation and planning
and the execution of a staged progression of training
which reflects the difficulty and danger of the task
to be achieved.
This need to balance safety and realism is at the
heart of the report which I will table today.
Following the accident, the Chief of Army, Lieutenant
General John Sanderson appointed a military Board
of Inquiry. The Board was required to establish the
primary and contributory causes of the accident and
to make recommendations to prevent another tragedy.
While it was also to make recommendations in relation
to possible disciplinary action, the Board was not
constituted as a court and had no powers or authority
to make findings in relation to offences under the
Defence Force Discipline Act.
With the exception of matters concerning national
security, the Inquiry was open to the public. The
survivors and the next of kin and families of those
who lost their lives were provided Commonwealth funding
to attend the hearings and received legal representation
The Board of Inquiry was extensive and thorough.
It conducted hearings in Perth, Townsville and Sydney
over a period of three months. It took evidence from
144 witnesses, accepted 215 written exhibits and considered
numerous instructions, correspondence and statements.
The Board's Report, which was submitted to the Chief
of Army on 20 December last year, reflects this thoroughness.
It comprises more than seven thousand pages in seventeen
Since submission to the Chief of Army, the Board's
finding and recommendations have been studied in detail
by technical and legal experts within the Army and
the Department of Defence.
These experts have confirmed the adequacy of the
Board's Report and advised on corrective action to
minimise the probability of further accidents.
These recommendations form the basis of the Chief
of Army's Report which was submitted to me last week.
In his report, General Sanderson addresses the findings
of the Board of Inquiry, the advice of the panel of
experts and, most importantly, the steps to be taken
to reduce the risk of further accidents.
The Board found that the immediate cause of the accident
was that the lead helicopter, Black 1, turned right
and converged on an adjacent helicopter, Black 2.
As a result, Black 1 struck Black 2 with multiple
rotor blade strikes causing both aircraft to crash
and be destroyed by fire.But, as is almost always
the case with accidents of this nature, the events
immediately preceding the accident do not stand in
The Board found that while there was no single reason
for the tragedy, there was a chain of events that
successively and cumulatively led to a situation where
the accident became what the Board describes as the
During the early stages of the Board's proceedings,
there was a good deal of speculation about the causes
of the crash. At that time and until today, the Government
took the position that it would not comment on matters
before the Board.
The findings of the Board clearly dismiss some of
the more widely speculated causes. It found:
The Board identified
16 directly causative and a further 26 contributing
factors. It found a linkage between these factors, although
it did not place a separate weighting on each of them.
no mechanical defects in the Black Hawk
helicopters involved. In fact the aircraft's design
unquestionably prevented a greater death toll;
was not caused by unserviceable night vision
were fired in or at any aircraft which were causal
to the accident, nor was there any ordnance explosion
prior to the collision.
The Board found a number of long term systemic factors
which contributed to the accident. Among them:
clearly affected the experience levels among Black Hawk
crews and prevented them from gaining sufficient flying
experience for special counter terrorism operations.
Hawk aircraft had a high rate of unserviceability
in the two years leading up to the accident.
separation rates over a similar period had further
eroded the bank of experience at the 5th Aviation
More immediate factors arose from the planning, preparation,
rehearsal and conduct of the exercise. Among these:
On their own,
none of these factors directly caused the accident.
But the Board found that as a train of events, they,
in addition to other causes, cumulatively contributed
to a situation where the accident became inevitable.
for the air mission on the night of the accident
was found by the Board to be inadequate.
inadequate information about the objective.
a failure on the part of aircrew adequately to
resolve conflicting understanding of the location
of specific targets.
of the night mission differed from that of the
day mission and there was no rehearsal of those
Lead in Black 1 lacked experience in leading special
The function of the Board was not merely to determine
the cause of the crash, but also to identify areas
for remedial action to reduce the risk of further
accidents. This aspect is of the greatest importance.
The Board made 79 recommendations, many of which
require the Australian Defence Force to implement
and adhere to best practice procedures. These recommendations
will help ensure a safer environment and assist in
preventing a recurrence of the circumstances which
led to this accident.
At the time of the accident, I made clear our determination
that all possible measures were to be taken to ameliorate
risk without compromising capability. Accordingly,
the Chief of Army has developed a plan to implement
the Board's recommendations.
The plan addresses systemic and equipment issues,
and proposes measures to improve command, control
and exercise planning as well as changes to training.
To stem separation rates, the Army is reviewing the
employment and conditions of service of its aircrew.
Measures so far taken include the introduction of
a Pilot Retention Bonus, increasing return of service
obligations and increasing the numbers of trainee
In addition, the Army is ensuring that qualified
flying instructors can be better employed in operational
units by contracting out some of the less demanding
Action has been taken to place all counter terrorism
and special recovery elements within the same command
structure, with all outcomes now being the responsibility
of the Land Commander.
The Army is reviewing the training requirements for
counter terrorism and special recovery operations.
This will establish a training sequence to overcome
the erosion of combined skills which had previously
occurred between biennial special recovery exercises.
New directives will be issued to ensure that the
command and control, planning, intelligence gathering,
orders and briefings, conduct of missions and training
requirements which were recommended by the Board are
specified for future Special Forces operations.
The acquisition of proximity warning devices, improved
night vision goggles and redesigned fast roping and
rappelling devices is being evaluated.
Crash data recorders will be fitted to all Army aircraft
as a matter of priority and to Black Hawk helicopters
as a matter of urgency.
I have directed the Chief of Army, as the responsible
commander, to provide me with monthly reports on the
progress of the implementation plan and on the status
and safety of counter terrorism training.
In addition, I have asked the Chief of the Defence
Force, General John Baker, to establish an overarching
Defence Force Flying Safety Authority, under the Chief
of Air Force.
This authority will be responsible for the supervision
of all flying safety issues for the Defence Force,
regardless of the Service operating individual types
I turn now to the issue of whether disciplinary action
is to be taken against any individual.
In accordance with its Terms of Reference, the Board
recommended that disciplinary action be considered
against five members in relation to negligence, deficiencies
in the exercise of command and errors of judgement.
The Chief of Army has considered these recommendations
and has taken advice from the Army's Legal Branch.
As a result of advice to him, the Chief of Army has
referred the Board's Report and the legal advice to
the Land Commander Australia, whom he has appointed
as a Convening Authority, to consider whether or not
to prefer charges under the Defence Force Discipline
Act against three persons.
In addition, the Chief of Army has decided to take
administrative action against two other personnel.
Until the matters of military discipline are properly
determined by the Convening Authority, it would be
quite inappropriate to disclose the names or appointments
of any persons facing administrative action or referred
to the Convening Authority, or to disclose details
of offences which might be pursued against individuals.
For this reason, some of the findings and recommendations
which could lead to possible disciplinary action have
been expunged from the Report which I will table today.
It is the responsibility of the Convening Authority
to decide whether military charges are to be laid.
I expect the Chief of Army to announce the decision
of the Convening Authority within a month.
I can inform the House, however, that as a result
of requests for advice by the Department, separate
advice has been received from the Queensland and Commonwealth
Directors of Public Prosecutions that, based on the
Board's Report, no criminal charges would arise from
Mr Speaker, for some time the Government has been
considering the issue of the adequacy of the compensation
and rehabilitation benefits available to members of
Military service is distinctly different from civilian
employment. It often involves considerably more dangerous
activities which may result in severe injury or death.
It therefore warrants distinct rehabilitation and
The need for a review of military compensation was
brought into sharper focus by the Black Hawk accident.
In particular, it has become quite clear that parts
of the existing peacetime compensation and rehabilitation
scheme for ADF personnel are inappropriate.
Consequently, the Minister for Defence Industry,
Science and Personnel ordered a review of existing
rehabilitation and compensation arrangements for military
The review was to investigate compensation arrangements
for military personnel including the adequacy of the
lump sum payments, ancillary benefits and supporting
services for dependants of deceased personnel.
It was to also examine the different entitlements
that accrue to members of the ADF for death or severe
injury suffered during peacetime service under the
Veterans' Entitlements Act or the Military Compensation
Scheme as well as the administrative arrangements
involved when members are covered by both schemes.
This review is to report to Mrs Bishop very shortly
and will be subject to consideration by Cabinet.
Nothing we can do will fully compensate for the loss
of those 18 Australian servicemen. All of us have
been affected by this tragedy. But I hope some consolation
can be found in the knowledge that those who perished
did so in the service of their country.
The Australian Defence Force has set in train sound,
logical and decisive steps to ensure that counter
terrorism and special recovery operations can be conducted
for the protection of all Australians.
The training and preparation of our counter terrorism
forces will continue to be as demanding and realistic
as is safely possible. We must maintain our cutting
edge capability in counter terrorism operations.
Those lost in this terrible accident would have expected
nothing less of us.
Mr Speaker, I present a copy of my Ministerial Statement
and a copy of a Report by the Chief of Army on a Training
Accident at High Range Training Area, Townsville on
12 June 1996.