Officially, the cause of the ditching of a Taipan helicopter with ten people on board on March 22 is still being investigated.  Unofficially, details have emerged suggesting the cause is likely to be the failure of Army to implement a fleet-wide software fix to the problem, which first emerged in 2010.

The fundamentals of the accident are known – a night flight that was part of a Special Forces training exercise.  While over Jervis Bay the helicopter experienced an engine failure while at low altitude and the pilot carried out what has been called a textbook response, deploying the emergency floatation system, and landing the Taipan on the surface of the sea.  This enabled all on board to evacuate safely.

Engine failure on a Taipan is very rare.  Each helicopter has two RTM322 Rolls Royce Turbomecca powerplants that are in widespread use not only on the 500 members of the Taipan family, but also on Augusta Westland AW101 transport helicopters and the U.K. Apache fleet – amongst others.

As reliable as they are, in April 2010 a Taipan experienced an engine failure while flying near Adelaide.  It was able to return and land at RAAF Base Edinburgh on one engine, but this caused the entire fleet to be grounded for more than three months while an investigation took place.  It transpired that the problem was not with the engine itself but rather around the process of restarting it during a mission.

Helicopter turboshaft engines are not meant to be switched on and off repeatedly during an operation.  Ideally, you power them up at the start and shut them down at the end – and any idling that might be required in between does not use a huge amount of fuel.

Unfortunately, this had not been communicated to Australian Army pilots – or at least not in the 2010 case – and the helicopter had been subjected to a “hot start” a short time before the in-flight failure.  Heat causes metal components to expand at different rates and what had occurred in this case was that moving parts rubbed against each other when they were not meant to, damaging bearings and seals.

This would not have happened if the engines had been allowed to cool down in between missions or if a different process had been followed for their restart, or if they had been running continuously.

By July 2010 the prime contractor Airbus Helicopters and Safran – the corporate parent of the engine – had developed a software fix that would make it impossible for a pilot to incorrectly perform a “hot start.”  The Taipan is a complex helicopter with a modern fly-by-wire flight control system using multiple computers, and having the latest software is a vital ingredient for their performance.

This means that software updates are a regular part of supporting the Taipan fleet – but bizarrely Army only agreed to the engine fix being applied to an initial small number of helicopters, apparently because of concerns about the cost.

Engine failure in flight is an extremely serious event, putting the lives of all on board at risk.  The 2010 software fix should have been applied to all 47 Australian helicopters, irrespective of how much money was involved.  At the very least this should have been done for reasons of commonality – it’s a problem waiting to happen if pilots believe they are flying one version of a helicopter when it turns out that they are at the controls of something different.

It seems highly probable that the Taipan forced to ditch into Jervis Bay had not received the vital software update that should have been installed a decade ago.  It is understood that it underwent just such a “hot start” prior to the ditching.  Thanks to its emergency floatation system not only was everyone able to get out, but the helicopter itself was towed to a beach – to the delight of the media – fuelling more stories about the unreliability of the Taipan fleet, with pictures to match.

The Blackhawk helicopters being purchased to replace them do not have emergency floatation systems and if they ditch, they quickly sink.

Another perversity in the Australian system is that the performance-based logistics contract imposed on Airbus means that Defence makes money every time a helicopter is grounded.  This gives the customer a financial incentive to keep the helicopters on the tarmac because penalties kick in for every flight hour that has been lost.

Combined with inherent problems in Army logistic systems and a failure to retain experienced mechanics, a picture emerges that is completely at odds with the common view that there is something inherently wrong with the helicopters.

This reputational damage has resulted in ridiculous events such as flights being stopped while Army investigated the use of cadmium for the helicopter’s external hook.  Cadmium is a metal in widespread use throughout military and commercial aviation and in solid form poses no risk to humans whatsoever.  Despite this, Army insisted on the construction of a unique cadmium-free hook.

By this and other devices – such as simply not ordering enough spare parts – Army has been able to drive up the cost per flight hour of the Taipan fleet either deliberately or through error to truly astronomical levels.  These inflated costs have provided the justification for retiring the entire fleet about 20 years ahead of schedule.

This is not to say that the Taipans have been trouble free.  They have not been, especially in their early years – but this is quite common with modern, complex platforms.  As APDR has frequently reported, most international customers have been happy with their fleets – though Norway is trying to return theirs, with Sweden and Belgium possibly in the same boat. The majority of users, including France, Germany and Italy have not experienced abnormal difficulties.

Let’s hope that the findings of the current investigation are made public – but don’t hold your breath.  Army has form in this regard – in 2016 Defence organised an independent review into the reliability of the Taipan and Tiger fleets.  Known as the Houston Review, it is believed to have been critical of Army processes because its findings were instantly classified and have been buried ever since.

Only a handful of people have ever seen the document and if Army has their way it will be hidden forever.  It seems that nothing will be allowed to deflect the $11 billion process of replacing Taipan and Tiger with older generation U.S. helicopters.

An outline of this story was provided to Defence more than a week ago in the hope of receiving answers to several questions.  After deadline, the following official response was received:

“The investigation into the MRH90 ditching is ongoing.”

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Kym Bergmann is the editor for Asia Pacific Defence Reporter (APDR) and Defence Review Asia (DRA). He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism and the defence industry. After graduating with honours from the Australian National University, he joined Capital 7 television, holding several positions including foreign news editor and chief political correspondent. During that time he also wrote for Business Review Weekly, undertaking analysis of various defence matters.After two years on the staff of a federal minister, he moved to the defence industry and held senior positions in several companies, including Blohm+Voss, Thales, Celsius and Saab. In 1997 he was one of two Australians selected for the Thomson CSF 'Preparation for Senior Management' MBA course. He has also worked as a consultant for a number of companies including Raytheon, Tenix and others. He has served on the boards of Thomson Sintra Pacific and Saab Pacific.


  1. Regardless of how good a piece or kit is Unless it has a made in the USA sticker on it the powers that be in Canberra will find something wrong it. The Army wanted Blackhawks and Apaches ,no matter how good the Taipan and Tiger were they were determined to find a way to get them.So far we have committed to a Fighter that doesn’t have sufficient range to pose a serious threat, an MBT that is to heavy to be deployed quickly in sufficient numbers to be useful, Mobile Missile launchers dependant on missiles supplied overseas and a Submarine that has a crew twice the size of the ones we’re having trouble crewing . All because,If the USA says they’ll sell them to us we have to have them. It is ludicrous that politics drive the thinking on equipment we purchase. A lot of kit we get from the US is fit for purpose and is very good but time and time again an excellent deal goes in the waste bin because it’s not made in the USA. ( a point in question is the Sth Korean offer of the Chunmoo system ).

    • There also seems to be another outbreak of anti-Australian industry sentiment. This moves in circles and at the moment the Import Everything From The USA faction must be ascendant.

    • Is not a software problem. The hardware should be strongly considered well before software. The software is the fluffy stuff. So glad that it landed safely. They should never go down. We’re the propellant too light weight?

    • Certainly maintenance should have been. I’ve had Army people say that to me until 2018, at which point it became a career limiting move to say anything positive about either Tiger or Taipan.

    • Lol no. Typical salty old Raffie comment.
      The RAAF aren’t super maintainers. They go to the same maintenance school as army and have to comply with the same airworthiness standards.

    • A very good question. I don’t know but I shall ask. I’m guessing the Defence Aviation Safety Authority. It would be very interesting to check their role in Taipan groundings.

  2. How many engine failures have occurred with terrible aircraft?

    Just a quick google search in English found these. I’m sure there are far more!

    Australia – 2010
    Germany – 2014
    NZ – 2017
    Australia – 2023

  3. I question the validity of this so called inside information!

    Until I see the offical report all this noise is just conjecture which does nothing but make up headlines which later on seem to disappear when the true facts are released.

    I see no value Chinese whispers, it’s also find it extremely hard to believe given the money and effort put into this programme by both parties that expensive defence equipment let alone lives would have been put at risk for 13 years!!

    My understanding was that the 2010 issue was to addressed with both software and changed pilot training/operating start up and shut down procedures

    Either revel the source for this so called information and provide real facts or wait like everyone else for an offical report

    This is poor journalism

  4. The MRH 90 is a fantastic aircraft and used well by NZ and other European countries. ARH Tiger the same point can be made.
    There is nothing wrong with the aircraft. The inherent problem is that the Army’s core focus is not and never will be aircraft focused like the RAAF. The RAAF’s core focus is to provide air power everyday of the year which makes any maintenance on aircraft a #1 priority eg software update. Army is soldier first everything else second, understandably. Some of the spare parts problems Australia suffer with is there own doing not signing up to global spares system to save money
    European aircraft are toxic to defence atm maybe Defence (government) are aligning themselves politically more with the USA and moving away from their European counterparts (sub decision)
    The Black Hawk and Apache fleets will be no more serviceable than the current fleet and will have the same challenges.
    The major challenge will be retaining a uniformed maintenance team.

    • If they are such a great aircraft, why are the Germans getting rid of the Tiger, the Swedes, the Norwegians and one or two other users getting rid of the NH90’s? They never performed in the manner the manufacturer claimed and before I get the, “but it’s the marinised NH90’s that the Swedes and Norwegians are dumping”, the fact is they are fundamentally the same aircraft as we have and they never have performed in the manner that the manufacturer claimed. I will agree that the ability to have floatation devices probably saved lives and possibly the chopper (if it has not been destroyed by salt water inundation).

      • I don’t think that correct about them not performing as claimed. So far, 500 have been built and the vast majority of users are satisfied with their NH90s. As I understand it, the Germans aren’t replacing Tigers – they are augmenting them with less expensive H-145Ms for certain missions. The Norwegian NH90 case is unique – they wanted their own dipping sonar and their own lightweight torpedoes, which has been a program management disaster. Sweden is unhappy with theirs – but they decided for unknown reasons that the already roomy cabin (far larger than for a Blackhawk) needed the ceiling raised by another 20 centimetres, or something like that. They are staying with the program for the moment.

        They also have a modern 4-axis flight control system while Blackhawks continue to use mechanical controls of 1970s vintage. The entire commercial world moved to fly-by-wire 30 years ago because the controls are not only cheaper but far more reliable and therefore far safer. This always puzzled me until a knowledgeable insider explained Army’s attitude: “They don’t want a modern fancy SUV, they want to go back to a Holden ute.”

        That’s as good a summary as I have heard – and it’s costing Australian taxpayers $11 billion (Apache + Blackhawk) to keep them happy, without any scrutiny whatsoever.

  5. So go back to a report made 9 years ago!!!

    I’ve worked in manufacturing heavy industry my entire life half of that in management roles and I can tell you no report written 9 years ago will be any use to anything happening today.

    Reports are only good for the time they are written after that they are history out of date straight after they are printed.


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