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Australian Blackhawk Down


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Australian Blackhawk Down

THE crash of an Australian Black Hawk helicopter as it attempted to land on HMAS Kanimbla, killing the 35-year-old pilot, is likely to have been caught on videotape.

Any footage will be crucial to the investigation as the helicopter, which hit the deck before tumbling overboard, sank in very deep water, making recovery unlikely.

Defence sources say it is standard procedure for ship helicopter landings and takeoffs to be recorded as an instruction aid for pilots.

The army Black Hawk, with a crew of four and six passengers, was lost in waters off Fiji as it attempted to land on the landing ship Kanimbla.

Nine of the 10 were rescued as the helicopter sank but the pilot and father of one, Captain Mark Bingley, died of his injuries, while seven received slight injuries.

Capt Bingley, originally from Tasmania, was a member of the Townsville-based 171 Aviation Squadron and is survived by his wife and young son.

A member of the Perth-based Special Air Service Regiment, is still missing despite an extensive air and sea search through the night using hi-tech infra-red sensors.

Late today Prime Minister John Howard said hopes were fading for the soldier.

"The search goes on for the missing trooper. We are hoping and praying it might be successful but it has been some time since the accident occurred," he said.

Defence head Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston said the search would continue until there was no longer hope.

He would not confirm if a recording of the accident existed.

"Essentially we are looking for any photographic or other evidence that might be available to us," he said.

"If we have anything like that, I want to stress to you right away, that will be treated like any other evidentiary material. It will be secured and it will be used exclusively by the accident investigation team."

He said any recovery of the helicopter from the seabed would be "challenging".

The seven injured personnel and the pilot's body are now en route for Noumea aboard the frigate HMAS Newcastle. From there an RAAF C-130 Hercules will bring them back to Australia, arriving tomorrow night.

At the time of the accident, Kanimbla was off Fiji as part of the Australian task group standing by to evacuate Australian and other nationals if there is a coup by the Fijian military.

A survivor of the 1996 Black Hawk disaster in north Queensland says yesterday's fatal helicopter crash off Fiji would have been a terrifying ordeal for those on board.

Former SAS soldier Gerard Bampton said it would have been tough for the soldiers not to panic after the helicopter crashed in water while trying to land on the Kanimbla.

"Unlike when you hit land, when you hit water, you then start to think, as well, with all the gear that you're wearing and carrying plus with safety restraints and all of that stuff in the aircraft," he said on ABC Radio.

"You've then got to worry about A, getting yourself out, and B, getting the rest of your team members out and getting to the surface of the water."

This was the second major accident involving Black Hawks in a decade. On June 12, 1996 two Black Hawks collided and crashed in flames during a special forces training exercise outside Townsville.

Eighteen personnel died, 15 of them SASR members engaged in a counter terrorist exercise.

Air Chief Marshal Houston, himself a Black Hawk pilot with just under 500 hours flying experience, defended the Black Hawk as providing outstanding service at home and abroad since it entered service 18 years ago.

He said Black Hawks were flown by 25 countries and Australia's Black Hawk accident rate was below the world average.

"We have strong confidence in the protection and survivability it provides for our crews," he said.

For some, the accident resurrected sad memories of the Navy Sea King helicopter crash on Nias Island, Indonesia, in April last year in which nine died.

"I just felt sick – another helicopter crash," said Canberra woman Laura Ryan, whose partner Paul Kimlin was pilot of that ill-fated aircraft.
Get well soon to the injured, my thoughts are with the families of the pilot & the SAS trooper who remain "missing"