Specialist navy divers will be deployed in the search for four Australian Defence Force members feared dead after their helicopter went down in waters off Queensland’s Whitsunday Islands.
The search for the MRH-90 Taipan, that went down while conducting joint military exercises as part of Operation Talisman Sabre, will resume on Sunday with when additional ships arrive with sonar equipment.
Emergency search and rescue personnel located debris consistent with a helicopter part was found near the crash site but would not confirm it was from the missing Taipan.
The aircraft crashed at about 10:30pm on Friday.
Talisman Sabre Exercise Director Brigadier Damian Hill confirmed on Saturday the missing crewmen were from the 6th Aviation Richmond Unit based at the Holsworthy Army barracks in Sydney.
He said their families had been informed of the accident.
Brigadier Hill said the water is “quite deep” in the area being searched and the arrival of HMAS Huon on Sunday would assist with the search for the missing crewmen.
“HMAS Huon has some of our more experienced divers should we need to look under the water for wreckage as the search and rescue continues,” he said.
An exclusion zone spanning 1000m has been established where the debris was found. The retrieval operation will focus on a site in the middle of the Whitsunday Passage between North and South Molle Islands.
It is understood all debris is being delivered to nearby warship Brisbane.
Speaking on Saturday morning, Defence Minister Richard Marles said the second chopper that had been flying with the Taipan immediately began a search and rescue operation when it noticed things were amiss.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese shared a tribute on social media to the families of the four who are missing.
“Our first thoughts are with the loved ones of the missing,” the Prime Minister said in a joint statement.
“All Australians hold them in our hearts and we hold onto hope as the search and rescue teams go about their work right now.
“We have the utmost confidence in their professionalism and skill.”
Defence minister Richard Marles addressed media on Saturday morning, confirming the four aircrew are yet to be found.
“We desperately hope for better news during the course of the day,” he said.
“The search and rescue continues.
“Our hopes and thoughts are very much with the aircrew and their families, our hopes are with the search and rescue crews as they go about their work right now.”
Brigadier Damian Hill invited the exercise participants to pause and let their families know what is happening.
“I’ll be available throughout the day (and) in the coming days as excise director to provide updates as they become known to us to ensure that everybody is aware of what we’re doing to look after our people,” he said.
What is Exercise Talisman Sabre?
The chopper was taking part in Exercise Talisman Sabre, which has been paused in light of the accident.
According to the Australian Army, the MRH-90 Taipan aircraft is one of the “most advanced tactical troop transport helicopters of the 21st century.”
The ADF currently has 47 of the choppers – which can reach maximum speeds of 300km per hour – through the Advanced Helicopter Program for Australia.
The MRH-90 also reportedly has the “highest crashworthy standards”.
It comes only a week after Talisman Sabre commenced, with the deputy prime minister kicked off the exercise in an opening ceremony in Canberra.
“It is a privilege to officially open Talisman Sabre 2023 and welcome all participating nations,” Mr Marles said on July 21.
Talisman Sabre, is the ADF’s biggest training exercise, involving more than 31,000 soldiers, marines, sailors and pilots from across 13 countries.
US Marines and Australian soldiers have been conducting exercises together in the Whitsundays as part of Talisman Sabre.
Australian and US forces have been joined by officers from Canada, Fiji, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, the UK, France and Germany.