"Sorry guys, we're dead."
Captain David Burke offered this apology to his crew as the Black Hawk helicopter he was piloting, callsign Black 2, pitched forward and began a sickening flat spin. In one quarter of one second, his helicopter's tail boom, tail rotor and port fuel tank had been shredded by the rotor blades of Black 1, another helicopter in the formation, resulting in a fiery mid-air explosion.
Both Black Hawks were part of a group of six helicopters from the army's 5th Aviation Regiment, which on the night of June 12, 1996 were participating in an anti-terrorism exercise at the High Range training area near Townsville.
Four of the Black Hawks, including Black 1 and Black 2, were flying in close formation and carrying members of the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS). To make the exercise as realistic as possible, all the helicopters had their lights extinguished and were being flown using night vision goggles, and all weapons were loaded with live ammunition.
Contemplating Captain Burke's grim announcement, Black 2's Lefthand Loadmaster, Sergeant Bill Mark, had time to think to himself "don't quit on us now!" Captain Burke certainly did not. He landed what was left of their crippled, burning helicopter hard, but upright. The fire burning in the helicopter's severed tail boom then began spreading forward into the cabin.
Black 2's situation was dire. Black 1's fate was far worse. Drenched in burning aviation fuel with its rotor blades torn off, Black 1 had fallen from the sky, crashed onto its roof and exploded in flames.
Black 4, the helicopter in the rear of the formation, was piloted by Captain Matthew Barker who witnessed the collision unfold literally before his eyes. In a 2016 interview he recalled how after the two helicopters had crashed, and as he was landing his own Black Hawk, all the SAS soldiers he was carrying had already jumped to the ground from three to five metres in the air, so determined they were to assist in the rescue.
Similarly, survivors from Black 2 had scrambled from their burning helicopter, with several returning to rescue their comrades.
These efforts were joined by army staff on the ground involved in the exercise. As the two helicopters burned, men were being pulled from the wrecks by their comrades, with live ammunition detonating around them from the heat of the fires.
A triage area was set up at High Range in the headlights of vehicles, where casualties were assessed and loaded onto helicopters to be flown to Townsville. The RAAF control tower at Townsville's airbase closed the city's airspace to all but essential traffic and notified Townsville General Hospital, which activated its plan for dealing with a large-scale medical emergency.
An area of parkland in the city became a makeshift landing pad for the helicopters, where they were met by emergency services and their injured taken the short distance to hospital. In total 18 men were killed in the disaster, and 12 were seriously injured. Had it not been for the bravery and professionalism of the rescuers and the efficiency of the subsequent evacuation, the death toll would almost certainly have been higher.
The subsequent Board of Inquiry into the disaster was exhaustive, hearing evidence from more than 140 witnesses over a three-month period to ascertain the cause of the accident.
The board determined that no individual or group was to blame. Rather, a chain of events, including deficiencies in planning and communication, made the collision "inevitable". The bravery and professionalism of those at the scene of the disaster was praised in the report, evidenced by the medals that were subsequently awarded to 14 men.
On that night in 1996, a news ticker across the bottom of Townsville television screens told the city that an accident involving at least one helicopter had occurred at High Range. In one of Australia's largest garrison cities, any accident involving the army was everyone's business.
The Australian Defence Force in Townsville is by no means insulated from everyday life. In addition to being husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, serving members are integrated into the life of their local community, with many supplementing their time in uniform with work as children's swim teachers, coaches of school sports teams and innumerable other roles.
Now 25 years on, many Townsville residents still recall the period of despondency following the accident, with one remarking, "It was like this black cloud was hanging over the city for weeks afterwards. Flags around the town were all at half-mast. It was a horrible time."
The memories of the Black Hawk disaster and of the men who died that night still resonate as far away as Canberra. In June 2014 two items were deposited anonymously at the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier, and are now held in the collections of the Australian War Memorial.
They are two wall plaques, one bearing the insignia of the Australian Army's Corps of Aviation, the other the insignia of the SAS. The first has three red poppies secured to it with adhesive tape, the second has 15. We can presume that these were deposited in a private gesture of commemoration for the 18 men who died in the Black Hawk disaster.
They may have been left by a family member who lost someone that night, or a serving member paying tribute to their comrades, or a survivor of the disaster itself. We will probably never know.
But in the year of its 25th anniversary, this disaster remains a sobering reminder of the inherent dangers faced by Australia's armed forces as they train for the unthinkable, the communities who support them, and the terrible price that can be paid when things go wrong.
- David Gist is an independent Canberra-based writer.
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