19 February 2024

The rise and fall of the MRH 90 Taipan – what went wrong?

| Andrew McLaughlin
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army helicopter

In 2017, the MRH 90 was coming good after years of technical and availability issues. Photos: ADF.

In late 2017, I spent a few days visiting the Australian Army’s 5th Aviation Regiment A and B Squadrons, which operated the MRH 90 Taipan helicopter in Townsville.

MRH 90 availability had been an ongoing issue for the ADF since the helicopter entered service in 2007. Despite the MRH 90’s selection, which was partly politically motivated due to Airbus (then Eurocopter) promising to build and sustain the helicopters in Australia, it has been widely reported that the decision was made against the army’s advice, which had recommended new Black Hawks instead, and that there remained a ”Black Hawk mafia” quietly working away within the army to undermine the Taipan throughout its brief service life.

The Taipan wasn’t without fault, but many of its issues were reportedly attributable to difficulties in maintaining configuration management through the more than 40 different sub-variants of the baseline NH 90 helicopter, which is built on six final assembly lines and is in service in Europe and the Middle East.

There were also technical issues with the aircraft’s composite cabin floor, cargo hook, rear ramp, door gun placement and access, and the rappelling hook, and problems with the rotor head in crosswinds aboard the navy’s LHDs.

Delays with deliveries to other customers meant the Australian Army was in effect the global fleet leader for the aircraft, meaning there was little or no global knowledge on how to fix or address many of the aircraft’s technical issues.

army helicopter

The MRH 90 was reportedly expensive to operate compared with other types.

It was also expensive to operate compared with other helicopter types, although such comparisons were not always ”apples with apples”.

The final grounding of the fleet in 2023 followed at least two others that were attributed to a tail rotor delamination in July 2019, and in 2021 certification problems with spare parts because of the inability to integrate Airbus’s and the army’s IT systems.

The delamination reportedly occurred after the army’s delays in conducting a mandated replacement of the component on some of the fleet, and that event was exacerbated because that particular helicopter was en route to transport the Chief of Defence Force from Brisbane out to a navy LHD when it occurred.

READ ALSO Army aviation helicopter training and sustainment gets much-needed boost

At the time of my visit to Townsville, the MRH 90s operated by those units were starting to “come good” after a restructure of the regiment and an injection of additional resources into the sustainment system by Airbus.

The restructure created a more positive culture across the regiment and improved the relationship with Airbus.

During the visit, I interviewed the regiment’s then-commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Kim Gilfillan and the commanders of the flying squadrons, and all were positive not only about the capability the MRH 90 offered, but about the direction in which aircraft availability and reliability were heading.

army helicopter

The decision to retire the MRH 90 early in favour of new UH-60M Black Hawks was announced on the day the army’s old S-70A Black Hawks were retired in December 2021.

“It’s not just the regiment, Airbus is really pitching in too,” Lt Col Gilfillan told me. “They’re not quite where they need to be yet, but they’re travelling in the right direction and they’ve provided some positive improvements to our supply chain, which is making a big difference.”

So, what went wrong?

Despite the army suffering two Taipan crashes in 2023 – one of them tragically with the loss of four lives – unverified reports indicate neither has been ultimately attributed to an aircraft fault.

READ ALSO Army’s MRH 90 Taipan helicopters expected to be scrapped and buried despite years of useful life remaining

The ditching in Jervis Bay reportedly occurred because the pilot flying the twin-engine helicopter shut down the wrong engine after the other engine failed, while it has been reported that the aircraft involved in the fatal accident was functional when it hit the water and broke up at high speed.

It was the right decision to ground the fleet after the fatal crash in lieu of preliminary investigations that may well have cleared the Taipan of any mechanical faults within weeks.

While a decision had already been taken in late 2021 to retire the MRH 90 a decade early and replace it with new Black Hawks from 2024, that last grounding further hastened its demise.

military aircraft loading

The wreckage of the crashed Taipan being loaded into an RAAF C-130 to be taken back to Canberra for investigators to study.

By October, a decision to withdraw the fleet from service had been made. But rather than store the aircraft and continue to conduct calendar-based maintenance on them for possible future use in an emergency or so they could be sold or donated to Ukraine, the withdrawal was followed almost immediately by an extraordinary decision to start stripping the airframes of any components of value. This has made it virtually impossible to ever return them to flight.

Whether this coup de grace was administered by the army’s Black Hawk mafia in a bid to rid itself of the Taipan, or by those politicians who had initially labelled the aircraft unsafe after the fatal accident trying to save face after preliminary investigations reportedly showed the aircraft was not to blame – or a combination both – is unclear.

Certainly, if the aircraft had been sold or donated to another operator who operated them successfully, the Australian taxpayer would be justified in questioning why they were retired early and $4 billion was spent on new Black Hawks.

Regardless, it’s a sorry tale.

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liberalsocialist6:39 pm 24 Feb 24

This “Black Hawk Mafia” is purely Airbus’ sour-grapes campaign – there is, nor was, any such thing. Everyone got on with the job of getting these things flying – absolutely everyone.

If anyone thinks Defence runs along the lines where a percentage of people with a personal view can influence an entire capability and a multi-billion dollar investment, you are a fool that is being scammed. Just another Airbus gripe, that we are so sick of hearing about lately (hello Kym Bergman).

We had the highest flying hours in the world. We had the second highest availability in the world. We persisted with it for nearly 15 years…. tell me on what planet this suggests we didn’t put our efforts into it.

Regarding your visit to 5 Avn Regt…. please consider the fact that no one in any Government job is going to simply say “this product is rubbish” and then have any hope of future employment. Of course they played the card. Oh, and that ‘surge’ was by… Airbus! Funnily enough, just before decisions were made on whether it went to 6 Avn Regiment if I remember correctly? And what happened after this decision? Assistance withdrawn or could be kept at even more dollars going into this thing.

One last one – “and continue to conduct calendar-based maintenance on them”… again, sounds like Airbus is upset. Perhaps ask them how much this continued calendar-based maintenance costs each month? Then tell the public how much Defence was spending on something we knew at that time would never enter service again “just in case”.

This ‘Blackhawk Mafia’ needs to be identified and eliminated. There is no place for Defence employees who undermine the decisions of a democratically elected government, even if they were that dopey coalition mob.
Also, the current situation should have been avoided. Either the Taipans should have been stored and maintained to provide a reserve capability – a concept totally foreign to our ADF on the materiel side of things – or they should have been donated to Ukraine.

liberalsocialist6:43 pm 24 Feb 24

There is no such Mafia. 15 years of bloody hard slog by a massive workforce which led to world-best number of hours flown and second in the world (to NZ’s 4 they keep flying) clearly says so. Or perhaps if we dragged our feet, then it’s evident the rest of the world dragged them even more.

Tell me – what’s the cost of keeping this platform in-service per month? Have a guess – then multiply it by dozens. And we were never going to fly it again, nor could we keep our crews current… So let me get this straight -> you want Defence to pay hundreds of millions just to keep a helicopter fleet ‘serviceable’ without it flying just “in case”?

And this platform would do far more for Ukraine if we handed the burden to Russia, not UKR.

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