One of the Black Summer’s most serious fires was accidentally ignited while the crew of a Taipan landed for an unplanned toilet break.
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The news was revealed during the first day of an inquest at the ACT’s coroner’s court that examined how the Army helicopter’s searchlight started the blaze.
In January 2020, the Orroral Valley bushfire burned through 80 per cent of Namadgi National Park (827 square kilometres) and one-fifth of Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve (14 square kilometres).
On Monday, the inquest heard evidence from the man in command of the Taipan, who cannot be named for legal reasons.
The court was played a recording asking if the crew could land to use the bathroom.
“Are we authorised to land in some of these areas for the guys to get out and have a piss?” he said.
The Taipan then touched down on a remote helipad that did not form part of the plans for the day.
The major then admitted he didn’t turn off the spotlight, which can be as hot as 550 degrees, and also said he didn’t know the light would be that hot.
One passenger then said, “Come up, come up. We’ve started a fire. Turn the searchlight off.”
The helicopter then returned to Canberra Airport, made a pan-pan distress call, but crucially did not immediately notify anyone of the fire being ignited or its location.
Speaking last year at the announcement of the inquiry, ACT Chief Coroner Lorraine Walker said, “It is in the public interest that all relevant matters concerning the cause and origin of the fire — and the actions taken to respond to it — are fully considered.
“In light of reports which have been provided to government to date, it is my intention at the present time that the inquiry is limited to the approximately 45 minutes between the ignition of the fire and the subsequent communication of its location to the ACT ESA.”
Separately, the Taipan itself has faced a string of problems and remains “under review” by the new federal government.
In September, the Royal Australian Navy placed a second order for 12 MH-60R Seahawk/Romeo helicopters in a deal tipped to be worth over $2.5 billion.
The new aircraft will build on the 24 acquired between 2013–16 and would take the total size of the fleet to 36.
Alongside the purchase of 12 new Seahawks, the federal government is also mulling a purchase of 40 Black Hawks to help replace its troubled fleet of 47 Taipans.
The deal for the Black Hawks, however, is still unconfirmed, with new Defence Minister Richard Marles arguing the commitment from the previous federal government was “pretty fuzzy”.
“A process is underway that is evaluating that capability in terms of what we have now and what we need in the future. I’m not going to pre-empt it now,” he said, referencing the new federal government’s upcoming Defence Strategic Review.
Last year, the former Morrison government went as far as to send a letter of request to the United States so Australia could purchase UH-60M Black Hawks for AU$2.79 billion.