VCDF Speech - Release of the IO Report into the Death of Privates Timothy Aplin, Benjamin Chuck and Scott Palmer
14 October 2011
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, today I am releasing the Inquiry Officer's report into the helicopter crash that killed Private Tim Aplin, Private Ben Chuck and Private Scott Palmer.
Australia lost three of its finest soldiers in the Black Hawk helicopter crash on 21 June 2010.
Privates Tim Aplin, Ben Chuck and Scott Palmer were regarded as exceptional members of the Sydney based 2nd Commando Regiment. Private Aplin was known as a level headed soldier at the top of his game following previous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. At home he was a dedicated father and husband. Private Chuck was on his third deployment to Afghanistan. Renowned for his pursuit of excellence, Private Chuck was a warrior and a qualified Patrol Medic. Private Palmer was admired for his dedication to hard work and his knack for making a bad situation bearable. He was also on his third tour of Afghanistan.
I would like to begin by acknowledging the time it has taken to publicly release this report. Defence sincerely regrets this delay and we apologise for the angst this has caused the soldiers' family and friends.
A number of contributing factors led to the delay in releasing this report. An inquiry into a fatality requires careful consideration and the inquiry report has also required extensive and ongoing consultation with the United States Government. However, it is clear that insufficient resources and priority have been afforded to processing of the inquiry reports. Our action in this instance does not typify the manner in which we strive to provide care and support to the families of those Australians who are killed in action.
The Minister has directed that Defence provide a full and detailed explanation of the delays to him and the Prime Minister and to provide advice on steps Defence is taking to ensure delays like this do not occur in the future. This we are doing.
The Chief of the Defence Force has apologised to the families for the delay in releasing the inquiry report and I echo his regret for the additional distress this has caused the families of the three commandos killed in the accident.
Over 20 and 21 June 2010, Afghan and Coalition Forces including an element of Australia's Special Operations Task Group were conducting a disruption operation against the Insurgents.
In the early hours of the morning on day two of the operation, four US UH60 Black Hawk helicopters were transporting personnel into the Shah Wali Kot region of Kandahar Province. During the final approach to the landing zone, one of the helicopters carrying 10 Australian soldiers and US personnel crashed into a slight embankment in open desert terrain. The impact caused the helicopter to roll and the fuselage to catch fire.
The three remaining Black Hawks responded immediately, landing close to the crash site to provide initial medical assistance and security around the area. This rapid response provided by Australian and US personnel to treat and evacuate their wounded colleagues meant they were transferred to the Medical Facility at Kandahar within 45 minutes of the crash.
As a result of the crash, Privates Aplin and Palmer were killed instantly along with one US serviceman. Eight Australians were wounded, including Private Chuck who was pronounced dead from his wounds shortly after arrival at the Role 3 Medical Facility. A civilian interpreter contracted to provide assistance to the Australians and three US servicemen were also wounded.
To summarise: Private Aplin died of multiple injuries as a result of the helicopter crash. His injuries were not survivable and it is likely he died instantly; Private Chuck died of multiple wounds as a result of the helicopter crash. His injuries were not survivable and Private Palmer died of catastrophic multiple injuries as a result of the helicopter crash. His injuries were not survivable and he died instantly.
An Australian Inquiry Officer was appointed on 25 June 2010 to examine the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Private Aplin, Private Chuck and Private Palmer. In addition to this inquiry, US authorities also conducted two investigations into the Black Hawk helicopter crash - one to determine the cause of the crash and the other to examine any air worthiness issues.
The US investigation found that the mission on 21 June 2010 was planned and conducted within all US Directives and standard operating procedures. The report states that all US air crew members had flown a similar mission the night prior to the accident. The crew determined that, for this mission, flying at an initial enroute altitude would reduce the aircrew's workload and mitigate any risk due to any reduced visibility.
The US investigation found that the primary cause of this helicopter crash was a lack of aircrew coordination during the approach to the designated landing zone that led to what we refer to as "Controlled Flight Into Terrain" or CFIT. For those who have not heard this term before, CFIT occurs when an airworthy aircraft is flown unintentionally into terrain, obstacles or water – usually, with no prior awareness by the crew. In the case of this accident, the crew lost situational awareness of their rate of descent and impacted the ground with little or no prior warning. The US investigation found that there were no internal calls from anyone within the aircraft or flight indicating the change in altitude or intended actions. Although the flight profile was in accordance with the operational brief prior to the mission, communicating any change to the heading and altitude assists with crew situational awareness and alerts every aircrew member in the formation to changes in flight profile. Only one US crewmember questioned the low altitude, and this was just prior to impact.
The findings indicate:
- That all US crew members had extensive experience flying with night vision goggles, as well as in a combat environment;
- That environmental conditions did not directly contribute to the accident, however, low illumination, hazy visibility and low contrasting ground terrain contributed to a difficult and challenging operating environment; and
- That no enemy fire or threat was observed, nor were any distress calls made prior to the crash.
The investigation also found there were no mechanical, aircraft power or serviceability issues identified.
The Australian Inquiry Officer made six recommendations which were considered by the Chief of the Defence Force. The recommendations were all related to post-accident matters and not the accident itself. The Inquiry Officer recommended that:
- Australian Defence Force Investigative Service review Disaster Victim Identification training and capability requirement to support Mortuary Affairs operations in Middle East Area of Operations;
- Mortuary Affairs training be reviewed to support designated Mortuary Affairs operations;
- A Disaster Victim Identification capability be explored to support HQ JTF633 in the event of a mass casualty situation; and
- A review of casualty reporting procedure is conducted to ascertain if there is scope for development of a multiple casualty reporting procedure in order to reduce time and administrative burden on staff.
Defence has accepted the four recommendations related to improving training and capability support for Disaster Victim Identification, mortuary affairs training and reviewing casualty reporting procedures. The Australian Defence Force Investigative Service is conducting a review into Mortuary Affairs. Its findings and observations will be reviewed with Joint Health Command and Joint Operations Command prior to finalising the Report.
I would like to point out that these recommendations are about building on and improving Defence’s mortuary affairs and victim identification processes. There were no issues, and I repeat, no issues related to the positive identification of the three soldiers at the time of the helicopter crash.
One recommendation was outside the Terms of Reference for the Inquiry and relates to the possible recognition of actions after the accident. For this reason this recommendation has been redacted from the report. However I can tell you that this recommendation is a matter for the Operational Chain of Command to consider.
The final recommendation, which was agreed to by the Minister for Defence, is that the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry into this incident is not warranted.
As I said earlier, seven other Australian commandos were also onboard the helicopter when it crashed and were wounded in action. The ADF continues to provide medical treatment for six of these men who are undergoing rehabilitation while one soldier has now returned to work full time.
The Australian Inquiry Officer found that there was also no evidence of any Australian personnel failing in the performance of their duties; that the operation was properly authorised and there were no ADF training, procedural or equipment deficiencies or issues that contributed to the incident and I would like to take this opportunity to commend the Australian and United States personnel who responded to this incident for their courage and professionalism in extremely difficult, dangerous and chaotic circumstances. These men were confronted with a horrifying situation - with their comrades, many of whom were still trapped inside the burning helicopter, calling out for help. There is no doubt their actions in the minutes immediately after the crash saved lives. In particular the Inquiry Report notes that there was a heroic and genuine attempt to resuscitate Private Chuck, but his injuries were not survivable.
Earlier this week Defence conducted a briefing for the families of Privates Aplin, Chuck and Palmer to explain the findings in detail. We have also provided family members and the seven commandos who were injured in this incident with a redacted copy of the Australian Inquiry Officer's report. The report is redacted in order to protect tactics, techniques and procedures used by our Special Forces, information about flight profiles used by US air crew and information relating to the privacy of the individuals involved in this incident.
On behalf of the Defence Community, I offer my deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Private Aplin, Private Chuck and Private Palmer. These three men were highly rated among their peers and they will always be recognised with the Australian Army's most elite and experienced soldiers. Their contribution to our mission in Afghanistan and their sacrifice will not be forgotten.
A copy of the redacted Australian Inquiry Officer’s report will be made available on the Defence website following this media conference.
Finally, as you would be aware there are a number of inquiry reports from 2010 that have not yet been released. Defence is working to finalise these matters. We anticipate redacted Inquiry reports will be released publicly once the Minister and the families of the deceased members have been consulted and it would not be appropriate for me to go into details regarding the status of each report before the families of these soldiers have been briefed. However it is important to note that the timing for releasing an inquiry report will vary depending on the complexity of the incident, the number of people involved and the number of incidents being investigated.
I’ll now take your questions.
QUESTION: Where you mentioned the redacted section, you appeared to be suggesting that somebody had been recommended for a medal for heroism for rescuing people. Is that correct?
MARK BINSKIN: I believe a number of people have already been recognised but their names have been protected because of the service that they provide.
QUESTION: And can you tell us were the delays caused at the American end of things or in Australia - the delays in releasing the report?
MARK BINSKIN: Delays in releasing - it was a complex investigation. It required us to participate in the American investigation. We had someone from Australia in the American accident investigation. Then there was - it took a little while to get the report back from the US. And then we needed a redacted version of that report.
But, at the end of the day, this department didn't give it the priority or the focus that was required and there was a delay in the department that we're working to address, and I've spoken to the families about that.
QUESTION: Sorry, just one more. There's been a suggestion or a claim that the aircraft was overloaded. Is there any truth in that?
MARK BINSKIN: No, as a pilot I asked the same question, and talked to our investigators. In fact, this was a later model Black Hawk than we fly; it's got more powerful engines. So they looked into that and, no, it wasn't overloaded.
QUESTION: Just a question about how it actually happened in more detail. How is it that the ground does kind of approach so quickly in a helicopter like that? Is there not a warning system or an alarm that goes off? How does that happen?
MARK BINSKIN: I don't think anyone will ever know exactly what happened in the cockpit but it's clear from the American report that there was a loss of situational awareness from the air crew, not only in the aeroplane itself but the rest of the formation.
It can h… you're on night vision goggles, your vision is reduced slightly, but people train for that. But what had happened was they had - as I understand it, they turned from having a mountainous background to having just a flat background as they were starting to descend into the landing zone, and they didn't - they just didn't maintain situational awareness so the aircraft has hit the ground.
QUESTION: There's - you also said you don't believe, or there is no evidence, that there was any attack from Taliban or anyone else. Can you be 100 per cent sure about that, ever?
MARK BINSKIN: I can be 100 per cent sure. It wasn't due to enemy action.
QUESTION: You said that of the seven Australian - seven other Australian commandos who were injured, one has since returned to duty. Do you think that the other six will return to full duties?
MARK BINSKIN: We'll continue the rehabilitation and when they're ready to continue with duties if they can, then they'll be cleared to come back in. But that's an issue for army headquarters to work. But we put every effort that we can into the full rehabilitation of our people; we look after them well.
QUESTION: Just in terms of the Australians aboard the other three choppers, can you give us a breakdown of the numbers - Australian, US troops - or anything like that?
MARK BINSKIN: No, I can't because of operational means. But I will - operational reasons. But I will tell you they reacted very, very quickly. And if you think about it, they just watched their comrades crash yet they reacted in a controlled manner, reacted to the site, and what they did helped save Australian lives.
QUESTION: Was there a possibility the other helicopters could have crashed in the same way?
MARK BINSKIN: I'd be speculating, Brendan.
QUESTION: When you say - I think you said before that some of the men involved in the rescue had already been recognised, can you tell us how they've been recognised, what medals or recognitions they've received?
MARK BINSKIN: No, I don't have the specific details. That's - I don't have the exact details. That would be through the normal honours and awards system.
QUESTION: And can you tell us why you've - there's a review of mortuary affairs, if we found that there was no problems with DVA disaster victim identification procedures or with mortuary situations as it stands?
MARK BINSKIN: Yeah, I can. These - I mentioned to you before these reports are complex and take a lot of time to get the facts together, and look at what happened.
Just as important for these reports is to get any potential lessons that we can improve on in the future. And this was an area that wasn't an issue in this particular one but, as the investigator went through and looked at it, thought that we needed to put a bit more emphasis in those particular areas in case something happened in the future. And that was really what it was. We're looking for lessons learned out of this, not just lessons identified.
QUESTION: So there were shortcomings that he found in mortuary affairs or?
MARK BINSKIN: No. It was a way of improving on the system that we have; doing things better.
Defence Media Operations 02 6127 1999