There is no chance the four crew members of an Australian army helicopter that hit the water with a “catastrophic impact” survived, according to officials.
The crash occurred during a multi-national military exercise off Linderman Island on Friday night.
Australia’s fleet of more than 40 of the MRH-90 Taipan helicopters, made by French Airbus, have been grounded since the crash until investigators determine what caused the tragedy.
The government announced in January it plans to replace them with 40 US Black Hawks.
The Taipans’ retirement date of December 2024 would be 13 years earlier than Australia had initially planned.
Defence Minister Richard Marles said the search and rescue effort changed on Monday to a victim recovery operation with no chance that Captain Danniel Lyon, Lieutenant Maxwell Nugent, Warrant Officer Joseph Laycock or Corporal Alexander Naggs had survived.
“There was a catastrophic incident and with every passing hour, it is now clear that any hope of finding (the four crew) alive has been lost,” Marles told reporters.
The helicopter crashed during a nighttime exercise with the United States and other nations near the Whitsunday Islands on the Great Barrier Reef.
Marles had said the helicopter “ditched,” which refers to an emergency landing.
But on Monday he would not rule our pilot error or disorientation in the dark causing the crash into the water. He urged against speculation about potential causes.
“There was a catastrophic impact on the helicopter when it hit the water,” Marles said.
“We will move through the process of putting the Black Hawks into service as quickly as we can … and we will not be flying MRH90s until we understand what has happened,” Marles added.
The lost Taipan had been taking part in Talisman Sabre, a biennial US-Australian military exercise that is largely based in Queensland state.
This year’s exercise involves 13 nations and more than 30,000 military personnel.
The exercise was continuing on Monday with some changes near the recovery operation, Australian Defence Force Chief General Angus Campbell said.
Campbell thanked the United States and Canada for their help in the search and recovery efforts, which he said was “not an easy operation.”
The wreckage lay in the path of strong currents and tidal movements. It was too deep for standard diving operations.
Part of the airframe had been retrieved by Monday, but most of the helicopter remained on the seabed, Campbell said.
It was the second emergency involving an Australian Taipan since March.
The fleet was grounded after one ditched into the sea off the New South Wales state coast near the naval base at Jervis Bay during a nighttime counterterrorism training exercise.
All ten passengers and crew members were rescued.
Retired Major General Fergus McLachlan was involved in integrating the Taipan into the Australian army when they arrived in 2007 and had been responsible for keeping them airworthy. He said the Taipan did not have the proven record of the Lockheed Martin-designed Black Hawks.
“We bought into an unproven system. In real terms, it was a developmental aircraft and it has never really matured,” McLachlan told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
“It was always a battle to maintain it and keep it flying,” McLachlan added.