One of Black Summer’s heaviest fires was accidentally lit when the crew of a Taipan landed for an unplanned bathroom break.
The news was revealed on the first day of an inquest before the ACT Coroner’s Court looking into how the army helicopter’s searchlight started the fire.
In January 2020, the Orroral Valley bushfire burned 80 percent of Namadgi National Park (827 square km) and a fifth of Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve (14 square km).
On Monday, the investigation heard evidence from the Taipan’s commander, who cannot be named for legal reasons.
A recording was played to the court asking if the crew could land to use the bathroom.
“Are we allowed to land in some of these areas so the boys can get off and piss?” he said.
The Taipan then landed at a remote helipad that was not part of the plans for the day.
The Major then admitted he hadn’t turned off the spotlight, which can be as hot as 550C, and also said he hadn’t known the light would be that hot.
A passenger then said, “Come on, come on. We started a fire. Turn off the searchlight.”
The helicopter then returned to Canberra Airport, making a pan-pan emergency call but, most importantly, not immediately notifying anyone of the fire’s ignition or its location.
Announcing the inquiry last year, ACT Chief Coroner Lorraine Walker said: “It is in the public interest that all relevant matters regarding the cause and origin of the fire – and the actions being taken to address it react – be fully taken into account.
“In light of the reports provided to the Government to date, I intend at this time to limit the investigation to the approximately 45 minutes between the time the fire was started and the subsequent reporting of its location to the ACT ESA. ”
Regardless, the Taipan itself has been grappling with a number of issues and continues to be “scrutinized” by the new federal government.
In September, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) placed a second order for 12 MH-60R Seahawk/Romeo helicopters valued at over US$2.5 billion.
The new aircraft will build on the 24 aircraft acquired between 2013 and 2016 and would bring the total size of the fleet to 36.
In addition to purchasing 12 new Seahawks, the federal government is also considering purchasing 40 Black Hawks to replace its ailing fleet of 47 Taipans.
However, the deal for the Blackhawks is still unconfirmed, with incoming Secretary of Defense Richard Marles arguing the previous federal government’s commitment was “pretty hazy.”
“A process is underway that evaluates this capability in terms of what we have now and what we will need in the future. I will not anticipate that now,” he said, referring to the forthcoming review of the new federal government’s defense strategy.
Last year, the former Morrison government even went so far as to send a letter of formal notice to the United States allowing Australia to buy UH-60M Black Hawks for AU$2.79 billion.