Officials ordered to explain lag on Blackhawk deaths report

Defence officials have been ordered to explain to the Prime Minister and Defence Minister why it took almost 16 months to finalise a report into the deaths of three commandos in a Blackhawk crash in Afghanistan.

The Chief of Defence Force, General David Hurley, has already apologised to the victims’ families for the delay. The report, issued yesterday, says privates Timothy Aplin and Scott Palmer were killed instantly when the US Blackhawk they were travelling in crashed into an embankment during a night landing on June 21 last year.

The third commando, Private Benjamin Chuck, suffered multiple injuries and was declared dead shortly after his arrival at the military hospital in Kandahar.

All three were from the Sydney based 2nd Commando Regiment.

Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has taken a personal interest in the case and recently spoke to Private Chuck’s father about the delays. Vice-Chief of the Defence Force, Air Marshal Mark Binskin, said the chopper crew had ”lost situational awareness” and flown into the ground.

Their night vision goggles, the hazy visibility and ”low contrast ground terrain” all contributed to a ”difficult operating environment”. ”The impact caused the helicopter to roll and the fuselage to catch fire,” he said.

The Blackhawk, one of four taking part in a disruption operation against insurgents in the Shah Wali Kot region of Kandahar Province, was carrying 15 people – 10 of whom were Australian.

Overloading had not been a factor.

”As a pilot myself I asked the same question and the answer is ‘definitely not’,” Air Marshal Binskin said.

He was ”100 per cent sure” enemy action had not been a factor. While the investigation had been complex, Defence had to accept responsibility for making the victims’ families wait.

The surviving seven Australian commandos were all badly injured. Only one has returned to duty. Air Marshal Binskin said the response of the men aboard the other three helicopters to what had been a ”horrifying situation” was outstanding.

”Their comrades were trapped inside a burning helicopter calling out for help,” he said.

Some of those involved in the rescue had been recognised for heroism but was unable to provide details because of their special service roles.

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