Address to Blackhawk Crash Memorial Service

12 June 2021

I acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we are meeting today, the Bindal and Wulgurukaba people and pay my respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging. I also pay my respects to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women who have contributed to the defence of Australia in times of peace and war.

Minister for Defence, the member for Dickson, the Honourable Peter Dutton.

Member for Herbert, the Honourable Phillip Thompson, OAM, MP.

Survivors of the Blackhawk helicopter accident present here today. Many of you have made an extraordinary effort to be here. Thank you.

I also note that there are many others who wished to attend but, due to a variety of reasons, were unable.

Current and former leaders and members of the 5th Aviation Regiment and the Special Air Service Regiment.

Families and friends, serving personnel, Regimental and ex-Service associations.

Members of the Townsville and Perth communities.

The story of our Army is entwined with that of our nation.

It is a story of service and sacrifice, of fortitude and mateship.

The enduring thread of this story is of people from every corner of our land, coming together in our Army to make a difference.

To ‘serve the nation.’

To do extraordinary things, together.

When something tragic happens, it is felt widely, deeply and across the entire country.

When the two Blackhawk helicopters collided in the Townsville Field Training Area on the evening of 12 June 1996, it shocked our nation and devastated communities everywhere.

18 soldiers and officers were killed in the accident, 15 from the Special Air Service Regiment and three from the 5th Aviation Regiment.

These men were soldiers, but also husbands, fathers, sons and brothers – mates.

Each was their own person, with their own hopes, stories and struggles.

We can never know what their loss meant to those around them.

Each loss, heart rending in its own way.

To the parents, spouses, children and friends who have lived with this loss for 25 years, my deepest and most heartfelt condolences.

In addition to those so tragically killed, many more bear the mental and physical scars.

We cannot lessen their pain.

But we can learn from and be inspired by their example.

The men involved in this accident were committed to a job which is not for everyone. They were good at it, and they died doing what they loved.

Our Army is stronger for those who relentlessly pursue excellence, who seek an edge, who dare to win.

Today, and every day, we recommit ourselves to honouring their legacy.

We will not let their sacrifice be in vain.

We will continue to learn, improve and achieve our mission.

Maintaining the national capability for special recovery operations is as vital now as it was then.

The ability to insert teams by rotary wing in difficult conditions requires composure, skill and precision.

We develop that expertise through training that is relevant, structured and safe.

As an Army we have progressively strengthened our organisation, to be Ready Now and Future Ready.

In 2003, we established the Special Operations Command.

Later this year, we will raise the Army Aviation Command – reflecting the scale and complexity of Army’s growing aviation capabilities.

Lots has changed, and will continue to change.

What does not change is the strength and professionalism of our people.

The people who are our Army, who are our capability edge, who are the foundation of our training and safety culture.

On the night of the accident, our people were extraordinary.

Brave, selfless, desperate, but steadfast and professional.

They assisted injured mates from the burning wreckage of downed aircraft in the darkness and amidst exploding munitions, doing whatever they could.

The aircrews of the 5th Aviation Regiment held their nerve and trusted their systems to evacuate dead and injured to Townsville.

The 14 Australian Bravery Decorations awarded following the accident are a testament to the gallantry and daring demonstrated that night.

In the two regiments, on opposite sides of the country, people steeled themselves against uncertainty, shock and their own grief.

They comforted each other and performed the extraordinarily difficult task of informing families of the loss or injury of their loved ones.

Our people responded, as they always do, with an unflinching determination to do their best, to help their mates and to support the team.

In this determination they were enabled by the strength of their connection to community.

Army treasures our bond with the communities in which we live and work.

We are connected in many ways, through many people and organisations.

On the night of the accident, the people of Townsville and Perth responded in the way that Australians always do; with an open heart, a can do attitude and a desire to help in whatever way they could:

  • Providing the Emergency Response at the accident site.
  • Triaging and treating the injured in Townsville Hospital,
  • Supporting the notification teams and family support in Perth and Townsville;
  • Wrapping Army in an outpouring of love and support.

This support continued in the aftermath of the accident – schools, sporting organisations, ex-service associations and so many others – stood side by side with our people and our families.

And so many of you here today continue to fulfil this vital role. And I thank you.

We are here today to continue to heal.

To remember, reflect and commit to keep moving forward.

The Blackhawk Memorial here in The Palmetum was built and has been maintained through these 25 years by the people of this town.

This memorial symbolises not only the bond between the Army and Townsville, but also between Army and the Australian community.

On this 25th anniversary we give thanks for the service and sacrifice of all those directly and indirectly involved in the Blackhawk helicopter accident.

As the Blackhawk retires from service at the end of this year, its departure marks a new chapter for Army aviation.

A chapter that will be informed by the hard learnt lessons of the past and built on the professionalism of our people.

As we look forward – As we ready ourselves for a challenging future - We never lose sight of where we have come from, what we have sacrificed on the way, of who we are.

We remember the extraordinary people who gave their all, and those who have endured through this journey to make our future possible.

We honour their legacy.

Lest we forget.