T HE announcement by Australian Defence Force officials that the board of inquiry hearing into the fatal Blackhawk collision at Townsville would be "open and exhaustive'' was welcome.
It is essential that everything become known about this tragedy which claimed the lives of 18 of Australia's finest young soldiers.
That outcome took on an international dimension this week when a similar collision between two Blackhawks at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, resulted in the deaths of six American servicemen.
Unhelpful speculation has already surfaced on what caused the Townsville incident when two of the six helicopters on the night exercise at Fire Support Base Barbara collided.
Already dismissed is the claim that the pilot of one of the
Blackhawks, Captain John Berrigan, 27, was accidentally shot
immediately before the incident.
ADF spokesman Brigadier Adrian D'Hage said the cockpit was armour-backed and the initial medical examination of the dead soldiers did not reveal any bullet wounds.
Those killed included Capt Berrigan, two of his crew, and 11
Special Air Service soldiers on board.
The other helicopter was piloted by Capt David Burke. He and his crew of three survived, but four of the SAS soldiers on board died when the Blackhawk crash-landed and exploded after its tail-rotor had been severed 50m above ground.
Another theory which has been advanced is that the night-vision goggles being used were not suitable, and had been found to be so by military operatives elsewhere, particularly by United States aviators in the Gulf War.
However, that theory has been scotched by one who should know, Mick Reynolds, who is now a pilot with the Capricorn Helicopter Rescue Service.
Mr Reynolds, a former army helicopter pilot with 22 years'
experience, retired from the service in January. His duties included assessing the men and women who flew aircraft including Blackhawks at Townsville.
He said that if there were "one thing the army got right'', it was training with night-vision goggles.
Mr Reynolds explained that looking through the goggles was like watching a black and white television _ except that everything was in varying shades of green. "The limitations of the equipment are all understood and they have procedures to cover it,'' he said.
"Anyone who didn't know anything about these goggles would be surprised just how good they are.''
The collision has raised concern about how close the helicopters fly to each other in various formations.
A military aviation spokesman said the accepted separation at which helicopters hovered differed, depending on the exercise being simulated.
For instance, it could involve counter-terrorism situations where SAS soldiers were required to rappel down a rope on to the roof of a building. That would obviously require the aircraft to work close together.
One aviation spokesman said that in hovering it was usually
accepted that they maintain a rotor diameter (about 20m) clearance.
"It depends on the experience of the pilots, whether it's a day or a night exercise, and just what they are doing _ the specific operation,'' he said.
He said that the Blackhawks were so stable in the hover that even if all the soldiers on board went to one side of the craft to descend by rope, it would not affect the craft's attitude.
He said that the helicopters had auto-pilot, although when
manoeuvring to dispatch troops, they would be piloted manually.
They do not contain a "black box'' voice recorder of the type which commercial airliners are compelled by law to carry and which gives the pilot's version of events leading up to any incident.
The spokesman said that the pilot flew the aircraft and his co-pilot monitored all other issues including navigation and radio, and actually gave instructions on where
to fly, speed and altitude.
"One pilot basically flies the aircraft, looks outside to get references and the other does the monitoring and radio,'' he said.
"If, for instance, one has goggle failure _ the batteries go flat _ they get the aircraft up high and sort out how they will return (to the formation or target).
"One would keep goggles on and they would go home on instruments and use procedural methods to fly _ get to a certain altitude which guarantees you are clear of the ground.
"Could this accident at Townsville have been caused by mechanical failure? Of course it could. Could it have been a control system failure _ something actually breaking and software or pilot's control affected that made the aircraft
do what it did?
"It is impossible to say. The surviving crewman in the one craft could well have heard the pilots call what was happening.''
The spokesman said the fact that the army did not ground the rest of the Blackhawk fleet indicated clearly that it was convinced there was no systemic problem with the aircraft that could have been duplicated in others.
He said that if there had been even a suspicion, the whole fleet would have been grounded.
The golden rule in regard to separation distance between
helicopters was to ""be close or far away, not in between''.
"If you are close, you are alert. If you get far away, you
sometimes get slack and relax. According to reports, this aircraft apparently veered and rolled or something. If he had not rolled, his clearance would have been satisfactory.
"Remember, there has never been a "mid-air' in the history of the Army Aviation Corps. I will be surprised if any inquiry discovers that tip clearances were insufficient.''
The army owes it to the widows and families of the dead and injured soldiers to find out what caused the tragedy at Fire Support Base Barbara.
And it needs to find the cause so that this disaster is not
repeated and that the men and women in the defence forces have the assurance that they have the best training available, in the safest possible environment.
Questions will also be asked about the numbers of Blackhawks used in the exercises in Townsville, and the (actual) rank of the captains in charge.
Were some expected to "double up'' as captains and do other tasks as well? And, importantly, it must be established that the training and competence demands on the soldiers and air crew by the army hierarchy are within reasonable parameters.