As ADM and other media outlets reported last week, Defence has grounded its fleet of 47 (46 operational and one spare) NHI MRH 90 Taipan helicopters, citing IT support system issues.
As a result, stories appeared across the spectrum of the media, with some outlets, quoting anonymous Army Aviators, alleging the helicopters are “no longer safe to fly” following “potentially catastrophic” maintenance issues.
So, why has the fleet been grounded and why has it taken until now to ground them, when they have been flying in ADF service since 2007?
Unfortunately, Defence could not, or would not, provide answers to ADM’s questions, other than providing the same statement it had early provided to other outlets. In full, the statement reads:
“Defence has temporarily suspended flying operations of the MRH 90 fleet. The fleet was suspended as a safety precaution. The issue relates to the application of the helicopter’s maintenance policy in the helicopter’s IT support system.
“Defence and Airbus Australia Pacific are currently working collaboratively to remediate this issue.
“Work continues to end this suspension as soon as possible. Army and Navy aviation will continue to support their exercise and operational commitments with Tiger, Chinook, Blackhawk and Sea Hawk helicopters.”
One of the claims in the media was that, due to a shortage of available spare gearboxes, parts are being ‘robbed’ from helicopters in maintenance to rectify defects with the operational fleet, and released as ‘new items’.
The MRH 90 has three gearboxes: Main Gearbox (MGB), Tail Rotor Gearbox (TGB) and Intermediate Gearbox (IGB) and all are critical to the safety of flight, with their operating hours closely monitored by operators.
So, if these claims are true, the situation is indeed very serious. After receiving the initial statement, ADM asked if Defence could confirm the accuracy of the media reports; if so, why Army’s airworthiness authorities allowed this to happen and whether Defence had confidence in the MRH 90?
In response, a Defence spokesperson said: “At this point in time, Defence has nothing further to add on this topic.”
Airbus Australia Pacific also formally declined to respond.
ADM understands the heart of the issue is actually the computerised maintenance system (CAMM2) used by Army, which is incapable of keeping track of the total number of hours each component has logged when it is moved from one tail number to another. This situation has been recently exacerbated by a shortage of spares, due to a less-than-optimum stockholding in the first place and a slower than promised repair turnaround time by the original equipment manufacturer.
Complicating factors are understood to include: the complexity of the MRH 90 and its maintenance system (it is by far the most complex helicopter Army has ever operated) , compared with legacy designs like the Black Hawk and Chinook; the complexity of the maintenance system – something that Airbus and Defence have been working collaboratively on for some time, as part of the MRH 90 remediation program; a lack of certainty around the procedures applied by each technician as he or she visually inspects a component before re-installing it on another aircraft; and finally, errors in data entry into the CAMM2 system.
However, ADM further understands the vast majority of components treated in this manner are not critical to the safety of flight and the gearboxes themselves are indeed closely monitored, meaning overall risk is relatively low.
The swapping of components between complex aircraft with complex maintenance systems is an everyday and perfectly acceptable occurrence in the commercial aviation world and presumably it is in the world of military aviation too. Computerised maintenance systems are designed to accommodate this, without loss of important data. Also, presumably, this has occurred across all Defence’s aviation platforms (and for many years) and CAMM2 is not a new system. So why has this resulted in a fleetwide grounding only now?
ADM does not know the answer these questions at this point in time, but we welcome any opportunity Defence may offer in the future to help us further understand the issue.
ADM Comment: Unfortunately, this seems to have kicked off something of a smear campaign, similar to one waged against Tiger for many years (see, ‘Who is Killing Tiger?’ ADM July 2018). Without informed comment from Defence, it’s hard to determine if some of the claims in the media are the result of a similar agenda, but either way it is an unwelcome distraction for Army leading up to major exercises.