On the evening of 12 June 1996, two Black Hawk helicopters collided mid-air and crashed during a counter-terrorism training exercise near Townsville, killing 18 men. Kate Banville spoke to pilot David Burke who details how he thought he was going to die and the legacy of the crash that stunned Australia.
David Burke remembers that fateful night 25 years ago.
“I said, ‘I'm sorry guys, we're dead’. I was about to die and I knew it.”
It was just after nightfall when Army Black Hawk pilot David Burke was flying in a six-aircraft formation at High Range Training Area near Townsville.
With Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) troopers on board, they were rehearsing one of the most difficult missions: a multi-aircraft assault by night on a terrorist stronghold. It was precision flying.
Four of the helicopters were travelling abreast, 30 metres apart, at 90 knots, when ‘Black 1’ suddenly veered right and its huge rotor blade tore into the tail rotor of the helicopter next to it (‘Black 2’).
The then Captain Burke was flying ‘Black 2’ and within seconds, as 15 soldiers on board started scrambling out, it burst into flames.
Fifteen SASR troopers and three pilots from the Army's 5th Aviation Regiment died. Another 12 were injured.
Colonel Burke remembers it in vivid detail, the sound of ammunition rounds going off in darkness, flames, and explosions in the crashed helicopters which were left to ashes.
“The biggest surprise was not being dead after the dust settled,” he recalls.
“I was trying to control the aircraft and I didn't think that I was going to be able to control it.
“And I said, ‘Sorry guys, we’re dead’. I was calm and peaceful. I was very sad and heartbroken thinking about my wife and family.
“Afterwards, I remember I said ‘life will never be the same, nothing will ever bother me again because I'm not dead.’”
Around Australia flags fluttered at half-mast while a nation was in mourning during the nation’s most catastrophic peacetime disaster in history.
But on the 25th anniversary of an event that shaped the future of Army aviation – and every single person who would don the pale blue beret – Colonel Burke wants closure.
He says the memorial set up in honour of the men was a place he found peace and a chance to reflect on the mates he lost.
“When I'm getting stressed and there's no balance in my life I just come and sit here and remember,” he says.
“Remember my mates and remember what happened. It puts life into perspective.
“These weren't just colleagues – our children played together, we would socialise together, we were part of an extended family and it does seem fitting that it's the end of an era with the Black Hawks retiring and time to accept closure.”
Commanding Officer of the 5th Aviation Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Chris McDougall, has spent his career reflecting on the legacy left by the deadly chopper crash.
“The entire capability has been shaped by this event,” Colonel McDougall says.
“John Berrigan, Kel Hales and Mick Baker are names I know as well as any of the members of the regiment that are there right now.
“When something like this happens you can't just carry on.
“This was an opportunity for us to reflect and to grow and to get better and to set the conditions so that it never happened again. And if we don't do that, then we dishonour their memory.
“They died in the service, and the deaths were not in vain because we're better 25 years later than we were at the time and 25 years from now we'll be better again.”
Kate Banville is a Townsville-based journalist. A seven-year Army veteran, she has been a defence reporter for the Townsville Bulletin and has also worked at WIN News in Townsville and ABC Gold Coast. Connect with her on Twitter: @katebanville