Thursday, August 16, 2007
Choppers have been banned from using an $8 million helicopter flight deck fitted to the the navy's biggest ship. The 37,000-tonne fleet oiler and replenishment ship HMAS Sirius, a converted Korean-built tanker, can carry more than 20,000 tonnes of fuel including volatile aviation fuel. The ship has a crew of 60 but in an emergency a helicopter would only be able to land and take off if the vessel was fully laden and in calm seas, with little or no wind. In any other conditions, it would be too dangerous to land on the ship. The Sirius last year replaced HMAS Westralia as the navy's biggest replenishment ship. She was previously a Greek-owned double-skinned oil tanker named Delos. Bought for about $60 million, it underwent a $70 million refit by the ship builder Tenix. It included construction of a "helicopter landing facility" which was second on the list of five "important requirements" for the ship. "Desirable requirements", later dropped, included a helicopter hangar and maintenance facility. The navy also conducted trials to establish the feasibility of landing on the ship but detailed analysis has only just started.
HMAS Sirius and HMAS Toowoomba conducting a Replenishment at sea.According to Kim Gillis, the head of systems with the Defence Material Organisation, airflow analysis by Murdoch University revealed problems with helicopter operations even before the refit. Mr Gillis said if the vessel was unloaded or there was any movement, helicopters would be restricted to lowering cargo to the flight deck. Such operations are too risky above the forward part of the ship where the fuel is stored. Mr Gillis said plans to have a helicopter attached to the ship were never seriously considered. The landing deck was engineered to carry all Australian military helicopters except the twin-rotor Chinook. Early graphic images of the Sirius on Defence websites featured a Sea King helicopter parked on the landing deck. Opposition defence spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon described the landing deck issue as an "incredible bungle". "Unfortunately, bungles such as this are typical of the Howard Government's record on Defence procurement, where lessons aren't learnt and the expensive mistakes just keep coming," he said.