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Four Australian army aircrew dead after helicopter crash during wargames with US

Four Australian defense personnel are missing in the water off the east coast of Australia after they were forced to ditch their Taipan helicopter in the sea during wargame drills late on July 28. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

SYDNEY (CNN) — Four Australian army aircrew members who were aboard a helicopter that crashed into the sea on Friday have now been declared dead, according to Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles on Monday.

Efforts to rescue Captain Danniel Lyon, Lieutenant Maxwell Nugent, Warrant Officer Class Two Joseph Laycock and Corporal Alexander Naggs have now turned to an effort to recover their bodies.

“The loss of these four men is as significant and meaningful as the loss of anyone who has worn our nation’s uniform. If it is, as we imagine it to be, they died on Friday night making a difference,” Marles said.

The crew was forced to “ditch” the MRH-90 Taipan helicopter into the sea near Hamilton Island off the east coast of Australia late Friday, during an exercise that was part of joint drills with the United States.

Significant wreckage of the MRH-90 helicopter has now been located, Marles said, indicating the men likely died in the “catastrophic” incident late Friday.

Marles said the “determined recovery effort involving hundreds of defense force personnel” is underway, saying there will be a “full investigation” to understand exactly what happened.

The aircraft “impacted waters” near the Lindeman Island, off the coast of the state of Queensland. A search operation involving both search and rescue aircraft and sea vessels is under way, according to the Australian Defense Ministry.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said “it has been a very difficult weekend for our nation” as he motioned the Australian parliament on Monday to mourn the servicemen who died.

“They were soldiers, and they were sons, husbands, brothers, fathers, friends, and today our deepest sympathies are with the people who love them, and the people that they love,” Albanese said.

He said this “terrible incident has provided a stark reminder that there are no safe or easy days for those who serve in our country’s name.”

The mission was a part of large-scale military drills involving the United States, known as Talisman Sabre. The drills are held every other year, alternating between the two countries, and also often involve other allied forces.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who were both in Australia, spoke of those who went missing in the crash.

“We are thinking of the families, their friends, comrades,” Blinken said. “For everything they’ve been doing to the freedom that we share, and that is what unites us more than anything else and we are stepping up with assistance,” he added.

Austin said it’s “always tough” to encounter accidents in training. “But the reason that we trained to such high standards is so that we can be successful and we can protect lives when we are called to answer any kind of crisis,” he said.

The exercises have been paused to allow all participants “regardless of their nation, to reach out and let their families know what is going on,” Talisman Sabre Exercise Director Brigadier Damien Hill said at the Brisbane press conference.

Friday’s crash is the second time this year the Australian Army has been forced to ditch an MRH-90 Taipan into the sea. Two injuries resulted from the previous incident in March, which was put down to engine failure.

In 2019 the Australian government announced it would retire its entire fleet of Airbus-manufactured Taipans years ahead of schedule, describing the Taipans as a “project of concern for the last decade.”