First published in The Age on May 27, 1997
Honour for 14 heroes, but is one missing?
Another chapter in the Black Hawk tragedy was closed yesterday when 14 soldiers received bravery awards for their actions in the disaster amid questions about whether a surviving pilot should have also been honoured.
The Governor-General, Sir William Deane, presented the awards, which included three Stars of Courage — the highest peacetime military award.
The crash site of the two Black Hawk helicopters near Townsville.Credit:Mike Bowers
But the Opposition Leader and former Labor defence minister, Mr Kim Beazley, said it was surprising that Captain David Burke, who saved lives by skilfully landing his burning and broken helicopter on its wheels, had not been acknowledged for his efforts.
“I was certainly enormously impressed by the courage and the skill of the particular person concerned at the time and I’m sure that most Australians were,” Mr Beazley said.
“I have to say I’m a little surprised. And I’m going to enter into correspondence on the subject.”
But a Defence Department spokesman said Captain Burke had not been recognised because he landed his helicopter, with its tail rotor missing, according to training procedures.
“The Australian Defence Force’s training procedures are designed to produce such good pilots. The medals are not awarded for skilful performance,” he said.
The commemorative service for the victims of the Black Hawk helicopters crashCredit:Mike Bowers
“Captain David Burke was one of a great number who displayed a great deal of courage and bravery. The people awarded yesterday were people who placed their lives at risk to save others.”
Captain Burke’s helicopter collided with a second Black Hawk which had failed to execute a turn during the counter-terrorism exercise.
But the military has not ruled out a commendation for Captain Burke if there are any future bravery awards given to soldiers from the Black Hawk disaster. He could receive an award for conspicuous service.
Eighteen men died when two Black Hawk helicopters from the army’s 5th Aviation regiment collided during the SAS night exercise last June.
Sir William said the award ceremony was an acknowledgement of outstanding bravery in the face of extreme danger.
“This afternoon is … more an occasion for pride than for sorrow as we honour those who responded to the alarming situation in which they found themselves with incredible courage, with selfless concern for the welfare of others,” Sir William said.
Corporal Dominic Boyle was awarded the Star of Courage for, despite a broken arm, making numerous trips into a burning Black Hawk to free the bodies of men trapped inside the aircraft. Corporal Gregory Kirkham also received the Star of Courage for entering the burning wreck of a Black Hawk four times to find survivors.
Mr Gary Proctor, formerly a corporal with the SAS, was the third soldier to receive the Star for assisting the pilots of a burning Black Hawk to escape the flames before re-entering the helicopter to help others to safety.
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