Four pilots are feared dead after an Australian army helicopter crashed into water off Hamilton Island in Queensland on Friday night, with search and rescue teams discovering aircraft debris.
As the search continues, the Australian Defence Force has announced a temporary pause on the use of MRH90 helicopters as a precaution.
The pilots were taking part in a two-helicopter mission as part of the Talisman Sabre military training drills with the United States military.
At 5pm eastern standard time, the Talisman Sabre Exercise director, Brigadier Damian Hill, said HMAS Brisbane was helping with air surveillance of the area and HMAS Adelaide would arrive to help the search operation on Saturday night.
“The families of the missing personnel have been notified and I would like to reiterate that it is defence’s priority to look after those families, their teammates and those that know them,” Hill said.
“The aircraft accident investigation team will arrive this afternoon and commence an investigation into the incident.”
The military exercise was paused on Saturday morning so personnel could call their families and let them know they were safe. Some exercises resumed later in the day, mostly in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
“As a precaution, the ADF has established an operational pause for all our MRH90 fleet,” Hill said.
Queensland police’s acting assistant commissioner, Douglas McDonald, confirmed helicopter debris had been found by search and rescue teams.
“It appears to be from a helicopter at this stage,” he said. “It’s very early to confirm exactly which part from the helicopter.
“They will form part of the investigation as we move forward into what has occurred up there at this time.
“It remains a search and rescue operation and we have a number of specialist resources in place at the moment working with the ADF.”
The defence minister, Richard Marles, announced the search and rescue operation with “a heavy heart” earlier in the day and paid tribute to the aircrew.
“The families of the four aircrew have been notified of this incident and our hopes and our thoughts are very much with the aircrew and their families,” he said. “Our hopes are very much with the efforts of the search and rescue crews as they go about their work right now.
“These are early days and there will be much more information to be provided about this incident but defence exercises, which are so necessary for the readiness of our defence force, are serious.
“They carry risk and, as we desperately hope for better news during the course of this day, we are reminded about the gravity of the act which comes with wearing our nation’s uniform.”
The chief of Australia’s defence force, Angus Campbell, described the crash as “a terrible moment”.
“Our focus at the moment is finding our people and supporting their families and the rest of our team,” he said.
“I really deeply appreciate the assistance that has been provided by a variety of civil agencies, the Queensland police, the Australian Maritime Safety Agency, and the public as well as our US allies, all of whom have come together to assist and to continue the search and rescue and to find our people.
At the Ausmin talks in Brisbane on Saturday, Marles thanked the US for helping with the search and rescue.
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said: “We are thinking of your four service members … We are so grateful to them for their dedication, for their service, for everything they’ve been doing to stand up for the freedom that we share.”
The Australian foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, said the crash was a “stark reminder of the risk that the men and women who serve us take and the courage that they show every day in the service of their country”.
Earlier in July, a US army tank was caught up in a fiery crash near Rockhampton that left six people in hospital.