The 171st Aviation Squadron (171 Avn Sqn) is an Australian Army helicopter squadron equipped with S70A Black Hawk helicopters and provides support to the Special Operations Command. The squadron is based at Luscombe Airfield, Holsworthy Barracks, Sydney and forms part of the 6th Aviation Regiment.
The Squadron primarily supports the Tactical Assault Group, troop lift support is also provided to other Special Forces based at Holsworthy and Perth, and to other east coast and southern Australian based units.
In March 1997, the Board of Inquiry into the Black Hawk Training Accident in June 1996 recommended that dedicated Army aviation assets be allocated in support of the counter terrorist and special operations capability and that the units be collocated during training, planning and the conduct of operations.
The 171st Aviation Squadron traces its lineage back to the 161st Reconnaissance Flight which was formed in June 1965 based at RAAF Base Amberley. The Flight was part of the 16th Army Light Aircraft Squadron which in 1967 became the 1st Aviation Regiment. The Flight served in Vietnam from 1965 to 1971 and during this period was renamed the 161st (Independent) Reconnaissance Flight. On return from Vietnam, the Flight was based at Oakley. On 31 January 1974, the Flight was re-designated as the "171st Operational Support Squadron" following a restructure of the 1st Aviation Regiment using the number from the disbanded 171st Air Cavalry Flight.
On 19 December 2002, the Prime Minister announced the creation of the Special Operations Command and that the government would accelerate the purchase of the MRH-90 Taipan helicopters to enable a squadron of helicopters to be based in Sydney as a potent addition to the Tactical Assault Group East.
On 28 November 2004, 'A' Squadron of the 5th Aviation Regiment based at RAAF Base Townsville swapped designations with the 171st Operational Support Squadron. The Squadron was equipped with the Sikorsky S-70A Black Hawk with the role of providing support to the Special Operations Command.
The Squadron separated from the 1st Aviation Regiment and was placed under the command of the 16th Aviation Brigade as an independent squadron and was re-designated as the "171st Aviation Squadron". The Squadron was commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel in addition to the conventional squadron commander of Major rank.
In July 2005, Holsworthy Barracks was selected as the location in Sydney to relocate the Squadron. In December 2006, the Squadron relocated to temporary facilities at Luscombe Airfield with the redevelopment of the airfield expected to be completed by late 2008.
The Squadron was involved in operations in East Timor as part of Operation Astute. On 29 November 2006, a Squadron Black Hawk helicopter crashed during Operation Quickstep while attached to HMAS Kanimbla off the coast of Fiji. The helicopter's pilot, Captain Mark Bingley, and Trooper Joshua Porter from the Special Air Service Regiment were killed in the crash.
In March 2008, the Squadron became part of the newly raised 6th Aviation Regiment following implementation of a recommendation from the Board of Inquiry into the Crash of Black Hawk 221 to raise a regiment.
The Squadron is equipped with S-70A-9 Black Hawks and was planned to transition to the MRH 90 Taipan an Australian variant of the NHI NH90, however significant problems were encountered and it could not be certified for special operations including fast roping and an issue re-siting a machine gun used during fast roping or rappelling. In December 2015, the Army advised that the Black Hawk will continue to be operated as a result until the end of 2021 with 18 based at Holsworthy and two retained at the Oakey Army Aviation Centre in Queensland.
In February 2016, it was announced in the Defence White Paper 2016 that dedicated light helicopters will be acquired to support Special Forces operations which can be rapidly deployed in Boeing C-17 Globemasters, and can insert, extract and provide fire support for small teams of Special Forces undertaking tasks ranging from tactical observation through to counter-terrorism missions, or hostage recovery.
Further information was provided in the Integrated Investment Program which accompanied the Defence White Paper, that: "A new fleet of light reconnaissance and attack helicopters will be acquired from around 2025 to provide air mobility support optimised for special operations missions. The new helicopters will likely feature some light armament and modern intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and communications capabilities for integration with the joint force. They will be able to be deployed rapidly as a small force element of three to four aircraft and personnel by the Globemaster".