With their heavy payload of bombs and missiles, and their exceptional range - enabling them to fly to most Asian capitals and return to Australia without re-fuelling - they were intended as a deterrent to potentially hostile states in the region. The aircraft owes its range to its enormous fuel capacity. To this day the Flll - which will be withdrawn from service in 2010 - is effectively a flying fuel tank. But it was defective from the start; the tanks were designed without an internal bladder and soon after delivery, avgas began leaking through the metal seams in the wings and the fuselage.
The same problem had happened in the US and the Americans had perfected a technique known as "deseal/re-seal", whereby the original sealants were stripped through an elaborate process of chemical application, high-pressure blasting and hand picking with small, sharp instruments, before new, equally toxic, sealant was applied. A cocktail of dozens of toxic chemicals was also used. Perhaps the most infamous was SR51, a desealant and proven carcinogen. While some American service personnel worked on the F111 tanks, the US Military_perhaps sensing a future health scandal, mainly used labour from Latin America.
But for the Australians assigned to DSRS at Amberley, it was backbreaking, claustrophobic, physically and socially isolating, demoralising and potentially deadly work
For dozens of men and boys as young as 17, de-seal was their first posting after finishing apprenticeships in Wagga Wagga. "What was I going to say when they sent me to de-seal: `No, sir'?" says Frank Cooper. "Come on, I mean I was 17 years old:"
For months at a time they would work in a makeshift cloth hangar, segregated from the rest of the base due to the foul smell of the chemicals. The technicians would work crouched or lying horizontally in the tanks, covered in chemicals and surrounded by fumes, for up to eight hours at a time.
The SR51 corroded their protective gloves in minutes and ate away their flimsy cotton overalls. Cumbersome respiratory gear was rarely worn because it made crawling through the tanks near impossible.
The workers were ordered not to wear jockeys under their overalls because the chemicals would melt them. "So you were sitting there in cotton overalls and this stuff
- SR51 and other chemicals - were soaking into your cock and balls through the flimsy overalls - no wonder we've got all these sexual problems," says Rob Solomons.
"You'd lapse into unconsciousness, get dragged out of the tank, get left on the floor to sober up and put back in again:"
Those who complained were malingerers, slackers, even though many quickly developed severe health problems and were treated on the base and at the civilian hospital in nearby Ipswich. If the de-seal program was suspended due to health concerns, the Fllls - whose flight crews were largely oblivious to the suffering of the maintenance crews - wouldn't fly. This was unthinkable, as the board of inquiry noted.
One de-sealer with serious health problems who refused to re-enter the tanks was sentenced to seven days' detention. Another was given the particularly onerous task of incinerating the SR51 goop once it congealed. He was constantly covered in the stuff, suffered the pro-forma headaches, dizziness, mood swings and depression, and complained, to no avail.
Even on the base, the de-sealers were ostracised because of their smell. When the SR51 combined with body fat, it produced an odour likened to a mixture of old socks, rotten eggs, sweat, dirt and ammonia. The de-sealers were consequently banned from the base cinema, the mess and the boozer. The smell was impervious to showering. Wives and girlfriends slept in spare beds. Single men staying in barracks were given their own rooms.
All the while the de-sealers' bodies tried to purge the poison by expelling a stinking yellow grease - a combination of body fat and noxious chemicals. The sludge permanently stained bed sheets and clothing.
It's a beautiful piece of machinery - I love the F111. It still gives me goose bumps when I hear the afterburners crack up for take-off. It's a sound you can never get enough of."
So says Geoff Curl who, at just 42, might pass for a man in his 50s. He's yet another former de-sealer whose trashed health is the legacy of keeping the Fill airborne. For more than 20 years he has suffered reflux, chronic bowel problems, arthritis, painful calcium deposits in his hands and shoulders, aching joints, agoraphobia, panic attacks, depression, dangerous mood swings and obsessive compulsive disorder. He has an obvious tremor.
The illnesses have, by his own admission, made him a nightmare to live with.
"I have been violent towards my wife and my kids," he says. "I was also violent towards my first wife. I see red and I just snap. My wife is fantastic for what she puts up with. She deserves recognition:"
As part of his quest to get compensation, Curl saw numerous doctors at the behest of the military authorities. He maintains they were "doctor shopping" to find a diagnosis that would downplay his illnesses. While he receives a disability pension and his medical costs are covered by a Veteran's Affairs Gold Card, he has received no compensation.
"The big fear that I have is that my life will be cut short ... and [that] will leave my wife and children with very little. This is a real fear for me... I have watched friends of mine, also ex de-sealers, die at early ages of rapidly growing cancers," he says.
"My quality of life has gone ... it's a life destroyed by the deliberate actions of RAAF officers who, with a blatant disregard for the life of the service personnel involved
The Government's Game
Brothers in Arms
The Government's Game
Story by Paul Daley. Published in The Bulletin. Permission for use given.
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