The F-111 was Australia’s primary air strike weapon over the latter part of the last century and into the early part of this century.
The aircraft possesses a number of special and even unique capabilities. One of these is its long range capability, enabling the aircraft to operate without refuelling over very long distances. To accomplish this, the F-111 maximises the storage of fuel in a way not adopted with any other aircraft in the RAAF. It is in one sense a ‘flying fuel tank’ with armaments attached and a cockpit for the crew. Unlike many other aircraft, there is no fuel bladder in the F-111.
One consequence of the unique fuel storage system on the F-111 is a requirement for repair work in an environment not replicated on any other RAAF aircraft. Australia’s 24 F-111 aircraft required significant fuel tank repair and maintenance work from the moment of delivery in 1973.
The discovery of the deteriorating fuel tank sealant, coupled with the fact that the Australian aircraft had spent 5 years in storage, before delivery, meant that the RAAF was required to rectify major fuel leak issues on the aircraft from the outset. This repair work in cramped, hot and humid conditions, was carried out for some decades by F-111 fuel tank maintenance workers – primarily in the formal deseal/reseal programs but also through ad hoc maintenance.
There were four formal deseal/reseal programs (conducted in 1977-1982, 1985-1993, 1991-1993 and 1996-1999). These programs used a range of different techniques and chemicals and involved personnel working full time on fuel tank maintenance with long periods inside the tanks, (page 6 of the Parliamentary Inquiry report refers).
In addition to the formal programs, maintenance personnel in other squadrons conducted repair work on the fuel tanks. This ad hoc, flight-line maintenance work, known as ‘pick-and-patch’ was undertaken as part of routine tank repairs and maintenance, in order to keep the aircraft operational. The work involved physical removal of the tank sealant, using dental picks and other objects and patching the area around the leak (page 11 of the Parliamentary Inquiry refers).
The personnel involved undertook the activity as one of a number of functions, and did not work in the fuel tanks as their primary task. This type of work was conducted between 1973 and 2000.
In late 1999 the fuel tank repair section at RAAF Base Amberley became concerned at the health effects being experienced by members of the section, with some 400 personnel reporting a range of symptoms and illnesses. In February 2000 a formal investigation was ordered by the Officer Commanding 501WG.
Board of Inquiry
In 2000 the Chief of Air Force commissioned a Board of Inquiry (BOI) to examine aspects of the four formal deseal/reseal programs in relation to health, chemical exposure and work practices. The BOI researched over 1.5 million documents, covering a period of 27 years and took statements from over 650 individuals. The BOI produced 53 recommendations, all of which were accepted by the Air Force.
Over the ensuing years health and toxicology studies were undertaken. Key studies include:
In 2001 the Study of Health Outcomes in Aircraft Maintenance Personnel (SHOAMP) was commissioned as a response to the Board of Inquiry. The Study was undertaken by the University of Newcastle and it examined the health of members of the four formal deseal/reseal programs, and two comparison groups. The study reported its findings in 2004.
SR51 CHALUS study
In 2005 the Department of Veterans’ Affairs commissioned a study into the desealant chemical SR51. This study was undertaken by the Chemical Hazard Assessment Laboratory, University of Sydney (CHALUS). The study found that SR51 was unlikely to be mutagenic (ie it did not cause DNA damage and was therefore unlikely to cause cancer), but that it did have the potential to produce mitochondrial damage.
Study of Mitochondria in Fuel and Solvent Exposed Ex-Air Force Personnel
In 2004 Professor Frank Bowling was commissioned by the Chief of Air Force to conduct a pilot study into the possible effects on the mitochondria of personnel who were exposed to the F-111 deseal/reseal programs.
Coxon - psychological effects on spouses study
In 2006 the Chief of Air Force commissioned Dr Leonie Coxon of Murdoch University to undertake a study on psychological effects on spouses of deseal/reseal workers. This study found that spouses of deseal/reseal workers were more likely to have somatic complaints, anxiety, depression and higher levels of stress.
The Defence Science and Technology Organisation’s Mr Stefan Danek was commissioned by the 2001 BOI, to summarise the BOI’s volumes of reports from various subject matter experts.
Third Study of Mortality and Cancer Incidence
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released the Third Study of Mortality and Cancer Incidence in Aircraft Maintenance Personnel: A Continuing Study of Deseal/Reseal Personnel (2009), commissioned by DVA. Given the number of borderline and non-significant results AIHW recommended repeating the study in 2011.
Interim Health Care Scheme established
As a response to the Board of Inquiry, the Interim Health Care Scheme was established in September 2001. The Scheme provided interim treatment for workers until their claims were determined, and counselling for workers and their families. A number of conditions were covered under the Scheme, and were later included under the SHOAMP Health Care Scheme.
Subsection 7(2) SRCA compensation claims allowed
As a response to the SHOAMP, the provision in the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 (SRCA) which allows for a more beneficial standard of proof to certain F-111 workers was extended. Those who were determined to be Tier 1, 2 or 3 participants could apply for compensation for certain conditions under ss7(2) of SRCA. Compensation claims could also be submitted through the Veterans Entitlements Act 1986 (VEA) or through a general claim lodged under the SRCA.
SHOAMP Health Care Scheme established
The SHOAMP Health Care Scheme replaced the Interim Health Care Scheme in 2005, following the release of the SHOAMP report. Conditions covered under the SHOAMP Health Care Scheme were those found by SHOAMP to be related to deseal/reseal involvement. Participants of the earlier Interim Scheme were automatically transfered to the SHOAMP Health Care Scheme. Registrations closed on 20 September 2005.
Better Health Program
The Better Health Program was established in February 2007. It is a voluntary GP-based program that provides participants with:
- Cancer screening - provides early detection for colorectal cancer and melanoma. Your GP will be the central point of communication for you to access the screening procedures; and
- Health information and disease prevention – promotes a healthy lifestyle by providing information on health conditions including erectile dysfunction, depression and anxiety.
Ex gratia payments scheme
In August 2005 the then Ministers of Defence and Veterans’ Affairs announced lump-sum payments to be made to those who had participated in the formal deseal/reseal program, in acknowledgement of their ‘unique working environment’. Members who had conducted fuel-tank entry outside the formal programs were excluded. The ex gratia payments scheme was not a means of compensation of adverse health effects.
Recipients were classified by Tiers, depending on their roles and the amount of time cumulatively spent inside fuel tank compartments. To be eligible, personnel needed to be either a member of part of the formal program or employed on certain other specified tasks. Tier 1 participants received a payment of $40,000 and Tier 2 participants received $10,000. Tier 3 did not receive a payment but provided eligibility to deseal/reseal participants for the purposes of compensation claims under ss7(2) of the SRCA.
Parliamentary Inquiry and report
In 2008 the Government convened a Parliamentary Inquiry undertaken by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. The Inquiry handed down its report Sealing a just outcome: Report from the Inquiry into RAAF F-111 Deseal/Reseal workers and their families on 25 June 2009.
The report makes 18 recommendations to Government.
Government Response to Sealing a Just Outcome
The Government Response (PDF 190 KB) provides some $55 million over four years, expanding the definition of eligible personnel and the benefits and services available to them under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 (SRCA). An estimated additional 2400 personnel, including the ‘pick and patch’ workers and other trades, may now seek assistance if their health has been adversely affected.