History of the F-111

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The history

Cartoon of men working on the engine of a single engine plane

The F-111 possessed a number of special and even unique capabilities. One of these was its long range capability, enabling the aircraft to operate without refuelling over very long distances. To accomplish this, the F-111 maximised the storage of fuel in a way not adopted with any other aircraft in the RAAF. It was in one sense a ‘flying fuel tank’ with armaments attached and a cockpit for the crew. Unlike many other aircraft, there was no fuel bladder in the F-111.

One consequence of the unique fuel storage system on the F-111 was 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.

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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.

Danek Report

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.

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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.

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Subsection 7(2) DRCA compensation claims allowed

As a response to the SHOAMP, the provision in the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (Defence-related Claims) Act 1988 (DRCA) 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 DRCA. Compensation claims could also be submitted through the Veterans Entitlements Act 1986 (VEA) or through a general claim lodged under the DRCA.

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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 transferred to the SHOAMP Health Care Scheme. Registrations closed on 20 September 2005.

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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.
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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.

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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 made 18 recommendations to Government.

The F-111 Parliamentary Inquiry report of 2009 included a number of recommendations and in the May 2010 Budget the Government announced the measures in response to the Inquiry report, with DVA and Defence responsible for implementing the 14 accepted recommendations. Both Departments worked  throughout 2010-2013 to implement those 14 recommendations. A DVA and Defence progress report for January 2013 outlined progress.

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Government Response to 'Sealing a Just Outcome'

The Government Response (PDF 190 KB) provided 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 (Defence-related Claims) Act 1988 (DRCA). An estimated additional 2400 personnel, including the ‘pick and patch’ workers and other trades, can seek assistance if their health has been adversely affected.

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Fourth Data Study of Mortality and Cancer Incidence in F-111 Aircraft Maintenance Personnel

The fourth Mortality and Cancer Incidence Study (MCIS) of F-111 Deseal/Reseal (DSRS) fuel tank maintenance workers who were involved in the F-111 aircraft DSRS fuel tank maintenance work during 1977–2000 was published on 17 October 2016.

The data study examined the incidence of mortality and cancer in F-111 DSRS personnel against a matched group of non-technical Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) personnel who served at RAAF Base Amberley, aircraft technical personnel at RAAF Base Richmond and the Australian male population.

More details available on the studies page.

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Jet Fuel Exposure Syndrome (JFES) Study

On 30 April 2015, Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Geoff Brown, released the long-awaited 290-page Jet Fuel Exposure Syndrome (JFES) Study Report, plus a short non-technical Summary which was developed by senior officers from Defence and DVA.

The JFES Study Report shows evidence of persistent but small, long term cellular effects in persons who worked on the four formal F-111 Deseal/Reseal programs. The health significance of these changes are not fully understood but these changes are not associated with any known cancer or chronic disease outcomes.

More information and the full report about the Jet Fuel Exposure Syndrome (JFES) study can be found on Inquiries and Studies or on the Air Force website.

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F-111 memorial unveiled at Amberly

Members who flew, maintained and supported F-111 operations have been honoured at a dedication service held at RAAF Amberley on 2 December 2011, exactly one year after the F-111 took the skies for the last time.

A memorial was unveiled by Group Captain Geoff Harland of 82 Wing. Defence Media Release refers (DOC 164 KB).

A plaque on the memorial depicts an F-111 with wings swept back as it heads skywards. An inscription, within a wattle wreath curled around the F-111, reads:

"In Honour of those who flew, maintained and supported F-111 operations 1973–2010".

And, on the base stone:

"Dedicated to the men and women who proudly served F-111 operations, and to the special memory of those who died providing this capability in the defence and security of our nation."

Group Captain Harland's memorial speech acknowledged those personnel who suffered or are still suffering from effects of F-111 support systems, including those involved in fuel tank maintenance.

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