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Four Corners -

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RAAF roulette: speculation that aircraft accidents in the last two years have been caused by a shortage of training and resources and carelessness and negligence in the Air Force.

ANDREW OLLE: Tonight, on Four Corners, RAAF roulette - the dangerous game of flying military aircraft in Australian skies. A score of our finest fliers have been killed in just two years of non-combat operations. Thanks for joining me.

Last October, a number of witnesses looked on in horror and disbelief as a large jet, generally regarded as the safest of all airliners, crashed into the sea off the Victorian coast. The plane was a Boeing 707 from the RAAF's special VIP fleet, identical to the one used by the Prime Minister to attend last week's South Pacific forum. It was the biggest plane ever to crash in Australia, but because it was in military service, only five air crew were on board. All perished.

Tonight, for the first time, Four Corners reveals publicly what caused that 707 tragedy. We also examine why so many other military aircraft have been falling out of the sky. Fourteen service planes have crashed in just over two years, killing 23 air crew and representing a capital loss of some $200 million. With the help of former top airmen, including a man who rose to Deputy Chief of Air Staff, a disturbing pattern has emerged which may point to a breakdown in command and supervision. Ross Coulthart reports.

ROSS COULTHART: The pilots call it 'pushing the ....' - humans and high-tech machines going to the very limits of tolerance in a constant rehearsal for battle.

Hopefully, the public fascination with fighter jets has little to do with war and much to do with the fact that such a frail human cargo still holds sway over such technology. In the popular imagination, it's a perfect partnership of microchips and human quick-wittedness. Such training is, by necessity, inherently dangerous. As taxpayers, we accept the risks that these men take in rehearsing how to kill each other. Even the best-laid plans mean we will lose good people and their costly machines.

But lately, we've lost many lives and aircraft at a rate that even our government admits is disturbing. Why have we, in just 27 months, lost 23 men in military aircraft crashes? Quite apart from the human sorrow, it's a $200 million bill we can ill afford.

One of the F18 Hornets these young men fly costs around $40 million, yet within just the last two years, we've lost three. The three pilots died with them.

EXTRACT (archive tape):

ROSS FOX: We all rejoined at Middle Island, there. Russ and Pez were up at 16,000, we were climbing up through about 8,000. We could see you visually above us. JB you had us in sight, and you were also in the melee there.

ROSS COULTHART: One of the finest fighter pilots and instructors, Wing Commander Ross Fox. In 1990, a year after we shot this briefing, he died, in a mid-air collision with one of his students. But many of Ross Fox's fellow pilots are not prepared to accept the official cause for the crash. The Air Force inquiry says Ross Fox made a mistake, but his mates say his death highlights a much wider problem. They say commanders are being asked to do too much with too little.

JOHN TURTON: Overwork, lack of training - anything, who knows? But to say that they are unrelated accidents, I think, is a superficial statement.

ROSS COULTHART: October 29, last year, five men: Squadron Leader Mark Lewer, Flight Lieutenants Tim Ellis and Mark Duncan, and Warrant Officers Alan Gwyne (?) and John Fawcett died when their huge four-engined 707 crashed into the sea off the East Gippsland coast of Victoria. What caused the crash of one of the world's safest airliners - a jet from the VIP fleet used to carry our Prime Minister? The answer highlights a crisis in the training of our pilots and a major failure by our Air Force commanders.

707 Flight Engineer, John Fawcett, left behind a wife, Sandra, and a baby son. An Air Force Sergeant herself, Sandra knew the risks, but that didn't make it any easier to accept.

SANDRA FAWCETT: I found out about the accident at work. I was dining in the mess, and as I left, one of the stewards just said 'Oh, we've lost another aeroplane', and I asked what sort and where, and that's when I found out that the aircraft was at Sale and it was a 707 and I knew John was on that training flight.

ROSS COULTHART: The nation was shocked. It was the biggest aircraft ever to crash in Australian history.

BARRY GRATION: We, in the military, are conditioned to accept that, in war, the loss of aircraft and lives is almost inevitable. But in peace, such loss is far more difficult to understand and bear.

SANDRA FAWCETT: We were all brought together in one of the offices out at the base and there was an entourage of people that I didn't even know. At that time, I didn't even know the other wives, and the Air Commander came in and said 'Ladies, you know the situation. There are no survivors', and we were virtually left to our own emotions at that time.

ROSS COULTHART: What did the wives think of being told like that?

SANDRA FAWCETT: I personally didn't like it. On talking to the other wives, they weren't particularly comfortable with the situation, either.

ROSS COULTHART: The wives also found it hard to understand how such a safe, commercial jet could get into trouble.

SANDRA FAWCETT: We had very open conversations quite often in regards to possibilities of things going wrong and what we would do in the event of one of us not coming home from work one day. At the time, I was driving to work and he used to have more fears of me dying in a car crash than any event of an aircraft accident.

ROSS COULTHART: Behind closed doors, there's been a furious debate in the Air Force about the crashes, and there's a fear they will tarnish an excellent reputation.

The safety ethic is drummed into young pilots the moment they walk into RAAF flying schools like Point Cook. Many pilots are worried their quality training is being cut, especially their flying hours. They claim this is critically affecting safety.

To many, nothing sticks in their craw more than the sight of the Chief of Air Staff doing one of his morale-boosting visits in his custom-painted PC9. It's one less aircraft for a student pilot.

Air Marshall Ray Funnell is the man at the top of the RAAF.

He's Air Force boss in difficult times. Some painful cut-back decisions have had to be made. He's not only cut flying hours but is moving to shed a thousand people by Christmas, but only 90 have volunteered to quit.

RAY FUNNELL: If you were to ask me where the Air Force is likely to be in 10 years time, I certainly could give you no idea whatsoever, and nor could anyone else.

The Officer Qualities prize goes to Pilot Officer Mark Stafford.

ROSS COULTHART: These new officers got their commissions last month, yet, on the same day they graduated, another cost-cutting move was announced. The RAAF's flying school on the Point Cook base would close, after 78 years. Some training would be farmed out to private enterprise.

Ray Funnell is adamant none of these changes are causing the crashes now blighting the RAAF's good name.

RAY FUNNELL: I think some re-conclusion we came to - and we've studied these very carefully indeed - is that there is no common cause that can be identified which might give us a lead as to future action. Every single accident seems to be sui generis, unique in itself, factors applying to it - some of which apply to others - but there's no great commonality, and if they apply to two, they don't apply to more.

ROSS COULTHART: But despite that official assurance, Four Corners has been approached by serving officers from all levels of the Air Force, expressing grave concern that flying training is getting dangerous. A major problem is that the RAAF has lost too many of its most experienced pilots and instructors to Qantas and other airlines.

TERRY BODY: I lost 30 per cent of my star flying instructors at CFS. They used to walk into my office and say: 'I'm leaving'. And I'd ask them why they're going: was it money, was it lifestyle, was it the fact that they may go into a ground job? And it was a combination of all of those things, and I think that the opportunities that were alive at that time with the airlines presented the carrot.

ROSS COULTHART: As an Air Force Wing Commander, Terry Body ran the Air Force's Central Flying School for two and a half years. He was one of several ex-RAAF pilots we met across the country who agreed to speak publicly about what they see as dangerous pressures being placed on servicemen.

TERRY BODY: Now, this is an insidious thing, too, over time. It builds up so that that particular commanding officer is seen to have done a very good job with the resources that he's had. He's getting more blood out of the stone, which is fine. But it comes to a time when the next guy comes along, and he perceived he's given the Squadron at that level of operating and that's his hundred per cent and they ask him to do a bit more, perhaps with a little bit less resources as well. And then, that leads, eventually, to the problem where the guys are definitely being overworked, and they become tired, and when they become tired, they - the pilots - make mistakes.

ROSS COULTHART: The man flying this first Mirage jet nearly 30 years ago, test pilot Billy Hicks-Collings, went on to become an Air Vice-Marshall. He was the number two man in the Air Force until 1987 and he was seen as a contender for the top job until he quit in 1989.

BILL COLLINGS: My appearing here is out of a concern as a citizen, as a taxpayer, at what is happening and at the accidents that we're having in the Air Force, because having been concerned with it, I know it shouldn't be happening. And I think I've got an idea of the sorts of problems that are occurring that will cause that accident rate.

ROSS COULTHART: Collings agreed to speak to Four Corners because, like many ex-RAAF servicemen we spoke to, he is concerned that the spate of recent crashes are a symptom of a wider problem.

BILL COLLINGS: The Air Force is the one service where all sorts of decisions - at the political level, at the defence command level - can impact and cause an increase in flying accidents, budgetary restrictions, that sort of thing. Flying accidents are a symptom of a malaise or a sickness, if you like, that no one can diagnose as one simple thing.

ROSS COULTHART: We're in a recession; everybody's hard up. Isn't this just a case of the pilots crying poor?

BILL COLLINGS: No, I don't think so. You could always cry poor - everybody cries poor. The real problem is that it stems from the inadequacy of the way priorities are allocated in Defence.

ROSS COULTHART: A lot of that criticism about priorities is directed at the way Australia went into a frenzy of equipment buying under our last Defence Minister, Kim Beazley. He's the man who signed the nearly $5 billion cheque for our 75 F18 Hornets.

We have the machines but have we ensured our pilots are properly trained to fly them? Three F18s have crashed within the past two years, none due to mechanical failure.

The nickname for Mr Beazley when he was Defence Minister was Minister for Toys. Do you think we've spent too much money on toys and not considered the amount of money we'd need to maintain the use of those toys?

BILL COLLINGS: Oh, I think that's without doubt. The Minister, at that time, wanted to spend something like 30 per cent of his budget on capital acquisition. It's very difficult to bring in that amount of new capital equipment and be able to absorb it, get rid of the old stuff that it's replacing and retrain people. It's almost impossible.

ROSS COULTHART: On 2 August 1990, Wing Commander Ross Fox's death heightened those concerns within the RAAF. He was killed in a mid-air collision as the wing of another aircraft smashed through his cockpit - his $40 million Hornet jet destroyed. The other F18 limped home.

EXTRACT (archive tape):

ROSS FOX: Seventy Five Squadron is going to be the premier fighter squadron in the RAAF so everyone's keen to come and fly with us.

ROSS COULTHART: By all accounts, Fox was an exemplary officer, commanding the front-line F18 fighter squadron at Tindal in the Northern Territory, but even the RAAF's own brief crash summary concedes that the overwhelming pressures placed on Fox as a commander played a role in the crash. Fox felt it necessary to take a young pilot on a training flight even though he was still recuperating from a major illness. The summary reveals Fox was fatigued as a result of having recently recovered from Hepatitis A, coupled with the high work load he had experienced as commanding officer of 75 Squadron.

Putting it bluntly, Fox should not have been flying that day.

RAY FUNNELL: Ross Fox was a good friend. It was deeply disturbing for me and many other of Ross's friends that he was lost in that accident. What we have tried to do is: by investigating it thoroughly, and all the circumstances associated with it, including the fact that he was a CO and he was under pressure, can we guard against such things in the future? And I think everyone learns from that.

ROSS COULTHART: What are the pressures that make a man who is recovering from a severe illness get in a high-performance jet to take a young flight-lieutenant up training?

RAY FUNNELL: I'm sorry. Ross isn't here to answer that question, and he's the only one who can.

ROSS COULTHART: And you don't accept that those pressures are anything to do with, perhaps, the fact that we're spreading the jam too thinly in our budgets?

RAY FUNNELL: No, because I just don't have the evidence that would support what is truly speculative.

ROSS COULTHART: It may be the glamour job of the Air Force, but our fighter pilots are copping cut-backs in their flying hours as much as everybody else, and it's here you have to seriously question if those cut-backs aren't a false economy. Now, the official line is that we're well within the number of F18s we expected to lose in crashes by now, but if you look at those crashes, none of them have been due to mechanical failure as expected. A major factor has been pilot error.

Now, the pilots tell us that if you reduce the flying hours to the levels that they are at the moment, the chances of becoming a dead pilot increase. They say the bean-counters should look at the cost of losing one of these $40 million jets.

ROY PHILLIPS: Training is expensive, but if you think training is expensive, try ignorance or lack of currency. Nobody likes to see aeroplane accidents, but a $30 million hole in the ground represents a considerable amount of training.

ROSS COULTHART: Former RAAF Wing Commanders, Roy Phillips and Reg Meissner, are appalled that RAAF fighter pilots now average only about 170 flying hours each year, compared with about 240 several years ago.

ROY PHILLIPS: Again, based on my own experience, the flying rate has declined dramatically, and I'm quite sure that even squadron pilots - Air force squadron pilots - would admit to you that flying at the sorts of rates they're flying now is just simply unacceptable.


ROY PHILLIPS: Well, I'd use the term 'currently dangerous' which was a colloquial term that we used to use for fellows who - when you're flying at that sort of rate, which happened occasionally even in my own career. In that case, you get the airframe off the ground, you get it back on the ground, and you fly around straight and level in the middle. But if there's anything untoward happens - as will always happen in this type of flying - then you haven't got the experience to fall back on nor the level of currency to fall back on.

REG MEISSNER: What happens is, of course, that the pilot error is induced by the fact that the pilots just don't have the experience. If you're getting in your early ages of flying, when you're a young man, you're hot off the press, so to speak; your hair's on fire; you're moving at the speed of heat. If you don't get 25 to 30 hours a month, you're wasting your time. You need that to get on top of it.

ROSS COULTHART: If things continue as they are at the moment, are more young pilots going to die?

ROY PHILLIPS: Well, it's easy to say yes, and, of course, there's many, many things impact upon why there are aircraft accidents, but undoubtedly, in my own opinion, lack of flying currency contributes to aircraft accidents. It's a major contributor, and if the fellows don't get that currency, then yes, there's likely to be more accidents.

RAY FUNNELL: What's the point of overflying in a period of real peace and then find that you haven't got the aircraft available to you, maybe 10 years from now, when you really need it. So what we want to do is make sure we give our pilots what they need to be operationally ready, but no more. And I believe the way in which we are utilising our hours and utilising our total training system, allows us, in that range - 170 to 180 hours a year - to give our pilots what is needed to reach the operational readiness standard.

ROSS COULTHART: We've spoken to some of your most senior officers in your force. We've spoken to people who used to train your fighter pilots. They tell us that 170 hours a year is not enough.

RAY FUNNELL: Okay. I'm telling you differently.

ROSS COULTHART: They say that we're crashing F18 Hornets, in some cases, because those pilots haven't received enough training.

RAY FUNNELL: I'm telling you differently.

ROSS COULTHART: There's no doubt there have been several recent accidents where errors made by relatively inexperienced RAAF pilots have played a role.

One of the biggest mysteries still being investigated is the disappearance, in June last year, of a young flying officer and his F18 off the north Australian coast.


UNIDENTIFIED: As yet, we have no report of confirmed wreckage.

ROSS COULTHART: Cameron Conroy had been dux of his course at Point Cook. He was last seen slumped in the cock-pit at 45,000 feet with no oxygen mask on his face.

Four Corners understands Air Force investigators were told the young flying officer was seen on previous occasions removing his oxygen mask, mimicking a dramatic gesture seen on the movie, Top Gun. This violates standard procedure in the RAAF to keep your mask on at all times.

The Shadow Defence Minister says he's been given the same explanation for the crash.

Do you think it can be fairly sheeted home to the pilot, though, in all the case, or do you think part of the blame must rest with the training?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, as I understand it, this pilot had done that on a number of occasions - not blacked out, but had taken off his mask on a number of occasions before - and I would have thought that if that had been known to the Air Force they would have made sure that that sort of behaviour would be brought to a halt, particularly as this had been a feature of this Top Gun movie.

ROSS COULTHART: Let me speak hypothetically, then. Do you accept that if there were previous occasions where this young pilot was seen to be doing this with his mask ....

RAY FUNNELL: I won't comment.

ROSS COULTHART: I'm not asking you to comment on the circumstances of this crash.

RAY FUNNELL: I won't respond to your question.

ROSS COULTHART: I think that's churlish because ....

RAY FUNNELL: I think it's churlish of you to pursue - when I've said I won't comment on it, I think it's churlish of you to continue to press the matter.

ROSS COULTHART: I think the point is that there were previous incidents where this young man was seen to be removing his mask. What I want to ask you is, if that was the case, would you accept that there appears to have been a command failure in not ensuring that that pilot was told never to do that again?

RAY FUNNELL: I don't know where you got that evidence and I'm not going to comment on it.

ROSS COULTHART: The biggest disaster of all came in October last year, when a $12 million VIP 707 plunged from 5,000 feet into shallow water off East Gippsland. How, it was asked, could this have happened? It was a clear day. Only a few weeks earlier, the 707 had been given a major mechanical overhaul. The crew were very experienced. They shared a total of 75 years service.

The 707's battered flight recorder held all the secrets, but even before that data was fully analysed, the Air Force went into damage control. 'There was no evidence', we were told, 'of malfunction or failure in the aircraft'. Mechanical problems could not be ruled out until all the recovered wreckage was examined, but the grim inference hanging over the crash was that someone had made a fatal mistake - pilot error.

SANDRA FAWCETT: It's easier to blame a mechanical aspect than human attribute, because the other wives have suffered just as much as I have. Irrespective of whether they've left wives and families, it's very hard to - in my position, being a serving member and also a wife - to try and put blame onto somebody and express an opinion.

ROSS COULTHART: Divers found John Fawcett's personal log book on the seabed after the crash. Senior Air Force officers tried to prevent the log book being returned to Sandra. The Air Force is clearly concerned about where the blame may fall.

Since the 707 tragedy, a veil of secrecy has come down on the whole Air Force investigation, yet in March this year, the Minister for Defence made a written promise that he'd make public the report on the 707 and all the recent crashes. Now, the 17-volume 707 report is now nearly completed, but neither it nor all the reports on all the other crashes will ever be released. The Air Force has overruled its Minister. We, the taxpayers and the grieving families of all the people who died, will only ever be allowed a short, official summary of those reports.

The Air Force Chief says the courts have backed his stand. He says: 'If inquiry reports are made public, then future crash investigations may be jeopardised'.

RAY FUNNELL: It's in the public interest not to disclose publicly what's in aircraft investigations.

ROSS COULTHART: Are you a little embarrassed, then, by the fact that your Minister has made a public promise to make that report public?

RAY FUNNELL: What the Minister has done is to - and he's done it already - he has said he will table - and has done so in a series of accidents: the circumstances of the accident, the finding of the board of inquiry and actions coming out of that.

ROSS COULTHART: He's also promised to make public the board of inquiry reports. It's a difficulty, I understand, for you - you're the military commander of the Air Force and he's the political leader, if you like. He realises the public interest in assuring the public that things, now, are all right.

RAY FUNNELL: And I'm sure he will do so.

ROSS COULTHART: What about making public at least part of that board of inquiry report and excluding the matters that may, indeed, jeopardise future reports?

RAY FUNNELL: Would you put that to the Minister? I can't answer for him.

ROSS COULTHART: Old-fashioned mess dinners are not the only tradition that linger in the military. It also closes ranks against outsiders.

RAY FUNNELL: In the First World War, we were the only dominion and one of the few nations to have its own flying service, military flying service.

ROSS COULTHART: To his credit, the Air Marshall did agree to speak to us, but his political boss, Defence Minister Ray, refused to be interviewed. But even before a summary of the Air Force's official findings is released, the full facts on just what sort of training exercise the crew were doing that day are proving very controversial.

Four Corners has been told, by sources close to the Air Force's investigation team, that the crew died attempting what's loosely called a double asymmetric, or double engine-failure drill. This is what the wives and search and rescue teams were also told. In such an exercise, the pilot simulates the loss of both engines on one side of the aircraft by throttling them back. Former Air Force pilots, now flying for Qantas, say a double engine-failure drill should only be done in a simulator, because more planes have been lost training for it than have ever crashed in a real emergency. Unless the pilot quickly adjusts the controls, the jet can plunge into a fatal spin as happened in the 707.

Why would you not do a double asymmetric manoeuvre in the air?

ROY PHILLIPS: Well, obviously, Ross, there is a much higher element of risk flying around in a multi-engined aeroplane with two engines out, and the place to learn the techniques for flying in that configuration is in the simulator. There is no point in sticking your head in a noose and doing it in the aeroplane in the air. I think that's asking for trouble, and that's what simulators are for.

ROSS COULTHART: Four Corners has established that the ill-fated 707 crew practised a manoeuvre involving the throttling-back of both engines, in this same simulator, the night before the accident.

We understand the official inquiry will find that the 707 was doing something less than a two-engine failure or double asymmetric drill. There's a technical debate within the Air Force. All agree one engine was throttled right back to an idle. The argument's over whether the amount that the second engine was throttled back constitutes a true, double asymmetric. It would be a critical argument in any negligence case against the RAAF. The argument does not explain why the crew were unable to recover from the manoeuvre nor why they were doing it in the air in the first place.

Senior Air Force officers have told Four Corners that the crew of the ill-fated 707 apparently struck a handling problem they were not trained to expect, which seems extraordinary, because this particular handling characteristic is well-known to at least two civilian airlines in the United States, to the plane's manufacturer, Boeing, and to Qantas, here in Australia. At best, the 707 crash highlights a major failure in the training of the pilots and in the supervision by Air Force command.

How did the RAAF lose a huge multi-engined, apparently safe aircraft like the 707?

BILL COLLINGS: Well, I can't pre-empt the accident board, but one would have to ask why we were practising that sort of manoeuvre, whether the orders were adequate, whether the supervision at each level was adequate, and one would have to say that they couldn't have been, but then you would have to look for the reason. It's very simple to say we have pilot error or blame supervisors at a low level, but I really think you have to look at what's happening, overall, in the service, and I think there are, in my mind, some very serious concerns, right from the top down.

ROSS COULTHART: We can also reveal that the 707 incident was not the first Air Force engine-failure drill to go wrong. The Air Force very nearly lost a Hercules doing a two-engine failure exercise.

On 27 November, 1984, a Hercules, similar to this one, flew out from Richmond. The mission went wrong. We're told the four-engined aircraft, with a full crew on board, only recovered at tree height. Despite this near tragedy, the Air Force continued some of its riskier enginge-failure training in the face of warnings from the aircraft's manufacturer, Lockheed.

RON VAN HAARLEM: While I was flying in 37 Squadron, which is a Hercules squadron, which is a four-engined transport aircraft, we used to do single and double asymmetric training all the time, circuit training and so on. And I know of two occasions where Lockheed attempted to convince the Air Force that it wasn't a good idea, and their reason was that they've never lost a Herc due to a double-engine failure, but there've been a number of Hercs that have crashed because of people attempting to do double asymmetric training.

ROSS COULTHART: Yet, the Air Force continued the drills. We're told there was yet another near disaster last year, only months before the 707 crash. Again, the public was never told about it. It was an Air Force P3 Orion worth about $40 million. From the Edinburgh Air Base, near Adelaide, it only narrowly recovered after rolling out of control from 12,000 feet. It, too, was doing a double engine-failure exercise, so it came as no surprise to many pilots that, soon after the 707 went down, the Minister, Senator Ray, announced there may be a review of the procedures for engine failure or asymmetric training in the Air Force.

RAY FUNNELL: I assured him, because I had taken to do so, that asymmetric procedures across the board, in the Royal Australian Air Force, would be - in fact, by that stage - had been reviewed, to ensure that our practices were safe. And I can assure anyone - and we've been operating 707s, now, for many years, and we've been operating them at normal rates since that accident - that the Boeing 707 is a safe aircraft and our pilots who fly them, our air crew who operate them, are, technically and professionally, very competent.

ROSS COULTHART: Inside the RAAF, there's not a lot of faith in the secretive crash investigation system. Many want a public airing to see if there is a link between all these recent crashes, to seek an explanation on why things have gone badly wrong.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: I think one of the things the Air Force ought to do is make sure - or the Government ought to make sure - the Air Force establishes a proper inquiry, a formal inquiry, to establish whether there are linkages. But one could speculate on why it's happened.

ROSS COULTHART: They say they've already done an inquiry - an internal one - and they've found no common cause.

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Yes. Well, we haven't seen the inquiry and we're never able to get details of even the reports of the accidents, either on a confidential basis or on a public basis, so nobody really knows what has happened.

ROSS COULTHART: In March, 1990, a Nomad crashed after taking off from the RAAF's Edinburgh base. Test pilot, Glen Donovan, had flown Nomads for both the Army and the Air Force, a demanding task requiring extraordinary pilot skill. His fatal crash highlights the gulf between what the public are told and what the Air Force's internal reports actually say, as Glen's brother, Phil, discovered.

PHIL DONOVAN: The Air Force released an unserviceable aircraft for Glen to fly, and the tail literally fell off. Eleven eye-witnesses saw it fall off, in perfect flying conditions. He was flying straight and level, at low speed, and it just literally fell apart. You can't fly a plane without a tail, and consequently, it crashed and he's killed.

ROSS COULTHART: What went wrong?

PHIL DONOVAN: Well, the primary cause of that accident was they released that aircraft to fly with pre-existing cracks in the tail section.

ROSS COULTHART: So you're saying there were mistakes made inside the Air Force?

PHIL DONOVAN: For sure. There's no doubt about it. There was two servicings that would have detected the cracks in that tail, and neither of them were done.

ROSS COULTHART: The extraordinary thing about Glen Donovan's crash was that his brother, Phil, managed to get hold of a copy of the RAAF's closely-guarded, internal report into the crash, the sort of document the RAAF refuses to release because it's not in the public interest.

This two-page summary is all you'll ever get to see of the full Air Force report into Glen Donovan's crash. This public version says that while there were what the Air Force chooses to call 'deficiencies' in the servicing of the Nomad, these deficiencies did not amount to carelessness or negligence.

But then, Phil Donovan got a copy of this. This is only part of the Air Force's full board of inquiry report into the crash, and it reveals a series of quite appalling failures. What the public doesn't get to read is that these deficiencies involved a failure to do a mandatory servicing on the Nomad, and it says here, in black and white, that if that servicing had been done, then Glen Donovan need not have died. Yet, incredibly, the public are told there was no carelessness.

PHIL DONOVAN:The board of inquiry report revealed that 13 people violated normal maintenance and management procedures.

ROSS COULTHART: And what did you think about that?

PHIL DONOVAN: Well, it's a horrendous stuff-up, there's no doubt about it.

ROSS COULTHART: What did the Air Force board of inquiry report say about those stuff-ups, as you call them?

PHIL DONOVAN: Well, after detailing all these stuff-ups, they concluded that no disciplinary action was warranted.

ROSS COULTHART: How can you conclude that there was at least no carelessness when there were 13 omissions including the missing of a vital servicing?

RAY FUNNELL: I'd have to check on that to be certain, but I think the conclusion reached was somewhat different from the way in which you're stating it. I think the conclusion reached was: yes, there was carelessness, there was negligence, and it involved a number people at a number of different levels within the Air Force. There was ....

ROSS COULTHART: I can categorically assure that the finding was: there was no carelessness or negligence. I mean you, yourself, seem to have trouble accepting that.

RAY FUNNELL: Well, because I don't have the document in front of me, I can't be certain of this, but my belief was that the conclusion reached was that no disciplinary action should be taken.

ROSS COULTHART: The Air Force's own report is clear. Despite a series of major failures by its staff, including missing a required check on the Nomad, it recommends no one be punished and says 'These deficiencies did not amount to carelessness or negligence'.

Sandra Fawcett, the wife of 707 Flight Engineer, John Fawcett, also wants to know the truth of what caused her husband's death.

She was compensated after the crash, but told she'd have to give the money back if she sues the RAAF. Her treatment by the RAAF seems insensitive, even on personal matters that are easy to fix.

SANDRA FAWCETT: The Prime Minister wanted to express his condolences as soon as possible. When I received the letter, I had already had problems with the spelling of John's name, and I'd made the statement that if it was spelt wrong I would be sending the letter back, and it was. So I sent it back, through the service channels, and it was returned to me in the previous form, and said: 'If that's the way the Prime Minister thinks it's spelt, that's how it will remain'.

ROSS COULTHART: Only when Sandra contacted the Prime Minister's office direct, rather than go through the Air Force top brass, did he, happily, give her a corrected letter.

The RAAF is still in the air, but each time they go up, many of the crews and their wives have a haunting fear: a dread that failures in Air Force training and command may lead to yet another fatal crash; that sacrifices in the service of our country will be too readily dismissed as a pilot's error.

ANDREW OLLE: RAAF roulette - Ross Coulthart was the reporter.