Battle: Former air force engineer AJ Walsh, of Alstonville, believes that compensation he is now eligible for will negate his pension if treated as income.
Battle: Former air force engineer AJ Walsh, of Alstonville, believes that compensation he is now eligible for will negate his pension if treated as income. Cathy Adams

Local man fuming over toxic F-111s

AFTER years crawling around in toxic F-111 fuel tanks, former air force engineer AJ Walsh, of Alstonville, remains unimpressed by the Federal Government's latest compensation offer to air force maintenance workers.

The retired Warrant Officer, who has spent years fighting for adequate compensation while his mates have been dying around him, is extremely sceptical of the call this week by the Federal Minister for Veteran Affairs and Defence Personnel, Alan Griffin, for more maintenance personnel to come forward.

The Government allocated $55 million over four years in its last Budget to better compensate F-111 fuel tank cleaners.

Mr Walsh, now 60, was diagnosed with bone cancer two years ago and is severely disabled after losing a large part of his hip to the disease.

Due to bureaucratic criteria constraints, Mr Walshremains ineligible for a total and permanent disability pension, which he believes would be far more helpful than compensation.

Even if he receives the maximum $270,000 compensation he's now eligible for, he says it will offset his current pens-ion, negating much of the benefit. “That's treating it like income rather than compensation,” he said.

While his current pension provides only $320 a fortnight, a total and permanent disability pension would provide $1100 a fortnight.

“I may live another 20 years, so the total and permanent disability pension would be far more appropriate for me than the payout,” he said.

“But to get that I have to prove the cancer was service related, and the Royal Australian Air Force won't recognise chemical poisoning as a cause and I can only get it if the cancer is deemed terminal – which it's not.”

To understand the horrific working conditions Mr Walsh and his mates endured, you have to understand the F-111.

Often described as a flying fuel tank, the long-range fighter-bomber was responsible for maintaining Australia's forward defence and strike capabilities for almost 40 years.

Unlike most aircraft with fuel tanks, every available cavity in the jet aircraft was utilised to carry fuel using toxic two-pac sealants that regularly failed.

Maintenance crews would have to crawl in through small openings in the fume-filled tanks and make their way through the structure to the leaks. In the subtropical conditions at Queensland's Amberley air base they wore only shorts and T-shirts with inadequate masks while they scrapped off the old sealant and resealed the leaks.

They worked in pairs – one remained outside holding a rope line while one worked inside, swapping each hour.

Mr Walsh remembers many men passing out and having to be pulled out by the rope.

“You'd come out and your eyes and mouth stung and your lips would be swollen and most of us got dermatitis – if I handle fuel today my skin comes off,” he said.

“They gave us rubber gloves, but every time you mixed up the goop to seal the leaks it would melt them.”

Mr Walsh worked in the tanks from 1973 to 1980, when the air force finally started the official F-111 desealing and resealing program.

Part of his and his co-workers problem is the RAAF's lack of acknowledgment of the workers before the job was officially sanctioned.

“I have mates who worked with me who have given up their claims due to the bur-eaucracy and the complexity of the hoops you have to jump through,” he said.

According to Minister Griffin, an estimated additional 2400 workers will now have easier access to compensation and health care for medical conditions linked to F-111 fuel tank repairs.

The package is in response to the findings of a parliamentary inquiry into F-111 workers and their families.



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