Did you work on Sea Kings?

Did you work on Sea Kings?

File No. RAN8109938_040310_327.JPG Date Taken: 20040310 Photographer: Able Seaman Yuri Ramsey Where: Townsville, QLD A Sea King Helicopeter approaching HMAS TOBRUK for VERTREP operations during EX SEA LION 04 More than 500 Royal Australian Navy, Army and Airforce personnel are on the move to Cowley Beach, north of townsville, to participate in the first of the Australian Defence Force's amphibious training exercises for the year, EXERCISE SEA LION. The three week long exercise which runs until 19 March 2004 is part of the ADF's ongoing efforts to improve it's amphibious capability for the defence of Australia. Exercise SEA LION will involve HMA Ships TOBRUK, LABUAN, BRUNEI and TARAKAN, elements from 3 Brigade, 10 Force Support Battalion and 5 Aviation Regiment. The exercise will focus on the planning and conduct of amphibious operations. It will exercise the different services of the ADF in working in a joint environment to develop and refine features for the ADF's amphibious capability. Exercise SEA LION will involve an amphibious work-up consisting mainly of embarkation and disembarkation procedures. The exercise will also involve planning and loading a variety of cargoes, activities to practice skills in the control of watercraft and helicopter drills and practice amphibious formations and procedures. Exercises such as this play a vital part in developing, maintaining and testing the readiness and sustainability of the ADF. The ADF is aware of the sensitive environment in which the exercise will take place and the exercise will be conducted within a strict environmental, safety and risk management constraints. A Sea King Helicopeter approaching HMAS TOBRUK for VERTREP operations during EX SEA LION 04

In August 2016 the FAAAA was asked to post the following advice from the Commander Fleet Air Arm, Commodore Chris Smallhorn: 

“A recent review into the death of a serving member by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force concluded that the member’s cancer was in all likelihood caused by exposure to respirable asbestos fibres, petroleum, petroleum by-products, toxins or a combination of these whilst serving at 817 Squadron from 1999 to 2012.

Former 817 Squadron members should be aware that the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) provides health care to eligible ex-ADF members suffering from cancer, even where the cancer was not caused by their ADF service. An ex-member may be eligible if they served on an operational deployment during their career or served at least three years between December 1972 and April 1994.

Where an ex-member is concerned that a medical condition may have been caused by their ADF service they should consider lodging a claim with DVA. Additional information on the process is available on the DVA website: http://www.dva.gov.au/benefits-and-payments/compensation or by contacting DVA on 133 254.”

We duly posted this advice, as requested, under the heading “Did You Work On Sea Kings?”. The FAAAA also wrote to COMFAAA the following day seeking further information on this issue as we believed the above advice raised many unanswered questions.  We also asked for a copy of the Inspector General ADF’s (IGADF) report. 

Regrettably, after some eight months of trying, it has fallen to COMFAA to now advise us that the IGADF report will not be released to the Fleet Air Arm Association of Australia.  The text of COMFAA’s letter of 28 April 2017 read as follows:



Thank you for your letter of 14 August 2016 regarding the article released on your website that intended to inform ex Fleet Air Arm (FAA) members on the findings of the Inspector General Australian Defence Force (IGADF) into the death of POATA ****. I apologise for the delay in my response. You would appreciate that with the current level of media appetite regarding broader chemical contamination issues, I sought specific guidance in responding appropriately to your concerns.

I appreciate your assistance in keeping ex-serving members informed of very important issues through your newsletter and website. Continued cooperation and open communication remains critical to ensure the welfare of our current and former serving members.

I take this opportunity to iterate that the intent and scope of the IGADF Review was to determine whether or not POATA ****’s death was service-related. As such, broader issues that you have raised were not addressed. All aspects of the IGADF Review focused on the timelines and likely influences as they related to POATA **** only.

IGADF concluded that on the balance of probabilities, along with other factors and despite a lack of clinical evidence, PO ****’ death likely arose out of his service.

Because of its specific focus on PO ****, it would be incorrect to say that the IGADF Review findings applied to the broader FAA community. Similarly, it would be incorrect to state that the IGADF Review findings were a warning to the broader FAA community. What I do emphasise is that POATA ****’s death was felt by the FAA tight knit community and that it behoves our organisations to actively promote the avenues available to our people to obtain the support they require.

I ask that you re-enforce my previous intent to inform former FAA members of the IGADF Review and its findings and not draw broader conclusions. Further, I strongly encourage any former ADF member who is suffering health related issues that they believe may be related to their service to contact the Department of Veterans’ Affairs for advice, irrespective of when and the nature of their service.

I can confirm that the IGADF Review into the death of POATA **** will not be publicly released.

I thank the Fleet Air Arm Association for its continuing important work in providing a place of fellowship and esprit de corps for our ex-FAA members. I continue to find great comfort in the close relationship between those serving and those who once served – in my mind, we never stop.

Yours sincerely,

CJ Smallhorn

We wish to thank COMFAA for his support thus far: he has probably found the long delays in progressing this matter as frustrating as we have.  We are also cognisant of his advice that we should not draw broader conclusions regarding the death of this member.  

Nonetheless, we also note one conclusion of the IGADF’s investigation was that ‘…in all likelihood, the member’s cancer  was caused by exposure to respirable asbestos fibres, petroleum, petroleum by-products, toxins or a combination of these whilst serving at 817 Squadron from 1999 to 2012.’  We therefore remain of the belief that access to the IGADF’s Report may help us better understand what led the IGADF to reach this conclusion, and, if possible, to make an informed assessment on behalf of our members whether the circumstances were indeed limited to the tragic death of this one member, and if so, why.   Even if the report does not throw further light on these things we will at least have been able to satisfy ourselves in that regard. 

To that end the Association will not withdraw from this matter and is writing to the IGADF directly. Should that not be successful, we will then take the matter to the next level in our quest to find answers the questions we previously asked. 

Update December 2017

Regrettably our attempts to have meaningful discussion with IG ADF have not been successful and we are writing to the Chief of the Defence Force to seek his intervention in this matter. 

Update March 2018

We have just heard back from the Chief of the Defence Force that the Fleet Air Arm Association will be allowed to view the report into the death of the member, although we will not be permitted to take a hard copy with us.  

The National President and webmaster are intending to take up CDF’s offer, and a date is being negotiated with Defence.  Further advice will be reproduced here, once we have sighted the report. 

Update May 2018

After significant delays we have been provided with a date on which we can view the report in situ at a Defence locality.  The National President and Webmaster will do this in Canberra on 14 May 2018. 

Update June 2018

As noted above, the National President and the Webmaster were able to view the Inspector General’s report on 14 June 2018, but not to remove a copy from the locality.  By way of background, the member had joined the RAN in March of 1997 and was subsequently posted to HS817 Squadron where, aside from one 18-month stint, he served until the Sea King retired from service in 2012. In March of that year he was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma and widespread mestastes, from which he died in early 2014.

The member was not a smoker nor was there any history of kidney cancer in his family, so the Inspector General conducted an investigation to determine, prima facie, if his cancer could be attributed to his Service; and if so, what measures should be taken to protect other people who may be at risk. 

The report concluded that during his time on HS817 Squadron the member was likely to have been exposed to a range of potentially harmful products. These included engine oil lines, the shrouds of which were found to contain asbestos, and many chemical products, 24 of which contained Toluene Dyes (exposure to Toluene increases the risk of collecting dust carcinomas). 

In the absence of any family history of cancer and the lack of any other identified source of exposure, the IG concluded that the member’s illness was most likely caused by his Service. The report noted, however, that it was rare for carcinomas to cause kidney cancer, nor is such a cancer common in one so young.  In that regard the case was very unusual.

The report then went into some length on the practices in the Squadron during the time the member served.  It reached the conclusion there was either inadequate knowledge of the hazards associated with some materials, and/or a less than optimum regime for avoiding (or at least minimising) exposure to those that were known.   That is not to say that progress was not made, but the steps were slow, and in many cases safety processes were not adequately enforced.

The report also examined to what extent such hazards existed from 2012 to the present. It noted that aircraft post the Sea King era do not have the same hazardous maintenance requirements (for example, entering fuel tanks). Further, there is far greater understanding of chemical hazards and a much stronger regime of safety practice and enforcement in the Fleet Air Arm.  It concluded that the processes and practices now in place are adequate to avoid tragic cases like this one.

Whilst the IG’s report was thorough within its scope, it did not, in our view, adequately cover the matter of risks for other people in the member’s cohort.  Further, it did not raise whether the same hazards existed on other Squadrons and/or Flights of the time. We know that some components of the Sea King were not replicated on other types – for example, the nature of the oil line shrouding – but many of the fuels, oils, cleaners and chemicals used on HS817 may well have been in common use elsewhere at that time, and the practices and processes in using them were likely to have been be similar.

Our National President discussed the report’s finding with COMFAA on 15 May.  It is important to place on record that he has consistently engaged us on this matter, within the limits of his authority, and there is no doubt that he has given the interests of past members much thought. 

In consideration of the circumstances of this case a possible conclusion is that everyone who worked on Sea Kings prior to 2012 – and possibly those who worked on other aircraft of that era – had the same level of risk as the deceased member. We believe this is incorrect for the following reasons:

  • In the absence of any other explanation the member’s exposure to potential hazards on HS817 was attributed as the cause of his illness – but it is known that carcinomas seldom cause kidney cancer, and respiratory fibres (such as from asbestos) are more likely to affect the lungs. This was a very unusual case.
  • Not everybody who was working on HS817 (or other units) would have been exposed to the same level of hazard as the deceased member. In fact it would be almost impossible to identify which people were at a ‘high’ level of risk and which were not: and even if they were exposed to that level, it does not mean they will necessarily get cancer.
  • There is no evidence of a trend of similar cases in the timeframe involved: indeed, we are not aware of any others of this type.

COMFAA is of the view that the best strategy to manage the situation is to make all members of that timeframe aware of what happened; to encourage them to monitor their health, and provide them with options should they be concerned.  On balance, we agree.  The suggestion that some form of screening be established is impracticable as the medical fraternity are at a loss to know what sort of screening would be effective in the context of the three dot points above.

Those who served in HS817 and other Squadrons at that time are scattered to the four winds, and this website and our monthly magazine is probably the most effective networking mechanism we have. So – if you were one of them please take on board the following advice.

  • Monitor your health and, if you have any concerns visit your GP for advice and a check-up. Many of us are getting on in years, so this should be something you are doing in any case!
  • If you are concerned that a medical condition may have been caused by your service, register with the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (DVA). Their website is here, and their phone number is 133 254.