Jay served as a flight engineer and weapons systems technician in the Royal
Australian Air Force for over 22 years. In that time he operated as a flight
engineer on several different aircraft types including the C–130 Hercules, the
HS 748 and the Chinook helicopter. He left the RAAF to take up a career as a
logistics analyst with a major Australian aerospace company.
lives with his family in Queensland.
This novel is a work of fiction.
Any procedures, practices and policies mentioned
herein are not intended to be representative of those that are employed by the
Australian Defence Forces or any Australian Government agencies. Reference to
operational units, bases and locations are used only to create realism and do
not necessarily represent actual units and bases. In writing this work, I did
not intend to present events or circumstances that reflect unfavourably on the
Australian Defence Forces or any other Australian Federal, State or Local
All of the characters in
this book are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead
is purely coincidental.
I woke up.
It wasn’t the first time that morning. Young Steven was quietly
whimpering in the room next to ours and my dozing wife gently, yet persistently
nudged my leg with hers until I got the message. My turn. It was light now, but
early…6.46 a.m…Bloody early for a Sunday. I swung out and staggered to his
room. The little fellow was on his side facing away from the door, the doona
pulled up over his face. I think he was trying to hide his crying (aware of our
having approached him a few times earlier). I sat next to him and he turned to
me. I could see the tears.
‘How’s it going, buddy?’ I asked.
‘It hurts again, Daddy. I’m sorry.’
I smiled and dried his tears with my hand.
‘It’s okay mate. I was up anyway. I’ll get some more medicine,
He smiled a little and nodded. I padded along the cold floor and fetched
the Panadol. Ear infection, the scourge of the child or so it seemed. Both our
boys had suffered from them. Pete, our eldest appeared to be over it. But Steven
was either recovering from earache or just contracting one. They always happened
on the weekend. There was no doubt he would be off to the emergency room after
Medical matters dealt with for the moment, at least, I wandered back to
our bedroom and contemplated sliding in beside Trace and taking my chances. I
was almost at the bedside when she mumbled,
‘I’d love a cuppa, Sweetheart.’
Message received and understood. I pulled on my dressing gown and, after
hunting for my right slipper, returned to the kitchen to put on the kettle. I
had a long, cold drink of orange juice. (Apparently, it suppresses certain
As the kettle heated, I opened the curtains in the adjoining family
room. The early morning light streamed in giving the appearance of a pleasant
day. At that moment, I heard Pete say,
‘Morning Dad,’ as he padded behind me in search of the fridge.
‘Can we go to the footy this arvo?’
The weather looked as though we probably could. His favourite team,
Penrith, was at home to Newcastle and that promised to be a good game.
‘Yeah, mate, maybe. It depends on how your brother is.’
That reminded me of something. I had recorded Friday night’s football
game and, as we had been out most of yesterday, I now had an opportunity to
watch it in peace. Half the family was still in bed and I was up with no chance
of going back.
I did the right thing and gave Trace breakie in bed. Then I fixed myself
cereal and coffee and sat in front of the box armed with the remote. I had set
the video to start about five minutes before the game and the first images I saw
were part of a news report. It went like this:
…Federal Government announced late today it has offered military
assistance to the Papua New Guinean Government in its attempt to resolve the
Costa Maurian crisis. The PNG Defence Force is set to move onto the island and,
following a successful breakthrough in negotiations with the Rebel forces
currently controlling the island, act as a peace-keeping force until final
details of the settlement are agreed on. Australian Prime Minister, Colin
Jeffery said assistance from Australia would be in the form of Medical and
They then crossed to the Prime Minister standing on the steps of some
building. A reporter asked,
‘Do you think we will finally see an end to the trouble in Costa Mauri?’
‘Yes, I think this is the start to a peaceful and lasting resolution.
It’s a good thing for both countries.’
‘Prime Minister, what will Australia’s involvement in the peace
‘We will provide medical supplies, military medical personnel and
logistic-type support from our Army Engineer Regiments.’
‘So, we’re not sending in weapons and troops to assist the PNG
The PM paused, his brow creased. Then he said, ‘No, that is not our
His voice carried a hint of annoyance as if the suggestion insulted him.
The studio newsreader was back,
‘And now a look at tomorrow’s weather . . .’
I hit fast-forward on the remote as I thought about what Mr Jeffery had
said. Medical and Logistic support. No guns, no troops. I wondered briefly what
my part in all that might be. It was 7.20 a.m. on Sunday 17th of September and
the game was just about to begin.
So why would I have a part to play, anyway? Well, I am in the Royal
Australian Air Force. My job is to transport medical and logistic-support
equipment around in an aircraft. No, I’m not a pilot. But I am a crewmember
… a flight engineer to be exact. If you have never heard of one, it comes as
no surprise. We are a bit of a rare and, dare I say, dying breed. Aircraft
designers have successfully convinced the aviation industry that computers can
replace a living, breathing human with years of flying experience, the ability
to actually see what’s going on and with, most importantly, a personality.
Flight engineers are the technical experts on the aircraft. The one
I’m currently employed on has a strategically placed seat between, and
slightly behind, the two pilots. The aircraft is a Lockheed C–130H Hercules.
I’ve been operating on these for about five years, having been in the RAAF for
about nineteen (over ten years as a flight engineer). My rank is Warrant
Officer. Although that’s the top, among airman ranks, I’m not in charge of
I work for Seventy-Three Squadron, which is based at Richmond Air Force
Base, northwest of Sydney. The base’s deficiencies are offset by its
advantageous location. Trace and I both come from the Nowra area, south of
Sydney, so it’s pretty convenient.
That was a brief rundown on my life. Oh, by the way, my name’s Derek
McKay or, if you like silly Air Force nicknames, Macca.
As I already knew the score of the rugby league game, I was watching
just to see how badly my team played. Shocking. No other word needed. I sat in
stunned silence as they allowed more tries to be scored against them. By South
Sydney, too, of all teams! My team should be called ‘The Saint George Drags’
Trace wandered through and set about the morning chores.
After fast-forwarding the halftime post mortem, I readied myself for
another forty minutes of, Oh, no! I don’t believe it when the phone
rang. Trace answered and was speaking and laughing into it for a few moments
before calling me. I hit the pause button, leaving the grotesque figure of a
defeated forward on screen and got up to talk.
‘Didn’t you tell your missus never to answer the phone on a
I recognised the voice. ‘It’s a habit. She gets a call from her dad
every Sunday. What I need to instil in her is to tell pricks like you that I’m
too hung over to go flying.’
‘Sorry, mate, but she’s too nice a girl to be that dishonest.
Anyway, I know how much you had to drink last night.’
I decided to cut to the meat. ‘Where to and for how long?’
‘Depart here at 1030 hours for Townsville, pick up some cargo, dump it
in New Guinea somewhere, fly back to Cairns, get shit-faced and return tomorrow
at a casual and gentlemanly hour.’
I felt my temper rising as my boss outlined the mission.
‘Why me, for Christ’s sake?’
‘Well, you did ask me awhile back if you could do an overseas trip.
And you happen to be home and sober. I also wanted to send someone with, how
should I say it . . . diplomacy skills.’
‘Two reasons. One, the final destination details are sketchy and two,
there’s some cluster potential - Ramjet’s Captain.’
I raised my eyes to the ceiling. ‘You saved the best till last. Who
else have you lumbered me with?’
‘I’ve no idea who else is going. Depends what fools answer their
I shook my head as I realised I couldn’t get out of it. ‘What did
you say to Trace that made her laugh?’
‘I told her she was married to the best engineer I have.’
‘Biggest sucker, more like,’ I amended. ‘Goodbye Ray, enjoy your
I hung up and looked for Trace. As I passed the TV, grotesque image
still frozen on screen, I thought: I know just how you feel, mate.
Trace was in the bedroom wrestling with the king-size bed sheet. I
grabbed one side and helped position it. She asked without looking at me,
‘Do you have time for this?’
‘Not really. I’m trying to be nice because I’m about to wreck our
We kept making the bed.
‘Where are you going?’
‘PNG, somewhere. I’ll be home tomorrow.’
‘And I suppose you’re the only engineer at home, today?’
‘Not really. Ray wants me to go. He thinks my experience might come in
handy. I’ve been up that way more than most others.’ I explained, trying to
stuff a pillow into a pillowcase. (Why do they always seem too small?)
‘What about Steven? I suppose I’ll have to take him to hospital.’
Shit! I forgot all about the little blighter. ‘Yeah,’ I mumbled.
‘I guess you will. I’m sorry. I’ll bring you back a bottle of duty-free
Baileys to make it up to you.’
‘When will it end, Derek?’
Her tone said how upset she was. I guess, four weekends in a row was
pissing her off as much as me.
‘When I get a job with Cathay Pacific. All that extra loot will make
up for it.’
She turned and left for Steven’s room, hiding her anger or tears by
cuddling the softly moaning child. (I heard him wake up while we were making the
I stripped, showered, shaved and dressed inside fifteen minutes. As I
was pulling on my flying suit, commonly referred to as a zoom bag, Pete
came in and expressed his sentiments over my having to go to work again - when
Penrith were playing at home. I mumbled through the usual apologies and made a
couple of stupid promises, neither of which were likely to be fulfilled and he
went off whinging. I didn’t blame him, not one bit. This sort of thing has
caused many an aircrew family to cash in the chips and split up. I never wanted
that. These guys were a necessary safety valve. Maybe if I just kept making
promises . . .
Little Steven helped me pack. He always helped. When Trace told him I
was going away, he staggered out of bed to help, sore ear and all. I got to kiss
Trace and Steven before I backed my ’78 Toyota Corona out of the carport.
Pete wasn’t interested.
I parked the heap in a car park near the squadron building. The
number of parked cars suggested a lot of blokes were away. Probably the real
reason I was picked for this trip … no one else off duty. As I lifted my
canvas crew-bag from the boot another car pulled in, nearby. I was pleased to
see the face of Michael (Fonz) Portella smiling at me as he parked.
‘Well, well! Another idiot who couldn’t resist the temptation of
answering the phone on Sunday,’ I announced, wandering over.
‘It’s my birthday! I was expecting a call from my mum,’ Fonz
replied as he eased his lanky frame from behind the wheel.
‘Didn’t she disown you at birth?’
‘Nearly. When I joined this outfit. Didn’t want her boy fighting the
‘Well,’ I continued. ‘I’m not sure what colour you’ll be
fighting today, mate. But you’ll be pleased to know you’ll be fighting
alongside a certified squadron hero.’
I could see a cloud pass over Fonz’s face.
‘I jest not. The one and only. . .’
‘The very same.’
‘Well, that fucks up my day just perfectly.’
‘And,’ I added to his misery, ‘it isn’t ten a.m., yet!’
By this time we were at the front door of the squadron building; Fonz
punched in the door code. We dropped our bags in the foyer next to another set
belonging to a loadmaster, Blockhead Dury. As I wasn’t aware of any
other trips going out today, I figured he was our loady. Fonz and I exchanged
glances as we noticed the nametag on the crew bag. I raised my eyebrows, so did
‘Booze, Fonz, just think booze. You, me, a pub wall to wall with
tarts. What better birthday present could you ask for?’
‘Scotty beaming me there direct would be nice.’
At this stage we parted company, Fonz heading for the Operations Room,
me to Flight Engineer section. I said to Fonz’s back,
‘Happy birthday, mate.’
He didn’t turn.
I wandered into the office and picked up my leather publications bag. We
call it a nav bag (that’s what it has always been called). In mine are
flight manuals, performance manuals, circuit books, my checklist and stick
books. They’re a must for long-haul flights. I also grabbed a tool roll and
headed out the door. The next stop was the storeroom downstairs. I needed a
tools-and-spares box. I heard Blockhead scrounging around when I walked in.
‘Hey, Block,’ I called. ‘You lost something?’
‘Gidday, Macca! Just trying to find an esky with a lid. The fellas on Northern
Ranger have cleaned out the place.’
‘Just see that you do,’ I replied, mockingly. ‘I’m gonna need a
cold beer by the time this shit-fight is over.’
‘I hear ya, mate,’ he replied from behind a stack of gear.
I found the last remaining toolbox on top of a wheeled spares-box in the
corner. Opening the box, I surveyed its meagre contents. It seems the fellas
deployed on exercise Northern Ranger had taken more than just all the
eskies with lids. The box contained about half its usual contents. At least
there was an engine starter-motor. I closed the lid, put my nav-bag and toolbox
on top and wheeled the lot out the door.
Block called, ‘If you wait a couple of minutes, I’ll give you a
‘No worries mate,’ I replied. ‘I’ll enjoy the walk.’
It wasn’t hard to find aircraft A97–013: it was one of only two
Hercules on the line. I scrutinised the aircraft walking towards it. Not an
overly attractive craft, but it wasn’t exactly ugly, either. They’re built
to do a job and that’s exactly how they look - functional. Big, fat nose
housing powerful radar, long wings high on the fuselage to support the four
turbo-prop engines with paddle-type propeller. Fat, balloon-like tyres sit under
a large, round fuselage. Only its mother could love it. And fools like me, who
appreciate them for being great offices to work in.
Soon I arrived at the crew entrance-door, which is located on the left
just aft of the big, fat nose. This door has steps on the inside, so when it’s
open or down, you can step on it to get in or out. Sometimes they are referred
to as an airstair. I lifted my gear off the makeshift trolley and entered
the cavernous fuselage.
The smell is the next thing to hit you. The Herc smell. They all smell
the same, except some of the Asian ones. Inside it’s dark as there aren’t
many windows, just a few small portholes along the side. I didn’t loiter in
the cargo compartment, instead heading straight up the ladder to the sharp end
or the flight deck.
I then busied myself sorting out my stuff and organising my little
space. I hooked my helmet to the oxygen supply and attached my headset to the
intercom lead. Then placed the rest of my kit in its designated place.
In general, the flight-deck layout is functional and roomy. The
pilots’ seats are up front, on each side of a wide console. The flight
engineer, me, sits right behind the console in the middle of the flight deck.
The navigator sits at a table against the wall on the right behind the co-pilot.
There’s no doubt about it I have the best seat in the house. I can see
everything and reach most of the switches and knobs without stretching too far.
When I was happy with my set-up, I wandered off to the flight-line hut
to engage in some pre-departure banter with the maintenance crew and to check
out the aircraft’s maintenance log, or Five Hundred, as it was called.
‘Fuck stick,’ I was welcomed with.
‘Moron.’ I replied, then added in slow, childish words. ‘Is there
someone here I can talkie to about big aero planey thing?’
A smile cranked across the maintenance sergeant’s normally deadpan
face. I was in luck; my old sparing partner, Bill Paterson was on shift.
‘You havta, talky me,’ he said. ‘And please try to ask your own
questions not ones written out for you.’
I laughed and asked, ‘Okay, what’s the story with 013?’
‘Nothing at present, but you haven’t touched it yet.’
I looked through the logbook noting the latest history of flights and
unserviceabilities. There wasn’t too much of interest. The last engineer to
fly her, noted a propeller synchronisation problem but hadn’t performed the
‘If it’s not too much trouble, could you do a re-sync some time?’
‘I’ll see if I can fit it in between reading the latest Playboy and
eating lunch.’ I closed the logbook and said, ‘See ya tomorrow.’
‘Okay. Say gidday to Ken and Rod up there. Tell ‘em I hope they’ve
lost all their money at the Casino. Bastards.’
I stopped at the door and asked, ‘What’s the story?’
‘Prop change on 017. First one they put on leaked like a sieve.
You’re taking up another.’
I looked over to my aircraft. The ramp was open and a propeller on a
pallet was being loaded in.
‘Will do. See ya, Pencil Dick.’
‘Yeah, Cluster Fuck.’
On arriving back at the aircraft, I began the pre-flight. This series of
visual and physical checks, takes about forty to fifty minutes although I’ve
seen some blokes knock one over in about twenty. The sequence is laid out in the
flight manual but most of us have our own versions, which have to be explained
once a year to a check engineer.
‘Why don’t you follow the laid down sequence?’
‘I don’t like it. It doesn’t flow.’
‘It’s written so nothing is missed.’
‘It was written by someone who never did one.’
And so it goes on. As a check engineer myself, I asked the same question
but only so I could see the guy squirm a little. Good fun that.
As I was doing the external check, Block arrived to start his checks and
‘I told air movements I wanted the prop in ‘E’ and they put it in
‘F’. These inflights are not what I ordered. Ramjet is a complete idiot.’
(‘E’ is a position in the cargo compartment; inflights are meals
eaten by aircrew and Ramjet is a pilot.)
I agreed whole-heartedly with his last statement but the others sounded
a little trivial. A Hercules propeller on a pallet weighs about 1500 pounds or
680 odd kilos. The Hercules cargo compartment is divided into individual
sections each with its own letter designation. The difference in C of G, or
centre of gravity between compartments ‘E’ and ‘F’ on an otherwise empty
aircraft is minimal. ‘F’ was probably a better spot, anyway. The in-flight
meals were important but I’m sure it wasn’t going to be a showstopper. I
didn’t know what Ramjet said to upset him until I saw him load a bag of
life-preserver yokes (life jackets) onboard.
‘Dick,’ he ranted. ‘Just in case. Be prepared. Man’s a complete
clown for making me take all this.’
I could still hear him mumbling as I began the power-on checks. While
checking the fuel systems, our co-pilot stomped up the air-stairs hauling crew
bag, nav bag, helmet bag, suit bag. He had obviously missed Block and the van.
He staggered up the ladder onto the flight deck clearly out of breath.
‘Phew! Gidday Macca! This one going to Townsville and New Guinea?’
I held my finger on the fuel cross-feed prime-switch (thirty seconds
required) and replied in a calm voice,
‘No, mate. We’re going to Learmonth. The Townsville aircraft is
I nodded in the direction of the only other Herc on the lot.
‘You’re kidding! Ramjet will kill me! I’m running late as it
He started to collect his kit.
‘Yeah, Willi. I’m kidding.’
He looked at me, his big brown eyes questioning my sense of humour.
‘You’re a prick, Macca!’ he declared, dumping his gear again.
‘It’s okay, Willi. I get paid for it.’
He headed off down the ladder passing Fonz on the way. I heard him say,
‘Watch out for Macca, he’s in a shit-stirring mood.’
‘You stirring up Willi?’ Fonz asked, dumping his gear on the Nav’s
‘He doesn’t need any help from me,’ I replied. ‘I bet he’s
late for his own funeral.’
With my checking completed, I grabbed a brew from the galley and
wandered outside the aircraft for a final leg-stretch. If I were a smoker, I’d
have my last cigarette now before departure. Fonz joined me at the wing tip,
chocolate milk in hand.
‘Happy Birthday.’ I said saluting him with my coffee cup.
‘Thanks.’ He replied, gently clinking his flavoured-milk carton on
my polystyrene cup.
I said, ‘We’ll celebrate properly tonight, mate, with a couple of
‘I’ll drink to that.’
‘Me, too. It’s the time between then and now that worries me.’
I nodded over Fonz’s shoulder. He turned in the direction of my gaze.
Ramjet was walking toward the aircraft, nav bag, helmet bag, sunglasses.
‘How bad can it be Macca?’ Fonz queried. ‘He’s got me and you to
keep him honest.’
‘It’s not his honesty that worries me,’ I replied, draining the
last of my brew. ‘I just don’t trust the bastard.’
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