Jessica Salih

By all accounts, my father was what they call a top bloke. A Flight Engineer on C-130 Hercules, he was tall, funny and loved motorbikes, rugby and surfing. He was as active and manly as the Marlboro Man. He was married with two young children, worked in a job he loved, and had more friends than he could count.

They say that only the good die young, and perhaps was the case for this aviator. His life was cut short on 27 January 1982, at the age of twenty-six when he died of heat stroke whilst during the escape and evasion phase of a Combat Survival Training course (COMSURV) whilst serving in the Air Force.  The course was intended to teach aviators survival in different ground environments after an aircraft crash or unintended landing. The irony is not lost on me, to die on a course that literally has the word ‘survival’ in the title.

Even though my father was fit due to his active lifestyle, he worked to increase his fitness even further for the course ahead, running a marathon a fortnight before embarking on COMSURV. In hindsight that was an ill-fated decision; the report from the investigation into his death suggested that the extreme exertion he was putting his body through leading up to the course was one of the several contributing factors in his death. Another tragic irony.

To put more context to the incident, his particular COMSURV course was held in Summer of 1982 in the mountains Bluewater, just outside of Townsville. At that time Australia was experiencing one of its most intense heatwaves recorded since Federation. Running up and down mountains whilst trying to evade the enemy with little to no water slowly cooked his body and brain, his body still slightly depleted from the marathon he’d run a few weeks prior. Had he thrown in the towel earlier, he’d probably be with us today. Perhaps it was tenacity that killed him? Perhaps stubbornness? It’s hard to say. All I know is that I wished he’d called for help earlier, and not felt the need to push himself to the point of death over a training event.

As I was a toddler at the time of his death, I can’t remember the months that followed. What I’ve learnt from news articles and a few black and white photos is that he was given a full military funeral with cannon volleys and a guard of honour. He was buried in East Ballina cemetery, in a spot overlooking the beach where he surfed as a teenager. Myself, my brother, and my mother were flown to his funeral in Northern NSW from RAAF Richmond in a C-130 Hercules. Shortly afterwards we moved out of our military provided housing, as we no longer had a serving military member to justify our housing provision.

At this point you might think our family ties with the RAAF were severed, but in fact, it was quite the opposite. My mother was a member of the RAAF Women’s Association (RAAFWA). For those not familiar with it, the RAAFWA was a collective of RAAF wives who regularly came together with the intent of organizing activities on base and in the community for a positive outcome. The Navy and the Army had similar groups, and for many of the women it provided an ability to make friends and establish social links, of great importance when arriving at a new posting locality. Defence Community Organisation (DCO) has absorbed many of the RAAFWA functions, in a more manner more inclusive of modern families. I applaud the women of the RAAFWA, but also those who formed DCO, understanding that it needed an organization more fitting for changing family groups.

My mother went to base almost every day as she was also given casual work at the RAAF Richmond thrift store. It was the perfect employment for her. My brother who was a year older than me had just started school, but since I was too young I could be entertained on the floor with any second-hand toy from the store while my mother server customers. Would something like this still occur today? Financial support of military dependents changed after the Black Hawk Disaster of 1996, which in yet another ironic circumstance occurred not too far from where my father died. A change to compensation was updated following this event, which meant that the need to work would likely not be required in the first place. At this point in my life my time was divided between the RAAF Richmond Thrift Store and the kindergarten on base. Circumstances had changed, but I was still a quintessential RAAF brat.

Through her work in the RAAFWA my mother met a navigator from 36 SQN and soon married him. It all happened very quickly - three months from when they met to when they wed, producing two babies over the following two years. He was a woeful replacement for the father I had lost, a terrible step-parent. His career at this time as a junior officer meant I followed a well-trodden military brat path, moving house every two years or so. As a teenager I considered the RAAF a major hinderance to my life, especially by the time I had enrolled in my seventh school and was living in my nineth home. Even now when people ask ‘where did you grow up?’, I don’t know which of the three states and one territory is best to answer the questions with. Classic problems of military children – one that still lingers today.

As it was, financial circumstances and a lack of other reasonable opportunities led me down that path, and I joined the Air Force shortly after turning eighteen. My mother and step-father had put considerable effort into encouraging my brother to join any of the three services, and had in absolutely no way directed any effort towards me to do the same. In many ways the soft sexism was the catalyst that inspired me to apply. I had done relatively little research into what it meant, but I was keen to move out of home and earn some money whilst simultaneous challenging old-fashioned gender roles I had come to face in my household. When observing cultural change, this is one part of the story that I’d like to think has changed – for parents to envisage their girls as future aviators, soldiers or sailors, not just their boys.

Fortunately, this highly rushed act of defiance turned out a brilliant decision. The main reasons I say this is because:

  • For the first time in my entire life, I felt like I belonged to a group that readily accepted me. No longer the single strange new kid in yet another school, instead one of many thrown together from all walks across Australia. No longer a stepchild of lesser value than my other siblings, just an aviator in the same uniform as those around me. No conforming to antiquated gender-roles, I was equal to my colleagues. In the military I was part of a group, valued on my effort and performance. It was amazing.
  • I finally understood how my father died. In fact, I had to do the same course that killed him.

Allow me to unpack that last point. Growing up, I was baffled as to how my father died. I vaguely understood he had died in the jungle in a training incident, and I learnt early on not to ask my mother for more details, as on the few times I had she became angry and ended up in a screamed monologue about everything except what I had asked. Grief is a funny thing like that, but also it was the 80’s and she was of the generation where you bottled up your feelings till one day they exploded at the wrong person, only to re-bottle up the uncomfortable feelings and eventually repeat the cycle again. It was classic trauma-suppression, the kind that often manifests in self-destructive behaviour like alcoholism, drug abuse, or in my mother’s case – random bouts of extreme and sometimes violent rage aimed at a hapless kid cowering on the floor. Younger generations are more open to dealing with mental health, and certainly the Defence organization recognizes nowadays that trauma is a health issue that can be treated. I often wonder if there were the support networks offered by Defence or Government that we have now were offered in 1982 how differently things would have been for our family. Alas, I’ll never know, but I suspect it would have made for a less-violent childhood.

ANZAC Day is always particularly uncomfortable. When I see the family of fallen members commemorating the life of their lost loved one, I felt pangs of jealousy and guilt. My family never did anything to remember my father. This might have partly because ANZAC Day just wasn’t as big an event in the psyche of Australians like it has been post-Timor years, or because it was because a workplace incident didn’t seem worthy of ANZAC commemoration. Realistically it because it didn’t matter if it was ANZAC Day or not - our family swept him under the rug like he never existed, rarely mentioning his name. I spent a good deal of my childhood aching with an incredible sense of loss for a parent who I couldn’t remember and knew little about.

After several years in the service, I remustered to aircrew. The price to pay for this new change in career was that I had to undergo the very course that had killed my father as part of compulsory aircrew training. I’m thankful I was forced into jumping that hurdle. You see, whilst in the Escape and Evasion phase running up and down the same mountains my father had twenty years earlier, I felt a sense of calm. Or maybe it was dehydration? Either way, confronting the course gave me all the missing pieces from the puzzle of my life.

On my first day of arrival at COMSURV the commanding officer of the school came to see me. He informed me that he knew my name, my circumstances, and even talked about my father as he had known him personally. It tugged a heartstring just hearing someone openly mention his name. On the night we went into the Escape and Evasion phase the COMSURV staff woke myself and my coursemates up in the middle of the night, placed a black-out masks on our heads, loaded us into a Caribou, flew us to a dirt runway in the middle of nowhere, handed us a map, radio and told our group that had three days to move across a mountain range undetected by the enemy with no food and water. Before our group scrammed, they pulled me aside and gave me a special codeword to use on the radio if it all got too much due to my unique situation and I needed to bug out. That moment remains burnt in my brain as one of the most considerate things anyone has ever done for me. I didn’t have too much time to linger on it at that time though as a moment later they returned me to the group and yelled at us to start running.

After several days in the jungle I made it to the solo phase. In dbetween oing my daily ritual of checking for ticks and sourcing water I had time to reflect on how easily things could have transpired from a simple training evolution to a NO DUFF medical emergency all those years ago. That poor aviator; heat stroke is a most unpleasant way to die. The military was conducting an unusual activity in an extreme weather event, and whilst it was my father who had died on that particular day, had a few circumstances run differently that day it could just as easily been someone else’s father, mother, brother, siter, daughter, son. Safety culture has moved forward in the last few decades. Whilst we, myself included, often whine about the heavy administrative burden that we face with risk management profiles and mandatory training courses, I think back to the circumstances of 27 January 1982. The truth is that that risk profiles and heat awareness courses literally save lives and families.  

So where are we now? My father the Flight Engineer is long-gone. In fact, the trade of Flight Engineer itself is almost a thing of the past too, with only a handful remaining today. There is no outstanding moral, it is just the otherwise untold story of an aviator’s death, and a snapshot of family life from 80’s and 90’s Australia, with themes of service life running throughout. For a long time no one said this aviator’s name, nor told his story. It’s taken me a few decades, but here it is.

His name was Sergeant Christopher Daley.