Friday, December 01, 2006

Remembering Shorty and Hobbs

Like the rest of the country I heard that we had lost two people in a helicopter accident off Fiji yesterday. But when I saw the papers this morning and the front page carried this photo I was jolted somewhat. Here was a face to the name. And somehow it still seemed that part of the family had died, even though I have been out of that family for many years now.

In April 1984 two Mirages collided above Bluff Downs in north Queensland. I was posted to RAAF Townsville, the air base from which the visiting Mirages were operating. I was at home at the time and the news spread over the back fences of the married quarters in a flash. I remember all the families standing out in the street in sobered silence. Even the scampering children were still. We were all saddened. Strangely, we had never met Wylie and Rim yet we behaved and felt like a member of our own families had died. This was really the first time the notion that the military could be a family came home to me. A grossly neglectful family. But a family nonetheless. So much so that thirteen years after they died, and after I had departed the service, I visited the little plaque, lost under the frangipani at the edge of the air movements pad at RAAF Townsville, which remembers them.

There was a similar personal and community sentiment a few years later when we lost our first F-18 after it ploughed into Palm Island during a late evening training sortie. I drove past the base from university to my married quarter and sensed something was up. There was more activity around the parked aircraft then usual so I called in and heard we had lost young Jefferies. And had nearly lost the CO at the same time if I recall correctly. But again we spent the next week sobered by the fact that we lost someone we knew so well but had in fact never met. One of our own. It is a strange sensation and is some sort of vicarious grieving. Surreal but very real. It happened later again when young McNess and his colleague were lost in a F-111 accident. McNess had just moved in across the road from me and I hardly had gotten to know him when I read his name in the paper. He was another of those keen shiny faces that came issued with every new F-111 aircrew member, reflecting their disbelief at the fact that they were actually flying these amazing planes. Yet revelling in every moment of it. Barely introduced and then gone.

So when the defence chiefs get up and declare to the press they are saddened by the loss I am inclined to believe them. I am not so sure about the politicians.

There are two exceptions for me – exceptions in the sense that the grieving was not vicarious. Shorty and Hobbs. Two F-111 crew who I knew well. Steady. Keen to be friends. Hobbs so ready to help in my first days in the squadron when I was still trying to work out which way was up under the stern gaze of the OC each morning. Shorty, always trying to know more, asking endless questions. Quiet but quick to laugh. And both forever forgiving of our (non aircrew!) shortcomings. Both keen to help, and both very inclusive, welcoming us into the squadron fraternity and making us feel part of the club.They died in a F-111 accident in 1999 in Malaysia, years after I left the squadron. That loss I felt keenly. And rued the inability to say goodbye or to somehow express the connection I had with them. I regretted not knowing them better than I did. Men’s men who were all that was, and is good about serving in the military. I remembered them both today when I picked up the paper and grieved the loss of Captain Bingley, a man I never knew.

No comments: