The 13th night

13th night book cover

 F-III crash aftermath

McNess, J. The thirteenth night: A mother’s story of the life and death of her son.  Fremantle Arts Centre Press: Fremantle, 2003. 319 pp. $24.95 paperback.

This is a poignant story written by a mother who raised a difficult but beautiful child, proud to see him join the RAAF Academy, qualify as a pilot, pass out top in nearly all his courses, achieve his life-long ambition of flying an F-111, but crash at night under moderately difficult conditions. The author claims that a possibly inefficient accident investigation and clean up process preceded years of institutionalised political and legal duckshoving due to “lack of backbone” in senior RAAF officers.

Flight Lieutenant Jeremy McNess and his navigator Flight Lieutenant Mark Cairns-Cowan crashed in their F-111 while performing a moderately difficult Terrain Following Radar (TFR) simulated toss-bomb attack on the meatworks at Guyra, NSW, about 7:16 pm, Monday 13 September, 1993. The RAAF claim the cause was primarily a loss of situational awareness (read pilot error), but acknowledge the remote possibility of a number of other factors.

The first two-thirds of the book is devoted to McNess’s birth and development into a fine young RAAF officer. As a baby and child, he displayed a number of the florid signs of mild autism, a very serious and usually chronic disorder that afflicts chiefly males born to high-achieving parents, such as his mother and father. The interventions employed by the family were straight out of modern cognitive-behavioural textbooks, whether they knew it or not, and they seem to have succeeded, though no mention is made of any formal autism or similar diagnosis. This said, even though the behaviour features so prominently in the early stages of the book, it is abundantly clear that the mental and social retardation that frequently goes with autistic behaviour never affected McNess in his adult life and the disorder almost certainly played no part whatsoever in the accident.

The remaining third describes a post-accident process that left the mother and some parts of the family feeling alone and suffering badly. Of course no mother is quick to accept that such a brilliant son could commit “pilot error”. On the other hand, there appear to be a series of less than optimum performances by the RAAF, not the least of which were the body parts found at the crash site by McNess’s widow during each of two visits there weeks after the crash. Oddly, there was no Board of Inquiry or Coroner Inquest.

 “Knot of anger”

It must be acknowledged that mothers and fathers, however committed, must remain secondary to spouses when processing next-of-kin issues, but there has to be a better approach than a perceived wall of aggressive silence to everyone but the widow. Simply talking over the accident, time and time again, for instance with a RAAF chaplain, would certainly have assisted the mother’s grieving process. Predictably, talking it through over a couple of days with Air Marshal Les Fisher, Chief of Air Force, nearly four years later, allowed “the knot of anger” to “begin to soften”, as the mother claimed.

The author discusses important crewing and night flying continuity issues, but these are probably irrelevant. Strangely, neither she nor the RAAF, in the letters she quotes, make any mention of the usually mandatory simulator training that might have some bearing. An entirely different perspective might be considered had their been no simulator training whatsoever by either of this crew in recent months.

Some eyewitnesses claim that the aircraft was on fire or dumping fluid before it hit, but this also seems never to have been explored systematically by the RAAF, according to the author. However, in one aspect, catastrophic fire in the air or airframe failure after, say, a birdstrike, could have been irrelevant. Had there been an emergency like that, short of a birdstrike that rendered the aircrew senseless, competent aircrew such as McNess and Cairns-Cowan almost certainly would have ejected their cockpit capsule. It is also almost certain that these issues would have been explained to the author by such an experienced and compassionate a pilot as Les Fisher.

Pelican birdstrikePelican birdstrike

A simple birdstrike can do a lot of damage to an aircraft travelling at attack speeds.This RAAF F111 collided head on with a pelican, 11 April 2008, during a practice bomb run. The impact virtually destroyed the nose cone and severely damaged one engine to the extent that it could deliver only partial power. Had the bird struck a millisecond later, it might well have penetrated the cockpit.

One thought on “The 13th night

  1. I would love to be able to talk with the author of the above review as I will never lose my desire to better understand what happened that night. I maintain a good relationship with the Air Force and count a number of senior officers (Jeremy’s peers) as good friends of our family.

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