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Australian Story
Last Updated 31 December, 2003

The Chosen One - (The book titled - The Thirteenth Night by J McNess )

Few people will ever experience the thrill and adrenaline rush of flying at twice the speed of sound in a fast jet. This Australian Story is about a young man, Jeremy McNess, who did just that, fulfilling his boyhood dream to become one of the air force's elite pilots. But in a strange twist of fate, it's Jeremy's mother who unexpectedly turned his passion into her obsession.

AIR FORCE TASK LEADER: The primary target for today is the control building at the Lake Dartmouth hydro-electric facility. The aim is to take out that building without actually affecting the dam wall. We'll be ingressing to the initial point in spread, so Sabre Two, if I can have you in my spread left...

JAN MCNESS - JEREMY'S MOTHER: Flying, for Jeremy, seemed to somehow free him from all the frustrations that life seemed to hold for him, from this eternal quest that he seemed to be on. It just seemed to give him a peace and a happiness that other things, so far, hadn't been able to.

COLLEEN MCNESS - JEREMY'S WIFE: It was what Jeremy wanted to do and he loved doing it, so I was happy, as his wife, to support his passion in his life.

JAN MCNESS: Jeremy wanted to fly the F-111. It was the height of his ambitions for a long time. He thought it was the most beautiful aircraft, on the ground or in the sky. He definitely loved the power and the speed.

COLLEEN MCNESS: We all knew the dangers involved in flying those aircraft, but it's not something that you live your life by.

JAN MCNESS: My own feelings for the F-111 are mixed feelings. I can't stop seeing the aircraft through Jeremy's eyes, and so, therefore, I love it. It looks wonderful in the air, it makes a fantastic noise. The sound goes through you. It is exciting, it is exhilarating.

I hate it for the lives it has wrecked, for the people who have died in it, for the families, and I've seen the ravages that the deaths of their sons have made on their families and I hate it for that reason. But...I guess my relationship with the F-111 will always be a love/hate one. The description of a 'graceful metal bird' is exactly how I see the F-111 in the sky. It most definitely, in a way, was a god to him... ..because it seemed to be the pinnacle of all he wanted. And certainly it was flying at its very best, but it also ended up being his executioner.

Jeremy decided he'd like to fly when he was about five or six. Superman was his hero, and he desperately wanted to fly, and we had a very hectic few years there while he tried to fly. For a long time, I think he really did dream of somehow flying, in his own body, flying through the air. He definitely wanted to do that, and it was only really when he was 14 before he began to think that maybe it was going to have to be in aeroplanes.

COLLEEN MCNESS: He created this cool persona and I think that most people thought that he was extremely confident. I met Jeremy when, straight out of school, I went to the Defence Force Academy, and he was a year ahead of me, living in the same building as me, and that's how we met. I...I can't explain what attracted me to him. I fell in love with him.

JAN MCNESS: Meeting Colleen certainly made a big difference to him. One of the really policed rules at ADFA, the Defence Force Academy, is fraternisation with junior ranks, and I think that added a certain amount of interest to it, the whole thing, especially for Jeremy, who definitely liked, you know, breaking some rules at any rate.

COLLEEN MCNESS: When Jeremy entered the air force, he wanted to fly fast jets. Anything else, I think, it wasn't making the grade. You didn't do it unless you were going for the top and for him, the top was fast jets.

AIR MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON - AIR FORCE CHEIF: Jeremy, through all of his time in the air force, made it abundantly clear to everybody that he wanted to be an F-111 pilot. He was highly enthusiastic, he was very committed, and very conscientious, and, in fact, that resulted in his duxing the course.

JAN MCNESS: By the time you get to fly fast jets, they really are, in the air force's words, the cream of the cream. One of the figures that we've heard quoted was 2 out of 1,500 will get to fly fast jets.

NORM MCNESS - JEREMY'S FATHER: I did have one very lucky occasion, um, where the rest of the family was out of the house... ..and the phone rang and it was Jeremy. And it sounded a little unusual... the quality of the sound and so on, and it turned out that he was actually ringing me from his F-111. And then later, when I was retelling the story to one of his superior officers, and he said, "Oh, he's not supposed to do that."

JAN MCNESS: One particular night he rang and it had been such an exciting flight and he said, "Mum, if there's a God, I will definitely find him for you "because I am flying in his territory." And he said, "The second I see him, I'll ring you, I'll let you know."

COLLEEN MCNESS: We were married on 21 December in '92. Jeremy and I had gone for a weekend to northern NSW, and while we were there, he said, "Oh, I know where there's a crash site", a little memorial for an F-111 crash that had occurred approximately six years prior.

JAN MCNESS: And Jeremy rang that night and he said, "I thought about the two guys who were killed and their families "and what it must have been like, "and how hard it must have been for their families." He said, "I wondered about the air force, "you know, how they are at a time like this." He said, "I feel they probably wouldn't handle it terribly well, "'cause", he said, "we don't do death terribly well in the air force." And he said to me, "I really want to talk... "I'd like to go and visit the parents of the two guys." He said, "I really feel a need to talk with them "about what it's like to fly the F-111, "and how much their sons would have loved what they were doing." He said, "Do you think it would be alright to do that?"

COLLEEN MCNESS: I guess in his head he probably would have had to have thought, "Wow, I guess that could be me," but I think that the ego world of fast jets requires that you don't dwell on that. You don't think too much about the fact that that could possibly happen to you.

JAN MCNESS: It actually took me quite a long time to learn exactly what happened that night. Jeremy's normal navigator was away that...that particular night. Jeremy had flown with Mark once before in February of that year.

MICHAEL CAIRNS-COWAN - NAVIGATOR'S BROTHER: Mark was a navigator for F-111s. The pilots should have a rapport with each other. They're flying low to the ground. They should know each other's moves back...back to front. They're your buddy. You know what's going on.

JAN MCNESS: I mean, each, under normal circumstances, was an excellent pilot or navigator. When you fly with someone that you don't know, you have none of that rapport that is really necessary for safe flying. That night, they set off at - I think it would have been perhaps 6:55 when they left Amberley.

They had about a 20-minute flight to Guyra, which was their first target. There they were to do a simulated bombing raid, on the, um, Guyra abattoirs. They flew down to 400ft.

COCKPIT AUDIO: OK, I see the target to the left. I'm pretty happy with that.

JAN MCNESS: At that stage they were doing about 540 knots ground speed, which, the only way I can really think of it, is something like 1,000ft a second. They began the first part of the exercise. At that stage, something happened.

Now, there were no mayday calls, and so that, for me, was quite difficult to understand, that...that they said nothing. The last eight seconds of that tape were destroyed. Nothing on the tape to suggest that within eight seconds that plane was going to be in the ground.

NEWS REPORTER: Flying through rain at 130m and 1,000km/h, the aircraft turned away from the target as planned and crashed seconds later.

EYEWITNESS: It was just a ball of flames, like a firecracker.

NEWS REPORTER: 4km from Guyra, emergency services found a crater 5m deep, and wreckage so fragmented, they couldn't identify the F-111.

KATHRYN MCNESS - JEREMY'S SISTER: Yes, at the crash site... ..we went there thinking we might get some sense of Jeremy, but it was just like a, was almost like a tip. Looking at the site, you just...It was very difficult to see that a plane could have..could have made... ..could have made that depression, because, just, nothing was recognisable.

JAN MCNESS: I hardly can stand to look at his logbook, because I just can't bear the way it just so suddenly ends, and I do find the blank pages coming so suddenly on all those flights - it's's heartbreaking. It's heartbreaking for me so I don't look at it. I keep it but I don't look at it.

NORM MCNESS: When we went to Amberley after the crash, we really didn't know what to expect, and...we fully expected that at any moment, Jeremy would walk in the door and say, "Hey, guys, great to see you." But unfortunately, that didn't happen.

JAN MCNESS: I was utterly confident that the air force and I were on the same side, that we each wanted...we needed to know what had happened. And it was only when people began to clam up, when stories began to conflict - these were the things that began to make me wonder, "What is going on?"

COLLEEN MCNESS: I can remember having conversations with Jan where I would encourage her that the air force would do everything they could to find out the truth. I always wanted to find Jeremy's wedding ring, so I, you know, specifically confirmed with them that all the metal had gone. So I hired a metal detector to go up there, and as soon as I stepped out of my car I could see metal pieces on the ground everywhere.

AIR MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: We deeply regret that Colleen went out to the accident site and found bits of wreckage. It's just possible that some bits and pieces were hidden in the mud. But there's no... there's no defending that. We shouldn't ever allow that to happen again, and we won't allow that to happen again.

COLLEEN MCNESS: Within two hours, we managed to pick up 13kg of pieces of metal that were just sitting on top of the grass. So that was when I no longer believed that they were doing what they had said they would do. It was like, how could they possibly investigate it properly if they hadn't picked up all the pieces of metal?

KATHRYN MCNESS: I think it was when the investigation team released their report that Mum began her fight. It had a summary on the front and that said, "We don't know what caused the crash." I think probably that was the first thing that struck us. It was like, "Oh, so you don't know what happened, "but, you know, you're going to have a guess now." And the guess, of course, was to put the blame on to the crew.

JAN MCNESS: The wording that the air force used was, "Loss of situational awareness put the plane in a flight path "with which impact with the ground was inevitable."

KATHRYN MCNESS: When the report came out and in so many ways was unsatisfactory, then she decided that she wasn't just going to go along with what they were saying.

JAN MCESS: What I've always felt was that had the people senior to him been doing their jobs properly, he would not have been put in the situation that he was.

NORM MCNESS: Jan, when she's got the bit in her mouth, she really is a very strong person. If they tried to push her off or put her off on something, she know, go for the throat, that sort of thing. In a nice sort of way. (

JAN MCNESS: For years following Jeremy's death I waited. I waited for letters, for replies from the air force. I asked a million questions. I know that I was a thorn in their side, but I couldn't help it. I needed this information. No, it's not... it's just not good enough.

They suggested in the report that Jeremy may have been overconfident and unable to recognise danger signs. I could not accept it. He was lacking in night flying experience and he was flying with someone he didn't know. He was flying in an aircraft he'd never flown before. He was flying in very poor weather, and he was doing a very demanding exercise. "Overconfidence" is ridiculous. I also felt that not enough importance was placed in the possibility of a fire - that's a pre-impact fire - because one of the investigators had been quite certain in his own mind that there was a fire before that plane crashed.

NEWS REPORTER: Witnesses say the aircraft was in trouble as it passed west of the town.

EYE WITNESS: First thing was when we went to the actual window and saw it explode in the air like fireworks.

NEWS REPORTER: Seconds later, the jet ploughed into this paddock.

JAN MCNESS: So many witnesses believed they saw the aircraft on fire. And yet they weren't interviewed by the air force.

LEIGH RAMAGE - GUYRA RESIDENT: So the F-111's come in from the west, straight over our water supply dam and head for the abattoirs. My husband and I jumped up as well, and Jenny said, "That plane's on fire, it's going to crash."

JAN MCNESS: She thought the aircraft was on fire?

LEIGH RAMAGE: Yes, there was a glow, Jan.

MICHAEL CAIRNS-COWAN: Dad and I walked around the crash site almost straightaway and I spent most of the time there with a crash expert investigator. And we walked around parts of the plane and he pointed out various things. He said, "Initial thoughts are... He said, I'm almost certain it was an onboard fire."

JAN MCNESS: I did actually catch up with the investigator several years later. And although he was rather reluctant to talk about anything to do with the accident, he did end up saying to me that nothing during the course of the investigation ever made him change his original thoughts that the damage to certain parts of the aircraft were consistent with there having been an in-flight fire.

AIR MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: I wasn' know, I wasn't the chief of air force at the time. Um, all I know is that the accident investigation team did a full and comprehensive investigation of everything involved.

MICHAEL CAIRNS-COWAN: I know the air force has given their version, um, and I'm not saying it's wrong. I just...I just think there's more answers, and we'll probably never know the entire story of what happened. I just think there's a bit more to it than what the air force has said.

AIR MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: Essentially, there has been nothing that has come forth in the interim to suggest that their conclusions were...were wrong.

KATHRYN MCNESS: I think that with the accidents, because they don't want the rest of the pilots and navigators concerned, first they just want to reassure them that it had nothing to do with the aircraft, it had everything to do with the pilot, or the navigator, and then once they've reassured the pilots, then I think they just want to close it down. But I also think that there's always this fear of litigation, that they're not wanting to be sued.

JAN MCNESS: One of Jeremy's colleagues was in America at the time of the accident. His immediate reaction was, "Oh, no! "I'll bet it was the bloody quirky 127." Now, Jeremy's aircraft was A8-127. This was a really...quite a shattering piece of news for me.

NORM MCNESS: He knew that that aircraft had had problems in the past. The pilot who made that comment was Squadron Leader Short. It was tragically some years later that he was the next pilot to be killed in an F-111.

NEWS REPORTER: It's the eighth time an F-111 has crashed since Australia bought the jet fighters back in the '70s.

JAN MCNESS: With the F-111 there have been four accidents in particular which to me seem very significant because of their similarities.

This September, it will be 10 years since Jeremy was killed... ..and it's interesting to think that in all this time, the mystery about what actually happened that night is as great, and in many ways even greater. I felt a great need for the air force to acknowledge the part it had played in the accident. I wanted the air force to be truly sorry that their systems had put Jeremy and Mark in a situation which, in the end, they couldn't get out of, and they died. Well, finally, we did get our letter. The air force was acknowledging that there were systemic problems which may have contributed to the accident.

AIR MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: We recognise now that essentially there's usually a series of events that happen that eventually result in an accident. In Jeremy's case, I think the crew were probably overloaded, and the lack of recent night flying, um, was one of the crucial factors and led to a situation where the aircraft eventually impacted terrain.

JAN MCNESS: We loved the 30th anniversary celebrations for the F-111's arrival in Australia. My relationship with the air force good. I make a point of keeping in touch.

AIR MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: I have a great deal of respect for Jan McNess. I think what Jan has done for us is that we now have a much better approach to how we interact and help next of kin and dependants, um, who've lost loved ones in a tragic accident that's happened.

JAN MCNESS: I felt that Jeremy would have been quite pleased with me, and that pleased me.

KATHRYN MCNESS: It's really only been since he died that we have had a burning interest in the F-111, but now, one of the greatest thrills for me is be near an F-111.

COLLEEN MCNESS: Personally, there is no closure for losing the man you thought you were going to spend the rest of your life with.

JAN MCNESS: It's very difficult to know if I...if I achieved clearing Jeremy's name. I did for me, I did for our family. I felt that I made a difference. For me, that was necessary. I needed Jeremy's life to count for something. Because that's how I can live a little more comfortably with it.

Monday, 11 August , 2003 by JEFF WATSON

Title The Thirteeth Night
Author Jan McNess
Publisher Fremantle Art Centre Press - ( 2003 ) -
ISBN 1 86368 397 6
A mothers story about the life and death of her son & his passion for flying a RAAF F-111

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