The history of the 'widow maker' revealed

Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Broadcast: 27/07/2004





TV PROGRAM TRANSCRIPT   (Reporter: Peter McCutcheon)

KERRY O'BRIEN: The recent suicide of a former Army aircraft fitter has shed new light on a sorry chapter in Australia's aviation history.

Marks N22 and N24

The Australian designed Nomad aircraft gained notoriety in the 1970s because of its poor safety record.

But despite warnings about possible design faults, the Nomad - sometimes referred to as "the widow maker" - wasn't grounded by the military until 1995.

Earlier this year, one of the technicians who worked on the aircraft in the early 90s took his own life.

His widow is now fighting for official recognition that he too was a victim of the Nomad scandal.

Peter McCutcheon reports.

MADONNA PAUL: It's never been about the money, it's about the fact that they damaged all of our family's lives and they never recognised it, they covered it up.

PETER McCUTCHEON: On a deserted beach at Cungulla south of Townsville, Madonna Paul is still coming to terms with her husband's suicide five months ago.

Former Army aircraft fitter Michael Paul suffered from a psychiatric illness that, according to his widow, began more than a decade earlier after a crash of the now notorious Nomad aircraft.

REPORTER: ...lost radio contact and crashed around 10 this morning.

MADONNA PAUL: He had worked on that aircraft that crashed.

He signed that aircraft up and it killed his friends.

He never really got over that day.

He came home from work and he was a different man.

And from years later, when I look back at the incident and from that night, that changed our lives forever.

PETER McCUTCHEON: Michael Paul's personal tragedy is tied up in the final years of the Nomad scandal.

This Australian-designed transport aircraft was once the hope of the local aviation industry, but in two decades of service 19 Nomads crashed, resulting in 56 deaths.

And as Four Corners revealed in 1995, a number of design defects, including stress cracks in the tail plane, were in effect covered up by Defence officials.

PAUL HUGHES, NOMAD DESIGN ENGINEER: Everybody was supposed to be behind the Nomad because it was Australian, because it was designed here and you weren't supposed to knock it.

PETER McCUTCHEON: A qualified boilermaker before joining Army aircraft maintenance, Michael Paul started working on the Nomads at the Oakey base in south-east Queensland in late 1989.

As a fitter, he had no authority to ground an aircraft, but he was required to sign off on the work he completed.

His wife says he raised concerns about the Nomad's design problems, only to be threatened with disciplinary action.

MADONNA PAUL: He just said, "This is just not meant to fly."

The aircraft was dangerous, and he kept saying that.

PETER McCUTCHEON: And he was told by his commanding officer to keep quiet?


"Keep quiet, sign it up or you'll be charged."

PETER McCUTCHEON: But the situation changed from professional frustration to emotional devastation in 1991 when a Nomad Michael Paul had worked on crashed in northern New South Wales, killing four people, including a close friend.

When did you first notice your husband was having difficulties?

MADONNA PAUL: From that night of the accident, after the accident occurred, he came home, he was just numb and he went to the garage and sat in the dark.

PETER McCUTCHEON: A subsequent investigation was unable to determine the cause of the accident, but others suspect the Nomad's alleged design faults.

Tony Seivl is a former senior flying instructor at Oakey who had resigned a year before the accident in protest over the Nomad's safety problems.

He was a friend of Lynn Hummerston, the pilot killed in the 1991 crash.

Although he was unwilling to be interviewed for this report, Tony Seivl stands by his comments to Four Corners nine years ago.

TONY SEIVL, FORMER ARMY PILOT: The only thing I can say, and I'll say it categorically, it wasn't pilot error and again I have no facts to base that other than knowing Lynn Hummerston and knowing the sort of guy and pilot and instructor he was over those number of years.

PETER McCUTCHEON: Michael Paul's emotional state, according to his wife, continued to deteriorate, especially after he witnessed a Nomad's emergency landing at Oakey a few weeks later.

After leaving the Army and moving north, Michael Paul experienced a complete breakdown three years ago while flying through a storm in a light aircraft.

MADONNA PAUL: He couldn't go to work.

He couldn't function.

He - he - he collapsed, virtually.

PETER McCUTCHEON: Nevertheless, an application last year for a military disability pension was refused.

Although the Veterans' Review Board acknowledged Michael Paul suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, it was not convinced the condition, on a balance of probabilities, was Defence caused.

Can you think of any other reason why your husband would have suffered from post-traumatic stress?


There was no car accidents, there was nothing else.

There was nothing.

PETER McCUTCHEON: Madonna Paul convinced her husband to begin lodging an appeal, but Michael Paul secretly withdrew the application without telling his wife.

She knew he was reluctant to go ahead with another hearing, but didn't find out what he was up to until after his suicide.

PROFESSOR SANDY McFARLANE, PSYCHIATRIST, ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY: The process of the repeat examination often takes the person to the very thing that they are trying not to think about because they find it very distressing.

PETER McCUTCHEON: Professor Sandy McFarlane is a post-traumatic stress expert at Adelaide University.

Although he argues the military's repatriation scheme is in fact fairer to claimants than civil jurisdictions, he says even the best processes can be daunting for patients.

PROFESSOR SANDY McFARLANE: Obviously having to speak about it can be extremely difficult, particularly if there are feelings of shame or profound fear associated with those memories.

PETER McCUTCHEON: The Veterans' Review Board says it can't comment on an individual case and, for the Defence Force, the Nomad scandal became ancient history when it grounded the aircraft in 1995.

But for Madonna Paul, left to raise an 18 and 10-year-old on her own, it is still very much a part of her life.

MADONNA PAUL: I will fight on because I want the children to know that we can have some closure on this, and why we lost Michael and why we suffered all those years.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Peter McCutcheon reporting, for some people at least, the curse of the Nomad.

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