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Air Marshal Errol J. McCormack - RAAF Service 1962-2001

July, 2001

The outgoing CAF, AIRMSHL Errol McCormack frankly dissects 39 years with the RAAF.
Air Force News' Amber McKinnon recorded a candid conversation with outgoing Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Errol McCormack as he expressed career perceptions and organisational impression after 39 broad years in the Royal Australian Air Force, three of which dedicated as its respected Chief.


Your career in the RAAF has been both varied and distinguished. What has it meant to you?
When I joined the RAAF, if you had told me I was going to end up as Chief, I would have been most disbelieving. Really, I joined the RAAF to fly; that was it. In subsequent years, you find out there is much more to the RAAF than flying. And people ask you how you step into this position (as Chief); your whole career broadens you at each step, so you can make the next one. A slow mental progression; the broadening of your outlook.

Of course, young people today are looking for a varied career; I've had plenty of different jobs, but each one of them matures you a little more in relation to the RAAF, Defence and the world.

Would you still classify yourself as a pilot?
Yes; yes, because I do fly. Light and military aircraft, but piloting is a subset. These days it's more of an enjoyment, hobby shall we say, than a profession; even though I call myself a professional pilot. However, it is a very small part of the job of a Chief. Being an operator (pilot), you must do your job properly to show your professionalism, but it doesn't win you any arguments at Russell or across the lake; being a pilot is immaterial to the position you take.

And really my job is to make sure the Air Force has the resources and the issues that make the Air Force what it is today; available to the people who have to do the work.

So what would you be remembered for?
I was asked that question when I first became Chief, and I've never thought that is what it's all about. I don't mind if they've forgotten who I am next year, because in my own mind, after the Defence Reform Program, I've set up what I think is a reasonable basis for Air Force to progress from.

I'm happy in myself and I think that's the true test of where you are, not what other people worry or think about you. I'm happy within myself and over the last three years the Air Force has stabilised to be in a good position to go ahead.

You have been the champion of the Servicemen and women that you represent?
That was my crusade, if you like when I took over; to recognise that the Air Force is made up of well paid, educated people.

You seem to have found a medium between the hierarchy to which you answer and the Service people you represent, and it endears them to you. What would be your parting words to those men and women?
Well, I hope so. I think it has been an honour to be the head of a very professional group of people and I would thank them for all the support they have given me to get us where we are today. I mean, if you think about the three years it's been pretty traumatic. There was the DRP, there was Timor; really people worked their butts off, to make it work. And despite all that, we have managed to do the job the Government wants. We've managed to slow down the resignation rates, even things out and still have a steady rate of recruitment. So I think they're the sorts of things we couldn't have done without some very dedicated people.

And your wife Faye, has also been a tremendous supporter of your career, which is clear to most. What kind of an influence has she had?
If you don't have a supporting spouse, you don't get anywhere at all, because you worry too much about other things. So your ability to do the job and know that there is a support structure behind you, makes a hell of a difference. That to me, is what she has done; providing a stable household. She worked for quite a few years, after the boys left school, which is good, because the spouse does need outside interests. Since we left for the States, Faye has had almost a full time job entertaining, which is demanding.

Could you share with us some highlights from your career?
As a young man flying a Sabre in an operational squadron in Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and Borneo - it was just a lovely party. I went straight from Butterworth, Malaysia to Vietnam, which taught me a difference in culture as Malaysia had a British background to the French in Vietnam. Just the experience in operations and how people react to them.

That has stood me in good stead in the peacetime Air Force. Until you actually do the real job, you don't understand people and their reactions. We had a lot of strange occurrences, which were people-oriented because they were people under threat, and they acted very differently than if they were in a safe environment. A very important part of my life in the Air Force has been understanding that.

I then went to the United States, to fly the brand new F-111; the hottest thing since sliced bread - a definite highlight. We didn't bring them back and that was disappointing, but also in that situation you don't know if you are coming home. Even though we were playing golf every day, we didn't have an end point and people react differently to that. So understanding human nature in those sorts of situations has been very important. Then of course, I did a tour in the United States - three years in a foreign country was another highlight. You learn how others do business.

The initial coming to Russell was a big shock, but I was lucky; the RF-111 was my project, which we ran through and got accepted. Every tour has had its highlights. One thing I think people have to understand is - what you succeed in makes you what you are, but it's also the struggle to get there that forms future character. A lot of people won't listen, because they don't agree, whereas my advice is do the job the best you can and the rest will take care of itself. So I think a lot of people who don't take the risks and push the envelope fail to fully achieve and learn.

Then there was the Joint Services Staff College, which was probably the downer in my career, because my reports out of 1SQN were not great; the personnel I worked with did not believe in taking risks. So in fact, I did a long time as a Wing Commander, it was a learning experience.

A lot of people, who succeed the whole way through, don't understand what it's like to fail at times. So I did seven-and-a-half years as a WGCDR and that was going to be the end of my career. However, back to Air Command and on the up again. I then came back here a DG Operational Requirements and those were exciting times. It was also the change to a centralised requirements cell. I had a very successful four years there; from then on it was up hill all the way.

How important do you perceive the RAAF history to be in direct relation to its identity and organisational growth?
I believe we are all a product of our history, including institutions. And the RAAF is a wonderful institution because of its history. Unfortunately, we had a very bad period during the Second World War - individually we were fantastic, but we never had the chance to be the commanders.

The Empire Air Training Scheme just trained aircrew for other organisations and so the RAAF never had the chance to prove or disprove itself from an organisational point of view. We had enormous losses in Bomber Command, but we had no control over what was happening. It was the same in the south west Pacific; we did a great job individually and practically, but always at the tactical level as opposed to the operational one. And that was unfortunate.

In the post-war years, Korea once again, we were just units with no bearing on the actual operations. It was the same in Vietnam - it has only been since Vietnam that we have increased outstanding as an institution within the nation where we are affecting the operational and strategic level of command.

What encouraged that growth?
The Guam doctrine was the first factor, President Nixon said that nations have to look after themselves. In fact before that we had always planned to be units that went off to fight someone else's war, and I don't think we even looked at the joint operations side of it from an Australian perspective. Air Force has been working on the strategic defence of Australia for quite a few years and if you look at history, it was Air Force that started to build an airfield chain across the north, a defensive move.

So Air Force had been thinking about the issue for quite a while, but it was the Guam doctrine and then the joint approach. We have been through some remarkable change since the mid-70s. And now Defence is seen as probably the leader's in small country joint operational doctrine; the way we do business. Why was this growth brought on - the realisation that we might have to do this on our own some day.

What are the plans for retirement?
I don't know how I'll survive in the retired world yet? It's a big unknown past next Wednesday. In the first instance, we have plans to renovate a house up north and after that we'll see what happens. I would like to think that I could still contribute to society in some way. I think I'll be busy on non-relaxation type projects, whatever they are. I have no idea yet? There is so much to this job I really can't think past this final week. In fact, I think in my whole career, I haven't worried about the next job.

On behalf of its faithful readership, Air Force News would like to wish Air Marshal Errol McCormack the very best in retirement from the Royal Australian Air Force.