Mac Tucker was four when he “flew” for the first time. His father, an electrician obsessed with aircraft, built a hang-glider using aluminium piping and a tarpaulin in the garage of their eastern suburbs home.
Father and son then made their way to the Great Ocean Road, strapped themselves to the glider and launched into the wide blue yonder …
“Mostly I recall mum and dad fighting; mum storming off to the landing site with the idea that she could somehow catch me, dad handing me the picnic basket that mum had thrown down in a tantrum, dad launching off into space and then … freedom,” Tucker says with a laugh.
That flight was the first of many.
After leaving high school at 17, Tucker joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), eventually becoming an elite F18 fighter pilot – one of only 60 in Australia at any one time.
Now retired, he’s written Fighter Pilot: Mis-adventures beyond the Sound Barriers with an Australian Top Gun.
Tucker says his career path was set when he and his father went to an air show at RAAF Base East Sale.
The F-18 Hornet had just been introduced and two of the impressive machines were on display.
Tucker, then 16, was mesmerised.
He met an F-18 fighter pilot, Ross Fox, who spent hours showing the teenager around the aircraft.
By the end of that meeting, Tucker had been invited to spend a week with Fox at RAAF Base Williamtown in Newcastle. Tucker’s dad drove him there from Melbourne.
“Dad was the most supportive father,” Tucker, 42, says. “I remember he was working in Laverton and I was on a pilot’s course at Point Cook. We’d take off to the north and turn over the top of Laverton. One of the guys got back and said, ‘Your dad has painted the roof of a shed in Laverton’. Sure enough, I took off and he’d painted, ‘Go Mac’, in big white letters. But once my flying career became more dangerous, I think dad questioned whether it was worth it.
“Spending that time with Ross Fox gave me something to focus on at school, so I studied hard.
And once I joined the air force, I continued to study. It wasn’t a sacrifice to me to spend a Sunday afternoon studying a flight manual because I was focused on the end game.
“And I didn’t want to fail. I think the highest-performing guys I’ve worked with in Special Forces or the air force are always the most insecure. You never see it because they have medals and accolades, but their inner motivation often comes from a well-hidden insecurity.”
Tucker completed numerous flight-training courses, eventually graduating as an elite pilot.
His work took him from the Pentagon to the South China Sea to the Middle East.
Along the way there were plenty of close shaves.
While stationed at RAAF Base Tindal and flying at night in a remote part of the Northern Territory, Tucker’s navigation controls malfunctioned. He was travelling at speeds of more than 600k/mh.
“Night flying in a modern fighter is exhilarating to the point of terror – a bit like your worst roller-coaster ride,” he explains.
Devoid of high-tech gadgetry to bring him back to base, and on a moonless night in the middle of he wasn’t sure where, Tucker guided himself home by following headlights on the Stuart Highway.
“I joined the dots of the vehicle headlights and leapfrogged from one set to the next until I found the lights of Katherine,” he says.
There were other incidents that highlighted the potentially risky nature of the job. During his time in the RAAF, Tucker lost close colleagues, including Fox, in flying accidents.
Ace: At 24, Mac Tucker was awarded the Sir Richard Williams Trophy for fighter pilot of the year – RAAF Base Tindal, 1994.
Tucker was working in search-and-rescue co-ordination at Tindal in 1990 when two fighter jets – one flown by Fox – collided at high speed. Fox’s jet was found in a paddock north-west of Katherine. He had been killed on impact.
“After Foxy’s death we spent the first few nights drinking at the officers’ mess, playing the piano and singing,” says Tucker.
“I understood why the mess halls during the Battle of Britain had been filled with song and cheer – it was a way for young men who had faced their own mortality and narrowly skirted death to quickly forget, so that they could get up in the morning and do it again and again.”
During time off, thrillseeking was still on Tucker’s agenda – he was a keen hang-glider pilot and surfer and spent much of his time off during summer at Bells Beach.
Despite the thrill of handling an F18, Tucker decided to resign from the RAAF at the end of 2000.
He flew for commercial airlines for a while but now runs a consulting and training company specialising in the defence, security and intelligence sectors.
A large part of Tucker’s work is preparing Australian soldiers and airmen for war zones.
“I didn’t want to resign but I felt I couldn’t operate effectively within the organisation any longer – I’d lost faith in the RAAF’s abilities to deliver what the Australian people wanted in a defence force,” he says frankly.
He says politics and senior defence bureaucracy had a detrimental role in RAAF operations.
“When I left, I was a squadron leader and my job was to lead the fighter force to war,” he says.
“That is what I was trained and authorised to do. But I’d then say, ‘Well we need this and that’, politics would get involved and I wouldn’t get what I’d asked for.
“There were some massive inefficiencies going on. For example, the last six-month training course I did cost $25 million per person. But the RAAF just took my resignation. I had no call from a boss saying: ‘Come in and talk to us, what can we do to keep you?’.”
Tucker has settled with his wife and two children on a farm in southern NSW.
They have cattle and grow their own vegetables, while Tucker is also creating an orchard.
“The nature of my job is still psychologically demanding so living on the farm is a good release. I can get outside and drive in a few fence posts or plough a paddock on the weekend,” he says.
“I come home and it reminds me of what’s worth protecting and defending here.”