When a seemingly fit and healthy RAF Flight Sergeant Zach Stubbings had tests for a rash on his neck nine years ago he thought, at worst, he was allergic to his rubber survival suit.
Needless to say, ‘the lads’ at RAF Valley, Anglesey, including Prince William who was serving with 22 Squadron, teased him mercilessly. ‘That’s the military banter. When we were messing around, there was always banter,’ he says.
‘Will (whom they called Flight Lieutenant Wales) held the trump card, didn’t he? His joke was, “I’ll get my gran to chuck you in the tower”.’
Zach, now 43, smiles at the memory and his face brightens as he remembers the days that were, he says, ‘some of the best of my life. But none of us knew,’ he continues, shaking his head sadly.
What he means is, a few weeks after that banter, tests revealed the rash on Zach’s neck wasn’t an allergy after all, but an early symptom of multiple myeloma — an incredibly rare cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow and has a life expectancy of ten years. There is no cure.
RAF Flight Sergeant Zach Stubbings has an incurable cancer, believed to have been caused by the toxic fumes from the Sea King helicopter
He now knows this cruel disease was, in all likelihood, caused by years spent inhaling toxic exhaust fumes spewed from the twin engines of the now retired RAF Sea King. Shockingly, the Ministry of Defence was made aware of the potential risk as far back as 1999 but chose to do nothing about it.
Last month Zach received an undisclosed sum from the MoD after a six-year legal battle. Now this honourable man is speaking out to make other airmen and women who served on the Sea King, including Prince William, aware of the appalling risk to health they endured.
‘I wasn’t the first guy who was ill,’ says Zach. ‘Another guy from my unit was going through cancer treatment. We were flying the same helicopter. We were in the same office. We lived on the same street. We used to go out together, have barbecues. He had bowel cancer.’
Zach adds: ‘There were other guys who flew Sea Kings who were ill. One guy was diagnosed with a brain tumour. There was another guy who got throat cancer, another who had the same thing as me and one who had testicular cancer. We’re talking about people in their 30s, people who, like me, kept themselves fit. You don’t twig. You don’t make the connection but someone knew. Someone had this information and didn’t warn us. Look…’
Zach is white-lipped as he fires up his laptop to show me a report he obtained in 2016 under the Freedom of Information Act from the RAF’s Institute of Health. Published in March 1999, it sets out the findings of ‘a preliminary survey to assess aircrew exposure to Sea King helicopter exhaust’.
The report recommends modifications to the aircraft to divert the exhaust fumes from the cabin door ‘to reduce the possibility of exposure of operatives to toxic contaminants in the exhaust gases’.
He is aghast: ‘There were concerns the fumes might be poisoning the lads before I even joined the Air Force and someone knew but kept signing off the aircraft to fly. I don’t know who it was. I might have worked with them. Now I just want to make everyone who flew on the Sea King aware there is a risk — including Will.’
Prince William was serving with 22 Squadron at RAF Valley, Anglesey, with Flight Sergeant Zach Stubbings
William flew the Sea King in 150 search-and-rescue operations during his three-year period with 22 Squadron between 2010 and 2013.
He also served as a pilot with the East Anglian Air Ambulance between 2015 and 2017 where, again, crew remember him fondly. Colleagues recall him pushing stretchers, performing CPR and talking to bystanders at accidents to keep them calm.
No one — William included —thought of the dangers to themselves. ‘Cancer doesn’t discriminate,’ says Zach, whose cancer has been inactive for eight years after a brutal round of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant.
‘Anyone flying on a Sea King could taste the exhaust fumes. It stained the backs of the seat and the yellow plastic dinghy container. You could see the line of dirt from the exhaust coming down along the side of the aircraft and straight into the door. The rotors blew it all round the cabin and into the cockpit so pilots were affected, too.
‘There’s a Navy pilot who lives locally [Commander Richard Sutton, who was awarded an MBE for flying commandos into war zones] who’s been awarded a payout, too. He’s had lots and lots of treatment for cancer. So, yes, Will was at risk along with everyone else.’
Zach is hugely fond of William. He was working as an instructor after seven years search-and-rescue service when the Prince joined 22 Squadron in 2010. ‘He was a top lad,’ says Zach, with ‘a good set of hands on him [meaning an able pilot] and a good sense of humour.
‘When he was getting married, me and another guy on the ops desk decided to get these mugs made.’
He goes to the kitchen cupboard at his home in Cardiff to show me a mug commemorating the wedding of William and Kate on April 29, 2011. Zach’s name is printed beneath the inscription. ‘When Will came back [after the wedding] we’d replaced every cup in the entire squadron with the wedding ones and each of us had our names on them. We had one made for Will too. Somehow it got broken. I can’t remember how. He was gutted.’
The report unearth by Zach under the Freedom of Information Act from the RAF’s Institute of Health published in March 1999 sets out the findings of ‘a preliminary survey to assess aircrew exposure to Sea King helicopter exhaust’
Zach smiles at the memory of a time before his life was turned on his head. ‘I don’t know how I’d have got through everything without the lads,’ he says. ‘When I found out [about the myeloma] I had a really good chat with Will.
‘I was in the operations room and he came across. I can’t remember what he said because my head was all over the place — just that he was really nice, really sympathetic. He was one of the last to speak to me before I got posted off [for treatment] in June 2012.’
Zach loved the RAF. With an exemplary service record, he was in line for promotion to Master Aircrew before he became ill.
You get the sense he’d give his right arm to be back there with the banter and the lads who were ‘like family’. Today he is married to second wife Anna-Louise who is with us in the kitchen of the home they share with her daughter Elizabeth, eight. His nine-year marriage to first wife Mel, with whom he had sons Iestyn, now 14, and Owynn, 11, ended three years after his diagnosis.
Anna-Louise, 45, knows tragedy herself after losing her 43-year-old husband Stewart and seven-year-old son Fraser in a car accident at Christmas in 2015. She set up the charity Believe to encourage organ donations through which she and Zach met in 2018.
‘Zach has to have blood tests every eight to 12 weeks to see if the multiple myeloma remains inactive,’ she says. ‘I can see him getting worried. He gets a little bit quieter but doesn’t talk about it because he’s trying to protect me.
‘I do worry. I have lots of meltdowns. I’m really scared for myself and Elizabeth. We’ve been blessed to have a second chance at an amazing family life. I don’t know how I’ll cope with further loss.
‘The really tough thing to accept is that when Stu and Fraser were hit by a car crossing the road after a Christmas jumper party all I could think was, “what if”.
‘What if we’d taken a taxi? What if we’d not gone to the party? With Zach’s situation there’s not a “what if”. This is about what the RAF could, and should, have done.’
Zach was 33 when he developed that rash on his neck and wrists.
He was referred to a dermatologist, but when allergy tests failed to reveal anything he was given blood tests. ‘When they told me I had “smoldering myeloma” (the pre-cancerous stage) it was like, “holy s**t”. It was a big kick in the teeth. I was so young and I was aircrew. I had an annual medical. I honestly thought I was fine. I couldn’t really take it in. All I knew is it was bad.
‘It’s a cancer that’s in the bone marrow and is blood borne. It’s not like you can cut it out to get rid of it. The doctor on the base had known me since 2002.
‘Doc H thought it would be good for me to go into work and do one trip a day on the Sea King while we were getting more tests done.
Zach Stubbings with his wife Anna Louise and her daughter Elizabeth, eight, at their home in Cardiff
‘I hadn’t made the link between the exhaust and the cancer so I was standing at the cabin door instructing and breathing in the fumes. I hadn’t twigged it.
‘Sometimes smoldering myeloma doesn’t develop into multiple myeloma for years so they monitor it but my protein count [a marker for multiple myeloma] kept going up. That’s the bit that made me bitter when I read that 1999 report. If we’d been warned about the exhaust fumes things could have been so different.’
As the cancer took hold, Zach was referred to specialists in Nottingham. He began a ten-month course of chemotherapy in December 2012 and had a stem cell transplant. Buoyed by his RAF colleagues, Zach remained positive throughout, determined to survive for the sake of his young sons.
It soon became apparent, however, that he would be unable to work in a frontline squadron again as the Search and Rescue Force was being disbanded and, given his medical condition, he couldn’t be posted outside the UK. Zach decided to accept a job offer from a private helicopter company. ‘If I’d stayed in the RAF I’d never have been able to fly again so I left in March 2015. The Air Force had been very good to me — or I thought it had. I’d had a good time and didn’t want to finish my last seven years in a rubbish job that wasn’t flying.
‘Around that time a doctor said he couldn’t understand what had triggered multiple myeloma. It normally affects people, largely ethnic minorities, in their 60s and 70s — not fit, white thirtysomethings. That’s when I began to dig deeper.’
Just one in 50,000 people are diagnosed with multiple myeloma, only two per cent under 40. With time on his hands after his first marriage ended in 2015, Zach began searching on the internet and came across a paper linking diesel exhaust to instances of the disease in firefighters.
He put in a request under the Freedom of Information Act asking if any reports had been done into exhaust fumes and the Sea King. He received the 1999 report and three more followed.
‘Let’s just say I was a bit annoyed the recommendations had been kept from us. I spoke to guys who are quite senior in the search-and-rescue world and they didn’t know about it. If we’d known we could have at least worn personal protective clothing.
‘By the time of the third report in 2014 there were a few of us off sick with cancer. It’s getting to the end of the Sea King and a lot of aircrew are unhappy but there’s been no investigation as to what is in the exhaust fumes.’
He put in a compensation claim in 2015, which was refused. In 2017, he discovered a further report, exploring links between myeloma and particles found in the Sea King exhaust fumes.
In December 2017 the MoD accepted Zach’s war disability pension claim, attributing his cancer to his years of service. ‘It was a pittance,’ says Zach. ‘Around £35 a week. I thought, “They’ve given me cancer and this is the compensation”.’ He sought the help of a lawyer to continue his legal fight.
Zach was walking in the countryside with Anna-Louise last month when he received a call from his lawyers advising him the MoD wished to settle out of court.
‘We decided to take their offer,’ says Zach. ‘This could have dragged on for years otherwise. The important thing was that they had accepted my cancer was caused by my service. They could have prevented it but didn’t. Now I just want to make everyone else aware there was an issue.’
An MoD spokesperson said: ‘The health and safety of our personnel is of the utmost importance and we are committed to providing a safe working environment. Three studies by the RAF Centre of Aviation Medicine into Sea King found there were no definitive conclusions in terms of risk to health. RAF Sea King reached the end of service in 2016.’
Anna-Louise takes Zach’s hand. ‘I’m so proud of him,’ she says. ‘He’s been tenacious enough to gather this evidence and has had the balls to stand up and say, “Hang on a minute, this is wrong”.
‘You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow and you can’t stop those little worries but, for today, we’re a happy family and we’re going to enjoy that.’