Firstly, a little correction to my previous post. The voice on the video is my good friend Helen. I had to play it several times to detect the difference in our voices. Helen spent countless (unpaid) hours editing my memoir I Belong to No One, by the end of which we were thinking alike. I didn’t realise until now how much we had begun to speak alike as well! 🙂
Day 4 of our Broken Hill adventure
Broken Hill has been sweltering with unseasonably high temperatures for a couple of months, and the last rain was seven weeks ago, so we are cheered to wake to overcast skies which hold a promise of rain. There are not many tourists who would be cheering for that, but as the first half of our day is all indoors, it would not bother us if it poured down.
The South Eastern section of the Royal Flying Doctor Service is based at the Broken Hill airport, which is only a ten minute drive from town, so easily accessible for independent travellers. Our visit however, was provided as part of our package deal, so on the bus we went, with a replacement driver today though, as Wayne was having a day off from us 🙂
When I was in primary school, everyone learnt the story of “Flynn of the Inland“, about Reverend John Flynn, the Presbyterian Minister who came to the outback as part of an inland mission and instead soon found his attention captured by the pressing medical needs in remote areas. His vision of an Aerial Medical Service was first realised in 1928, using a single engine bi-plane leased from QANTAS, one pilot and one doctor. An amazing feat when we remember that aviation was still in its infancy! The Reverend John Flynn is commemorated on our $20 note, and I have appended a replica of that with explanation of the symbolism at the bottom of this post.
It was renamed the Flying Doctor Service in 1942, and the “Royal” was added after the 1954 visit of HRH Queen Elizabeth II.
Just in case anyone has forgotten 🙂 the map below re-inforces that Australia is a big country. The majority of Australia’s population is clustered on the coast, leaving around 30% living in regional and remote areas. The RFDS, whose “workplace” covers 80% of the land mass, is a vital lifeline for the health and well-being of these Australians, as well as itinerants such as truckers, fly-in fly-out workers, and tourists.
People usually associate the Flying Doctor with emergency evacuations (aeromedical retrieval), and this section carries out more than 700 of those per year. The larger workload, around 90%, is running regular health and dental clinics by flying in to remote towns and stations, such as Tibooburra, population 260, which has a regular fortnightly clinic. They also do intra hospital patient transport.
Our visit kicked off with watching a short film which followed actual retrievals and clinics. Some of the old-timers have become so self-reliant they “cure” themselves, such as the chap who scrapes off skin cancers with his own knife. In response to the doctor’s caution of infection risk, he replied, “ah na’, I looked for germs on the knife, I didn’t see any.”
Today’s South-East region RFDS uses the Beechcraft Super King Air, which has a 1200 km (750 mi) fuel tank, can fly above storms and is customised to land on rough strips. Pilots need to have two hundred hours experience landing on remote strips of around 1000 metres (about 3200 feet). A team of specialist engineers fly around the country servicing the planes.
It takes about eight million Australian dollars to keep the service running. Two-thirds is funded by State and Federal Governments (we have Medicare in Oz). However, it costs around $2000 per hour to keep the plane in the air, and although owners bear the cost of maintaining air strips on their property, the actual aeromedical retrieval is free of charge. The RFDS needs a lot of fundraising. The local Women’s Auxiliary, for example, prepare 2000 Christmas Puddings every year. The recipe is a secret, but I can give you a hint . . . start by hoarding 80 bottles of brandy.
We had a couple of hours for our visit, but I would have enjoyed even longer time. After watching the documentary film, there was a tour of the operations including the communications room and hangar, and then we were free to wander the “Mantle of Safety” museum. This included a circa 1950s re-enactment of a woman calling in from a homestead after her husband had a tractor accident. She is on the radio, using the “where does it hurt chart“, and being given treatment instructions. The re-enactment culminates with the decision to send in the flying doctor, and instructions for how to prepare and light the airstrip on the property. It really brings the isolation to life.
There is something romantic about the idea of a Flying Doctor, and some of you may have seen the Australian TV series, “The Flying Doctors“, which ran from 1986-1992. In truth, it is a necessary and intrinsic part of outback health services, and for more real-life stories, click here.