The Royal Flying Doctor Service celebrates its 80th anniversary This year, marking its journey from a single-base, one-aircraft dream in 1928 to the largest civilian-aeromedical organisation in the world.

Story By Renata Provenzano

Port Augusta pilot Greg McNaughton recalls the first time he was called out for the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS). “They told me I was off to Mungarannie [on the Birdsville Track in South Australia] on a Priority 1 [life threatening], departing in 45 minutes.” Greg had only set foot in South Australia two weeks earlier, having gained his pilot stripes in Victoria.
“The adrenaline rush took hold and I headed to the airport, then I realised I had absolutely no idea where Mungarannie was. I made a quick call to find out which way to point the aircraft after take-off. We were on our way to a remote strip and I was told to call people on the ground with 10 minutes to land so they could light up the flares! Every time I tried to talk to the people at Mungarannie, truckies somewhere in Australia were using extremely colourful language to describe fuel prices. It was my first landing using flares, which turned out to be locals running up and down the strip lighting cans filled with sand and diesel.”
Now with 1500 hours of clinic runs and emergencies under his belt, Greg cites a triple-diversion as his most memorable flight, and highlights the fantastic service the RFDS provides to outback residents. “I had to pick up a diver with the bends in Port Lincoln but while en route we diverted to pick up a woman in premature labour; we were then diverted to pick up a second woman in labour and on arrival were advised to pick up a third woman in labour. I have never seen a flight nurse so busy, and while it seems dramatic, it is such a rewarding experience.” Who could ever have foreseen such a magnificent operation?
Mention ‘the flying doctors’ and most Australians and overseas visitors nod with pride and praise. But mention John Flynn or Alfred Traeger and many will scratch their heads, unaware that these men are fundamental to the RFDS celebrating 80 years of service this year.
Founder of the RFDS Reverend John Flynn came up with the idea during his travels through the outback as superintendent of the Australian Inland Mission in the early 1900s. When Flynn learned that only two doctors served 300,000 square kilometres in Western Australia and 1.5 million square kilometres in the Northern Territory, he lobbied to create hospitals in remote areas.
While Sir Charles Kingsford Smith gained fame flying from the United States to Australia, and Howard Florey developed the benefits of penicillin, Flynn was quietly making history of his own. By tying these aeronautical and medical advances with emerging telecommunication inventions such as the telegraph and radio network, Flynn developed a medical-care concept that changed the landscape of rural Australia forever.

This story excerpt is from Issue #60

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2008