Aviation History and Early Aircraft
Aviation was still a new and wondrous endeavour in the years after WWI. Flynn began a campaign within the Presbyterian Church to find the money to buy some aircraft for the Australian Inland Mission (AIM). He met Hudson Fysh, a WWI fighter pilot who founded Qantas, and together they developed the idea further.
The first flight, on 17 May 1928, was made using a De Havilland model DH50 aircraft hired from the fledgling Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service, later to become Qantas.
The aircraft was a single engine, fabric covered, cabin bi-plane capable of carrying a pilot and four passengers at a cruising speed of just under 80 miles per hour.
For the first trial year Qantas charged two shillings per mile flown and also provided an engineer based at Cloncurry. The Federal Government paid half the cost of maintaining the aeroplane with the other half funded by donations.
On its first official flight the DH50, appropriately named 'Victory', was greeted at the Julia Creek airstrip by more than 100 people. The distance travelled was 85 miles.
'Victory' went on to fly 110,000 miles in the service of the Flying Doctor until 1934 when it was replaced by Qantas with a DH83 Fox Moth.
The DH50 was sold to another organisation, the Rockhampton Aerial Service in 1934. On 8 December 1935 it unfortunately crashed into the sea off Caloundra, north of Brisbane while on a regular newspaper run. The pilot was unhurt and was helped to shore by the Caloundra Lifesaving Club.
It is significant that over the years the Flying Doctor has maintained a very good aviation safety record. This record is maintained despite the sometimes very difficult conditions under which aircraft have to operate.
In 1928 Flying was still in its early days. Airstrips often left much to be desired and there was a lack of navigational facilities and airstrip lighting.
The first Flying Doctor pilot, Arthur Affleck, had no navigational aids, no radio and only a compass and inadequate maps, if any. He navigated by landmarks such as fences, rivers, river beds, dirt roads or just wheel tracks and telegraph lines. He also flew in an open cockpit, fully exposed to the weather, behind the doctor's cabin. Airstrips were, at best claypans or, at the worst, hastily cleared paddocks.
Flights were normally made during daylight hours although night flights were attempted in cases of extreme urgency. Fuel supplies were also carried on flights until fuel dumps were established at certain strategic outstations.
In the 1930s and 1940s aircraft used by the Sections were predominantly British - most were De Havilland types like the DH-50, DH-83 Fox Moth, the DH-84 Dragon, the DH-104 Dove and the Australian built DHA (Marks I, II and III) Drover.
Later, American aircraft predominated like the Beechcraft Baron, Travelair, QueenAir and Duke, the Cessna 180, 182 and 421B, the Piper Cherokee, Chieftain and Navajo.
Since the 1980s, the RFDS has been using King Air B200Cs, C90s, Cessna Conquest C425s and Conquest IIs and Cessna Titan 404s. The newest types of planes to be introduced into the RFDS fleets include the Pilatus PC12 and a Hawker 800XP. And by mid-2011, larger King Air B350s will be in service.
Aircraft developments have seen great changes. Prior to the mid 1980s, RFDS aircraft were all powered by piston engines. The introduction of the King Air B200s in the late 1980s and the Pilatus PC12s in the mid 1990s showed the great benefits of turbo prop powered aircraft. And now the introduction of jet aircraft opens up even greater capabilities across our vast nation.
Speed, pressurisation, the ability to fly above turbulence and longer distances, larger cabins and integrated medical fit outs greatly improved the level of patient care possible as well as the comfort and safety of both patients and flight crews.
Compared with the cramped interiors of the earlier models, the new aircraft have much more space for doctors, nurses and patients. They carry all the required medical equipment and are fitted out rather like a flying intensive care unit.
Fortunately navigational aids and aircraft have improved over the years allowing all-weather and night flying so that there are hardly any remote areas the RFDS cannot reach - safe landing at the remote areas is another issue however.
Airstrip length requirements vary with the different aircraft used. They range from 800m to 1100m. Because most strips are not used continually, it has been the practice to test them by driving a motor vehicle over it prior to each landing to make sure it is safe for the aircraft to land.
Many of the outstations have some form of airstrip lighting but there are occasions when car headlights or other methods must be used to light the strip for a night landing.
Until the 1960s, the Service rarely owned aircraft, using contractors to provide aircraft, pilots and servicing. The RFDS progressively began to purchase aircraft and employ their own pilots and engineers.
Although the aircraft are guided by satellite navigation systems, landings must often be made in difficult circumstances on remote dirt airstrips or roads, lit at night by kerosene flares or car headlights.
As when the Service first began the Pilots continue to be responsible for determining if the flight can be safely undertaken in the prevailing weather conditions.