Graphic: From selling spare parts to flying planes

From selling spare parts to flying planes

Date published

15 Jun 2021

When Dave Collins finished school he didn’t have ‘the grades or ability’ to pursue his dream of becoming a pilot. Then a half-an-hour trip with a mate changed his life for good.

Most people do their level best to avoid living under a flight path. But for Dave Collins, the sound of planes coming and going from the Archerfield Airport, south of Brisbane, is almost soothing and a connection to his life in the air.

Collins, 41, of Logan, has been a pilot with the RFDS for almost 10 years.

From the home he shares with his wife of 11 years, Claire, 37, and their daughters Haylea, 10, Leni, 8, and Ashleigh, 3, Collins happily names the different types of planes flying overhead.

Claire, however, remains unconvinced.

“We live underneath a flight path for Archerfield and I can tell what sort of plane it is, but my wife just looks at me and says flatly: ‘It’s a plane’,’’ Collins says.

“Pilots get excited by that sort of thing. I think we are all the same.’’

Graphic: Royal Flying Doctor Service pilot Dave Collins with his daughters (L-R) Leni, 8, Ashleigh, 3, and Haylea, 10. Photo: Jamie T Photography.

During his time working for the RFDS, Collins has accumulated approximately 4,000 flying hours, travelling to Mount Isa, Cairns, Townsville, Hervey Bay, Bundaberg, Roma, Emerald, St George, Quilpie and “all the places in between’’.

Last year, he was the RFDS pilot who flew a medical team to the mining town of Moranbah, in central Queensland’s Bowen Basin, after an explosion at Anglo American’s Grosvenor Mine.

Five people were seriously injured and Collins flew the most critically injured person to Brisbane.

“I was halfway through a shift when we got the call to fly to Moranbah,’’ Collins says.

“It’s a mining town and at the airport there were mining flights and other medical crews still flying in, so it was very busy.

“I had a doctor on board and two nurses and we flew a critically injured man to Brisbane Airport. From there, the patient was road transported to hospital.’’

The changeable nature of his role as a RFDS pilot is part of the job’s attraction. There’s no such thing as a typical day.

“Day to day, I never know what I’m going to be doing. It’s not routine,’’ Collins, who is also a supervisory pilot mentoring new recruits, says.

“You can get to work and you are off to Cairns or you could be halfway through the day and fly to Hervey Bay.

“I like the variety. You just don’t know where you are going to go. It could be a doctor flight, a nurse-only flight, a retrieval flight to pick up a newborn baby or a sick kid.

“There’s a certain excitement of not knowing what you will be doing from shift to shift. And that’s very different to working in the airline industry where it’s predictable and you know a month in advance where you will be flying.’’

The RFDS was founded in 1928 with the Australian Inland Mission Aerial Medical Service, in Cloncurry, and later expanded nationally.

Today, in Queensland, the RFDS employs more than 400 people — pilots, doctors, nurses, engineers, allied health professionals, as well as administration and support service roles such as finance, marketing and human resources.

Each year, the RFDS visits more than 90 remote communities, providing healthcare services to more than 260 people each day, including general practitioner services, child and maternal health, mental and oral health.

Thousands of remote health clinics are also held from the state’s far north to the remote south west and more than 11,500 patients are transported to and from hospitals and specialist services.

The RFDS established its head office at Brisbane Airport in 1995 and since then has had a strong partnership with the Brisbane Airport Corporation (BAC) says Rachel Crowley, BAC Executive General Manager, Communications and Public Affairs.

“Pilots like David are in many ways guardian angels here on earth, providing vital healthcare and emergency services to people in regional, rural and remote areas,” Crowley says.

“It is extraordinary to think that in doing this, David and the dedicated team at RFDS fly the equivalent of 34 round trips to the moon every year.

“For BAC, it is a privilege to support this critically important service that underpins, and protects, the lives of so many of our fellow Queenslanders.”

Royal Flying Doctor Service pilot Dave Collins. Photo Mark Cranitch.

Collins was born in Lismore, in northern NSW, as the youngest of four brothers — twins Andrew and Christopher, 46, and Michael, 43.

His mum Rhondda, 70, who now lives in nearby Wollongbar, looked after the household while his father worked as a cleaner and truck driver.

As a young kid, Collins remembers driving past the Gold Coast Airport on the way to family holidays at Currumbin. His mum would also drive him and his brothers to the airport to watch the planes take off and land.

He was also a keen watcher of the Nine Network TV drama series The Flying Doctors, that ran over nine seasons from 1986 to 1992.

“I was amazed at these big machines made of metal that could fly,’’ Collins says.

“I liked the smell of the fumes of the jet engine exhaust, that burnt kerosene smell. And the sound of the jets taking off, going down the runway, it was all that speed and noise.

“I was four or five years old when I thought I wanted to fly a plane.’’

Collins attended Alstonville High School, flying remote-control aeroplanes during these years as a hobby. He finished school and began a job at a truck dealership in Lismore selling spare parts.

“I didn’t really have the grades or the ability to pursue being a pilot at the time. I didn’t back my own ability to be honest,’’ he says.

Then when he was 20, a friend who flew the remote-control planes with him who was also a pilot, suggested he do a trial instruction flight — a short 30-minute flight to get a bit of a feel for it.

“I loved it,’’ he says.

“I was in control of an aeroplane; it was such a good feeling being up there cruising along and watching the world go by below you. I was hooked, well and truly. Flying was freedom.

“From then on, working full time at the truck place was paying for my flying lessons. It was expensive and I had to also pay rent and a car loan. There was not much money left over for flying lessons.’’

It took him four years to get his commercial pilot license and in 2006 David got his first job as a pilot at a cattle station near Camooweal, on the Queensland border with the Northern Territory.

“I would muster a couple of thousand head of cattle in a Cessna 182, working with people on horses and bikes on the ground as well. It was my first experience of doing that, so it was a bit of a steep learning curve.’’

This cattle station was also where Collins met his future wife Claire, who was working as the station’s governess. It was also where he got his first hint of his future career. The cattle station was under the flight path for the Camooweal Airport and he would hear the RFDS planes arrive late at night. 

“That’s what got me interested in it. I thought it would be a cool job with lots of variety while helping people out.’’

Collins has also worked for a road train company in Cloncurry transporting mechanics to fix the trucks and as a chartered pilot in Mount Isa where he delivered mail to remote cattle stations, transported mine workers and even, on two occasions, collected the bodies of deceased people with an undertaker.

Collins has loved his flying career and hopes to remain with the RFDS to celebrate the organisation’s 100-year anniversary in 2028.

“This is a really interesting, satisfying job — it’s a dream job really. And 2028 will be a great milestone for the RFDS,’’ he says.

“I’m not sure if my kids have inherited my love of planes. They aren’t particularly interested but when our youngest daughter, Ash, sees a plane she will say, ‘Daddy doctor plane’.”

“She loves coming to the airport and watching the planes and coming to work and sitting on the tug that pushes the planes in and out of the hangar.

“I never get sick of working with planes and I’m very happy to keep flying as long as I can.’’

This article was originally published in The Courier Mail.