Flying across a pandemic to save lives

Date published

22 Oct 2020

As Australians began grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down the nation earlier this year, the RFDS donned protective masks and kept in the air to save lives across the country.

“Most people were working out how to run away but we had to work out how to run toward it safely,” Chief Executive Tony Vaughan ASM said at the RFDS Central Operations AGM in Adelaide today.

The service pulled together a national RFDS COVID Taskforce when the first whispers of a global pandemic emerged in February and Mr Vaughan was asked to lead the response.

From where Doctor Jessica Martyn was based, finishing her training as a specialist general practitioner with the Australian Defence Force, she could see the Flying Doctor stepping up as the impacts of the pandemic spread.

“There was important forward planning for all scenarios of how COVID could impact rural and remote patients from cattle stations to Indigenous communities,” Dr Martyn says.

“And there was dramatic upskilling of clinicians for the worst-case scenario.”

It was this coordinated frontline response that motivated Dr Martyn to join the Flying Doctor team and ensure she was on the frontline dealing with the virus.


She was among two new doctors, two nurses and four pilots employed by RFDS across SA/NT with Commonwealth Government COVID-19 response funding as cases spread across Australia.

First steps for the new national response involved an immediate centralised purchasing of vital PPE so hundreds of thousands of essential protective masks and gowns could be stockpiled to ensure RFDS staff could continue providing essential health care to the country’s furthest corners. 

In February, the RFDS became the first aeromedical organisation to manage a COVID-19 case on Australian soil as it helped airlift infected patients from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Darwin to cities across the nation.

As commercial flights around the country were grounded by the pandemic, the RFDS stepped in to also transport vital pathology tests for health authorities, along with flying important medical specialists to patients throughout the country.

A standby aircraft charter service was rapidly established for oil and gas and mining companies to swiftly assist with moving suspected COVID-19 employees from remote locations.

Mr Vaughan said a new specialist cleaning team was employed to free up clinical staff from comprehensive aircraft cleaning in retrieval turn arounds.

And a $2 million investment by Mrs Gina Rinehart and the Rinehart Foundation helped with the purchase of extra vital medical equipment including heart monitors, defibrillators, ventilators and IV infusion pumps across SA/NT aeromedical bases and remote clinics.

In the space of five months, our teams airlifted 69 confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients in SA and NT but also continued to deliver vital emergency and primary health care to remote and rural communities.

“The efforts of Steve Cameron in leading the Incident Management Team and Dr Mardi Steere in leading the Medical Retrieval Service during this pandemic has been exemplary,” Mr Vaughan says.

That care included a doubling of digital primary and mental health consultations, mental health events held on large screens in remote communities and a new alert system to help RFDS primary care patients manage chronic disease.

“The Flying Doctor maintained its mantle of care despite numerous challenges in crossing borders, visiting remote communities and being hyper aware of the impacts of social contact,” Mr Vaughan says.