Graphic: RFDS Pilot Ray Mundy
After more than 30 years of delivering aeromedical services to outback Australians, RFDS Central Operations’ current longest-serving pilot Ray Mundy has hung up his hat. Join Ray as he reflects on three decades of servicing rural and remote communities.
Graphic: RFDS Pilot Ray Mundy in 2004
What first inspired you to become a pilot?
I guess I was like a lot of kids, wanting to be a pilot.
When I was a kid in the '70s, Colin Thiele was read to me in primary school and his book Fire in the Stone opened my eyes to the outback. In 1974, my dad moved our family from Victoria to Darwin after Cyclone Tracy as part of the rebuilding program. It was the first time I’d been on an aircraft and I looked out and there was Lake Eyre and the outback. There was a sense even then as a 10-year-old kid that at some point I’m going have something to do with this – this country.
How did you come to joining the RFDS?
My parents were pastors, so we moved around a lot when I was kid. I was doing Year 11 in Perth and I was in the school library when this magazine caught my eye. It was about the Royal Flying Doctor Service and had all these amazing stories in it. I pinched it out of the library and thought, “This is what I want to be doing”. I still have the magazine to this day.
It started from there as a 16-year-old kid. At the same high school, they had an aviation course and during school holidays we would get signed out to different aviation companies. It was by pure coincidence, and luck, that I got signed out to the Flying Doctor. I got to fly with an RFDS pilot for a week! And that was it. I was sold.
From there, I wrote a plan out and set a goal: by 25, I’d be an RFDS Pilot. I did all the research I needed – worked out how many hours and the experience levels required. After years of flying, at age 25 I got a phone call from the Chief Pilot at the RFDS Port Augusta Base. He asked if I wanted to come on board. That’s the story of how it all began.
How has the RFDS evolved since you first joined?
I joined in 1988. At that point, we had four pilots in South Australia.
We flew Navajo aircraft and it expanded from there. It was the introduction of King Air aircraft that was a huge step. It would take us all day to fly Port Augusta to Coober Pedy to Adelaide, but when we got the King Air, we could do two of those routes in one shift. I saw the expansion of capability and the South Australians' expectations of what the RFDS could do, grow.
The GPS (Global Positioning System navigation) came in 1993. For my first few years, all we had was charts and a rough form of computer navigation that was very unreliable. The GPS made a huge difference to how we operated in the outback – it was a big step in reliability.
In 1995, I saw the introduction of the Pilatus PC-12 aircraft to our fleet, a pioneering step for us. Our Chief Pilot at the time was ex-military and had flown single engine aircraft. He saw the PC-12 in a magazine in the early '90s before it had even been built yet. Everyone hated the idea of one engine, but he introduced it and the organisation was very courageous in taking this step. We pioneered the introduction of the aircraft in Australia – we were practically the test pilots for the aircraft in South Australia, ironing out any issues.
We learnt quickly that in the PC-12 we could carry around 250kg more for the same range than we could in the King Air. It was this payload range that made it an exceptional aircraft, which directly impacted how we delivered our aeromedical services. With a full retrieval team in the King Air, we could just make Alice Springs from Port Augusta depending on the winds (without stopping to refuel) – but the PC-12 could keep going to Tennant Creek with the same load. It was an exciting time seeing the evolution of the PC-12 – the RFDS had a big part to play in it being a successful aircraft.
I also got involved in disaster response in the outback and was part of establishing the emergency airstrips on the Stuart and Eyre Highways – on the Nullarbor and at Glendambo. That was a very proud moment for me, to work on getting access to stretches of road that we didn’t have before.
What do you love most about the outback?
It’s the people and far horizons. You’ve got a harsh landscape, which makes for a resilient people. The remoteness, it gets into your soul – it’s hard to describe.
I come from faith-based values and learning the stories of John Flynn was a big inspiration for me. I would tell myself, “You’re more than a pilot – you’re an advocate for the outback people. Anytime you see a problem or challenge for them you take it on board and find a solution.”
You’re more than just a pilot. That’s the approach I’ve taken in life.
Do you have a favourite outback location?
There’s probably two – the Birdsville Track and the Nullarbor.
I have a lot of stories from the Birdsville Track. Before I came to the Flying Doctor, I used to do the postal run through there with Augusta Airways – 26 stops in two days. I know the people on that track and have flown about every one of them out. Over the last 30 years there wouldn’t be too many families that I haven’t had an association with. That’s been pretty special.
There’s something about the highway and the remoteness of the Nullarbor, but more importantly it’s where I also met my wife, Chris, during a Flying Doctor clinic at Cook. So, it’s a special place for me out there too.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome?
I’ve had my share of hairy moments, like bad icing and controls freezing up. But it’s what happened early on in my RFDS career – I remember the first time it hit me that there’s more than flying aircraft around.
I’d only been at the RFDS for a month when there was a car rollover near Marla – tragically, the dad died in the crash, while the mum and young kids survived. This little kid was three or four, with a big bandage around her head and she started talking to me as we were transferring them into the aircraft. She said, “My daddy died today.” That hit me like a ton of bricks – no one wrote in the brochure about hearing this. But I knew I had a responsibility to safely fly these people back to Adelaide.
You really remember the first time it hits you that there’s another element to this job that’s not in the manual. There is a unique dimension to the work that’s real and human. That there’s more going on here than just flying aircraft.
Graphic: RFDS night evacuation
Is there a specific emergency mission that you distinctly recall?
I remember there was a horrific car rollover at Nilpinna on the Oodnadatta Track – there was a couple of kids in a seriously bad way with spinal injuries. It was last light and I had five minutes to get in the air before we would’ve had to flown to William Creek and the poor kids would’ve had to have been driven an hour along bumpy, corrugated roads and creek crossings to meet us. So, it was pretty important we found something close.
We didn’t know there was an airstrip at the back of the station, until the publican at William Creek informed us via CB radio. He said it was for light aircraft and might not be big enough for the RFDS aircraft, but we checked it out and decided it was the best option to get to the kids.
As the sun went down, we landed. We had to use car lights (positioned to illuminate the runway) to take off, but we got those two kids out safely and they survived. The team did a really good job that day along with the health workers from Oodnadatta. It was a genuine community effort to make it all happen and solve the complications involved with that flight.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
I was blessed with really good mentors when I was a young pilot.
When I started, most of the guys had learnt on the job and had more than 10 years’ experience. I was just a young kid – part of a new generation coming through. The Chief Pilot at the time said to me, “Before you go online I want you to spend a week with each of these guys – you sit there and your job is to download their 10 years’ experience."
I’m still using their techniques to this day to figure things out – a lot of bush flying skills and how to get out of challenging situations.
What are your hopes for the future of the RFDS?
We’re on the nation’s $20 note. You don’t get to be on that unless at some level you hold values that this country holds dear. That’s a pretty big burden for any organisation to have to wear, but it’s a challenge the RFDS has welcomed. I hope we continue to deliver these values of service and contribution to the Australian people.
Graphic: RFDS Pilot Ray Mundy
What’s next for you?
I’ll be flying for the National Parks and Wildlife Service out of Port Augusta. I’m still learning myself, but I’ll be transporting National Parks personnel and getting involved in the environmental and wildlife management programs, which I’m very excited about. I’ll be seeing familiar places and faces across the Flinders, desert country and the Nullarbor.