Graphic: Brian on first flight

60 years since RFDS took flight in Tasmania

Date published

07 Sep 2021

Now retired and living in Adelaide, Brian recalls his rise from cadet, to a paid position as a junior then senior ambulance officer with St John’s Ambulance to Deputy Superintendent of the Ambulance Board of Southern Tasmania.

Graphic: Brian newspaper clipping

While working as an ambulance officer Brian and four colleagues were asked by the Tasmanian Government to revitalise the city’s ambulance service.

“In those early days were were averaging about six cases a day – but that didn’t last for long as we brought more ambulances and more staff on line and the calls started to increase,” Brian said.


Brian history

“We weren’t paramedics – we were basically driving by the seat of our pants, turning up to emergency medical calls with nothing but some basic first aid knowledge and just doing the best we could.

“I remember turning out to a call to the local brickworks and a man had taken some short cuts to turn off a switch and got his arm caught in machinery. It was all but chopped off and we had to call in a doctor to cut away the remaining tissue so we could get him out and get him to hospital.”

RFDS Federation Office asked Brian to establish an interim aeromedical service while they worked on establishing an RFDS service in Tasmania, and they could not have chosen better.

Aside from his love of first aid he had long been interested in flying, but couldn’t afford the 1000 pounds required to get flying lessons, and he considered this job the next best thing.

With the aim of efficiency he set up a charter service with the Southern Aero Club who made its pilots and fleet available to take the ambulance officers on emergency evacuation flights around the state. 

He later moved to Launceston and established the same service utilising the Tasmanian Aero Club.

Brian tasked all the calls, rostered the staff, organised flying permission from the Department of Civil Aviation before every flight and notified airports of impending medical retrievals.

“We had an ancient stretcher, first aid kit and oxygen kit, that was pretty much it. We’d pull a couple of seats out of a plane and off we’d go,” Brian said.

Just one year later, the formation of the Tasmanian Section of the Royal Flying Doctor Service was made official at a meeting in Launceston on September 12, 1960.

Two days later, on September 14, Brian took the first official call to the RFDS – the doctor in Queenstown had appendicitis! Tasking himself to make the trip in a Cessna 182 Brian coordinated the flight with the then contractor Tas Air at Cambridge Airport and with pilot Peter Tanner flew into Queenstown.

“I asked the pilot to return at an altitude under 4000 feet if he could, to avoid peritonitis, and that’s what he did. Other than the usual pushing and pulling to get the stretcher in and out through the side door, the job went smoothly.”

That was not the case when on another flight to Queenstown late at night, to pick up a seriously ill teenager, the pilot was forced to attempt his first ever landing at the difficult airstrip with no runway lights.

“The local cop got all the locals out of the pubs and houses and they lined the runway with their car headlights and the cop cars’ blue flashing lights marked the start and end of the strip – if he couldn’t see well enough to land we were going to touch and go but he managed to put it down,” Peter said.

“Then everyone reversed their cars to help us take off.”

There were night flights to King Island (also no runway lights), lots of flight out of Launceston to Flinders Is and Cape Barren Island, occasional pick-ups from Bruny Island and even a foggy flight between Launceston and Hobart where the pilot had to fly low over the Midland Highway to keep his bearings.

“I loved that job, and made 44 flights with the RFDS between 1960 and 1973. 

Each ambulance officer took turns doing the aeromedical work and I mainly put my name down for the after-hours shifts. Basically I was on call 24/7.”

RFDS Tasmania made 137 flights in its first 12 months of operation. Slowly but surely the sophistication of the training and equipment used in the flying ambulance increased leading up to the highly trained Ambulance Tasmania paramedics who, supported with infrastructure from RFDS, provide all the aeromedical retrieval work in Tasmania today.

Another first for Brian during his time with the RFDS was testing and utilising the first flying ECG unit in an aircraft in Tasmania.

The two-way radio coronary system was the brainchild of Hobart GP Dr J. Freeman, who had been away on a scholarship in the US and returned with the equipment.RFDS Tasmania manager Doug Woodhouse tested the unit with Brian relaying his heartbeat to Royal Hobart Hospital over a distance of 30 miles on a flight back from Bruny Island on December 7, 1972.

Brian never lost his love of flying, managing to cajole pilots into giving him lessons during empty backloads. These days Brian is content spending time on his comprehensive flight simulation program which is set up in his home. And he’s looking forward to taking a tour of the RFDS Central Operations base in Adelaide and getting up close to the new medi-jet when Covid restrictions ease.

“I think that it’s been well proven that the RFDS has been invaluable to Tasmania over the past 60 years with health services that reach the places that are no different to the mainland’s outback – they’re isolated and a long way from specialised health care,” he said.

“I’m proud to say that I helped pioneer this service and I look forward to seeing how it evolves into the future.”

Brian Scanlon