19 March 2013

Australia's amazing aerial medical service: 1928

The founder of one of Australia’s most beloved organisations was the Reverend John Flynn (1880–1951), a minister of the Presbyterian Church. In 1912, he established the Australian Inland Mission to minister to the spiritual, social and medical needs of people in the Outback. Flynn lobbied strongly to create hospitals in remote areas and was delighted that the Australian Inland Mission soon established 15 nursing homes and bush hospitals in remote locations.

Even more urgently, Rev Flynn witnessed the daily struggle of pastoralists, miners, railwaymen and settlers living in remote areas where just two doctors provided the only medical care for an area twice the size of Europe. Flynn’s planned to provide a medical safety net for these people.

The Royal Flying Doctor Museum, Alice Springs
built in 1939 and opened as a museum in 2008

Rev Flynn was fortunate to met Hudson Fysh, a founder of QANTAS, at just the right time. In 1927, QANTAS and the Aerial Medical Service signed an agreement to operate an aerial ambulance. And in May 1928, the Australian Inland Mission Aerial Medical Service opened in Cloncurry, Qld.

But his impact was greatest when he linked aeronautical and medical advances with emerging telecommun­ic­ation inventions such as the telegraph and radio network. At just the right time, the inventor Alfred Traeger conceived of a pedal-operated generator to power a radio receiver. By 1929 people living in isolation were at last able to call on the Flying Doctor to assist them in an emergency.

Thus the Rev Flynn developed a medical-care concept that changed the landscape of rural Australia forever. The Cloncurry base remained operational until 1964 when it was relocated to Mt Isa, long after the name of the service had been changed (in 1942) to the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

Those early flights must have felt hazardous since there were no navigational aids aboard the planes; except for crises, pilots normally flew only during the day. Fuel supplies were also carried on flights until fuel deposits were established at importantly located properties in the Outback. Patient comfort was non-existent, as only later did the planes carry all the medical equipment that might be needed.

Fully equipped modern RFDS plane, with patient and nurse

Until the 1960s, the Service had no aircraft of its own. They used contractors to provide aircraft, pilots and servicing, and only then did they start to buy their own planes and employ their own pilots and engineers. Eventually the Service, which operated 21 bases across this wide brown continent, owned 61 modern aircraft with the very latest in navigation technology. The Service’s own history has shown that their medical staff, doctors and nurses, are responsible for the care of 270,000 patients who are 90+ minutes drive from any of the capital cities! Renata Provenzano noted that the R.F.D.S of Australia is the largest civilian-aeromedical organisation in the world!

The Royal Flying Doctor Museum opened in 2008 in the original art deco Radio Station House in Alice Springs. Visitors were encouraged to climb into one of the aircraft and to examine some historic radios, including a Traegar Pedal Radio. There was a large display of historic medical equipment that had been used on the Royal Doctor flights of the past. All that was missing was a woman in active labour or a horseman with two broken legs.

Now the Royal Flying Doctor Service Tourist Facility has undergone a huge redevelopment in 2012 and has reopened with newer, more interactive displays. Outback Magazine of Oct-Nov 2012  focused on the medical transfers and transport of course, but also the preventative health and primary health care. Appropriately the RFDS Café located in the 1939 home of the first RFDS radio operator for the Alice Springs Base.

First RFDS plane. 
Photo credit: Museum of Australian Currency Notes

Rev Flynn was given a well deserved imperial honour in 1933. He died in 1951 but the honours kept on coming. He was featured on one side of the Australian 20 dollar note, once this nation moved to decimal currency in 1966, and still is today.


Don001 said...

Brilliant! In a previous "life" I wrote about Flynn and the transceivers so your Blog really strucka chord with me. Thank you. http://preshist.wordpress.com/2011/01/28/trans-tasman-goodwill/

Andrew said...

When we visited the Broken Hill Flying Doctor Base I asked the question, why shouldn't the government directly fund the service? The reply was to the effect, 'we will be bound in red tape and as things are, we can choose the most appropriate aircraft and equipment for our needs'. While I don't believe that government organisations have to be slow and bureaucratic, I did see the spokeswoman point. The organisation seems to function very well as it is.

Hels said...


I love your perspective. Thank you.

In New Zealand Rev John and Mrs Flynn spoke about the work of Australia Inland Mission and raised good money. I didn’t know about Dunbar Hospital but I am glad they could purchase modern equipment in 1938.

Hels said...


Good on you for going to Broken Hill. Most people have never visited.

Although I prefer services to be delivered by the government as a "right" of all citizens, not as "a charity", the inspiration for the Australian Inland Mission was definitely church-based. That might have been the original reason.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I am impressed with this story of Australia's aerial medical support system. It seems that so many of your posts feature selfless people who direct their specific talents to helping those in duress--medical emergencies, aboriginal crises, escape from Nazis, etc. Even if all does not go smoothly at first, a foundation is laid for later improvements and refinements.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...


You think I might be drawn to stories of the heroic? hehe.. possibly so.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service was such an epic project, it still has a powerful resonance for Australians. In fact "The Flying Doctors" was a successful Australian TV drama series that used the true stories of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The series was shown here from 1985-1993 inclusive. It is still being shown all over the world.

We Travel said...

Does the Ghan stop long enough in Alice Springs? That might be a very nice way to see the city, including the Flying Doctor musuem.

Hels said...

We Travel

Agreed. NB the Essential Alice Springs Tour is only 3.5 hours long but it enables you to see up to four of Alice Springs' best highlights. Get off the train and travel by coach, hear a brief history on Alice Springs and have guided tours of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, National Pioneer Women's Hall of Fame and the Telegraph Station.