AS THE southwestern plains of Queensland suffered severe flooding in 2012, the Royal Flying Doctor Service sprang into action and showed just why it is considered to be the leading aeromedical operation of its kind in the world.
Across the southwestern plains of Queensland, locals enjoy the popular swimming and camping spots along the peaceful Warrego and Maranoa Rivers. In late January 2012, however, the normally sleepy rivers broke their banks, churning a pathway, kilometres wide in places, across the inland.
It was a case of déjà vu for the flood-weary residents of towns including Charleville, Roma and Mitchell, after severe flooding affected the area in 2008, 2010 and 2011. In 2012, aware of what was to come, Queensland Health began to evacuate patients ahead of the crisis. Veteran RFDS pilot and Manager Line Operations Chris Wimpenny, liaised directly with the State Medical Director of Retrieval Services Queensland (RSQ), Dr Mark Elcock.
“They needed everything we could offer,” Chris said. “We drew aircraft and crews from Charleville, Rockhampton, Bundaberg and Brisbane and we had five aircraft working on the effort, around 75 per cent of our capacity across the south and south west.”
On Tuesday 30 January, the RFDS evacuated approximately 20 patients from the Charleville Hospital and Nursing Home. The tempo picked up over the following weekend as Roma and Mitchell went under water and Charleville and St George prepared for the worst. Mandatory evacuations were ordered in St George, and anxious residents in Charleville could only hope that the Charleville levee could hold the weight of water behind it.
RFDS flights criss-crossed the southwest, moving patients from Charleville, Barcaldine, St George and Dirranbandi to Brisbane and Toowoomba. With a unique view of the vast ‘inland sea’, RFDS pilots said the water took on an eerie quality at night. Returning from St George, Brisbane Senior Base Pilot Tony Bennett said, “In the moonlight the extent of the flooding was obvious and almost unbelievable. The road out of town to the evacuation centres in
Dalby was bumper-to-bumper for at least 100 kilometres, worse than the Bruce Highway on a Sunday afternoon. It was very sobering to think what all these people were leaving behind.”
While towns such as Mitchell and Roma were badly affected, there was a sigh of relief when the levee at Charleville held, protecting most of the town from the torrent of water. After the water subsided the RFDS was once again on call returning patients to their hometowns.
RFDS Queensland uses a variety of aircraft, including the Pilatus PC-12 and Cessna Caravan 208, but the mainstay of the fleet remains the King Air, of which 15 are utilised by the Flying Doctors – four B200Cs, nine B200s, and two Super King Air B200s.
According to Chris Wimpenny and fellow RFDS pilot Scott Owens, the King Air is perfect for RFDS operations.
“It’s safe and dependable and being pressurised, it has the ability to fly above weather most of the time, even if the patient requires a sea level cabin pressure,” says Chris, who has logged over 5,430 King Air hours in 15 years at the RFDS. “It can carry a minimum of pilot, doctor, flight nurse and two stretchered patients and operate into unprepared property airstrips with great short field capability.”
Scott agrees with Chris, but goes a step further by saying that the King Air is a pilot’s aeroplane. “It’s beautifully light on the controls and has the performance to meet the challenges of our environment,” says Scott, who in eight-and-a-half-years with the RFDS has accumulated 2,300 hours in the King Air. “Thanks to some avionics upgrades in the past nine years the autopilot system has become extremely reliable and capable which is a real blessing when the weather is rough and your attention is divided.” The improved navigational aids also allow all-weather and night flying, thereby extending the reach of the RFDS to virtually any corner of Queensland, however isolated.
The RFDS King Air is large enough to accommodate two stretcher patients plus vital life saving medical equipment; while its excellent performance is complemented by its ability to operate on rugged, unprepared surfaces.
So highly rated is the King Air that RFDS Queensland recently welcomed the arrival of a new 2014 B200 model for its Cairns Base, while announcing that it had placed the first Australian order for two new King Air 350C Heavy Weight aircraft. The 350C Heavy Weight model offers an array of valuable features, particularly for aeromedical missions including a built-in airstair and cargo door and offers an increased payload of around 635 kg. The large cargo door is beneficial for the RFDS aeromedical activities, as it will allow improved access for the loading and unloading of patients as well as medical equipment required to be on board.
The first of two King Air 350C Heavy Weight aircraft will arrive on Australian soil in April 2015 and will undergo a comprehensive medical fit-out before being incorporated into the RFDS’s existing aviation fleet. The new additions will be immensely beneficial to patients both in terms of their comfort and the timeliness of RFDS operations. The increased flying distance of the King Air 350s will provide the Flying Doctors with more flexible transport options, thus ensuring that the King Air remains one of the world’s great utility aeroplanes. Just ask the flood victims of south and southwestern Queensland.