Aerial Ambulance in Queensland and the RFDS

Guest Post – Queensland Ambulance Service looks back at the various airplanes that have been used for fixed-wing aerial ambulance service in Queensland.

Airplanes have been a part of Queensland ambulance operations almost as long as airplanes have been in Australia. The first provider of aerial patient transport services to Queensland ambulance was Qantas, founded in Winton on 16 November 1920 as Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Limited by Paul McGinness, Sir Hudson Fysh and Sir Fergus McMaster. Qantas made the inaugural flight of the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia, departing from Cloncurry. Operating with an Avro 504K with a Sunbeam Dyak engine and an old BE2E war-disposals aircraft, the company moved its head office from Winton to Longreach in 1921 and engaged in taxi, ambulance and stock inspection services as well as joy-riding. In 1921, Fysh had advised John Flynn on the practicalities of a flying-doctor service and in 1928-47 Qantas piloted an ambulance airplane for the Australian Inland Mission.

De Havilland DH50A

Many of the aerial ambulance flights by Qantas in the 1920s were made with a DE Haviland DH50A biplane (twin in-line cockpit) with the patient on the stretcher loaded into the rear cockpit. In Queensland’s west it could be quite warm on the ground and cool in the air when carried in the fuselage this way. However the only other option for sick or injured patients was by “roads” or, as they were in those days, more like bush tracks with the associated rough surfaces, creek crossing and frequent bogging in loose soil or mud. Aircraft were a very logical solution to these land transport issues.

De Havilland DH50A

In Cairns, the first aerial ambulance trip was made on 9 January 1937 when the Committee chartered Mr Tom McDonald’s aircraft to transport a child patient from Cooktown to Cairns. In 1945 the Committee decided to operate its own aerial service and the first aircraft was a Dragon DH 84A which was purchased from the Disposals Commission at a cost of £670. The final cost to equip the aircraft, including radio, was £1,500.

De Havilland DH84A Dragon

Following some unfortunate incidents, Cairns QATB aerial ambulance later included a DE Haviland Rapide, followed by another Rapide and then various types of aircraft were used in a context of rising aviation costs.

De Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide

The final Cairns air ambulance was a twin engine Cessna before the service was handed over to the Royal Flying Doctor Service in 1979.

During that period, Cairns ambulance aircraft serviced a large area of Queensland from out west to the Gulf and north to Torres Strait and provided relief and comfort to many across the Cape’s remote communities.

Following conferences with other QATB Committees in the Central Zone, the Central Queensland Aero Club and the Rockhampton Aero Club, (Fund raising was initially instigated by the Rockhampron Jaycees and asssisted by the Central Qld Graziers Assoc) ,the Central Queensland Aerial Ambulance (CQAA) Service was established and commenced operations in November 1957, with a single engine Cessna 182 fitted with a basic stretcher, bearers kit and toilet utensils. (Unfortunately in June 1958, this Cessna VH-RJC, on a flight from Alpha to Rockhampton, via a stopover in Emerald to refuel, crashed in the Edungalba Range, about 18 miles east of Duaringa, killing all four people on board)

Cessna 205

The aircraft was replaced with a similarly fitted-out Cessna 182 (bearing the same registration VH-RJC) and then in the early 1960s, a Piper Comanche single engine aircraft was purchased and fitted out with much more equipment, including “piped” oxygen and suction facilities. It also had an additional seat for a doctor or nurse. In the 1980s, the CQAA modernised its aircraft and installations that included two pressurised and air-conditioned Cessna Chancellors (twin engine) for longer flights and a twin engine Partenavia aircraft for shorter flights. These aircraft were kept equipped with the latest patient care equipment.

Partenavia P68

The Bundaberg Committee was responsible for the establishment of the Wide Bay Burnett Aerial Ambulance Service. The aircraft selected was a Cessna 402 twin engine and after special ambulance configuration modification it was commissioned for service on 2 May 1983.

Cessna 402

This aircraft was replaced in 1988 with a similar Cessna equipped as previously with a further twin engine Cessna added to the Wide Bay-Burnett Aerial Ambulance soon after. Both aircraft were maintained with the latest patient care equipment.

Beechcraft B200 Super King Air

Today, “fixed-wing” patient transport services are operated by Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia on behalf of the Queensland Ambulance Service. Several separate rotary-winged (helicopter) rescue service provides rescue and short-distance air transport service for patients in Queensland landing directly at the hospital in most cases.

Pilatus PC12 Turboprop (No longer used in Qld but still used in SA, NT and WA)

The RFDS in Australia, has 4 different planes that are used for aeromedical operations. These are the Pilatus PC-12 and PC-24 (used in SA, NT and WA) the Beechcraft King Air B350 C and B200 C (used in Qld, NSW, Victoria and Tasmania).

Pilatus PC-24 used by RFDS in SA, NT and WA

The aeromedical capabilities of the Royal Flying Doctor Service (Queensland Section) (RFDS) are set to be bolstered through the acquisition of four new Beechcraft King Air B360 turboprop aircraft, with the option to purchase a further two. The first two aircraft should come into service in early 2022.

New Beechcraft King Air B360 in factory.

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