Lifestyle

Veteran RFDS pilot flies off into the sunset

FLYING OFF: Last day at the office for Royal Flying Doctor pilot Graham Vonhoff as he looks forward to retiring from the service after 47 very happy and rewarding years in aviation.
FLYING OFF: Last day at the office for Royal Flying Doctor pilot Graham Vonhoff as he looks forward to retiring from the service after 47 very happy and rewarding years in aviation.

WITH nearly 20,000 flying hours under his belt, Royal Flying Doctor Service pilot Graham Vonhoff moves from the cockpit and pauses for a moment at the top of the exit stairs.

It's a walk he's made thousands of times before, but this one he'll cherish forever.

For once he steps foot on terra firma, Mr Vonhoff will wave goodbye to 47 years of soaring the skies.

"I've done my bit, my time's come and I'm walking away while I'm on top," Mr Vonhoff said.

For the past 17 years he has lived the pilot's dream.

"I've loved all the flying I have done, but the Flying Doctor is the pinnacle," he said.

"I only have one regret and that's that I didn't join them earlier."

Mr Vonhoff knew he wanted to be a pilot from age 17, but the dream was out of reach.

The legal age to undertake pilot training was 21, and his father wouldn't give consent to start any earlier.

RFDS pilot Graham Vonhoff checks his Beechcraft engine for the last time.
RFDS pilot Graham Vonhoff checks his Beechcraft engine for the last time.

But it wasn't in vain. It was through this apprenticeship, that Mr Vonhoff met Neola, now his wife of 46 years.

When age 21 rolled around Mr Vonhoff was a year shy of completing his apprenticeship.

"I decided it would be prudent to stay and do the extra year in case flying didn't work," he said.

But as soon as he completed training, Mr Vonhoff was on the flight to New Zealand to start flight training.

It was 1966 when he made his first solo flight in a fabric-covered Piper Cub aeroplane.

"It was fantastic," he said.

And with the title of pilot to pack in his bag, Mr Vonhoff headed back to Australia.

Pilot Graham Vonhoff with his trusty Beechcraft King Air as he retires from the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
Pilot Graham Vonhoff with his trusty Beechcraft King Air as he retires from the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Simon Young BUNVON

"My brother saw an ad in the paper to join the military and become an army pilot," he said.

"That started my military career."

In the years that followed, Mr Vonhoff dabbled in charter work and commercial airlines.

But it would be his military roots that saw Mr Vonhoff skyrocket to the job of his dreams.

"A very good friend of mine, ex-military, was the chief pilot for the RFDS in Brisbane and he actually recruited me," he said.

"He found out I was already flying King Airs for another company and he contacted me and persuaded me to join them."

Following a move to Mt Isa, Mr Vonhoff became the senior base pilot for the RFDS.

It was this job that saw Mr Vonhoff move to Townsville and Brisbane before returning to a location not far from his original stomping ground.

In 2002, when the RFDS opened a base in Bundaberg, Mr Vonhoff grasped the opportunity to head down memory lane.

"We thought, yes, we'd like to move back into the area," he said.

With their three adult children all based in southeast Queensland, Bundaberg seemed the perfect place for the couple to call home.

And as Mr Vonhoff now retires from the skies, the aviation heritage lives on.

With aviation running in the blood, it was only fitting for the Vonhoffs' two sons to follow suit.

Watching their dad soar through the aviation ranks, son Darren became an aircraft refueler and Wayne an aviation engineer.

Buckling in to the audio-toured flight of Mr Vonhoff's career with the RFDS, it's not hard to see why.

He'd signed up to fly planes, but never expected the nerves of steel he'd need to tackle the turbulence he'd encounter along the way.

"In my 17 years, I can recall two instances where during flight we've had patients trying to open the door," he said.

"The most recent one - about 10 years ago - the nurse actually had to tackle the person and wrestle to subdue them."

He's also carried a patient with an arrow in their groin and had two in flight deaths.

But there have been highlights too.

"I guess my most fond memory would have to be a couple of years ago," he said.

Mr Vonhoff had flown to Hervey Bay to fetch a "very pregnant woman" and transport her to Brisbane.

"We were only climbing 7000 feet when the nurse yelled out, 'The baby's here - get back on the ground'," he said.

When the plane landed, Mr Vonhoff jumped into the back and cut the umbilical cord.

In an unexpected turn, the Italian mother named her son Giovanni; the Italian version of Graham.

"That was certainly one of the highlights," he said.

And it is with these fond memories that Mr Vonhoff heads off the runway strip to pursue, with his wife, his other passions - travel and gramophones.

Pilot Graham Vonhoff waves goodbye to a rewarding career with the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
Pilot Graham Vonhoff waves goodbye to a rewarding career with the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

Topics:  editors picks, retirement, royal flying doctor service



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