How Bundaberg’s air ambulance service got off the ground
THE opening of the new joint Royal Flying Doctor Service and RACQ LifeFlight aeromedical facility at the Bundaberg Airport was fantastic news for the region.
The facility is state-of-the-art and is something the region can really be proud of.
But the service’s history in the region had very humble beginnings and was only brought to Bundaberg as the result of nearly a decade’s worth of campaigning by advocate groups.
The idea of an ambulance centre being established in Bundy can be traced back to at least the 1980s, as it was documented in NewsMail clippings from the time, generously provided by a local family.
The clippings from the ‘80s show a push for the region to claim a more diversified and mobile paramedic force, with a Queensland Ambulance Transport Board/Brigades (now known as the Queensland Ambulance Service) sub-centre opening in Bargara and, eventually, an aerial ambulance facility at the airport.
The sub-centre was opened in mid-June, 1980, by sub-centre superintendent, D. F. Perry, G. Lonsdale and Sir Douglas Fraser, former assistant-director to civil defence and secretary to the public safety advisory committee in World War II and who was then-president of QATB.
The sub-centre was estimated to have cost somewhere between $135,000 and $214,000 at the time, depending on who was asked and what equipment was included in their calculations.
In the NewsMail edition for June 14, 1980, Sir Douglas praised Bundaberg’s QATB as renowned throughout the state for its high standards of training, while also giving thanks to the Bundaberg Ambulance Fund-Raising (sic) Committee for gathering enough funds for the centre to open free of debt.
He also said the beginnings of the civil ambulance service in Australia began in 1892 in Brisbane as the result of an accident when a jockey fell from his horse and broke his leg.
What began as a fracture became a compound fracture after the man was bundled into a cart and taken to hospital.
“Now the QATB boasts 98 centres and renders great services to communities from Coolangatta to the south and Mount Isa in the West,” Sir Douglas said in 1980.
Certificates of appreciation in the construction of the facility were awarded to the Bundaberg Ambulance Staff Fund Raising Committee, Lions Club of Burnett Heads, Lions Club of Bargara, Q.A.A (Ladies Auxiliary) and the Woongarra Shire Council.
By July the same year, the sub-centre was planning resuscitation lessons for schoolchildren between 12 and 14 years of age.
The four-hour sessions cost $2 per child, though by August the same year were cancelled after “no one showed up”.
But the Bargara sub-centre persevered and future courses in 1981 saw attendance to the courses and successful completion.
And it wasn’t all kids classes for the centre either, with crews functioning as a normal ambulance station and attending all sorts of events, including a major accident on Bargara Rd in May, 1981.
Four patients were given first-aid and taken to Bundaberg Hospital after a crash between a car and a truck and trailer combo that left the former written off.
Miraculously, the only injuries reported were lacerations to the head, bruised knees, back injuries and shock.
The following months and years saw a mix of good and bad news for the service in Bundaberg.
July 1981 saw the death of Bundaberg Ambulance Centre superintendent, Mr J Patrick.
Aged 65, Mr Patrick had served in the RAAF, saw active service in the war and been a member of ambulance brigades for 43 years.
He had spent 25 years as a superintendent, 16 of those in Bundaberg.
Mr Patrick had also been a founding member of the Institute of Ambulance Officers of Australia, Queensland division and Bundaberg Committee on the Ageing and was also a Serving Brother of the Order of St John.
He had fathered a family and was remembered by Bundaberg Ambulance Board chairman, D. G. Rattray, as a hardworking and respected man.
“His energetic and outstanding ability meant a great deal to the service,” Mr Rattray said.
“His broadminded humanity was a feature of expression of his colleagues.
“The solicitude for staff and every workman evoked feelings of affection and personal regard, such as men of this calibre can foster.”
Sadly, Mr Rattray himself would also pass away, one week before the announcement of an air ambulance service for Bundaberg.
Mr Rattray passed aged 84, with his obituary running in the December 15, 1982 edition of the NewsMail.
He was remembered as a distinguished member of the community, receiving long service awards for the 42 years he sat on the Bundaberg Ambulance Committee.
He was also known for his involvement in local groups and associations, including Rotary, the Society of St Andrew of Scotland, Amateur Radio Club, Bundaberg Tennis Association and many more.
He was survived by his wife of 50 years, Johanne.
Good news came to Bundaberg just before Christmas, with the announcement of an air ambulance service for Bundaberg appearing in NewsMail pages on December 23, 1982.
The announcement reportedly came after eight years of campaigning by the Bundaberg QATB and was greeted enthusiastically.
Then-Minister for Education and Member for Isis, Mr Lionel Powell, said the service would operate as an alternative to road transport to Brisbane or Rockhampton for services not available in Bundaberg.
With an additional levy of $5 from existing contributors, the move was predicted to save the Bundaberg committee $14,000 each year.
Bundaberg Ambulance Committee chairman Mr E. H. Grohn said he was elated the committee had been given the chance to provide the region with “ambulance transport appropriate for the 1980s”, as the NewsMail put it.
“We feel a sense of achievement now that approval has been given for the service, and we’re looking forward to the day when Toowoomba also will be able to service the southwest region in the same way,” Mr Grohn said.
“The aerial ambulance will mean greater passenger comfort, it will assist the manpower situation in small stations, and last but by no means least, it will lead to economies in all stations.”
Then-Bundaberg Ambulance superintendent Mr L. Bagarozza said the granting of an aerial ambulance service to the region was not a success story for one person, but a show of tenacity by a supportive community which wanted a modern medical transport service.
“The total benefit of this news will be proven by the care and attention that our community will receive in future years,” Mr Bagarozza said.
Then, less than five years later, disaster.
On a mercy flight to Brisbane to transport a woman in critical condition after being shot in the stomach during a Saturday night domestic, the Wide Bay Aerial Ambulance Service’s Cessna 402C erupted into a fireball after veering off the runway and into surrounding scrubland.
Four of the five people on-board died.
June 21, 1987, would mark Bundaberg’s first fatal air crash in 22 years.
Those who died in the crash were Bundaberg Hospital nursing sister, Mrs Mavis Endres, 33, ambulance officer, Mr Jim McPherson, 27, the patient, Mrs Noela Petersen, 45, and a relieving pilot from Brisbane, Mr John Nelson, aged in his 30s.
The sole survivor was Bundaberg Hospital medical superintendent, Dr Phil Sweeney, who walked away from the crash with burns to his hands.
The first person on the scene was nearby resident Nev Shield who, while his wife rang police, drove to the crash site.
He picked up Dr Sweeney near the wreckage after spotting him with his headlights.
“Is there any more?” Mr Shield said.
“He replied ‘No, I’m the only one alive. I’m in pain … all my mates are gone … lost them all’.”
He then drove Mr Sweeney to the hospital.
Reports from nearby residents and emergency services would describe a fireball 50 metres tall and a shockwave that rattled through houses near the airport.
Perhaps mercifully, police investigators at the time found all four deaths were attributed to the impact of the plane hitting the ground after its failed takeoff.
An Aviation Safety Investigation Report would find the aircraft hit a tree 800 metres beyond the aerodrome boundary, 10 degrees right of the runway centre line.
It continued on the same heading before hitting the ground 177m away.
While significant factors such as the hurried departure and the fact the plane took off at night into a fog bank were noted in the report, the extensive fire and collision damage would hamper investigations, with investigators unable to ultimately determine a series of events or precise cause of the crash.
Only a few days later, an appeal began to re-equip the service with a new plane to meet a never-ending backlog of work.
A goal of $35,000 was set, with the new plane to continue the work started by the service.
Between the christening of the service’s original aeroplane in 1983 to the day of the crash, the Bundaberg air ambulance service had flown 2437 cases and 803,487 kilometres.
In the same time, the average number of flights and flight distances doubled; from one case and 329km per day to 2.19 cases and 677km flown each day.
A memorial service was held on the 30th anniversary of the crash, on June 21, 2017.