Toilet paper to the rescue!

Thanks to Michael Flood for sharing his experiences as a pilot for the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

My name is Michael Flood. I have been flying for the Royal Flying Doctor Service for 5 years now. I started with the RFDS in the small South Western Queensland town of Charleville after spending a few years flying charters in the Northern Territory and North West QLD.

I had long had an interest in the RFDS basically from when I started to learn to fly, but after I had a little more to do with the RFDS in Mount Isa, my interest grew to the point where I couldn’t think of a better job to be doing. What other job lets you do what you love, day in and day out, in some of the most challenging circumstances, while being able to improve the lives of your fellow countrymen by way of helping to provide what John Flynn set out to provide, a ‘mantle of safety’.

I remember my first few months with the RFDS very well. I guess you could say I was thrown into the deep end straight away. Not only did I have to get through all the very intense training in the first month, but within days of being let loose and for the months following, I was landing on strips which hadn’t seen an aircraft for near on 20 years, landing on dirt strips at night with battery powered lamps, and experiencing a lot of new flying experiences, mostly at the times when I didn’t really want to experience them! I saw people suffer from massive injuries on numerous occasions, I spent hours trying to comfort the father of a young girl who’d lost her life in a terrible accident, and I spent months watching people go through a lot of medical conditions which I just did not understand.

I did wonder at one point what I had gotten myself into and whether I had made a mistake in even thinking I could do this job. But with encouragement and some wise thoughts and guidance from my Senior Base Pilot at the time, I stuck with it. With a bit of time to first of all get my footing on my own job (flying the aircraft!), I turned some interest to what was going on in the back. It took a few more months, but once I could put some more thought to everything that was going on, I realised that this was the job that I wanted. A job where at the end of the week you feel some satisfaction that you’ve not only enjoyed doing your own job, but you’ve also helped many people in the process. A huge sense of pride.

Most weeks, it’s just common tasks and flying to airports that are well known to us, flying routes we’ve flown sometimes hundreds of times. Not to be taken lightly, however, as every flight needs to be as safe as we can make it and there is no room for complacency. Then you have other weeks when these tasks are punctuated by jobs which make your hair stand on end and require nearly every bit of flying skill you’ve gained over many years and several thousand flying hours, to ensure a safe outcome.

One such task that springs to mind happened while I was working a night shift in Mount Isa. We had been tasked to conduct a routine transfer from Mount Isa to Townsville. That changed fairly quickly, though, when the doctor received a phone call from a property south west of Mount Isa, saying that someone had rolled the 4-wheeler motorbike and sustained injuries. The difficulty was that it was quite a drive to the nearest sealed runway with proper lighting, and the drive over the rough corrugated road had the potential to make the injuries worse for the patient. To make it even worse, the kerosene flares they normally use to light up the runway edges had been put away in the shed somewhere and weren’t able to be found.

Our options were limited, but I did some thinking and remembered the experience of a fellow co-worker in Charleville who had a similar problem.

I asked, “How many dunny rolls do you have?”

“Ah we’ve got heaps of those mate”

“Right, I need 22 rolls, dipped in diesel and lit up, placed at the runway ends and every 0.1 on your car’s odometer, 11 down each side. ”

A full toilet roll, dipped in diesel and lit up, will last approximately 1 hour. Plenty of time to land, retrieve our patient and depart back to Mount Isa.

So we departed for this property, on a moonless night, to land on a strip which I hadn’t seen even in the daytime, let alone landed on at night, using toilet rolls to light the edges of the runway, in a black hole. It was only the second time I’d ever landed on flares by myself and it wasn’t exactly the easiest of approaches and landings to do, so after touching down and coming to a stop, my pulse rate was through the roof! The patient, though, was safely retrieved and flown back to Mount Isa and recovered from their injuries.

It is often said throughout the aviation industry that the flying we as RFDS Pilots do is among the most challenging there is in Australia. We only have the one Pilot onboard, we are often out flying when most normal people are tucked up in bed, we fly into places at night using the most primitive of lights (often diesel or kerosene flares), and we have numerous things to consider that aren’t always necessarily directly to do with the flying.

We are lucky, though, in that we have the tools and the experience to keep the flying as safely as possible. We have some of the very best and most experienced training pilots in the industry ensuring we meet the high standard required every year. The aircraft are all ‘state of the art’, mostly with full glass cockpits that rival some of the modern airliners, equipped with safety devices such as terrain warnings, traffic avoidance and satellite navigation, and fitted out in the back with modern medical devices that enable the medical crews to be able to deliver the very best care for their patients.

Through initiatives such as Jenna’s, we can continue to provide the best we can possibly achieve, by having the best possible tools and best possible people for the job. For this, we are grateful, and as a personal friend of Jenna and also an employee of the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia, I wish her well in her walk across the Simpson Desert. I have 100% confidence she’ll do it and make us proud in doing so.


4 thoughts on “Toilet paper to the rescue!

  1. Pingback: From the desert to the prairies and back again. | Uvumilivu – The Long Walk Home

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