Australia's Royal Flying Doctor Service, which turns 90 this year, owes its creation to Presbyterian minister Rev John Flynn.

Born near Bendigo in Victoria in 1880, Flynn had spent much of his life in the city but had a long-time interest in the Australia's Outback, something he developed while training to be minister in the Presbyterian Church. Following his ordination in 1911, the now Rev Flynn was sent to the Smith of Dunesk Mission at Beltana, a remote location about 500 kilometres north of the South Australian capital of Adelaide. It was there that he saw firsthand the lack of medical care available to the residents and travellers in remote Australia. 


One of the Royal Flying Doctor Service planes as it lands. PICTURE: Courtesy: Royal Flying Doctor Service.

Rev Flynn's work for the church took him to places including Darwin, Katherine, Bathurst Island and Adelaide River and eventually saw him appointed the first head of the Australian Inland Mission (he was also author of the book, The Bushman's Companion, a book of tips and information for people living in remote Australia).

But it was a letter "Flynn of the Inland" received from a Victorian medical student with an interest in aviation, Lieutenant Clifford Peel, that sparked the idea of a flying doctor service. Peel suggested aviation could be used to bring medical aid to people living in the Outback (he didn't live to see the idea come to fruition, however - he was shot down and killed in France during World War I).

Enamoured of the idea, Flynn campaigned for an aerial medical service to provide what he saw as a "mantle of protection" for people living in the bush. Thanks for a bequest from a long-time supporter HV McKay, he was able to get the new Aerial Medical Service off the ground, signing an agreement with Hudson Fysh, founder of QANTAS, to operate an aerial ambulance out of Cloncurry in Queensland.

The first pilot, Arthur Affleck, took off on 17th May, 1928, in a single engine, timber and fabric bi-plane with an open cockpit which was dubbed 'Victory'. Flying with him was Dr Kenyon St Vincent Welch. During the first year, the service flew 50 flights to 26 destinations and treated 225 patients.

Alfred Traeger's invention of a pedal-operated generator to power a radio receiver meant that by 1929, people living in isolated and remote region were able to call the flying doctor to come to their aid. These were later replaced by transistorised receivers which meant doctors could then give consultations over the radio.


The RFDS in action. PICTURE: Courtesy: Royal Flying Doctor Service.

The service gradually spread across the country - the Victorian branch was formed in 1934 and other states followed.

In 1942, the service changed its name to the Flying Doctor Service and in 1955 to the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Rev Flynn, meanwhile, attended his last council meeting for the organisation in May, 1950 - he died of cancer the following year. Rev Flynn's life and legacy was commemorated on the Australian $20 note in 1994.

While the planes were initially leased (the first plane had been leased from QANTAS at a rate of two shillings per mile flown), in the 1960s, the RFDS started purchasing its own aircraft and employing its own pilots and engineers. These days, the RFDS has a national fleet of 69 planes including a Hawker 800XP, 34 Pilatus PC-12s, two King Air B350 Cs and 32 B200s and B200 Cs, and two Cessna C208s. A New Pilatus PC-24 jet is scheduled to join the fleet in Western Australia this year. Flying out of some 24 air bases across the country, they flew more than 26 million miles in the last year alone.

Over the past year, more than 330,000 "patient contacts" were made by the RFDS, more than 88,000 people in remote and rural areas used the organisation's telehealth services and more than 17,000 nurse, GP and dental clinics were conducted across the country.