SYDNEY, Australia--It’s been 60 years since Australia’s legendary Royal Flying Doctor Service took to the air in the vast, sun-scorched interior known as the Outback.
But these days its doctors are more likely to be treating typically urban problems like alcoholism, suicide and venereal disease than loneliness and broken bones of past days.
For doctors in the service, making a house call can mean flying hundreds of miles.
Australia is virtually the size of the United States. Distances are measured in hours traveled, not miles; schoolchildren in the arid Outback are educated over bush radio because no schools are around for hundreds of miles.
Never Too Far Away
But no matter where a patient is, the Royal Flying Doctor Service boasts that it is never more than two hours away once a call is made.
Last year, the network’s 34 aircraft flew 4 million miles to transport 10,295 patients and treat 88,757 others.
“Now that’s what you call a country practice,” said Brian Partridge, spokesman for the service, an organization that crisscrosses a landscape of about 2 million of Australia’s nearly 3 million square miles.
“We provide a standard of health care that is equivalent to that enjoyed by people in the cities,” said Partridge. “People assume that if you live in the country you are healthier. That is not true.
“Alcoholism is very prevalent along with stress-related disorders. The suicide rate is very high,” he said.
The service celebrated its diamond jubilee last May, still committed to providing the “mantle of safety” that the Rev. John Flynn, a Presbyterian missionary, envisioned when air travel was in its infancy.
In the beginning, the flying doctors attended women giving birth and mended broken bones of cattlemen who fell off their horses.
“Now, we’ve also got to deal with tourists, as well as prospectors, anthropologists, archeologists and surveyors,” Partridge said.
“We still get the old type of problems, but we’re having to attend a growing number of road accidents as well as suicide attempts. Aborigines account for nearly half the people we treat. Hepatitis is a big problem for them, as is VD. We never had that before.”
Handles 5,000 Outposts
Based at 14 inland airports, the flying doctors are responsible for about 5,000 outposts scattered across the desolate Outback, often having to land at night on dirt strips or paddocks with just car lights showing the way.
The network, at its most dramatic, saves lives as well as providing the general-practitioner service to which city folk are accustomed.
One prime minister, the late Robert Menzies, described the service as the “greatest single contribution to the effective settlement of the far-distant back country that we have witnessed in our time.”
Flynn established the service with the intent of banishing much of the dread associated with the great loneliness of the Outback and the fear of becoming ill in so isolated a place.
“The inland holds many lonely graves of people who might have lived had they been able to receive medical help quickly,” said Partridge.
The first flight was with the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service, later to become the national flag carrier, Qantas Airways. Now the Flying Doctor Service operates separately.
The network has become an intrinsic part of Australian folklore. Two television series, “A Country Practice” and “The Flying Doctor,” are huge successes here as well as in Britain.
“They are true to life because we (examine and evaluate) the scripts,” said Partridge.
Long ago homesteaders had to pedal a wireless to talk to their nearest neighbor. Some still “talk” via bush radio but now almost everyone is hooked up to a telephone service via satellite.
Flynn, or “Flynn of the Inland” as he was known, began his missionary work at a time when only two doctors served an area of 186,000 square miles in drought-prone western Australia and 930,000 square miles in the Northern Territory, which is subtropical.
18 Doctors Today
Today, the service maintains 34 aircraft and employs 18 doctors, 48 pilots, 54 radio operators and 22 engineers. It operates on an annual budget of 16 million Australian dollars (almost $13 million U.S.), 10% of which it raises privately. The government provides the rest.
Similar services, based on the Australian example, operate in Africa and Canada.
The Australian Flying Doctor Service is unique. Its headquarters at Broken Hill in New South Wales is almost a required stop for heads of state visiting Australia.
Being a pilot for the service entails more than treating the sick. Pilots must do their own refueling, handling heavy drums at isolated airstrips and sometimes making emergency repairs.
Partridge said at times pilots have landed their Beechcraft turboprops only to smash into a kangaroo.
“You don’t get that in the city,” he said.