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Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia

Royal Flying Doctor Service doctor treating an injured stockman, 1971

Royal Flying Doctor Service doctor treating an injured stockman in 1971, photographic transparency. Image courtesy of National Archives of Australia: A1500:K28430.

Australians living or travelling in rural and remote areas can face particular difficulties in gaining access to health and medical care such as doctors, nurses, dentists or emergency services. Organisations such as the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) have been established to bring these important health services to remote and regional Australian communities.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service provides free emergency and medical care to people who live, work or travel in remote and regional parts of Australia. This non-profit organisation is the oldest and largest airborne health service of its kind in the world:

The Royal Flying Doctor Service is the health care provider to all people who live, work and travel in outback Australia. We provide free medical services to all patients in the world's largest medical waiting room, which extends from Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean to Elizabeth Island in the Great Barrier Reef and all states and territories between.
David Zerman, Chief Executive Officer of the Victorian RFDS. Interviewed 27 May 2004.

What aircraft are used?

Each of the RFDS's 50 specially-modified King Air and PC-12 aircraft is like a flying emergency room. As well as carrying medical equipment like resuscitation devices and neonatal incubators, RFDS aircraft are also fitted with an additional battery to provide medical power, a medical oxygen and suction system, and a special communications system for interaction between the pilot and medical staff in the cabin.

Who works for the Flying Doctors?

Teams consisting of one pilot and one nurse carry out the majority of flights. An additional doctor will assist on flights involving seriously ill patients, which is usually in about 20 per cent of cases. Pilots are sometimes required to land in difficult or even dangerous circumstances, using flares or car headlights as airstrip markers. They occasionally need to use roads as makeshift runways.

What services do the Flying Doctors provide?

Sheets being laid out and fires set to mark an airstrip for a Royal Flying Doctor Service visit, 1948

Sheets being laid out and fires set to mark an airstrip for a Royal Flying Doctor Service visit, 1948. Image courtesy of National Archives of Australia Mitchell Library.

The RFDS provides 24-hour emergency assistance to accident victims and patients with life-threatening illnesses in remote areas. The 2005 RFDS annual report states that in 2005 the organisation treated 234,783 patients. That's an average of 643 patients per day. In that year there were, on average, 91 aerial evacuations per day - a total of 33,339 for the year.

But the RFDS also has a much wider role to play in the outback community. Some of the other RFDS services include:

  • Advice from nurses and doctors over the radio or telephone. This is often done using a standard range of medicines and first aid equipment available in 3,500 medical chests stationed in isolated locations throughout Australia.
  • Transfer of patients from small rural hospitals to larger city facilities.
  • Conducting health clinics in remote areas and communities and providing access to various health professionals including dentists, mental health workers, community health nurses and other specialists.
  • Providing medical assistance to outback travellers. Due to poor mobile phone coverage in the outback the RFDS recommends people carry satellite phones or two-way radios tuned into the RFDS frequency.

Funding for the RFDS comes from Commonwealth, State and Territory governments. But the organisation also relies heavily on donations from small businesses, the corporate sector and the general public to purchase medical equipment and aircraft.

History of the Royal Flying Doctor Service

Portrait of Reverend John Flynn, c1929

Portrait of Reverend John Flynn, c1929: slides from Australian Inland Mission Collection. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an24680767.

You may already recognise the RFDS's founder from his picture on the AU$20 note. Reverend Dr John Flynn (1880-1951) was a South Australian Presbyterian minister in charge of the Australian Inland Mission, an organisation dedicated to bringing church services and health care to the outback. He established the RFDS in 1928 after recognising the potential for combining aircraft and radio to reach out to remote parts of Australia.

On 17May 1928 the first RFDS flight, in a fabric-covered De Havilland model DH50 aircraft on-loan from the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service (now known as Qantas), took-off from Cloncurry in Queensland. In 1930 the service went national and became known as the Aerial Medical Service. It became the Flying Doctor Service in 1942 and received its Royal moniker in 1955.

Without radio the RFDS wouldn't be where it is today. In the past remote outposts relied on a two-way pedal radio invented by Alfred Traeger. These radios did not require batteries and transmitted information by Morse code. By the mid 1930s voice communication was possible, giving rise to a thriving social network in the outback. This led to the establishment in 1951 of ' School of the Air', which used the RFDS radio network to link children in remote areas to teachers. Renamed the School of Distance Education in the mid 1990s, this services no longer needs the RFDS radios.

John and Mrs Flynn at their campsite at Gilbert River 1938

John Flynn having his early morning shave with Mrs Flynn chopping wood at their campsite at Gilbert River, 1938. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an24539127.

The ashes of John Flynn and his wife, Jean, were scattered at a site west of Alice Springs in central Australia. A huge granite boulder from Karlu Karlu (the Devil's Marbles) in central Australia originally marked the site, which is known as Flynn's Grave. The original boulder was found to be taken from a sacred Aboriginal site. In 1999, after more than forty-five years of negotiations between the Aboriginal owners and the white custodians, the original boulder was returned to the sacred site and replaced with a similar one from another area.

Did you know?

Stories from the remarkable experiences of RFDS crew and patients inspired the television series The Flying Doctors, which continues to be popular in over 50countries around the world including Sweden, The Netherlands, Ireland, Scotland and England.

Useful links

Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia


John Flynn

Last updated: 17th March 2008
Creators: Big Black Dog Communications Pty Ltd, et al.