New England-North West Celebrates Aeromedical Milestone

25th, August, 2020

Whilst COVID-19 has quashed any planned major celebrations on Base, the significant impact in saving lives in the State’s New England – North West won’t be overlooked as the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service (WRHS) celebrates 20 years servicing the region from its Tamworth base.

The Service’s expansion into the region took place in 2000, when in partnership with local politicians, the community and business leaders, the New England-North West Service commenced with an official launch and ceremony on Friday 25 August. Ironically, due to weather the aircraft was delayed from arriving in time for the launch, having to land at a property at Guyra due to snow – not unlike the current weather being experienced by the Region 20 years on.

At the time, the Tamworth based aircraft was a single engine Bell 407, with a single stretcher, single person winch and a Nite-Sun searchlight. Air crew consisted of two (2) full-time pilots and air crew officers operating 0800-1800, 7 days a week on a four (4) on/four (4) off roster.

WRHS Air Crew Officer Glen Ramplin was integral to inaugural operations, spending three (3) years in the region helping establish the Service.
‘Establishing the Service in Tamworth holds great memories for me,’ Ramplin said. ‘it is where I started my full time career as an Air Crew Officer and my time there in establishing the new service and building ties with that community are some of my fondest memories with the Service,’ he said.

Seven (7) volunteer rescue crewmen made up from local NSW Police, NSW Ambulance and an air traffic controller were complemented by 15 NSW Ambulance paramedics trained up for aircraft operations including winching.

Hospital staff from Tamworth Base Hospital ICU, both doctors and nurses, were trained to undertake medical retrievals for seriously ill patients transferring between hospitals in the region or to major metropolitan centres for specialist care.

The inaugural Base operated out of hangar space provided by BAE Systems where the basic flight training school (BFTS) for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) were housed. They also provided an office for crews, with additional shared office space in Fitzroy Street, Tamworth where Service stalwart, Barry Walton, spent 14 years in the Region, coordinating marketing and media liaison and importantly, worked closely with the local community.

‘The community’s support of this service in the region was incredible. From day one, the communities throughout the New England-North West have been behind the Service two hundred percent and I recall Barry Walton being overwhelmed by the support he received in those early days,’ WRHS CEO Richard Jones OAM said.

‘Community Support Groups started in town’s right across the New England-North West and their support has been unwavering through to this day. Even in the midst of drought, bushfires and now COVID, our Support Groups and communities there have provided support that can only be described as overwhelming, putting aside their own challenges and hardship, to raise funds and support this vital service in their region,’ Jones continued.

‘Integral to the introduction of the service was Tony Windsor, local MP at the time, along with former WRHS Chairman and now Patron, Cliff Marsh. Both worked tirelessly at the political level to ensure we had support from the NSW Government to get the ‘license’ to support the region and community, carrying NSW Ambulance Paramedics and Local Health District staff on inter-hospital transfers, establishing a whole system that involving the critical care chain in the region and ensured the provision of the best medical care available.’

‘We’re incredibly grateful for the support that comes from far and wide including volunteers, event organising committees, sponsors, clubs, workplaces, donors, suppliers and community groups,’ he added.

The inaugural aircraft served the region well until 2007 when it had a hard landing near Warialda enroute to a motor vehicle accident. Despite extensive damage to the aircraft, the pilot, crewmen and medical staff were all uninjured.

The Tamworth service then received a twin-engine BK117, expanding further in 2012 with a second BK117 bought into service.

In 2017, the Hunter and New England-North West services became one with the Lismore service, forming a Northern NSW wide service as part of a 10 year contract with NSW Ambulance. Significant upgrades were made to the Tamworth base for flying operations, with the construction project taking six months to complete under the lead of local company Best Practice Constructions, with a total of 15 subcontractors engaged.

The new base housed one of four (4) new Agusta Westland AW139 aeromedical helicopters received by the Service, arguably the aircraft of choice for aeromedical operations worldwide. The AW139 provided the area with a state of the art aeromedical response – safer, faster and a longer range to service the expansive New England-North West region.

Current crews couldn’t be happier with the modern base facilities, medical professionals, engineering support teams and the AW139 aircraft, described as a flying ICU.
‘It’s truly an honour to be able to play a key role in changing people’s lives, in conjunction with our Critical Care Medical Teams and the engineering and maintenance staff who ensure we are ready to respond 24/7,’ WRHS Training & Checking Air Crew Officer Trent Owen said. ‘It’s a very close knit community here in Tamworth, as well as in surrounding communities throughout the New England-North West and everyone looks out for each other. That’s reflected in how proud the community is of the Service and how passionate our volunteers and the community as a whole are in supporting us.’

For Jones, the ‘community’s own’ sense of pride in the Service is as strong as ever after 20 years.

‘The Service has saved countless lives throughout the New England-North West over the past 20 years and has rallied rural communities together in unified support for the lifesaving service, it is truly the ‘community’s own’ rescue helicopter,’ Jones said.

‘Whilst we can’t as a community collectively celebrate this significant milestone for the New England-North West, we can look forward to the Service’s 21st birthday in the Region in 2021, where we can make ’21 In 21’ a real celebration of Tamworth’s coming of age,’ Jones concluded.

Further Information:
Richard Jones OAM, CEO, Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service (WRHS) Ph: 0419 261 877
Glen Ramplin, Air Crew Officer, WRHS Ph: 0408 497 400
Trent Owen, Training & Checking Air Crew Officer, WRHS – Tamworth Base – Ph: 0427 664 875