25th, August, 2021
The Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service is celebrating 21 years of operations in the New England North West.
In 2020, COVID quashed any planned celebrations on Base as the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service (WRHS) reached a milestone of 20 years operations in the New England North West.
Staff, sponsors and community leaders looked forward with anticipation to being able to celebrate both the Service’s 20th and 21st birthday in 2021 – but to no avail!
Despite the continuing presence of COVID one year on, the significant impact the Service has in saving lives in the New England North West won’t be overlooked as it reaches 21 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.
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. Aircrew consisted of two (2) full-time pilots and Aircrew officers operating 0800-1800, 7 days a week on a four (4) on/four (4) off roster.
WRHS Aircrew Officer Glen Ramplin was integral to inaugural operations, spending three (3) years in the region helping establish the Service.
’Twenty one years on, establishing the Service in Tamworth still holds great memories for me and always will,’ Ramplin said. ‘It is where I started my full time career as an Aircrew 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 the continuing threat the region faces from 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 involved 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.
The new base and aircraft are something that the Tamworth team are very proud of, with Tamworth Base Manager Nick Hattersley acknowledging the Service is very much a vital part of the Region.
‘Today marks a momentous occasion for the people of the New England North West district. 21 years ago, after identifying the need for a rescue helicopter and overwhelming public support the Westpac Rescue Helicopter established its roots in the district,’ Hattersley said.
‘Through the generous support of the many local communities throughout the region, the Service continues to provide lifesaving missions. I’m extremely proud and honoured to be involved, albeit in a small part, in what is no doubt an enduring legacy that has been created by the many Doctors, Paramedics, and staff of the Westpac Helicopter Service. Here’s looking forward to the next 21!’ Hattersley concluded.
For Jones, the ‘community’s own’ sense of pride in the Service, reflected in Hattersley’s comments, is as strong as ever.
‘The Service has saved countless lives throughout the New England North West over the past 21 years and has rallied rural communities together in unified support for the lifesaving service. It is truly the ‘community’s own’ rescue helicopter, 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,’ he said.
‘The local men and women that fly the missions work incredibly hard through an intensive training program and I am very thankful for their efforts and dedication. This includes the Pilots, Aircrew, Doctors, Paramedics and Nurses. I am also grateful to the Engineers, Trainers, Administration and Marketing Teams locally who through their collective efforts, ensure we are ready to respond to those most in need right across the region,’ Jones concluded.