The Origin of 'Mercy Flights'
by Macarthur Job
In the mid-1950s, Macarthur Job was a Flying Doctor pilot for the Anglican Bush Church Aid Society, based in Ceduna, South Australia. At that time Australia's various Flying Doctor operations Australia were typically equipped with war-surplus De Havilland Dragons or Avro Ansons. In this article he describes how that special category of operations, "Mercy Flights", came about.

"Mercy Flight: ...a flight undertaken to provide urgent medical, flood or fire relief evacuation, in order to relieve a person from grave and imminent danger...involving irregular operation... must be declared to be a Mercy Flight"

Thus has the term ‘Mercy Flight’ been defined in Australia's Aeronautical Information Publications and the former Visual Flight Guide for the past 40 years. Learning in the hard school of experience has repeatedly been the formula for development and progress in Australian aviation over the years. Time and again, it has required nothing less than stark tragedy to finally demonstrate the need - and provide the impetus - for progress in air safety.

The accident in 1956 that led to the promulgation of the 'Mercy Flight' provision - and the enforced regulatory measures that followed in its wake - created something of a crisis at the time for the nation's various Flying Doctor services, at that stage of development still for the most part 'seat of the pants' operations.

Much of Australia's burgeoning aviation industry in the early post-war years relied heavily on war-surplus equipment. The mainstay of the major airlines were the ubiquitous DC-3s - former USAAC and RAAF C47 Dakotas converted to civil configurations; the aero clubs and flying schools conducted their training in fleets of ex-RAAF DH-82 Tiger Moths; while the charter and so-called 'developmental' air services in Australia and New Guinea made do with former RAAF Avro Ansons and De Havilland DH-84 Dragons. Even the then Department of Civil Aviation's Air Traffic Control and Communications units were for the most part using surplus military aviation radio equipment.

Flying Doctor Services at the time were far removed from the sophisticated, well funded and equipped bases that today function under the Australia-wide banner of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Only at Broken Hill were the aircraft actually owned and operated by the Flying Doctor Service (the 'Royal' prefix was not granted until later). Some services were little more than a primitive radio base, working with a lone medical officer, which contracted its flying operations to a local airline or charter operator under the general oversight of the applicable State FDS Council. Most operated on a shoestring - they had little money, most of it being raised by charities and public appeals.


At Alice Springs, the flying was done by Connellan Airways; in the North-West by MacRobertson Miller Airlines, in the Kalgoorlie area by Goldfields Airways, and in Queensland by both TAA and the North Queensland Ambulance Transport Brigade.

In South Australia, the work was operated by the Anglican Church's Bush Church Aid Society, which also staffed bush hospitals at Cook, Tarcoola and Wudinna, in addition to their main base hospital at Ceduna.


As for the other bases, even the more comprehensive - Broken Hill and Ceduna and Cairns - which did operate their own aircraft, their choice of equipment was virtually confined to ex-RAAF Dragons or Dragon Rapides or, in the case of Western Australia where distances were greater, to the only viable alternative, the more costly-to-operate Avro Anson.

Available at ridiculous prices from Commonwealth Disposals, these aircraft had become the backbone of developing air services and other hopeful aviation enterprises in Australia and New Guinea.

The exception was the government-funded Northern Territory Aerial Medical Service (a division of the Commonwealth Department of Health), which was about to replace its own well maintained DH-84 Dragons with costly new De Havilland Doves, money apparently being no object.

Apart from the De Havilland Dove, there were no suitable new types of aircraft available. the
advent of the U.S. light twins still several years away in the future. The Australian designed and built DHA-3 Drover, introduced in 1949, was intended to fill this gap. But as a result of two serious accidents in New Guinea - one of them fatal, involving the Qantas Drover VH-EBQ, and the other the Department of Civil Aviation's VH-DHA, flown by an Examiner of Airman - the Drover's constant speed propellers were found to be faulty, and it had to be refitted with fixed pitch propellers. After this (until seven Drovers were modified with Lycoming 0-360 engines and Hartzell propellers in 1960), the type would only do on three Gipsy Major engines what the old Dragon had always done on two. So for most pilots seeking to earn a very modest crust in the Flying Doctor business, it was a choice of Ansons or Dragons only!

Although both the Dragon and the Anson were pre-war designs, and primitive and slow by today's standards, they were extremely reliable, as well as roomy enough for serious aerial ambulance work. Yet the Department of Civil Aviation was only too aware of the inadequacies of these aircraft for round-the-clock operations.

Uneasy though it was about medical flights at night and in all weathers without radio navigation aids, DCA was nonetheless in something of a 'bind' as to what it should do about the situation. If the Department simply decreed "no more" - and a patient subsequently died somewhere in the Outback because a Flying Doctor aircraft wasn't allowed to answer an emergency call, there would have been a public scandal. On the other hand, if DCA openly condoned round-the-clock flying by these aircraft and an accident occurred as a result, the media would also have a field day.

So, pending the availability of new aircraft types (and the money to buy them), the Department had to compromise, recognising that risks were sometimes necessary to save lives. An unwritten policy was therefore adopted under which pilots of Flying Doctor and aerial ambulance aircraft were allowed to "bend the rules" at their discretion, on night and bad weather flying, to save the life of a gravely ill patient. For their part, the Department's ground facilities and communication networks would provide all possible assistance to pilots during such flights.

This was the situation that applied at Derby, WA, on 4 February 1956, where MacRobertson Miller Airlines conducted the area's aerial medical service flying in ex-RAAF Avro Anson, VH-MMG, under contract to the local Flying Doctor base.

Three days before, the infant daughter of the manager of Tableland Station, 212 nautical miles east of Derby on the Kimberley Plateau, had become seriously ill. Despite treatment prescribed for her via the Flying Doctor radio network, she became worse and on 3 February it was arranged to fly her to Derby for admission to hospital. But before the MMA Anson could leave Derby to pick her up, another radio call from Tableland Station reported she had suddenly improved, and the flight was cancelled.

However, about mid-afternoon the following day, Saturday, 4 February 1956, a further radio
consultation indicated she had relapsed and the doctor on duty at Derby felt she should now be transferred to hospital as soon as possible. MMA pilot Pieter van Emmerik, on temporary transfer from Perth to handle the Derby base's medical flights, was called upon to make the trip.

* * *

Pieter van Emmerik was an experienced pilot and certainly no stranger to adventure. Born in
Amsterdam in 1920, he was a young man when World War 2 broke out and became a member of the underground Resistance movement in Holland. Betrayed to the enemy by a fellow countryman, he attempted to flee to Spain, but was captured in France. Escaping after enduring severe privations, he finally succeeded in reaching Spain by crossing the Pyrenees on foot, afterwards finding his way to Canada by sea, where he joined the Netherlands Air Force in exile.

After training as a fighter pilot in the United States, van Emmerik was posted to the
Netherlands East Indies Air Force, by that time headquartered in Australia, and flew
operationally with No 18 Squadron, NEIAF, based at Batchelor in the Northern Territory. He was awarded the Dutch Cross of Merit.

On being demobilised in Holland after the war, he became a flying instructor with the Luchtvaart Flying School but, having married an Australian girl in Melbourne in 1945, soon decided to return to Australia permanently. Here he continued as a flying instructor, first with the Royal Victorian Aero Club. In 1949 he moved to Western Australia, instructing at Maylands in Perth, before joining MacRobertson Miller Airlines in 1953.

By early 1956, van Emmerik, now aged 35, with his wife and their three small children, had spent two years at Derby where he was base pilot for MMA's Flying Doctor operations and a first officer on the company's DC-3 operations between Derby and Darwin. A meticulous, precise airman with nearly 5000 hours experience, his knowledge of the northwest was intimate. It was for this reason that, early in January 1956, he was asked to return to Derby temporarily to relieve a MMA pilot who had been involved in an accident.

* * *

On the Saturday afternoon when the call came to make the emergency flight to Tableland Station, van Emmerik was looking forward to returning home to Perth the next day to celebrate his 11th wedding anniversary. Since his secondment to Derby the previous month, he had been extremely busy, only that morning completing the return leg of an overnight trip to Darwin as first officer on a MMA DC-3. It was in fact his twelfth day on duty without a break, DCA having granted MMA a concession for him to exceed his flight time limitations because he was the only experienced pilot available for the Derby base duties.

At 4.25pm, with Nursing Sisters Frances Day and Helen Newman from the Derby hospital on board Anson VH-MMG, van Emmerik took off for Tableland Station. The weather forecast was for five eighths of large cumulus cloud at 5000 feet, 2000 feet above the highest terrain en route, with isolated thunderstorms, 15 miles of visibility, and a wind of 14 knots from the southeast.

Radio communications with the Anson were poor because of high atmospheric noise on the H/F frequencies, and the ex-USAF radio equipment fitted to the Anson was not noted for its
reliability. But the one hour 50 minute flight to Tableland Station in hot and humid conditions
was uneventful, apart from thermal turbulence, and the aircraft landed there just on sunset at 6.14pm.

After the nursing sisters had examined the small patient, she was placed aboard the Anson. Her station manager father was accompanying her to Derby in the aircraft, and together with his luggage, he loaded a quantity of freshly killed beef and some fruit from the homestead orchard, evidently intended as gifts for business friends in Derby.

As soon as the Anson crew had refreshed themselves with cool drinks, they boarded the aircraft again and, at 6.32pm in the gathering dusk, it took off into the east, turned downwind and set course into the west for Derby. The weather was still fine at Tableland, but a station hand watching the AnsonÕs departure could see that an electrical storm lay across the aircraft's track in the far distance to the west.

At 6.34pm van Emmerik contacted Wyndham Aeradio (later Flight Service) to pass his departure report, advising that the return flight to Derby would take an hour and 40 minutes. Although another aircraft heard the Anson reporting about half an hour later, and the Aeradio operator at Wyndham believed he heard it, though with some difficulty in the heavy static, Broome Aeradio received no further transmissions from the Anson and it failed to arrive at Derby.

An air search began the following morning, initially with a RAAF Avro Lincoln from Darwin and a MMA DC-3. Meanwhile numbers of reports from homesteads in the sparsely settled area poured into Derby via the Flying Doctor radio network, the majority of which seemed to indicate the Anson had diverted to the north of its track towards Wyndham. It was also learnt that a line of intense thunderstorms, associated with the inter-tropic front, had developed after sunset over the King Leopold Ranges - right in the path of the aircraft's homeward track. This local deterioration in the weather, unknown at the time to the DCA radio communication network, was thought to explain the apparent diversion towards the lower terrain of the Wyndham area.

On the second day of the search, now supplemented by two more RAAF Lincolns and a Dakota, as well as two DCA DC-3s, the available aircraft were divided, some searching along the planned track, and others in the Wyndham area.

Even more search aircraft were chartered and, because further questioning of those who had
reported sightings now seemed to confirm the Anson had diverted towards Wyndham at some point during its flight, the search was concentrated in the Wyndham area on the third and fourth days. Meanwhile, ground parties from the RAAF, DCA and the police were attempting to investigate each of the sighting and hearing reports in detail.

Towards the end of the fourth day, hopes were unexpectedly raised when a H/F carrier wave, with the characteristics of the Anson's transmitter, was intercepted by Aeradio stations throughout Australia. The signal was intermittent, with short, unintelligible bursts of keying. Hasty attempts to obtain a bearing on the signal by stations equipped with H/F Direction Finders indicated the probable source of the signal was the area around Wyndham. Were there survivors with the downed Anson? Were they were trying to attract the attention of the search effort?

For the next three days all available aircraft searched the entire area of probability, based on
the distance the Anson could have flown from Tableland Station with the fuel on board.
Meanwhile, all possible efforts were made to track down the mystery signal. But hopes were
finally dashed when, by generating a signal from an identical transmitter in another Avro Anson operating in the area of probability, it was established beyond doubt that the mystery signal could not have come from the missing aircraft.

Eight days had now passed, during which the search crews had been subjected to intense,
concentrated all day flying in what was becoming one of the biggest air searches ever undertaken in Australia. It was therefore decided to rest the crews for a day while the search co-ordinators reviewed all available findings.

This established that, of all the sighting and hearing reports, only one - from Mt House
homestead about halfway between Tableland and Derby - could really be regarded as authentic. A reasonably intact Avro Anson was clearly nowhere within the area of probability, so the search effort would now be concentrated on the planned track between Mt House and Derby itself which, except for the final 30nm, lay over the wild and rugged King Leopold Ranges.

Carried out by RAAF Lincolns on the 10th day of the search, this was also abortive, the crews reporting that the speed of the Lincolns made it difficult to sight any wreckage lying in the deep valleys. As a result the RAAF aircraft were withdrawn from the search and it was decided instead to base a fleet of light aircraft, together with the two DCA DC-3s, supported by ground parties with radio-equipped Land Rovers, at Glenroy, close to the eastern side of the King Leopold Ranges, 50nm west of Tableland.

But after only one aircraft, a Percival Proctor, had arrived at Glenroy, a deep cyclonic
depression moved in from the coast, saturating the whole Kimberleys region with heavy rain for the following six days, marooning the advance party at Glenroy, and flooding the Glenroy

On 22 February, two days after the search was finally able to resume - and 18 days after the Anson had vanished - the disintegrated remains of the aircraft were at last sighted from the air. The partially obscured wreckage was lying in flooded country a few miles north of its
planned track near Hawkestone Peak, in the foothills of the King Leopold Ranges.

Although the crash site was less than 15nm by air from Kimberly Downs Station, access to it by ground party proved extremely difficult. Three flooded rivers had to be crossed, and most of the surrounding countryside was covered in water. A party, equipped with inflatable dinghies, that set out from Kimberly Downs, took two and a half days just to reach the crash site. But other than confirming that there was no possibility that anyone on board the Anson could have survived, there was little they could do - the impact point itself and some of the wreckage was still submerged by floodwaters.

Any further attempt to investigate the accident was impossible until after the end of the wet
season a month later. On 23 April, DCA air safety investigators from Perth, guided by an
Aboriginal tracker and accompanied by MMA Chief Engineer Frank Colquhoun and two police
constables, again set out for the crash site. They reached it the next day and spent the
following three days there examining the wreckage.

They found the Anson had virtually disintegrated on impact. The wreckage was confined to a small area, and it was evident from impact marks, wreckage distribution and the extent of the damage that the Anson had dived almost vertically into the ground at high speed, with both engines under power. All airframe components were accounted for in the wreckage, suggesting the aircraft had not broken up in flight.

Though equipped with a conventional Sperry instrument flying panel, including directional gyro, artificial horizon and vertical speed indicator, and a manually cranked radio compass loop for use with the aircraft's low frequency receiver, the Anson did not meet the Department's requirements for operations under instrument flight rules, having neither duplicated pitot-static and gyroscopic instruments, nor adequate radio navigation aids. It was also found that, because the Anson had been chartered earlier by BHP for a scintillometer survey of radio-activity, it had been fitted with non-luminous instrument dials to avoid spurious survey readings.

The investigating party could only conclude that extreme turbulence in the tropical thunderstorm that developed over the King Leopold Ranges on the night of the accident, which subsequent weather reports showed to be of exceptional severity, had led to a loss of control. Extremely heavy rain, possibly causing erratic instrument readings, and the temporary blinding effect of lightning in the pitch black flying conditions, could have contributed to the loss of control.

During the ground party's examination of the crash site, a number of trees in the vicinity were found to be uprooted, evidently by a severe storm, and it seemed probable that this too occurred on the night of the accident.

DCA's official finding on the cause of the accident was that the Anson "encountered a
thunderstorm of such severity that control of the aircraft could not be maintained."

* * *

No hint of criticism was levelled at van Emmerik's decision to press on towards Derby in the
deteriorating conditions. On the contrary, the then Director-General of Civil Aviation, Mr D.G.
(later Sir Donald) Anderson
, in a memorandum to the Minister for Civil Aviation on the
circumstances of the accident, wrote:

"... those living in the vicinity of the crash reported that the weather this night was the
worst they could ever remember in the district. One can only admire the pilot's perseverance in attempting this flight, and I am sure he would have been influenced by the condition of the sick child."

Outlining the official findings of the aircraft's loss, the Director-General continued, "It is
the Department's policy that the pilots of these ambulance aircraft should be allowed to
exercise discretion in the conduct of mercy flights, in so far as compliance with normal
requirements is concerned, and whilst unnecessary risks are discouraged, we have recognised that some risks are justified to save human life."

He concluded significantly: "Unfortunately financial considerations have led to the use of
obsolete aircraft on these services so far, and this seriously restricts the conditions under
which flights can be conducted safely, I would like to see this service placed on a proper
footing with modern well-equipped aircraft, but the availability of finance for this purpose is
a major problem."

The accident was to become a watershed for Flying Doctor operations throughout Australia.

Up to this time, as the Director-General's minute to the Minister indicated, DCA was very much inclined to leave decisions on night and marginal weather flying entirely to the Flying Doctor pilot concerned. As a result, all commercial pilots professionally engaged in aerial medical service operations had a great deal of discretion. No questions were asked, even if the regular clinic visits to outback centres took longer than scheduled and the aircraft had to fly back to its base in the dark after all the patients had finally been seen by the doctor. Indeed, this "flexibility" became almost the rule rather than the exception, being excused on the grounds that it was "medical work" - even if the only "urgency" was that of economics and staff convenience!

But DCA now cracked down hard, insisting that only genuine "mercy flights", whose urgency could be substantiated, would in future be given latitude to operate "outside the rules".. And pilots would in future be required to provide DCA with a written report on each and every such trip, detailing the full circumstances behind the decision to make the flight. Thus the definition "Mercy Flight" and the specification of its operational conditions entered official civil
aviation parlance.

But DCA also saw that something would have to be done about all the obsolete aircraft still
being used in aerial medical work.

With a view to making it possible for them to be replaced by more modern types, adequately
equipped for IFR operations, the former DCA Regional Director in Papua and New Guinea, Mr John Arthur, OBE, by that time based at DCA's Central Office in Melbourne, was despatched on a fact finding mission, visiting all Flying Doctor bases throughout Australia to review their
operations and needs, and to discuss their future aircraft requirements. Even the possibility of Government financial assistance was hinted at.

He also showed interest in what aerial medical pilots were themselves doing in the meantime to facilitate safer emergency flights. At Ceduna at the time for example, as an aid to emergency night navigation, we were investigating the use of electronic flash beacons on remote airfields such as Cook, Tarcoola and Coober Pedy, places which not infrequently required urgent medical evacuations. Far from being appalled by such improvised "navigation aids" as we might have expected, John Arthur encouraged us to "continue experimenting".

His overall intent was to find a means by which aerial medical service operations could be
enabled to operate with the full benefit and safety of all-weather equipment and radio
navigation aids.

But despite his efforts, to aerial medical service pilots in the field, nothing more appeared to
happen. Despite the strictures the "Mercy Flight" provisions had imposed, the various bases
continued to be left to do the best they could in the circumstances. Indeed, the complex
administrative and financial processes involved in the vision that he had outlined were to
occupy many years before Australia's aerial medical service operations were finally to become, "the sophisticated, well-funded RFDS operations of today".

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