Royal Flying Doctor Service – 91 years of innovation

Mr Michael Penno1

1Royal Flying Doctor Service, Adelaide Airport, Australia

There was little to no help available to those who lived in the bush prior to the Flying Doctor. People would travel by horse, cart or camel for hundreds of kilometers to see a Doctor. Many didn’t make the journey.

RFDS founder Rev. John Flynn heard the story of a young stock man named Jimmy Darcy who was injured whilst working on a cattle farm. Jimmy traveled 80km to Halls Creek only to find there was no Doctor. He needed lifesaving surgery and was operated on by the local post master with instructions given over Morse Code with a sharpened pocket knife. After a few days Jimmy wasn’t getting better and the Doctor from Perth decided he needed get to Jimmy. The 2800km journey involved 7 days on a cattle boat, 6 days over terrible terrain in a Model T ford and finally a horse and cart. Jimmy died just hours before he arrived.

Rev. John Flynn used this example to fuel innovation. He had some help along the way. It was Clifford Peel who suggested that aircraft could help and Alfred Traeger who provided the pedal radio. These solutions helped build John Flynn’s Mantle of Safety.

The first flight took to the skies on the 17th of May 1928. The RFDS and healthcare have come a long way since the fabric covered bi-plane that conducted the first flight.

In 1942 the Medical Chest program started that provided a supply of medication to remote areas that allowed people to access medication on the advice provided by the Doctor over the radio.

Advancements in aircraft and medical equipment have allowed us to provide more timely and expert medical care to our patients. Telehealth allows our Doctors to provide consultations remotely, even listening to chest sounds via a stethoscope hundreds of kilometers away.

The newest aircraft to the RFDS fleet – The Medi-Jet 24 has taken to the skies this year. It is the worlds first purpose built aeromedical jet. It’s capable of carrying 3 stretchered ICU patients and 4 medical crew members. This aircraft is a game changer in the aeromedical industry and represents 91 years of continuous innovation.

In order to move forward it is important to know where we’ve been. Our pioneers didn’t shy away from a problem that seemed too big. They always started with “what is best for our patient?” and the solutions flowed from there. This is important for all of us to consider in our day to day practice.

This presentation will explore the innovations of the Royal Flying Doctor Service over the last 91 years and where we go next. How continuing improvements in aviation, telehealth, medical equipment and education will continue to help all Australians live happier healthier lives.


Michael Penno (BN, BMid, Grad Dip Critical Care, Grad Cert Aviation Nursing, Grad Cert Aeromedical Retrieval)

Michael is the Senior Flight Nurse at the Royal Flying Doctor Service Adelaide Base. He has worked full time as a flight nurse for the last 12 years. He “grew up” in the Geelong Hospital emergency department prior to starting his aeromedical career in 2007. He continues to hold a firm belief that ED nurses are the best.  Having grown up in regional Victoria Michael has seen first hand the importance of equal access to health care. How  aircraft and technology benefit those who have exceeded the level of medical care available to them locally is of particular interest.