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NTAMS provides medical advice, assistance and a specialist retrieval service to all people living and working in rural and remote areas of the Top End, ships at sea, and oil and gas companies in the Timor Sea.
NTAMS bases are located in Darwin, Katherine and Gove, and operate a fleet of 4 medically-dedicated, pressurized Beechcraft Super Kingairs. Each aircraft is configured with 2 stretchers and 4 seats and is fully equipped to transport the critically ill.
An aviation-trained registered nurse accompanies all retrievals and an experienced doctor or specialist (Emergency Physician, Anaesthetist, and Paediatrician) is available when required.
Careflight will be taking over the operation of services from 1 July 2010 for an interim period of 6 months.
The Clyde Fenton Story
FENTON, CLYDE CORNWALL (1901-1982), 'flying doctor', was born on 16 May 1901 at Warrnambool, Victoria and educated at St Patrick's Christian Brothers College, Xavier, and the University of Melbourne (Newman College). He graduated MB, BS, Melbourne, 1925.
Looking for excitement, he joined the RAF in England in 1928 but they did not teach him to fly. He returned to Australia and headed for the outback, first to Wyndham in Western Australia and then to Darwin for four months.
Life was too restrictive for this irrepressible personality. He learned to fly but the Royal Flying Doctor Service was cautious and would not employ him. His mother raised the money for a used Gypsy Moth aircraft and in March 1934 he returned to the Northern Territory as the Government Medical Officer at Katherine. On his own initiative he started an aerial ambulance or rescue service which grew into the Northern Territory Aerial Medical Service. He was paid mileage for the aeroplane at the same rate as mileage for the use of a private car.
Most requests for help came by pedal-radios through the two Royal Flying Doctor Service radio stations at Cloncurry and Wyndham which then sent the messages on by telegram. With great daring and disregard for personal safety, Fenton landed on crude airstrips and saved lives which might otherwise have been lost. He arranged for flares to light the airstrip near the hospital and advised people in the outback on the use of flares or car lights so he could fly at night. There was scant navigational equipment and no radio communication. To guide him when flying back to Katherine he had two markers: the shiny lines of the railway, and the Katherine River, which flowed beside the hospital. He would 'buzz' the hospital, flares would be set out and lit and he would land. The people in the outback loved the drama and daring but the Civil Aviation Department saw only broken rules. Fenton was not blameless as he did aerobatics over Darwin, once buzzed a crowded open-air picture theatre and in 1938 landed a government aircraft on Mindil beach, Darwin, a feat which earned him an official reprimand.
On 30 May 1934 he was to fly a government geologist from Ord River to Katherine when he received an emergency call to the other side of the Territory. He took off in the moonlight, planning to make Wave Hill that night, but the telegram he sent was not received until the next day. He made a forced landing near Victoria River Downs and wrecked the aircraft. In later years he survived two more crashes, one at Manbulloo, and another on the golf course near Darwin. In the latter he suffered a broken nose, a scar he carried for life. Dr Fenton's second aircraft, another Gypsy Moth, VH-VO1, was bought with money borrowed from the government and then deducted from his salary. He gave them his life insurance policy as a guarantee. The third aircraft was bought through public subscription by the people of Darwin, in whose eyes he was a hero.
In March 1936 his sister died in China, leaving his elderly mother bereaved. A couple of days later, with extra fuel tanks from his first aircraft, he was on his way to Swatow in China with nothing more than his passport. This trip which took three months, much initiative and even more audacity, was a feat of some magnitude in a small open aircraft.
Early in 1937 the Government decided to purchase a bigger aircraft, but it was not ready by June, when the Chief Medical Officer asked Dr Fenton to check on three very isolated cattle stations. As there was an emergency obstetric case to be delivered at Beetaloo he did that first, flew to Newcastle Waters and headed for Tanumbirini on the morning of 21 September. A strong wind off the Barkly Tableland possibly caused drift; he missed OT and couldn't find Tanumbirini. With his petrol running short he made a forced landing near a lagoon with clear water. He was found five days later by Lieutenant W Hely, RAAF, having killed for food an emaciated cow bogged in the lagoon. This highlighted the need for a radio in the aircraft but the problem was to find one small enough. After this near tragedy in 1937 he took a holiday and returned with the new government aircraft.
The Government aeroplane could carry a stretcher case and a nurse as escort but he used his own aircraft to land on strips too short for the bigger aircraft. As time permitted, Dr Fenton visited missions and cattle properties to assess the health of the Aboriginal people. There was a limit to how much one man could do, as he was always on call for emergencies. He also provided a medical clinic at Pine Creek each Saturday morning.
Dr Fenton played a considerable role in urging people to clear airstrips for emergencies, advising them on suitable sites and the need for all-weather strips.
For almost four years, Dr Fenton demanded a transceiver based at Katherine for medical calls to supersede the system of telegrams via Adelaide to Darwin from both Wyndham and Cloncurry. This was being installed in May 1940 when he was called up for the RAAF. He also wanted a transceiver for the aircraft so he could make contact when on the ground; contact in the air was more difficult. Radios with batteries weighted about 543 kilograms and he needed a lightweight radio of not more than 6.8 kilograms. While on leave he discussed the need at length with Qantas and Amalgamated Wireless Australia Ltd's senior personnel. The light radio for the aircraft had become a possibility, but it had not been installed before he joined the RAAF.
The call-up for the RAAF arrived by telegram on 14 May 1940. When he left, the whole service was transferred to Darwin where a local pilot, Roy Edwards, was employed to fly the government aircraft. Either a doctor or a nurse could accompany the pilot on emergency flights. Being in Darwin helped overcome the problem of servicing the aircraft. Dr Fenton was not an aircraft mechanic, yet he had done the day-to-day running repairs. The service which he had started continued but with the pilot, doctor and mechanic as separate individuals, a policy which was to continue.
The RAAF used Fenton at Camden in New South Wales as a flying instructor, and then sent him back to Darwin in February 1942 to help select sites for dispersal airstrips. He was to service the outlying bases and went to Melbourne on 18 February to select a suitable aircraft. Darwin was bombed the next day. Dr Fenton was then based at Manbulloo airstrip near Katherine. Other pilots and crew joined him. He made many emergency medical flights while other pilots carried army doctors to emergencies. In August 1942 No 6 Communications Flight was formed with Dr Fenton in command. This unit delivered mail and food supplies to army and RAAF outposts, including a radar station in the Wessell Islands. They transported men back and forth and searched for crashed pilots and other missing personnel.
On 25 February 1943 No. 6 Communications Flight transferred to the Batchelor airstrip, the same day that the enemy bombed the Medical Receiving Station at Coomalie Creek. Fenton continued in command, with the rank of Squadron Leader, when the flight was expanded into 6 Communications Unit in November 1943. This unit used probably the widest range of aircraft ever flown by a RAAF squadron, including Tiger Moths, Dragons, Ansons, Vultee Vengeance dive-bombers, a Hudson and a Beaufort bomber and three Walrus amphibians. 'Doc' Fenton flew with the same dash and disregard for authority as he had in civilian life and drew similar people around him; but 6 Communications Unit never lost a pilot. His men considered him 'a one-man air force' and his Officers' Mess were famed for its conviviality. Fenton was demobilised in December 1945. One of his pilots, Jack Slade, remained in the north to restart the post-war Aerial Medical Service.
Fenton spent the rest of his working years as a quarantine officer with the Commonwealth Department of Health in Melbourne until his retirement on 29 March 1966. He married a widow, Bonny Catalano in 1963. He died on 28 February 1982.
He recorded his pre-war flying exploits in a book, Flying Doctor. In spite of a brusque manner he was loved and respected; the people in the outback new he would be there when needed. A wartime airstrip was named after him and he is remembered by Clyde Fenton Primary School in Katherine.
C Fenton, Flying Doctor, facsimile edition, 1982; personal correspondence of C Fenton and Mrs Fenton, and oral history records of P Taylor, R Edwards, J Slade, in possession of author; AA Darwin, CRS F1 39/567; AA Canberra, CRS A 1928, 715/40; Health, vol 16, no 2, June 1966.
From: Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography
Volume One: To 1945
Edited by: David Carment, Robyn Maynard, Alan Powell
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