The flying doctors

Reverend John Flynn. Lt J. Clifford Peel.
Captain Arthur Affleck, 
Dr Kenyon St Vincent Welch.

These four men have something in common. Rev John Flynn (top left) will be familiar to most Australians as “Flynn of the Inland”, founder of the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

The three others had important roles to play in the development of the aerial medical service that has served outback Australia for more than 90 years. They are Lieutenant J. Clifford Peel, Arthur Affleck and Dr Kenyon St Vincent Welch

Lt Peel of the Australian Flying Corps in 1918 wrote to the Australian Inland Mission’s “Inlander” magazine advocating the mission establish an air service to provide medical services for the sick and injured in the outback. It was the seed for a highly successful innovation that is now highly regarded worldwide.

Unfortunately Lt Peel did not see his dream come to fruition. Aged 24, he was reported missing in action on in World War 1 on 19 September 1918 when his RE8 plane disappeared during a patrol in France. Peel had trained as an aeroplane pilot at Laverton in Victoria and but for the intervention of war most likely would have pursued his dream of establishing an aerial medical service.

Rev Flynn from the mission took up the idea and two decades later launched what has become widely (and affectionately) known as the Flying Doctor Service.

The Flying Doctor started out as the Australian Aerial Medical Service (AAMS) which was formed on 27 March 1928, with its first base at Cloncurry, in Queensland.

Qantas signed a year-long contract to operate medical flights. A four-passenger DH50A – registered VH-EUR and dubbed “Victory” – as well as equipment and staff, was leased to the AAMS at a cost of two shillings (40 cents) per mile (1.6km).

On 17 May 1928, the plane took off from Cloncurry on its first mission. The pilot was Captain Arthur Affleck and on board was Dr Kenyon St Vincent Welch, a surgeon from Sydney.

Over the next year the two men served an area larger than Great Britain, flying more than 28,000 km to treat 255 patients. In 1942 the name was changed to the Flying Doctor Service, in 1949 its operations were transferred to Trans-Australia Airlines (TAA), and in 1954 it was given a Royal Charter.

Since 1928, the RFDS has provided 24-hour emergency medical services to those who live, work or travel in remote Australia.

The RFDS has expanded its traditional role to deliver a broad range of primary and preventative health care services to communities which do not have direct access to them.

The Service also provides urgent transfers of patients between regional and metropolitan hospitals to higher levels of care.

Each year now, the RFDS helps more than 290,000 people across Australia; that’s a rate of one person every two minutes.

The hero of the RFDS obviously is Rev Flynn.

John Flynn was born at Moliagul, central Victoria, on 25 November 1880.

He was raised in Sydney by his aunt after his mother died during childbirth. When he was five, he returned to Victoria to live with his family at Snake Gully, near Ballarat.

The Flynn family later moved to Sunshine in Melbourne’s western suburbs. He became familiar with the outback from hearing about his father’s business partners launching an unsuccessful venture in Australia’s far north.

He graduated from secondary school in 1898 and began work as a school teacher. In 1903, he joined the ministry and studied theology at Ormond College, at the University of Melbourne. In 1907 he began a four-year course in divinity at Melbourne University. He was ordained as a Minister of the Presbyterian Church on 24 January 1911.

He was commissioned to prepare a report on life in the Northern Territory, to be presented to the Presbyterian Church in 1912. He travelled by ship to Darwin where he visited Katherine, Bathurst Island and Adelaide River researching his paper. Flynn’s report which included proposals for Inland Missions, prompted the General Assembly to appoint him head of a new organisation, the Australian Inland Mission (AIM) to minister to the spiritual, social and medical needs of people in the Outback.

In 1917, Flynn received Lt Peel’s letter. Peel than was a medical student with an interest in aviation. The young Victorian airman suggested the use of aviation to bring medical help to the Outback.

Peel never knew that his letter became a blueprint for the creation of the Flying Doctor Service.

For the next 10 years, Flynn campaigned for an aerial medical service. His vision was to provide a “mantle of safety” for the people of the bush

He finally got a result when another leading Australian identity, H.V. McKay, left a large bequest for “an aerial experiment” which enabled Flynn to get the Flying Doctor Service in the air. (Hugh Victor McKay developed the first commercial combine harvester in 1885, the Sunshine Harvester – named after Melbourne suburb where it was manufactured. The header-harvester became one of Australia’s greatest contributions to farming).

The first pilot, Arthur Affleck, had no navigational aids, no radio and only a compass. He navigated by landmarks such as fences, rivers, dirt roads or just wheel tracks and telegraph lines. He also flew in an open cockpit, fully exposed to the weather, behind the doctor’s cabin. Airstrips were, at best, claypans or, at the worst, hastily paddocks that had been hurriedly cleared of obstacles such as fallen trees and livestock.

Flights were usually made during daylight although night flights were attempted in extreme urgency. Fuel supplies were also carried on flights until fuel dumps were established at strategic outstations. The DeHavilland could carry a pilot and four passengers at a cruising speed of 80 mph (130 km/h) a range of 500 to 600 mi (800-900 km).


Arthur Herbert Affleck, the service’s first pilot, was born on 3 July 1903 at Brighton, Melbourne.

He worked as a bank officer for two years before entering the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in 1923. His ultimate aim was a career in commercial aviation. Chosen as one of three civil aviation cadets in November that year, he passed his pilot’s course and on 18 July 1925 was discharged from the RAAF. In 1925-26 he flew the route between Melbourne and Hay, NSW, for Australian Aerial Services Ltd. He joined Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Ltd (Qantas) in 1927.

On 27 March 1928 Qantas agreed to provide a pilot and aircraft for a one-year trial of Rev. John Flynn’s proposed aerial medical service to be based at Cloncurry. Affleck was the pilot assigned to the job.

Affleck left the airline in 1931 and tried some farming ventures. He went flying again in 1934 followed by roles with the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA). In 1944-45 he flew transport aircraft for No.37 Squadron, RAAF and returning to the DCA took on senior roles.

Heart disease ended his flying career in 1948 and he took on senior management roles until he retired to Sydney in 1963 and published his anecdotal autobiography, The Wandering Years (Melbourne, 1964). He died of pulmonary embolism on 11 September 1966.


Kenyon St Vincent Welch was selected from 22 applicants who responded to an advertisement in the Australian Medical Journal. The position was for a full-time doctor, to be paid 1000 pounds per year. Duties would be to attend all urgent medical and accident cases, as well as to make regular visits to remote places lacking other medical services.

Welch took up his duties at Cloncurry on 15 May 1928 and made his first flight two days later to attend to two patients at the Julia Creek Bush Nursing Home, one of whom had attempted suicide by trying to cut his own throat.

The plane landed nearby, and Welch walked to the nursing home and successfully performed two minor operations.

Entries from the doctor’s diary indicate it was not uncommon for him to make a 300-km flight before breakfast, perform an operation then be back to base by lunchtime, flying at night only on urgent cases, landing in paddocks and rough clearings.

Not all the early missions had a successful outcome. Sometimes it took so long for the message to get to the Cloncurry base that it was too late by the time the flying doctor arrived.

But the service got a massive boost with the introduction of Victorian-born inventor Alfred Traeger’s pedal wireless system.

Rev Flynn asked Traeger to experiment with ways of enabling remote families to access medical treatment by using radio equipment. Since much of remote Australia had no access to electricity, the initial problem was how to provide reliable power to a radio. Traeger cy developed a pedal generator to power a Morse code wireless set.

By 1929 people in the Outback could call the Flying Doctor in emergencies.

Transistorised receivers later replaced pedal radios, making it possible for doctors to give radio consultations.

Using the Flying Doctor Service network, the School of the Air radio service was established in Alice Springs in 1951, allowing children in remote areas to contact other children, ask questions of their teacher and do correspondence lessons.

Dr Welch served as the first flying doctor for a year and returned to Sydney to continue his practice. He treated 225 patients and made 50 flights, covering an area of 32,000 km in the launch year of the service. He died in 1942.

Dr Jean White became the first female flying doctor in 1937 when she took up the post at Normanton.

The RFDS today

The RFDS moved away from using aircraft contractors and progressively has purchased its own fleet of 69 fully instrumented planes that operate from 24 bases around Australia. It also now employees its own pilots and engineers.

The RFDS and Rev Flynn are featured on the Australian $20 note.

FOOTNOTE: John Flynn continued working for the Outback and helped other Presbyterian Ministers such as Donald Cameron and Andrew Barber with missionary work in remote areas throughout Victoria and South Australia. Flynn and Barber published “The Bushman’s Companion”, a book of information and hints for people living in the bush.

Rev John Flynn, was twice Moderator General of the Presbyterian Church. In May 1950, he attended what was to be his last Flying Doctor Council meeting; he died of cancer a year later.

The Royal Flying Doctor Museum, is located in the original Radio Station House at the Alice Springs Tourist Facility. Web site: http://www.rfdsalicesprings.com.au/royal-flying-doctor-service-museum

Members of the Royal Flying Doctor Service and friends at a picnic at Cloncurry in, 1937 Dr. Jean White, flying doctor at Normanton; Mrs Simpson, Dr. Simpson's (photographer) wife; Rev. Fred McKay, A.I.M. Patrol Padre; Dr. Gordon Albury, flying doctor at Cloncurry; Rev. John Flynn, founder and A.I.M. superintendent; Mrs. Jean Flynn, his wife and former secretary.

Sources: Royal Flying Doctor Service, Qantas, Royal Flying Doctor Museum Alice Springs. Australian Dictionary of Biography. flyingdoctor.org, wikipedia.com