Case Study – History of the Northern Helicopter Service


In the late 1970s the need for a helicopter rescue service in the Northern Rivers area was identified following a number of incidents in dangerous surf conditions where it was deemed that a rescue helicopter would have been of great assistance to the rescue efforts. Funding was obviously going to be an issue and local Ballina lifesaver Elton Cummings worked hard at convincing anyone who would listen that supporting a local rescue helicopter would help save lives in the local area. The North Coast Local Authorities Credit Union agreed to donate $3000 which enabled an experienced pilot John Wall together with his helicopter to be hired for a four week period.

The Northern Region SLSA Helicopter Rescue Service commenced in December 1982 at Ballina SLSC, as the fifth Surf Rescue service established in Australia, using a Hillier piston engine aircraft. This type of helicopter is similar to that used for medical evacuations in the hit TV series M*A*S*H*.

Elton, together with other Ballina Lighthouse and Lismore Surf Club members Paul Albertini, Craig Spencer, Gary Dardengo and Paul Pidcock went to Sydney to be trained as helicopter rescue crew members.

In 1983 the service permanently relocated to Lismore with a leased Bell Jet Ranger helicopter based at St Vincent’s Private Hospital. However, funding continued to be an issue and the local surf life saving club and the Far North Coast Branch were not in a position to underwrite any shortfall. It appeared that the service would have to cease operations.

In 1984, to enable the service to continue, SLSA set up a new company, assumed full ownership of the service, and provided a replacement Bell Jet Ranger.

In 1985 a major sponsorship was established with the Northern Co-op Meat Company and Casino Hide Traders. This partnership still exists today.

In 1990 the base moved into its purpose-built premises in Brunswick St, Lismore. The following year Westpac Banking Corporation become the major sponsor and the first Dauphin C1 helicopter was introduced to the service. The service was re-renamed the Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter in line with all other helicopter services run by Surf Life Saving Australia.

In 1996 the service expanded further with the introduction of a second Dauphin C1 helicopter and the service commenced 24 hours a day operation, 365 days a year. By having a back-up aircraft the service was able to provide exceptional level of rescue-ready availability for the community.

In 2005 a Dauphin N2 was purchased to replace the first Dauphin C1 and during 2006 the service completed its 5,000th mission.

A second Dauphin N2 was purchased in 2006 to replace the second Dauphin C1, allowing for commonality in operations and the capacity to rotate aircraft to ensure continued high levels of availability.

2007 saw the retirement of longstanding General Manager Perry Wells, who had been with the organisation since 1986, having started in the Service in a fundraising role before assuming the General Manager role in 1991.

In 2008 the NSW Ambulance commenced a trial of station paramedics on base during daylight hours. The service commenced planning for a joint initiative with the Department of Health to establish an Australasian College of Emergency Medicine Residency at the base and in 2009 the first doctor under Emergency Medicine residency commenced at the Base, elevating clinical responsiveness.

Also in 2008 work commenced on the installing of Night Vision Imaging System technology, to increase service capability in primary response and search response during poor light conditions. The service continued its expansion of cockpit technologies with next generation radar systems, multi-function displays to match the evolving imaging technology. All pilots and crew were trained and endorsed in this aviation development. Both aircraft were ultimately fitted with these technologies, with the Chief Pilot at the time, Lynton Beggs noting it was the most substantial safety improvement in rotary wing aviation in a generation.

In 2010 the service introduced on-board cameras, drawing on technology used in Moto GP racing. This allowed the service to tell its story more effectively with local news services quickly engaging in using the footage obtained to report on the lifesaving missions the service was performing.

In July 2013, the NSW Government announced a Reform Plan in which NSW Health proposed to restructure helicopter contracts. The Northern Region service entered into a Deed of Commitment and Undertaking to assist the Hunter Region Service tender for the Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) in the Northern Region, which proved to be successful.

Mission number 7,500 was completed in February 2014 and on 30th August 2014 the board of SLSA resolved that the service be wound up following the expiration of the Helicopter Emergency Medical Service contract and the transfer of operations to the new entity.

In September 2016, the Service completed its 8500th mission. To reflect on the accelerated mission demand on the Service; it took 23 years to fly its first 5,000 missions and in 2016 (within 11 years of its 5,000 milestone) it had flown 70% of that number again. At the time of completion the service had flown over 8,750 missions.

During 2016 and into early 2017, a new base was built at Lismore Airport and a new larger helicopter, an AW139 was brought into service by a new operator. During this period, all pilots and engineers undertook advance training on the new AW139. It is a credit to these people in ensuring that the existing service maintained its impeccable operational safety record through this period.

On 26 April 2017 the service flew its last mission and its operations, and the majority of staff were transferred to the new operator.

Surf Life Saving Australia acknowledges the dedication, bravery and exceptional service of the pilots, crew, engineering and other staff of Northern Helicopters over the past 35 years. SLSA would also like to acknowledge the exceptional service of the Northern Board who are all volunteers, and in particular Chair Warren Tozer OAM who has given 24 years of service to the board and current General Manager Kris Beavis.

SLSA Operations – Case Study – History of the Northern Helicopter Service