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Life in the African air

Saturday, 12th May, 2018

Clyde Thomson Clyde Thomson

By Craig Brealey

The life of a flying doctor and crew in Australia is regarded around the world as one of the most exciting and romantic jobs you could hope for but for real derring-do adventure, you can’t beat Africa, as a former RFDS boss in Broken Hill has discovered.

Captain Clyde Thomson says there are many similarities between the Australian and African services, but flying into war zones and dodging missiles are not among them.

Captain Thomson ran the Flying Doctor Service in Broken Hill (South-east section) for 40 years and retired as its CEO in 2014. He now lives in Sydney where he lectures at the University of NSW’s Aviation School.

But he is also the chairman of the African Medical and Research Foundation Flying Doctors, with which he first became involved in 1984 when they first visited the Silver City.

He later developed a business plan for their aviation operations which they adopted and he helped with its implementation. 

In 2011 he was elected chairman of the AMREF Flying Doctors and now visits their base in Nairobi, Kenya.

“The parallels between the RFDS and AMREF Flying Doctors are remarkable,” said Capt. Thomson. 

“The founders of both wanted to take health care to places where there were no doctors or medical assistance, used aircraft and radios to reach remote and neglected communities and had the drive and vision to make it happen. 

“But life with the AMREF Flying Doctors is somewhat more exciting than working for the RFDSSE, with the constant threat of ground to air missiles and terrorist groups, however the operational crew take it all in their stride and go about their operations without complaint.”

Last week Capt. Thomson sent a ripping account of his adventures with the African Flying Doctors to the “Sunday with Macca” show on the ABC Radio .

“Kenya is drowning under a mass of thunderstorms, roads are flooded and people are stranded across the country. Still, no one is complaining as they have been in drought for many months,” he wrote. 

The African Flying Doctor Service in Kenya had been asked by the United Nations to help in war-torn Somalia by sending an aircraft to the capital, Mogadishu.

This was to provide medical evacuations for the UN troops and the NGO staff working in Somalia, a mission, said Capt. Thomson, “which has its moments.

“Yesterday we successfully retrieved a NGO worker who had driven over a IED (improvised explosive device) and suffered multiple wounds to his legs. He is now in hospital in Nairobi and will make a full recovery and thankfully keep both his legs.”

Capt. Thomson said that at Mogadishu airport the UN had to give the flying doctor military cover when it was loading patients.

“Al Shabab, the local terrorist organisation (when they are not pirating ships), are very active in the area. However, we are always careful to only shut down one engine when we are loading patients (as finding a friendly aircraft engineer to ground start the aircraft at Mogadishu airport is not a high probability) and complete the patient loading in twenty minutes.

“To make life more interesting the Notice To All Airmen advises that flight below 25,000 feet is not advised due to the possibility of missiles (apparently you can just about buy them in the supermarket in Somalia) so the crews wisely take this advice.

“Despite all this the AMREF Flying Doctor volunteer medical staff, nurses and aircrew go about the business of providing Aeromedical and Primary Health Services across Africa which makes me very proud of them.

“However, it always reassuring to get back to base and listen to Macca on the ABC podcast.”

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