Peter MacCormick’s life guard – Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service and CareFlight

There was a wonderful attendance to listen to Peter MacCormick’s presentation on his time as a life guard in LA followed by his involvement in the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service and later with the creation of the CareFlight Service in May 1986 as Foundation President. It was obvious Peter had done an enormous amount of work in preparing for the evening including converting VHS rescue footage to DVD, and slides to photographs creating a PowerPoint show.

BBC Patron Tim Anderson introduced Peter Mac, his great friend since their teenage days. Tim spoke of Peter as one of life’s extraordinary characters and how Peter developed an interest in the saving of life. Tim had been looking over Peter’s shoulder whilst he compiled his presentation and was certain that his fabulous story would inspire everyone present. Tim was confident that due to Peter’s direct involvement with helicopter rescues hundreds of lives have been saved.

Peter spoke of his initial involvement with the Surf Life Saving Association with doing his surf Bronze Medallion at the Bilgola Surf Club with good pal Dick Morath in 1966. After a brief period of working in Sydney for 2 years with Kayser Lingerie as a trainee manager (sounds like the making of another story altogether) he decided that overseas beckoned and he managed to earn his keep on a German cargo freighter bound for Hawaii, suffered severe sea sickness and had an alteration with a drunk German boson who didn’t appreciate Peter “mentioning the War”!

Peter-MacCormick-lifeguard-zumabeach-laAs Peter had been involved with the Junior Chamber of Commerce he was invited to the American convention in Houston. He then travelled back through Dallas and into LA to a beach called Zuma where he met some old friends. It was suggested by the chief lifeguard inspector that Peter should apply to become a lifeguard with their service. This required a social security number and Peter amused everyone with his approach to obtaining this … enough said! After plenty of training he was selected in the 40 to make the grade as lifesavers out of 120 applicants, coming 14th in the final qualifying swim. Peter lived at the Zuma lifeguard quarters and during his 2 years life guarding he performed in over 70 rescues.

After the end of the first season he travelled to New York and went on the Queen Mary to Southampton where he stayed in London over Winter. He setup a delivery service called the Kangaroo Express and managed to squeeze in some skiing in Austria. He returned for a second season of life guarding where he was offered a permanent position but this meant becoming an American Citizen which in turn meant he could be drafted in to the American War, besides his mother said it was time to come home as he was enjoying himself too much, so he declined the offer.

Peter-MacCormick-westpac-hellicopter-rescueIn 1969 he returned to Australia and in 1970 he joined the Manly Surf Club and became the captain of the Shelley Beach Rescue Boat which patrolled the 3 beaches at Manly. In 1971 a group of Australian surf life savers visited the Auckland Helicopter Rescue Service to look at the rescue techniques developed by the SLS of NZ that was developed by George Sobicki, a German living in New Zealand. Ian Badham brought back the idea to Australia with a desire to adopt a similar service in Sydney. As a result of this trip the Bank of New South Wales (later to be Westpac) agreed to sponsor the first helicopter service in Australia for $25,000 to cover the Summer surf period on weekends. The skills of the rescue crewmen were upgraded through not only physical training but through basic and advanced first aid courses conducted through the First Aid Society. When the need arose doctors were picked up from Mona Vale and Prince Henry Hospital by the helicopter.

In 1972 Peter applied to join the first intake for the new Bank of New South Wales Helicopter Rescue Service of which 28 people were successful. In 1976 the operation changed from part time to a full year round operation. In order to meet the demands of the service the medical capability was boosted with the introduction of volunteer doctors. Peter qualified as a rescue crewman and then a helicopter instructor and winching instructor. In the same year he went over to the US and undertook an Emergency Medical and Technician Course and EMTC 2 and qualified through the Baltimore Fire Department. After graduating he then went to Europe to review the Swiss Air Rescue Service under Dr Buleter who gave him an insight in the way they operated their helicopter and international retrieval service. After Switzerland he went to Germany and was a guest of the ADAC Helicopter Rescue Service under Dr Hans Berkhart. On his return at the end of 1976 the service had upgraded its aircraft to a Bell 206B which allowed for transporting two patients. The first volunteer doctor was an Englishman, Dr Rowley.

In 1978 the base was transferred to the Royal North Shore Hospital. The service received support from the Navy helicopter based at Nowra and undertook to train crewmen on the use of winches and abseiling out of the aircraft. This training continued at the RNS Hospital and Long Reef. The service by then was operating 24 hours a day. Peter became Financial Director from 1978 to 1983 and became Managing Director until 1986 in a voluntary capacity. Similar services had now been set up on the Central Coast, Newcastle, Lismore, Gold Coast and Perth.

In 1982 the service had completed over 2,300 separate missions and Peter was responsible for the purchase of Australia’s first Aerospatiale 350B Squirrel aircraft. During this time Peter increased the budget of the service four times by increasing sponsorship and creating fun runs in order to raise further funds. In 1986 Peter ran into conflict with the Surf Life Saving, in particular the Branch President and National Executive Director.

Peter-MacCormick-careflight“The fundraising activities had outstripped the monies raised by the Sydney Branch and they were endeavouring to have me transfer some of our funds across to their operations, which I resisted on the basis that the money I raised was given to us for the helicopter service, not Surf Life Saving. The National Director was planning to take over the running of all the helicopters Australia wide. At this time Surf Life Saving wanted the service to remain on the beaches where I believed the service should be based at Westmead Hospital which was the centre of Sydney so that we could particularly look after the people in the Western region. I was dismissed on the 18th March 1986 from my position by the Sydney Branch and was given no reason for their action and as a consequence everyone involved in the helicopter service, rescue crewmen, doctors and pilots all resigned in protest except for one pilot and one crewman. The result of this action meant that 15 doctors, 10 crewmen and one pilot resigned. The very next day we had a meeting with the group and decided that we would not allow all of the hard work that we had put into the service to go to waste, so we registered the name of CareFlight. The following morning I approached Bernie Amos of Westmead Hospital to ask for his support in basing a medical helicopter at his hospital and he responded with a YES.
Over the next 2 months we put into train flight manual, medical procedures and signed up a $270,000 sponsorship with HCF, $100,000 sponsorship with Channel 9 and a $50,000 sponsorship with 2GB. Before we had finalised these financial arrangements, Richard Malley and myself signed up for the purchase of a used 350B Squirrel aircraft and agreed to lease it through NZY capital with the support and help of John Backhouse and Associates, so a new service was born.” – Note – John Backhouse attended Peter’s presentation at the Storytellers.

Exactly 6 months after Peter’s dismissal the service was launched by NSW Premier Barry Unsworth and flew its first mission on the 8th September. As the service went from strength to strength and in order to raise additional funds Peter instigated the Care Bear Program and in its first year it raised over $250,000. With a mixture of bequests, appeals, additional sponsorship CareFlight today is netting in excess of $5.5m per year. After a decade of growth and improvements, and with the knowledge that since his involvement in helicopters in Australia in 1973 over 5,000 people have been rescued or transported, Peter stepped down as President in 1994. In that year he was awarded the first life-time membership of CareFlight.

CareFlight has now been involved in 35,000 missions of rescue and of saving lives and from an original budget of $680,000 CareFlight this year has a turnover in excess of $65m and operates 2 helicopters and one medijet services out of Sydney – the CareFlight emergency response trauma team helicopter and the newborn and paediatric emergency service helicopter.

Peter then showed some footage of the early days of the helicopter services. Time didn’t permit to show some of the news footage where Peter featured so we’ll look for another opportunity to present it, especially considering the effort made to prepare it.

It took over a year to persuade Peter to tell his story and the wait was certainly worthwhile. A huge applause was given to Peter for his humorous and modest delivery of an inspirational story.

Thanks as always to Jackie B for her technical help and for filming Peter’s presentation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *