Former ‘Topgun’ fighter jet pilot now saving lives
Paul Regli might have spent the first half of his aviation career flying fighter jets for the military, but the Gold Coast pilot has spent the best part of his career using his skills to save lives.
As Chief Pilot of LifeFlight’s Air Ambulance jets, sponsored by RACQ, Paul leads a team which is devoted and passionate about airlifting sick and injured patients in their greatest hour of need, including bringing Australians home to their families after overseas medical mishaps.
“I’ve been flying since I was a kid,” remembers Paul, who grew up in Canada on the outskirts of Toronto.
“I got my pilot’s license when I was 16 and joined the Canadian Air Force when I was 18.”
With more than 11 years of flying experience on lethal F18 fighter jets in the Canadian military, Paul’s life took a new turn when he was posted to Australia.
“During my time in the military I did an exchange to Australia and I began flying out of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) base in Williamtown outside of Newcastle,” said Paul.
He worked with the RAAF for two years before he decided to leave the military and once again, pack up and head overseas. This time his wanderlust took him to Saudi Arabia to work with a large aviation company instructing fast jet pilots.
But the pull of the country he had grown to love was too strong and Paul decided to swap the sand dunes of Saudi Arabia for the sandy beaches of the Gold Coast.
On-board with LifeFlight
Meeting with LifeFlight’s Chief Executive Officer, Ashley Van De Velde in 2006, Paul was offered a position as the General Manager of the LifeFlight, previously Careflight, Safety and Training Academy at Coolangatta Airport.
Paul was responsible for a range of defence contracts and guiding aviation professionals through Helicopter Underwater Escape Training (HUET) - a simulated experience of training for a helicopter crashing into water.
Paul’s love of flying had been fostered at a young age and two years in a managerial role had him itching to get back in the pilot’s seat.
“My background is flying so I started flying on the fixed wing side of things in the Lear 45 and 46 jets we had at the time, and took over as Chief Pilot of LifeFlight in 2010,” said Paul.
In this role, Paul oversees the administration and compliance of the three LifeFlight jets (which are based in Brisbane, Townsville and Singapore). But it’s not all about paperwork.
“The last six months I’ve spent a lot of time flying out of our Singapore base. We’ve done jobs from as far as South Africa, Kenya, the Middle East and China,” he said.
The complexity of the medical retrieval determines Paul’s involvement, and on international missions Paul will spend much of his time liaising with the LifeFlight Coordination Centre, planning logistics, obtaining clearances and visas for the journey.
Paul remembers one such retrieval of a Gold Coast woman who broke her hip in Argentina and was also diagnosed with bone cancer. It took six pilots, stationed across three different countries - Easter Island, Tahiti and Chile - to complete.
“Once you place a patient on-board it’s not like you can just stop and put her in a hospital along the way. You have to keep going,” said Paul.
But mission logistics aren’t the only challenge in Paul’s role.
Every week he’s confronted with sick and injured patients who are often in the midst of experiencing some of the worst days of their life. Especially when it involves a premature baby.
“Because of the distance we are able to cover with our Air Ambulance jets, we are able to do a lot of pediatric and neo-natal hospital transfers of babies in a very timely and efficient manner,” he said.
“I remember back when we had a flu epidemic, and we had a young patient out of Cairns. Her whole body had started to shut down and she was on life-support. We went up there, picked her up and took her to Sydney and she survived. Those are the good ones.”
Paul assists with the loading of a patient during a neonatal retrieval
And then there are the bad ones. Such as the above mission he flew to Argentina.
“The lady we airlifted sadly ended up dying from her bone cancer, but her family came back and they wanted to thank us,” he said.
“They were just so thankful that we were able to go, retrieve her and bring her back home. It’s not always a great outcome, but the family appreciates whatever you are able to do for them.”
While Paul sacrifices leaving his home and family behind to bring others back to theirs, it’s these intangible experiences that keep him satisfied.
“For us it’s a lot of hard work, but at the same time you feel better at the end of the day knowing you’ve helped someone else,” he said.
During more than a decade working at LifeFlight, Paul has seen the organisation change more than just its name.
LifeFlight has added two new Lear 36 jets and a Challenger 604 to its fleet and have increased their flying time five times over.
“When I started it was a small company. Our Air Ambulances have expanded across three bases; Brisbane, Townsville and Singapore. We used to look to achieve 30 to 40 hours of flying each month, now we are doing in excess of 150 hours,” he said.
As each new day brings new missions and destinations, Paul never knows where he may end up.
“When I walk in at the start of the day I don’t know where I am going, next thing I know I’m down to Sydney, airlifting a patient from Norfolk Island.”
His life might be anything but constant and predictable, but it’s a small price to pay, knowing he has helped to save lives and reunited patients with their loved ones.