Bush Pilot mates now lifesaving heroes

Their mateship was forged as rookie air charter pilots a decade ago in the heat and turbulence of the Top End of Australia – and they’re now using their skills and experience to save lives with Queensland aeromedical service LifeFlight Australia.

Anthony McKenna and Phil Grinter have teamed up again and spend each day helping to save lives within Australia and around the world – Anthony as captain of the LifeFlight Lear 45 Air Ambulance and Phil as an Aviation Operations Coordinator.

LifeFlight is a world leader in aeromedical care with a rotary and fixed wing service, flying almost 50,000 critical rescue missions over the past 37 years.

The inspiration for the duo’s aviation careers were vastly different – Phil’s dreams were ignited while patiently building model airplanes as a child, while Anthony grew up engrossed in family stories about his grandfather’s service during World War II with the Australian Air Force Wireless Unit, and later as a cypher operator attached to the 5th American Air Force.

Nonetheless their lives became intertwined when they both started working together bush flying in the Northern Territory in 2007. 

“We both had the spirit of adventure and at the time the Territory was the place where you had the best chance of getting a job,” said Phil.

“It was pretty wild at times with the flying and weather conditions, rough airstrips and even sometimes the passengers made it pretty hairy.”

“There was one occasion where I answered a knock on my office door when I was at South Goulburn Island off the coast of Arnhem Land and there was a guy standing there with an axe who demanded to be flown back to his community.”

“I refused and he took a swing at me with the axe and needless to say, I definitely didn’t fly him anywhere after that.”

Both pilots agree that while it was ‘wild and woolly’ - especially when flying in single-engine Cessna’s in the wet season - there could have been no better experience for a young pilot.

“The work was anything and everything from freight runs and flying Doctors and Nurses around on clinic runs, flying the mail run, to transporting corpses in for an autopsy and even flying rich American tourists around to hunt buffalo.”

Anthony began flying for LifeFlight as a fixed wing pilot in 2012, operating Lear 45 jets out of the Townsville base, while Phil spent four years flying for QantasLink from 2012 to 2016.

In a serendipitous twist, Anthony gave Phil the heads up about LifeFlight recruiting for a new Aviation Operations Coordinator, a role which he began in April last year.

As a LifeFlight Air Ambulance captain, Anthony has flown over 1400 hours airlifting sick and injured patients from destinations around the world.
While they work at different locations, Phil will often find himself planning and coordinating the logistics of medical airlifts for Anthony, who could be anywhere in Australia – or almost anywhere in the world!

“My role as Captain on a medevac jet is certainly challenging with lots of variables to manage, but I love being able to bring someone home to Australia whose time abroad has gone unexpectedly wrong,” Anthony said.

“The speed and smoothness at which we can do so way above all of the weather of the tropics.”

“One particular memorable mission was a medevac of an elderly gentleman, accompanied by his wife, from Vanuatu to Brisbane. They were in their 70s and on their first ever overseas trip which was paid for by their family as a wedding anniversary present. When they arrived to the jet I noted the wife was surprisingly chirpy about the situation. She explained that they were taking a romantic stroll along the beach at night, hand in hand, when suddenly ‘he wasn’t there!’ She said that’s when they realised they were walking along a three metre cliff and her husband had fallen onto the sand and broken his leg. She noted that our aeroplane was ‘much nicer than the one they flew to Vanuatu in’ then proceeded to direct all the crew and crowd into various holiday snap poses with the jet on the tarmac for her trip photos.”

“Our previous working history and shared experience from bush flying in the Territory comes into focus in the middle of the night on a more stressful Lifeflight mission where we are both dealing with lots of changes and variables which requires a real co-ordination and understanding of each other’s roles and pressures. It’s nice for me to hear a very familiar voice on the other end of an important call to the coordination centre.”

Lifeflight has 12 Aviation Operations Coordinators working a four day on four day off roster. The Coordination Centre is operational and staffed 24 hours a day.

“It is not unusual in one shift to task and coordinate several community helicopters, organise landing permits and coordinate a fixed wing retrieval, respond to multiple telehealth requests through the Royal Flying Doctor Service, fulfil multiple data entry requests, and respond to a Tele Medical Service request for the joint rescue coordination centre in Canberra,” Phil said.

“The enjoyable part is that no two days are ever the same. Things are always changing and there are multiple things requiring your attention and multiple tasks on the go at the same time which require prioritising. There is a sense of satisfaction and achievement at the end of each shift knowing that in a way you have contributed to helping people.”

Though Anthony and Phil’s careers moved in different directions, it is this shared passion for helping others that has seen the pair’s careers intertwined once again.

“Working together again is just like working together all those years ago. It’s quite remarkable how these things can go full circle and 10 years later we end up working together again.”