These were the thoughts in pilot Ben Berg’s semi-conscious mind, after RACQ LifeFlight Doctor Ian Humble told Queensland Fire and Emergency Service (QFES) officers they were running out of time to get him out.
“If he deteriorated further prior to extraction, then bilateral amputation was the only other option to save his life,” says Dr Humble, “As it was, it would have been incredibly difficult, given the limited access to his lower body but a step I was fully aware I might have to take.”
That life or death moment was 12 months ago. Ben has absolutely no doubt he is lucky to be alive – with both legs intact.
Today, he thanked some of those he credits with saving his life, meeting the RACQ LifeFlight Rescue helicopter crew members who came to his aid after his light plane crashed at Caloundra Aerodrome.
“I wanted to meet the LifeFlight crew because they saved my life. I wanted to see them, shake their hands, hug them,” says 50 year old Ben.
On 12th August 2017, Ben landed, dropped off his wife to meet his daughter and her boyfriend and was coming in to land again, with friends aboard on a joy-flight, when disaster struck.
“I remember being trapped, hanging onto the dash and in a lot of pain,” Ben recalls, “I was still strapped in but my legs were badly trapped and I was upside down.”
“We were landing at Sunshine Coast University Hospital with another patient when we heard over the ambulance radio that a plane had crashed at Caloundra airport,” recounts RACQ Aircrew Officer Rick Harvey, “The medical team quickly handed over the patient to the hospital staff and we were able to quickly depart and fly the short distance to Caloundra airport. This enabled us to get to the scene faster than a normal activation, which was fortunate because every minute counted with this case.”
RACQ LifeFlight Rescue Helicopter pilot Aaron Regan remembers the day well.
“We landed a few hundred metres away from the crash site, so our downdraft didn’t stir up any dirt or rubbish. Any aircraft or motor vehicle accident is generally pretty confronting, but it was hard to believe people had survived the crash just looking at the aircraft wreckage,” he says.
The chopper crew dropped Dr Humble and Queensland Ambulance Service (QAS) critical care paramedic Mick O’Brien at the scene.
It was Dr Humble’s first shift aboard the Sunshine Coast-based RACQ LifeFlight Rescue Helicopter.
He says, “On landing there was a heavy fire and ambulance presence with some very, very skilled people already working on the 4 patients. The scene was carnage, aircraft parts strewn over a large area, with the plane on its roof. Ben was half ejected out of the pilot’s door and pinned to the ground by his shoulder. He was lying prone and unconscious, making assessment, treatment and extraction incredibly difficult. There were numerous hazards, the smell of aviation fuel pungent in the nostrils and the ground soaked with it.”
“We also got chemical burns, which makes it even more of a miracle. We were soaked in fuel. I could see there were bare wires everywhere. One spark, a fire, we were gone…but nothing sparked,” says Ben.
Two of the passengers had freed themselves and were taken to hospital. Ben’s friend Stephan Muller was removed by QFES officers. It took an hour of frantic effort to get Ben out. Both his legs were crushed and he was suffering critical injuries.
“All the emergency service workers and our doctor and paramedic worked really well together to get him out of the wreckage,” Rick says.
“He was sick, very sick. He was critically ill. He needed to be stabilized before we could even put him in the helicopter,” says paramedic Mick O’Brien.
Dr Humble is full of praise for the RACQ LifeFlight colleagues he’d only just started working with. “I was very grateful for Mick to be there. He’s one of the most outstanding operators I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. His skills, demeanor and experience that day helped save Ben’s life. It was a real team effort.”
The RACQ LifeFlight Rescue helicopter transported Ben to the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital.
“My job is to fly us there safely while the medical team work on the patient but you do this job long enough and you get to know when people are really, really sick. We all knew it was really touch and go. I was quite surprised and so pleased when we found out the next day, he was still alive,” says Aaron.
Ben knows so many people and so many factors played a part in his survival, but being treated and airlifted by the RACQ LifeFlight Rescue Helicopter crew was vital.
“Thanks to LifeFlight. I would not have made it by road. I have no doubt about it.”
Ben had immediate emergency surgery then spent a week in the Intensive Care Unit. A year and multiple surgeries later, he is in a wheelchair and will undergo more operations and physiotherapy, but he has his legs and he is grateful.
“I probably won’t run again, but I will be able to walk,” he says.
Dr Humble knows better than most, how close Ben came to dying. He followed the case closely and visited him in hospital.
“Ben’s a very motivated and incredible human being who wouldn’t shy away from a difficult situation. The man has some amazing life stories ,” he says, “I’d like to share a beer or two with him to hear some of them.”
The Sunshine Coast-based Rescue helicopter team performed two more potentially life-saving missions during their shift, after Ben’s rescue.