Public Service

Pacrim Notebook: Australian Helicopters Come of Age

By Barney O’Shea | July 1, 2007

AUSTRALIA IS A VAST COUNTRY. The natural development has been major centers of population in the capital cities with smaller population centers to support development in the outback. Outside the armed forces the helicopter is a major lifesaving tool and is an essential part of the various state governments’ emergency and ambulance services, with assistance from the Flying Doctor Service established in the 1920s. It is in the helicopter’s use, operation, organization, and support that Australians excel.

Given the increasing size of the population spread across the nation, the helicopter has become the accepted method of movement for any emergency and, in many cases, for regular transport. The helicopter fleet currently has an 8-10 percent growth rate, and the fleet is expected to double within 10 years. Only New Zealand does better, but with increasing numbers and industry China and India could take the lead in the region.

The Australian economy has had sufficient strength to acquire a good rate of exchange with the major currencies, enabling the purchase of helicopters not previously available which has helped the constant growth at the same time reducing the costs of maintenance with cheaper spares. The shortage of manpower has caused the ADF to rely on commercial support, using contracted personnel and capabilities where ever possible to reduce the military requirements. The defense commitment of the OEMs has enabled the manufacturers to establish highly capable support services for defense which has flowed on to the commercial fleets.


Knowledge, technology and spares required are held and supplied to the ADF. The OEMs have spent much time and money in conjunction with the Defence Materiel Organization (DMO). In the case of helicopters, a helicopter division commanded by a two-star general was set up. The new acquisitions include simulators and specialized high technology training aids. The quickly growing civil fleet has been able to maintain the expansion rate because of this greatly increased OEM capability, in place primarily for defense but with the capacity to provide for commercial fleets, including the EMS fleet.

It should be noted that the Australian Aerospace facility is currently producing the ARH Tiger and the MRH 90. Provision was made for production of commercial helicopters and several EC120s have been assembled and delivered.

The first helicopter ambulance in Australia was the Angel of Mercy in South Eastern Victoria, supplied by Billy Vowell in 1970 to rescue and transfer patients and overcome road and transport difficulties to the only trauma hospital in Melbourne. The Victorian government was asked for assistance in maintaining the capability and contributing towards maintenance, then paying for time used. A helicopter ambulance task force with a Jet Ranger was set up in the 70s, leading to the establishment of three helicopter ambulance services. The service in Melbourne city was flown by the Police Air Wing and the state ambulance services providing specialized crews. The supply and maintenance of the helicopters were contracted and "C" Model Dauphins were retired.

Where ever helicopters operate there is an HEMS available on call. A recent railway crossing accident led to six deaths and a number of traumatic and immobile patients. At one time it was reported that twelve fixed wing and helicopters were on site transporting patients across the state to Melbourne and the nearest specialist hospitals as the crash was in the middle of the bush.

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) in updating its force has introduced a helicopter production capability and an increasing demand for commercial support. The Army will have Eurocopter Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters – 22 ARH Tigers and 46 NH90 Multi Role Helicopter — MRH90s. The Australian Aerospace Co. has set up the production facility with the MRH 90 following the ARH Tiger on the same line. The facility cross trains its personnel.

Aerial fire fighting and control, with Australia’s exceptionally high fire risk forests and bush rating among the three highest fire risks in the world, has developed a very capable aerial fire fighting capability and even more importantly a unique control and reporting organization. A National Aerial Fire Fighting authority works with the states enabling a national approach and utilization of aircraft. Bulk contracting enabled easy diversion of rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft to areas of greatest need.

The magnitude and capability of the ADF and helicopter industry is recognized by the number and variety of international organizations that came to the 2007 Australian International Air Show and the International Aerospace Congress.

Eurocopter and its Australian subsidiary were represented as was Agusta Westland. The ADF showed off its new ARH Tiger, Black Hawks, a flying duo of RAN Squirrels and police and emergency service helicopters.

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