A Call for Help from Garrthalala – MAF in Arnhem Land

Mission Aviation Fellowship’s work in Arnhem Land provides Aboriginal homelands and communities with access to healthcare, education and development opportunities. In addition, MAF flights support the local church.

It was a warm Monday morning, and Marijn de Zwart had just finished his second charter flight for the day. He had a brief chat with his passengers and had planned to clean the aircraft before his favourite lunch; tomato soup and toast but his afternoon was interrupted by a phone call – “Marijn, we have an emergency!”

The phone call

It was a difficult day at the MAF bookings office as the phone lines were down. In Arnhem Land, this brings added confusion as bookings are usually made over the phone. Rhys Morrell was the Flight Operations Manager for the day and had taken a few calls on his mobile phone to help cope. One such call was a voicemail. It was a call for help. When Rhys called back, a frantic voice at the other end said, “We have a badly injured boy in Garrthalala and I’m worried he might die before you get here!”

When Rhys gathered more information, it became clear that MAF was to fly two paramedics from St. John Ambulance NT to the remote homeland of Garrthalala. Flying was the only option as a drive would mean traveling for three hours over rough roads and potholes. A medical retrieval of a young boy was needed, and the closest available pilot to the homeland was Marijn.

A team effort from the start

As Marijn scrambled to get the necessary paperwork done for the flight, his colleagues prepared the aircraft. They removed two seats to fix a stretcher and a harness. The aircraft was refueled and ready to go by the time the paramedics arrived. 35 minutes after the initial call, the aircraft was airborne and heading for Garrthalala.

St. John Ambulance, the government appointed provider of ambulance services in the Northern Territory, is Australia’s leading provider of first aid services, training and equipment. Liam Jobson and Kane Barker were the paramedics accompanying Marijn on the flight that day. It was their first time on a MAF plane and they seemed calm throughout the flight. However, the question of what to expect at Garrthalala loomed over the three.

The team landed at Garrthalala after 20 minutes of flying. Once the aircraft was parked, Marijn prepared to complete more legal paperwork while the two paramedics gathered their equipment. A lady came out from among the houses waving at the aircraft, signaling for help. As the paramedics swiftly made their way across the community, Marijn was impressed at their professional behaviour.

It was a four-year-old boy who was feared dead after hurting his head. He had fallen from a height of two metres while climbing a tree. To the surprise of the team, the boy was up and about. He looked able, but was believed to have been unconscious for a short time after the fall. After his vitals were checked, it was decided to take the boy back to Gove for further investigation. The boy walked to the aircraft with his grandmother and climbed onto one of the seats. Seeing the boy not having to use the stretcher put Marijn at ease. They were soon back in Gove and a waiting ambulance took the boy to Gove District Hospital in a stable condition.

From the team

“It’s amazing how different the flights to and from the homeland turned out to be. We flew into Garrthalala not knowing what to expect with this medical retrieval, but we flew out happy and safe, enjoying the spectacular views of the Arnhem Land coasts.

Situations like this are challenging. There’s not much left to choice. Decisions have to be made efficiently, keeping in mind the safety of everyone involved. I’m glad this flight was a happy one.”

“Many of the phone calls I take each day are pretty mundane. Today, I took the call for this flight and I’m glad to have played a part in making this come together quickly. A fantastic result considering the initial contact suggested it could have gone the other way.”


Story by Divyan Ahimaz, Area Communications Officer
Asia Pacific Region
Photos by Marijn de Zwart, Pilot and Liam Jobson, Paramedic (St. John Ambulance NT)
This story was written based on actual accounts.
Read more real stories here