The Royal Flying Doctor Service needs outback pilots for the ‘best job in the world’

Nestled in the mulga trees of Queensland’s outback, an aircraft hangar that’s been around since World War II roars as its doors swing open and a twin-turboprop plane is dragged onto the runway.

The hangar houses the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS), which is often seen as the key to outback survival.

But it’s the pilots who keep the doctors and nurses in the air.

Charleville base lead pilot Elliott Johnstone, 26, said he would rather not do anything.

A man pushes open a rolling door, revealing a small plane inside the hangar.
The Charleville base has two Beechcraft King Air planes.(ABC Western Qld: Melanie Groves)

“I started racing on my 14th birthday and haven’t looked back from there,” he said.

It flies over the backcountry delivering doctors and nurses to remote clinics and responding to emergencies.


RFDS travels to small towns and airports as well as remote stations.

Pilots avoid kangaroos when landing on dirt tracks and sometimes use flaming toilet paper rolls as markers along the strip at night.

Being a service pilot isn’t for the faint-hearted – or the routine.

“[On a recent shift] we land on a strip of land none of us have seen before, get this guy out of the ground, throw him on the plane and fly him to Brisbane, then fly home that night.

“It’s probably as exciting as it gets.”

Vacant jobs

Many pilots found themselves out of work, furloughed or considering a career change after COVID-19 decimated the travel industry.

The RFDS offered jobs, however, if the jaw-dropping backcountry landings at night and long hours were not a deterrent.

But now that the travel industry is starting to recover and recruit, organizations like Flying Doctors are getting fewer applications.

“So we’re having a hard time finding people who can get out.”

A man presses buttons in the cockpit of a small plane.
Mr. Johnstone flies wherever RFDS is needed in South West Queensland and as far as Brisbane.(ABC Western Qld: Melanie Groves)

The Charleville base has four pilots filling a preferred list of seven, but Mr Johnstone said there was no impact on services.

“Right now we’re just taking over where we can,” he said.

“We have a very strict set of fatigue rules so we don’t have to work any harder, but our roster structure is suffering a bit.”

Bringing communities to life

Scott Shorten, a man from Outback Queensland, said the Flying Doctors were a vital and beloved institution.

Mr Shorten lives in the opal fields of Yowah, nearly 1,000 kilometers from Brisbane.

His mother first advocated for the flying doctor to visit the community in the 1970s.

He said every member of his family has needed the service at some point in his life, including a visiting grandchild who was bitten by a snake.

Mr Shorten said the flying doctors had taken him to hospital three times in the past 12 months for treatment of a recurring lung condition.

He said the importance of service increases as communities age.

“They should be leaving where they grew up, their homes, to go somewhere strange,” Mr Shorten said.

Man wearing a high visibility shirt.
Yowah man Scott Shorten was named an RFDS Queensland Hero in 2018.(Supplied: Royal Flying Doctors Queensland)

He said the Flying Doctors had a clinic in his town once a week and were only a phone call away.

Mr. Shorten has shown his appreciation for the service by raising funds, keeping the airstrip in working order and helping to organize and coordinate clinics.

He even received the 2018 RFDS Queensland Hero Award for his fundraising support and volunteering for the organization.

Mr. Shorten, along with the city of Yowah, stepped up in 2018 to organize a community ambulance to help patients get to the airstrip more comfortably.

“The best job in the world”

Mr Johnstone, who grew up in Brisbane and attended Aviation State High School, said moving to the outback was a lifelong goal achieved.

“In my opinion, it’s the best job in the world,” he said.

His working day could take him anywhere within 600,000 square kilometres, from the western and southern Queensland border, to Longreach and central Queensland.

A silhouette of a man walks towards the rear door of a small plane in a hangar.
Pilot Elliott Johnstone began his flight training at the age of 14.(ABC Western Qld: Melanie Groves)

He said that while the ER might feel like a busy concert, the pilots had the easiest remote clinic days.

“We can lay on the couch all day, read a book, watch Netflix while the doctors and nurse do all the hard work, and then we bring them home in the afternoon,” he said. -he declares.

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