They are the quiet achievers who are considered “among the hardest working people in the joint”.
That’s how NSW Ambulance’s Director of Helicopter Operations Cameron Edgar describes the engineers who work behind the scenes to ensure the Toll Ambulance Rescue and Westpac Rescue helicopters are ready to take-off at the drop of a hat. “I think the easiest way to sum it up is we can’t do anything without them,” he said.
“They are an absolutely critical component of what we do, not only from the perspective of caring for the patients but also for keeping our own people safe. The man who leads the 24 Toll-employed engineers responsible for maintaining the fleet of eight helicopters – six of which can be operational at any given time – is chief engineer Jeff Bahls.
Jeff first learnt the ins and outs of helicopter maintenance about 20 years ago while working in Papua New Guinea, a country where the use of helicopters is commonplace given the limited amount of roads.
But looking after a fleet of helicopters which are designed to rescue people, have a take-off weight of up to 7000kg and cost close to $20m each, is like comparing apples and oranges.
The meticulous, dedicated approach to maintaining these aircraft is staggering – but also necessary.
“For every hour the helicopters fly we put in about seven hours of maintenance,” he said.
“Pretty much no engineer in this hanger who works on these machines is under 30-years-old, it takes that long to get the necessary experience to work on them.
“If we find a defect on one of the aircraft, the fix we apply to that aircraft will then be put into the seven other aircraft so it doesn’t happen again.
“If we have a door handle break, for example, that door handle gets replaced on every aircraft so it doesn’t break out in the field.”
And it’s this level of dedication from Jeff and his crew which is why Cameron is keen to heap praise on the engineers’ efforts in keeping NSW Ambulance crews – and their patients – safe.
“They’re like surgeons in that, they count how many tools go in and out of an engineering episode,” he said.
“If a tool is missing at the end, they won’t release that aircraft until they can account for it.
“They work out of the limelight. They’re not on TV doing the rescues but they are incredibly important…. they are the quiet professionals.
“It is an incredible relationship of trust between the aeromedical crews and the engineers to keep them (the helicopters) in the air.”
Westpac Rescue Helicopters’ engineering manager, Richard Lalor, echoed that sentiment of trust between the 18 engineers he oversees and the aeromedical crews.
“It’s about them having that confidence in what we do,” he said.
“While we are following the regulatory framework and the manufacturer’s recommendation to maintain that minimum level of safety, there are things we do that go above and beyond that to enhance the safety of the helicopters even further.”