From the Files -- Saskatchewan Air Ambulance

From The Leader-Post, Dec. 24, 1993

Novel service was first

of its kind in the world


Long distances and poor roads; a small, far-flung population. Too few hospitals and doctors, and worries about emergency medical treatment.

Sound familiar?

They're as current as today's headlines about reorganization of Saskatchewan's health-care system. But it also reflects the state of rural medical care in Saskatchewan in the 1940s, when roads were poor and hospitals rare outside of the larger cities.

One of the answers that then-premier T,C. "Tommy" Douglas adopted was a flying ambulance that didn't need roads and could deliver patients to Regina and Saskatoon for treatment.

It was a novel idea -- the first of its kind in the world when it made its first flight in February 1946.

By 1959, Saskatchewan "air ambulance" service had made 10,000 emergency flights and saved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives-and had some fascinating adventures along) the way.

The story of this service -- which is still alive, if not exactly hearty -- has now been told by the man closely identified with it, Reginan Don Campbell.

An RCAF pilot during the Second World War,.Campbell was hired by the air ambulance, part of the provincial public health department in 1948. He became its supervisor in 1951.

With rural airports even rarer than hospitals, the service's pilots and nurses would take their little aircraft into farmers' fields, often at night and in mediocre weather.

That was easier than it sounds, laughs Campbell, whose book, Wings of Mercy (Turner-Warwick Publications, $33.20) has been popular enough to merit a second printing.

In the 46 years since its creation, the air ambulance has not had a fatal crash, although a number of aircraft have been damaged in minor mishaps.

It has developed a number of techniques, such as having their dispatcher ask (by phone) people to have somebody put their car into high gear and try driving down the intended landing strip. If the driver could reach 40 mph, then the ambulance plane could land; if not, then it was time to find another field.

Portable medical gear was develop and so respected was flight nurse Irene Sutherland that she was asked to write a paper for the air force's institute of aviation medicine.

Much of the early flying was done in war-surplus Noorduyn Norseman aircraft. They were replaced in the early 1950s by Cessna 195s, whose tough steel landing gear legs let them land just about anywhere. Mostly, that meant stubble fields. although Campbell was once nearly hit by a truck as he took oft from a highway near Humboldt.

"We enjoyed it and we looked on it as a challenge", says Campbell, a wartime graduate of the RAF's prestigious Central Flying School who operated his own flying service out of Nipawin right after the war. "I suppose, in the backs of our minds, we knew we weren't doing this to be crazy; we’re not stupid. We were doing this for a purpose -- and that purpose, of course, was the patient "

There's even a UFO story in Campbell's book, a strange glowing shape that pulled into formation on Campbell's right wing one night as he flew from Nipawin to Saskatoon in the 195, refusing to show up on the Saskatoon airport's radar -- but definitely baffling to Campbell and Sutherland.

Which brings us to the time Campbell's plane almost decapitated the premier.

In 1949, Campbell and Sutherland were getting ready to take off on a mercy flight in a Norseman bushplane when Douglas -- political father to the service -- appeared and asked if he could go along, to get the "feel'. of their operations.

On arrival at a remote farm, the aircraft’s skis became stuck in the melting snow. With the engine running and the propeller turning over, Campbell got out to fiddle with the skis. Douglas. in an overcoat and fedora, jumped out, too and went to work on the other ski.

A horrified Campbell looked up to see Douglas’s hat being snatched off his head by the propeller. A few more inches and the province would have needed a new premier.

Campbell, who left the air ambulance service in 1968 to run the Regina Airport (then owned by the city) says the service, although still alive, began "running down" around 1965.

That's when then-premier Ross Thatcher decided he wanted a new government aircraft to carry him around the province.

A sleek new Beech Baron -- fast and comfortable, but not so great for carrying sick people on stretchers -- was purchased. Within a decade, the province had built up an "executive air service" for ferrying cabinet ministers and senior civil servants around the province.

Meanwhile, the air ambulance service was being reduced to a single full-time or "dedicated" aircraft, based at Saskatoon and handling about 500 patients per year, down from the 1,000 or so done annually in the 1950s.

Oh sure, the politician-haulers in the 60-year-old government hangar at the Regina airport can be converted to air ambulances fairly quickly, but what happens if they're ferrying politicians when an emergency call comes in?

This prompts Campbell to pose a question. Maybe a challenge.

Because of the current reorganization of the province's health-care system, rural citizens are worried about emergency care. So why not revive the air ambulance?

Campbell has given this considerable thought The many small, paved airports built in the last years can handle the government's existing Navaho aircraft. For f1ying into other, more rugged areas, Campbell has picked out the perfect aircraft: the tough, old DeHavilland Beaver bushplane. Although designed in the late 1940s, there are still plenty around, and rebuilt Beavers with powerful new turboprop engines are being reconditioned by aircraft retailers.

A central dispatching office that also keeps track of road ambulances could tie the whole thing together.

From The Leader-Post, Oct. 23, 1996

Leon Dubreuil has a birth certificate that says his July 24,1948 birth was registered at the Wadena U nion Hospital -- along with the equivalent of an asterisk: he was actually born in mid-air.

This information comes from veteran aviator Don Campbell, who served with the province's Air Ambulance service from 1948-68, by which time no fewer than 17 babies had been born in its aircraft.

He was tracked down by Dubreuil last year after the latter read about his own birth in Campbell's fine 1993 book on the service.

It was the first birth on a Saskatchewan Air Ambulance aircraft, itself but two years old.

The Air Ambulance's half-century of dedicated work, incidentally, is to be saluted Friday and Saturday in Saskatoon.

Dubreuil, who lives in Estevan, met the pilot on that historic 1948 flight, the late Julian Audette, some years ago.

But he had no idea what became of flight nurse Elaine Fraser (now Elaine Hartmann, who lives near San Francisco) or the man who help in the birth, flight engineer, Gerry Roast (who died 12 years ago in Edmonton).

Dubreuil and Campbell met last summer at the Moose Jaw branch of the Western Development Museum, home of the single-engine Norseman CF-SAM in which Dubreuil was born. To a crowd of schoolchildren, Campbell talked about the Air Ambulance, ended with the story of the first in-f1ight birth, then asked, "How'd you like to meet that first baby?"

Dubreuil then appeared -- to great applause.

Says Leon: "They really thought that was something."