In 1977, when he was in a helicopter overseeing a marine rescue mission in the Sydney region, Elton Cummings knew that a coordinated 'eye-in-the-sky' service was needed on the North Coast.
"We were in the air and could see what needed to be done, but the people down below just couldn't get to the man trapped on the boat and he died," Mr Cummings said.
For the next five years, Elton sold his dream to everyone who would listen and despite being continually laughed at, he finally succeeded in founding a Life Saver Rescue Helicopter Service base in Northern NSW.
"Since then, we've spent years fundraising, initially with a huge amount of support from Surf Lifesaving Australia," Mr Cummings said. "We saved a life on the first day we started the service here and since then, the community has believed in us."
With 7000 missions under its belt, last week the Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter Service celebrated its 30 year anniversary at the Lismore helibase where the hard working and skilled staff, volunteers and supporters came together to recognise the service's achievements. As the celebrations started, the noise of one of the helicopters starting up roared through the building as it prepared to undertake a rescue mission in Coffs Harbour.
The service's general manager, Kris Beavis said the not-for-profit service could not exist without the community support that allowed them to raise millions over the years to keep the service running.
"Along with our state of the art equipment, it is the skills of pilots, our crews and engineers that make it what it is today," Mr Beavis said.
At the celebration, Westpac's North Coast regional general manager Dale Ambler handed over a cheque for $50,000 to Mr Beavis as part of the company's sponsorship of the service.
"It's fantastic to be involved with this crucial community service and these helicopters are part of this community," Mr Ambler said. "This donation provides the service with opportunities to buy vital equipment such as night vision goggles which cost $10,000 or a crew member's helmet for $1,000 or an aircraft stretcher for $5,000."
The service, which operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week is one of 15 in Australia. The local service also has a chopper simulator which travels around the area giving people a chance to see just what it's like to pilot a helicopter and raises awareness of the work the service does.
Roget Fry, the service's crew chief said there is a world-wide shortage of chopper pilots.
"It takes more than ten years of flying until you are skilled enough to pilot one of these helicopters," Mr Fry said. "The pilots here work two days on with 10-14 hour shifts and every day is different. During the summertime in the holidays is our busiest time of year. One year, we had seven missions on New Year's Day. The trickiest mission was at Blackbutt Lookout when a man fell off a cliff requiring two paramedics to winch him out."
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