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Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service founding member retiring

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Barry Walton remembers it vividly.

The Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service volunteer had just finished duty one Sunday in the 1980s when a call came in.

“A person was trapped in a tree at Merriwa after a thunderstorm created a large amount of water-flow up there,” Barry tells Newcastle Weekly.

“There was no winch back then, so we had a 50-foot rope with a soccer ball attached to it and lifting prongs.

“I got picked up like a tea bag to rescue the gentleman.”

Unbeknown to Barry, a young child witnessed the operation after going down to the riverbank with his father.

That child was Mark Donaldson, who, many years later, became Australia’s first Victoria Cross recipient since the Vietnam War for his acts of gallantry in Afghanistan.

Corporal Donaldson wrote about the rescue in his national bestseller, The Crossroad.

A Bell 47G during the service’s foundation year in 1975.

“He mentioned in the book that it inspired him,” Barry says.

“It was a real honour to meet him four years ago at Merewether Surf Club – he brought up that he’d seen me in the tree that day.”

For Barry, it was just one of many rescues over the years.

He first started flying on board a Bell 47 helicopter as a volunteer crewperson after being asked to join the service by his namesake, Evan Walton, in March 1975.

“It all started through a conversation over a drink at Souths Leagues Club,” Barry says.

“Evan said: ‘We’re forming a helicopter rescue service – you are the right height and weight; do you want to be a part of it?’”

Barry completed a first aid course with St Johns Ambulance, started training in October, and the service launched at Merewether the following month.

He was employed full-time as an air crewman in 1992 and stepped away from flying in 2003 after 28 years.

Based out of the New England North West from 2000 to 2014, Barry was instrumental in the establishment of the Tamworth Base and community Volunteer Support Groups, while he also organised events and took care of media, before returning to Newcastle to continue his role with the marketing team.

On Friday 5 July (tomorrow), he will call time on a 44-year association with the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service.

From humble beginnings, the service now undertakes almost 2,000 lifesaving missions each year across its three bases throughout Northern NSW and boasts more than 800 registered volunteers.

“It’s been a journey and I’m really happy to have been a part of it and work with some great people and colleagues,” Barry says.
“In 1975, it was just a beach patrol, so to see it us go through a different array of aircraft – from a single to twin engine – is a massive achievement for us.

“The team has grown to what it is today, and rural services have been so supportive.

“To be able to get people who have suffered from the likes of horse or quad bike accidents back to hospital has saved lives.”

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