SHEETS of rain bucket down, it’s 5:30 in the morning and Barry Walton is rushing to an emergency.
A catamaran holding a father and son is sinking off the coast of Fingal Bay, high seas threaten to tip the pair into open water.
Without hesitation Mr Walton leaves the safety of the cabin, he’s winched from the Westpac Rescue Helicopter into the ocean, where he struggles against the current to save them.
“I got the old bloke out, it was a single winch so I had to stay in the water while he was taken up into the aircraft,” Mr Walton said.
“By that time the raft had gone, I found the son and got him out but on the way up there was a jump in the winch.
“It was jammed, so from a couple of miles off the coast I was like a teabag being flown to shore, I couldn’t go anywhere but with the flow at the time.”
Mr Walton has worked for the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service for 44 years, and was central to the service’s establishment in Tamworth.
He’s saved hundreds of lives, from far flung rural property accidents, to men stuck in the gantry as it loads coal onto ships.
There’s not a whole lot that scares him.
The idea for a service in Tamworth first surfaced in 1994, and was bolstered with support after Walcha resident Hamish McClaren walked into a crop duster propeller, narrowly missing his head, on July 5, 1999.
A year later a Bell 407 helicopter was flown from Brisbane for the official opening Mr Walton said.
“A cold front came through with snow and it had to land up near Bingara on a property,” he said.
“It arrived here about two-and-a-half hours late, so it was late for its own opening.”
Mr McClaren started with the Surf Life Saving service in 1975, he used to drink with his mate Evan Walton [not related], who told him he was short and therefore perfect for the job.
Training started with St John’s Ambulance Service and 20 people signed up, this number quickly dropped to 12 after the demonstrations on how to deliver a child.
Almost half a century later, Mr Walton still works for the service, engaging with the community and raising funds.
“My reward is seeing the benefit we’ve done for the community, you’re giving someone a huge opportunity to have their life saved in an environment where you’ve got quad bike, horse and evening mining and industrial accidents,” he said.
“Even the isolated areas like Walcha, Glen Innes, the gorge country, wherever life and death is a possibility the aircraft and its team gives the patient the best shot ever.”
Now with a 10 year contract on the part of the state, the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service shows no signs of slowing down.
And neither does Mr Walton.
“Here alone we do more than 300 mission a year,” he said.
“I love what I do because I get to meet an array of people who appreciate what we do.
“I’m 68, I think I’ll know when’s the right time [to retire] - but the blokes in Newcastle keep telling me I can retire when I reach 50 years.”