Host: Kadaitcha Pastoral Company
Written by Sam Chisholm
As a helicopter mustering pilot working on cattle stations in Northern Australia you are constantly operating in a dangerous unpredictable environment with hot days, rough terrain, long hours, tough cattle and wild weather. Aviation is inherently high risk and pilots are at the forefront of the accident list; however pilots are not the only ones exposed to this harsh environment. The ground crew operate in equally hazardous conditions with additional dangers such as angry bulls, hot weather, snakes, thick scrub, big rivers and rough roads.
For years people working on cattle stations have toughed it out with common sense the faithful companion helping to guide them safely through day to day life. Unfortunately accidents do happen and are an inevitable part of human behaviour. Gone are the days of “she’ll be right mate”. Not wearing helmets, riding down to the yards on the tray of a Toyota and working bare foot are ways of the past. The risks are simply too great to ignore. The big agricultural companies are forging a path for the industry and you can be sure the rest will follow.
However like I said, no matter how comprehensive the WH&S systems become, accidents do happen. Flying across the Kimberly mustering I saw my fair share, from broken bones, concussions, stroke, fever, snake bite, cuts and goring by sharp horned cattle.
One of the days that clearly stands out was at Spirit Hill in the Northern Territory mustering to Sorby’s yard. The afternoon before I had mustered the Keep River with Ty and we had put about 500 head of cattle into a small holding paddock for the horsemen to walk the next day. There were a number of wild bulls and bullocks that we had found hiding in the river so we expected a bit of trouble in the morning.
I took off early, when dim glow crept onto the horizon and headed for the back of the paddock. All was going along smoothly, it was a crisp clear morning, the cattle were coming together nicely, all strung along the many pads that led into a waterhole about 4km ahead. I called the head stockman Tommo a couple of times on the radio to see when his crew were expecting to leave the holding paddock. I wanted to be nearby in case they had trouble with the bulls. I was pleasantly surprised when Tommo said they had their mob together already and wouldn’t need any help, so I went back to focusing on the task at hand.
About 15 minutes later I got a call on the radio “Chisholm can you come round here when you get the chance. Pat fell of his horse and has broken his collar bone. He needs to go to town.”
Luckily the paddock I was mustering was only about 30 minutes over the ranges from the town of Kununurra so I could easily fly there, drop Pat off and make it back in about an hour. To stop the cattle from running back on country I had already mustered I decided to get them all into the waterhole where they could congregate for a brief rest whilst they had a drink. This took a little over two hours due to some obstinate herd bulls walking along the tail of the mob but I figured it was going to be the most efficient outcome, Pat just had to put up with the pain a little while longer.
I was flying low over the tree tops to pick up Pat when a panic stricken voice came over the radio, “Chisholm, Chisholm come quick. Do you know first aid? Do you know first aid?”
“Shit”, I thought “What the hell is going on here?”. I wound the throttle open, pushing the helicopter as fast as it would go while I searched for the mustering crew. I saw the mob of cattle standing up on a swampy Black soil flat with a couple of horsemen holding them in place, a bit further on were 2 horseless riders and a motorbike. That was obviously where the action was.
As I flared hard and banged the machine down next to the motorbike I was trying to assess the situation. I saw Alice lying flat on her back with her head in Tommo’s hands, Poppy was crouched down next to Tommo and Jim was running toward the helicopter.
“Alice was galloping after a weaner that had escaped when her horse tripped and rolled right over the top of her.” Jim gasped “We don’t think she is breathing”. He was white as a ghost.
When I got out of the helicopter I could see that Alice was a mess, her eyes where glazed over, she had blood running out her nose and ears and Tomo had his finger in her mouth to stop her tongue from blocking her airway. Fuck. I frantically tried to recall all the first aid training I had undergone over the years, what was it? Dr AB something, shit shit shit. Ok, first things first, is she breathing? I looked for chest movement, nothing, ok, pulse, nothing, well maybe something, shit this is a lot easier to tell in the class room. We exchanged glances not really sure what to do. “I think she needs CPR,” I said.
“Do you know how to do it?” asked Tommo. “No, not really, well, kind of” I replied.
We were trying one last time to find a pulse when Poppy gasped, breaking the silence, “I think her eyes moved”.
Slowly Alice’s eyes drifted in and out of focus. We all held our breath
“Alice can you hear me?”, “Alice can you hear me?” I called. No response. We thought about rolling her onto her side but if she had a spinal injury we didn’t know what damage may be caused. “Alice move your legs”, “Alice can you move your legs?” still no response, “Alice move your legs”
After what seemed like an eternity Alice moved her foot ever so slightly. We all started breathing again.
After rolling Alice on her side and checking her back for any spinal abnormalities we decided it was best to load her into the helicopter and take her straight to town. The place where she fell was virtually inaccessible by vehicle and any big helicopter with a stretcher would take hours to mobilize, Alice was still in a really bad way and the blood continued to trickle down her face.
During the flight to town my helicopter got another workout as I pushed for every last bit of speed, Tmomo had radioed the station to phone ahead so we would have an ambulance waiting for us at the airport. The flight was anything but uneventful. Alice kept passing out then waking back up and to top it off I nearly ran into a gyrocopter as I flew over the Ord River irrigation area. We finally landed and had to wait another 20 minutes for the ambulance to turn up. They bundled Alice into the back and took her straight to hospital then to Darwin on the Royal Flying Doctor Service. I later found out that Alice had cracked her skull from ear to ear and was very lucky not to have brain damage. Alice is pretty tough and I think if it was anyone else it surely would have killed them.
I flew back to pick up poor Pat who had now been waiting for half the day with his broken collar bone, the paramedics decided that Pat was in a lot of pain so they gave him the green whistle before putting him in the ambulance. I think they regretted it straight away as Pat started talking non-stop bullshit and no one could shut him up. I returned to the muster to find that my cows were no longer at the water hole; most were already at the back of the paddock again. By the time we finally had the cattle yarded it was well and truly dark.
At the end of the day accidents and injuries are inevitable, that’s human nature, all we can do is manage the risks accordingly and aim to uphold high safety standards. The personal and financial risks of not doing so are simply too great. Everyone should undergo regular first aid courses to help stay calm and controlled in tense situations, you never know when it will be the difference between someone making it or not. It pays to be prepared and a little common sense doesn’t go astray.