Barry Walton retires after 44 years with rescue helicopter service

EARLY DAYS: Barry Walton as a crewman observing from the rescue helicopter.
EARLY DAYS: Barry Walton as a crewman observing from the rescue helicopter.

A young bloke by the name of Barry Walton walked into South Newcastle Rugby League Club one afternoon in early 1975, when he was approached by someone he knew from surf lifesaving. Evan Walton. Same surname, no relation.

Anyway, Evan asked Barry if he would be interested in joining the crew of a new kind of life-saving venture in the region.

"He said to me, 'We're going to start a helicopter rescue service. You're the right height and weight. So why don't you come on board?'," recalls Barry Walton.

"I said, 'Oh, yeah. Righto'."

And so began Barry Walton's career with the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service.

On Friday, after more than 44 years, the local operation's longest serving employee and "the last of the originals", as Mr Walton calls himself, is retiring.

"We've always said, half-jokingly but half seriously, that the helicopter has been Barry's life," says Richard Jones, the service's CEO for Northern NSW. "That's been his passion."

In recent years, Barry Walton has been working in the marketing department. But for 28 years, he was in the helicopter, as an air and rescue crew member, first as a volunteer before becoming an employee in 1992.

"I don't really think about it that much," Mr Walton says of the number of years he's been with the service. "When you say it fast, it's just a number."

Rather than counting the years, Barry Walton has been reflecting on the missions completed - and the lives saved.

"I had no ambitions in the early days about where we could be, and what we could do," the 69-year-old says.

At the start, the work was predominantly weekend beach patrols during summer. Barry Walton recalls some thought the helicopter service members were "show ponies". But as the service expanded, the public increasingly looked skyward for help.

BACK TO BASE: Barry Walton in the Broadmeadow maintenance hangar for the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

BACK TO BASE: Barry Walton in the Broadmeadow maintenance hangar for the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Initially, there was no winch, just a 50-foot rope and a ball dangling from it. Often hanging from that rope was Barry Walton. He would jump in the water and attach the patient to the rope. As a result, he and the rescued person were "like a teabag" when they were lifted from the water.

"It was a lot of fun, but there was no other way to do it," he says.

The Hunter service's first helicopter, a Bell 47, was so small that the stretcher was outside. Mr Walton remembers an early mission to transport a woman who had fallen from a horse at Dudley.

"We picked her up and put her on the floats on the outside where the stretcher was, and everyone was sitting at the door just holding her down, while she was looking up at the blades going around," he says.

The helicopter models became larger through the years, just as the service's role did, extending way beyond the beach. Barry Walton estimates he was involved in "well over 1000" missions. A few have remained lodged in his memory.

There was the rescue of a stranded abseiler at Cape Hawke, near Forster, in the 1990s. Mr Walton was lowered by the winch, attached himself to the climber, then "cut his rope and we drifted away from the cliff".

Early days of the Hunter's rescue helicopter service, with the stretcher just above the float of the Bell 47. Picture: Supplied

Early days of the Hunter's rescue helicopter service, with the stretcher just above the float of the Bell 47. Picture: Supplied

There was the time he had to help a bloke out of a willow tree at Denman, after a flood in the Hunter River. It was the 1980s and still in the days of the "rope and ball", so Mr Walton was attached by a harness, and the pilot manoeuvred his crewman towards the stricken man.

"So then again 'the tea bag', and [the helicopter] flew me into the willow tree," Mr Walton says. "Got to the bloke, he's grabbed me ... and at the same time he slipped. He dropped down a bit. Got him back up, put the strop over, gave the 'thumbs up' and we were slowly taken out of the tree."

Unbeknown to Barry Walton, watching on from the bank was a local kid named Mark Donaldson. The nation would come to know this kid. In 2008, Corporal Donaldson was a Special Air Service soldier in Afghanistan, when he was awarded the military's highest honour for valour, the Victoria Cross. In 2010, he was named Young Australian of the Year.

That moment on the river bank apparently stuck with the soldier. Walton says Mark Donaldson wrote about observing the incident in his memoir, The Crossroad.

And there was the rescue of a father and son from a life raft after their boat sank off Port Stephens in the late 1980s. By then, the chopper had a winch. After the father and son had been hoisted aboard, the cable jammed, with Mr Walton hanging off the end. So once more Baz was like a "teabag".

"We were probably, I don't know, five miles off the coast," he recalls. "So we had to fly back to the shore ... took me across as a teabag."

What was that like?

"Oh, it was a good view," he replies. "Windy, rainy, and big seas."

Barry Walton prepares to leave behind a life revolving around the rescue helicopter. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Barry Walton prepares to leave behind a life revolving around the rescue helicopter. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

In the late 1990s, Mr Walton was instrumental in establishing a service in Tamworth to cover the state's north-west. Richard Jones recalls Barry Walton's reaction when the machine first landed in Tamworth in 2000.

"I remember I had my arm around him, and he was in tears; that was the passion," Mr Jones says.

Barry Walton worked out of the Tamworth base for 14 years, before returning to the Hunter operation in 2014.

He has watched the capability of the machines and the service change through the years. What remains unchanged, Barry Walton says, is his love for what he does.

"I just find being able to work for a service that provides an efficient, effective service for a community that supports us greatly, and has done since day one, is my sense of achievement, because that's what we're there for," he says.

"I think the ongoing strength of the service will continue to grow. And people will continue to support it and rely on it."

Rescue helicopter crewman Barry Walton. Picture: Supplied

Rescue helicopter crewman Barry Walton. Picture: Supplied

On Friday afternoon, after his final day at work, Barry Walton returns to where it all began - Souths club at Merewether - for a celebration with friends and colleagues, past and present.

He hasn't thought too much about his future without the rescue helicopter, and he doesn't really want to.

"I think it's something I'll always keep missing," Barry Walton says.

Barry Walton in the Broadmeadow maintenance hangar for the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Barry Walton in the Broadmeadow maintenance hangar for the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

I've just been part of something that's grown."

Barry Walton, Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service

The service's CEO, Richard Jones, knows the feeling.

"I'm going to miss him, but I get the feeling he won't be too far away," Mr Jones says.

"I think he should be very happy and proud of the legacy he's left."

Barry Walton is grateful that all those years ago, he said, "Oh, yeah. Righto" when asked to join. Because, just as Evan Walton assessed in 1975, Barry has been a good fit for the rescue helicopter service.

Or as Barry Walton puts it, "I've just been part of something that's grown."