Glenn’s journey of recovery and courage

Glenn Todhunter, at Launceston Base.New Royal Flying Doctor Service South Eastern Section pilot Glenn Todhunter (right) knows what it’s like to be a patient in a medical emergency.

In 1995, while on leave as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot from the Australian army, he was involved in an ultralight crash while undertaking the final stages of an instructor’s course.

He and colleague Jeff Britten were practising a procedure called ‘engine failure after take off’ above an airstrip outside of Townsville.

But the practice turned into a real emergency when the aircraft flew into what Glenn believes was wind shear – a rapid change of wind direction and speed.

“The controls just went limp,” he recalls. “From 200 feet, we started going into a spin.”

Seconds later they hit the ground.

Glenn lay dazed and immobilised, with traumatic injuries to his lower legs. He remembers seeing his right knee bent 180 degrees back towards his groin.

Jeff, suffering facial injuries, a broken right arm, lumbar vertebrae fractures and with his right foot badly damaged, crawled for three and a half hours across the paddock to the club house a kilometre away.

There he found the only phone was key-locked, so continued on another 100 metres to his caravan. He managed to telephone a mate before lapsing into unconsciousness.

Meanwhile, Glenn didn’t know how long it would take for help to arrive.

“I was losing blood,” he recalls. “I found out in hospital later I had a severed artery in what remained of my right ankle.”

His army training kicked in.

He used his belt to pull himself into the trauma position, knowing death could come quickly if he vomited after blacking out. Through breathing techniques, he slowed his heart rate down to 110 beats a minute.

“The rationale in a survival situation is the slower you lose blood the longer you have to survive.”

He says he had no idea whether Jeff had managed to raise help or had passed out 100 metres away. It was 10:30 on a hot Townsville morning and nobody else was round.

Then he heard the arrival of a medical evacuation helicopter.

“Words can’t describe the relief. Being a helicopter pilot myself I waved my arms around to let him know I was alive, and to give him a sense of urgency.

“I remember grabbing the paramedic by the shirt and saying there were two people on this plane and one of them is very badly injured. You need to go up and get him.”

When Glenn woke up in intensive care nearly three days later, both his legs had been amputated.

Doctors told him he would be in hospital for at least six months. He was discharged in two. Twelve months of rehabilitation followed, including the often painful period and slow process of learning to walk using prosthetics.

The iconic book, Reach for the Sky about legless Battle of Britain Ace Douglas Bader, was an inspiration, as was his wife, Michelle.

“She was and still is my rock,” he says.

Eighteen months of hard slog saw him back in the cockpit of a plane and qualified to fly again.

Another two years of exhaustive testing and a mountain of paperwork saw him back behind the controls of an Army Black Hawk, and eventually a King Air fixed-wing aircraft.

And during this time, he began to contemplate civilian life.

Glenn and Michelle and their two children, Mickaela, 15, and Jesse, 13, moved to North Tasmania in May last year as part of a tree change.

“I was aware of the RFDS … I know how important the service is.

And I know what it’s like first hand being down the back of a plane as patient.”

Glenn started work with the RFDS in early May as one of six pilots based at Launceston.

“Now I am in a position where I get to provide the service instead of being a patient,” he says.

TAS Section 7 LR

Out from Launceston Base.

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About Royal Flying Doctor

The Royal Flying Doctor Service has been serving the Australian community for over 85 years. From humble beginnings in 1928, the RFDS now ha
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