After 38 years as an Aircrew Officer on our region’s Westpac Rescue Helicopter, Graham Nickisson will fly his last mission this week.

Nickisson joined the Service as a 17-year-old in 1981 and has been flying emergency response missions ever since.

He has amassed an incredible 7,100 flying hours, including over 400 hours in night vision goggles and has been in control of 2,639 winching operations. In addition to his flying duties, he also served as Crew Chief for 26 years, until 2010.

“Due to his length of service his exact number of missions is not known, but he has definitely assisted several thousand people on board the aircraft. He has given remarkable service to our region,” said Richard Jones OAM, the Service’s Chief Executive Officer.

“We believe he is the longest serving Aircrew Officer on any civilian aeromedical helicopter in Australia. But more important than the facts and figures is the way he’s gone about his work. Nicko has always gone above and beyond and this has made him one of the most loved characters in our Service. Through his compassion and courage he’s become woven into the fabric of our community,” said Jones.

Such is the work of the Rescue Helicopter, Nickisson has been involved in some of our region’s most notable emergency responses including the rescue of 22 Filipino and Korean crew from the ill-fated Pasha Bulker after it ran aground on Nobby’s Beach in June 2007; he flew a number of missions responding to the Newcastle earthquake in December 1989; and he was on-board the first helicopter on scene at the Kempsey bus accident that claimed the lives of 35 people and seriously injured 41 others at Clybucca in 1989.

Nickisson makes no secret of the fact that working in front line emergency services for 38 years has had its challenges. But he’s quick to point out the inspiration he draws from those he meets in their time of need.

“We see people at the worst times of their lives and I have met some absolutely beautiful people. The patients we’ve assisted inspire me every day and I feel privileged to have worked in this role for so long. I consider my colleagues to be a part of my family and it means the world to me knowing that we are helping people, giving them a chance and changing their lives for the better every day,” Nickisson said.

“Since day one it has never ceased to amaze me how fantastic the medical teams are and it has been an absolute honour to be part of a team who are such incredible life savers. It’s a special feeling and I could not be more proud of what we have achieved together, but this is a time for me to concentrate on a new chapter in life,” he added.

Family support

Nickisson has reserved special thanks for his own family, saying that his father Bruce and his late mother Jessie had always inspired him to make a positive difference in other people’s lives. He has also thanked his wife Leesa and daughters Jackie and Georgia.

“My girls have been my rock, they have been just as much a part of the Service as me.”

“It’s the type of role where your family has to live it with you and I’m so grateful to have Leesa and the girls supporting me every day. They’ve also been a part of my decision to hang up the flight suit,” he said.

The demands of working on the 24-7 Rescue Helicopter include rotating 12 hour block shift work and exposure to critical trauma situations. After flying his last mission, Nickisson will transition to a new role that supports safety systems, communication and community engagement.

“In my new role I look forward to engaging with sponsors and community supporters. I hope to share the lessons I’ve learned and stories of the inspiring people I’ve met. I will also take the opportunity to talk about the importance of mental health in the workplace and the challenges faced in front line emergency services,” he said.

“I would really like to thank our community for such incredible support over my 38 years. Our community has given me so much, I’ll be ever grateful for the opportunity and am very proud to know that I’ve been part of a team that has made a difference,” Nickisson said.

Career highlights

Nickisson is well known for his compassion and when asked of his career highlights he talks of the inspiration he draws from the patients he has flown.

In January 1987 he was on duty for the medical transfer of a seriously ill baby girl, Danielle MacDonald, from Scone to the Mater Hospital in Newcastle. Nickisson formed a close friendship with the MacDonald family and twenty six years later he proudly walked Danielle down the aisle at her wedding.

In January 2007 he read a moving article in the Newcastle Herald about a local resident, Jenny Walker, whose dying wish was to see her son’s graduation from the Police Academy at Goulburn. Mrs Walker was too unwell to travel. With the support of Jones and through the use of an off-duty helicopter, Nickisson led a team, including NSW Police and Ambulance officers, to fly Jenny, her husband Gary and a medical escort to the Parade Ground. The following day at the Mater Hospital, Mrs Walker passed away having proudly seen her son graduate.