The maverick doctor who turned down the RFDS and started his own show

Dr Clyde Fenton with his aircraft, Darwin, 1937. Picture: supplied.

Dr Clyde Fenton with his aircraft, Darwin, 1937. Picture: supplied.

It has been 90 years since the first aerial ambulance took off from Cloncurry in 1928. 

This week, 25 antique aircraft have taken flight across Australia as part of the Royal Flying Doctor’s Service 90th year Antique Air Pilgrimage.

Back in the 1930s, a young doctor had a dream of joining John Flynn and his remarkable team of flying doctors. 

But Clyde Cornwall Fenton was not like the other doctors with the RFDS. 

He not only wanted to provide lifesaving medical care to remote patients –but he wanted to fly the plane too. 

Fenton was a self-taught pilot, and flew without the aid of any navigation equipment, air charts, and often proper landing strips.

Clyde Fenton graduated as a medical doctor in 1925 from Melbourne University.

He then had a stint in the Royal Air Force in England in 1928. 

After his time in the RAF, Fenton returned to Australia and earned his pilots license.  

He dreamed of joining the prestigious Royal Flying Doctor Service.

But RFDS founder, Reverend John Flynn, had a policy of not using doctors as pilots.

Fenton was not deterred. 

He decided to start his own aerial medical service in the Northern Territory. 

He arrived in Katherine, NT in 1934 after privately raising funds for his own flying doctor service. 

By 1935, he had flown over 32,000 km.

FLYING DOCTOR: Clyde Fenton started making a name for himself in 1934 as the Government Medical Officer in Katherine. Picture: supplied.

FLYING DOCTOR: Clyde Fenton started making a name for himself in 1934 as the Government Medical Officer in Katherine. Picture: supplied.

His one man show eventually became the Northern Territory Aerial Medical Service.

“Fenton, tall, lean and bespectacled, became well known and respected by communities, pastoral properties and missions throughout the Top End,” biographer Brian Reid said. 

“His kindness and determination to help became legendary.

“He also received attention from the media, both local and national, for his daring rescues, escapades, and occasional pranks, which often brought him into conflict with aviation regulatory authorities,” he said. 

Calls for medical assistance came through the two RFDS stations at Cloncurry and Wyndham, and were relayed to Fenton by telegram. 

Fenton utilised primitive bush strips and runways to pick up the patients and return them to Katherine, NT for medical treatment.

He also received attention from the media, both local and national, for his daring rescues, escapades, and occasional pranks, which often brought him into conflict with aviation regulatory authorities

Brian Reid

With no navigational equipment or radios, landings were made on strips lit by kerosene flares or car lights, and only the railway lines and the Katherine River were available to estimate his position.

To the Civil Aviation Department Fenton was a disaster, but to the people of the Top End, he was a hero. 

During his career he survived plane crashes, made a flight to China in a small open aircraft, and was once stranded for five days after a forced landing.

On May 14, 1940 he received his call up for the RAAF by telegram. 

He was eventually based at Manbulloo airstrip near Katherine, from where he made many emergency medical flights.

HISTORIC PLANE: Dr Clyde Fenton's Gipsy Moth, is on display at Katherine Museum.

HISTORIC PLANE: Dr Clyde Fenton's Gipsy Moth, is on display at Katherine Museum.

In August 1942 the No 6 Communications Flight was formed with Flight Lieutenant Fenton in command.

This unit delivered mail and food supplies to army and RAAF outposts, as far afield as the Wessell Islands. 

The unit was at various times based at the Ross Smith Aerodrome in Darwin, and at the Batchelor airstrip.

Fenton left the Territory after the war for Melbourne, where he died on February 28, 1982. 

One of the planes he flew, a Gipsy Moth, is on display at the Fenton Hangar at the Katherine Historical Society Precinct. 

He has also given his name to a World War II airstrip, Fenton Airfield near Hayes Creek, and is remembered by the Clyde Fenton Primary School in Katherine.

Information sourced from historian Brian Reid’s biography ‘Clyde Fenton Cornwall 1901-1982’.

This story Meet Clyde Fenton - the maverick flying doctor first appeared on The North West Star.