HIGH-FLYERS: Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter Service are (from left) Ballina MP Do
HIGH-FLYERS: Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter Service are (from left) Ballina MP Do

How a fib helped save rescue chopper



THERE are a lot of people on the Northern Rivers who can thank Ballina's Elton Cummings for his smooth talking, and his ability to beg, borrow and almost steal for without it, the Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter based at Lismore might not exist. Louise Owen, of Lennox Head, is thankful she was transported by the helicopter to a hospital in Brisbane after suffering a cardiac arrest while pregnant and teaching a Year 9 class at Grafton in 1990. "It is a total lifesaver it is so needed," she said. Mr Cummings, as a member of the Ballina Lighthouse-Lismore Surf Life Saving Club and Ballina Jet Rescue Boat, was the driving force behind the establishment of the helicopter service, which celebrated its 25th anniversary yesterday with a fly-in to Ballina's Lighthouse Beach, where the story began. Mr Cummings said he never dreamt the service would grow to what it is today especially since the service began with 'nothing' in the bank. "We were running from day-to-day," he said. Mr Cummings admitted he told 'a fib' about the finances of the Surf Life Saving Far North Coast sub-committee set up to get the first helicopter to Ballina in 1982 but he can be excused since the rescue service has now performed more than 5300 life-saving missions. The initial fundraising was helped by the publicity given to a crash on the Pacific Highway at Ulmarra, north of Grafton, which the first full-time helicopter, a Bell 206B Jetranger, attended on its flight from Sydney to its new home. What followed was a 'massive wave' of community backing that paid the $425 hourly running costs of that helicopter, which was leased, as well as the $25,000 wage of first pilot John Wall. Mr Cummings said the big breakthrough came about three years after the first helicopter arrived when The Northern Star started a regional community fundraising committee, with Lismore brewery boss Wal Gillam in charge. Westpac became the major sponsor in 1991. The service began with five volunteer crew, all from the Ballina Lighthouse-Lismore Surf Life Saving Club.



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