AT 7am on Tuesday, aircrew officer Graham Nickisson will step out of the Westpac Rescue Helicopter for the final time, bringing to an end 38 years of service in the air.
For the 54-year-old, it will be an emotional end surrounded by family, close friends, old workmates and the current crew members he considers “like family”.
Mr Nickisson made the decision to step away earlier this year, suggesting his "bucket was full" after such a lengthy amount of time in the role.
He has amassed an amazing 7100 flying hours and controlled 2639 winching operations in his role as the pilot’s left-hand man.
His experience and knowledge is without peer in the service, and he is considered the longest serving aircrew officer in Australia.
“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,” Richard Jones, the Service’s CEO, said.
“He has given remarkable service to our region.
“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 in to the fabric of our community.”
Mr Nickisson has been at the front line of the service since its early years.
He has seen the toughest days of its operation, and was there for the transition from seasonal surf rescue helicopter to an around-the-clock professional emergency service.
“I started in '81 as a trainee crewman. It was a surf rescue helicopter then. And in '82 with the inception of the paramedics, that's when the service really kicked off,” he said ahead of his final shift.
“I had a love of aviation, I loved the idea of helicopters.
“My only regret is I didn't become a pilot, but this was the next best thing to do that and I thought maybe there might be a career in this.
“I used to be a plumber during the week, not a very good one I might add, and then on the weekends I'd volunteer my time to do beach patrols.”
For eight years, Mr Nickisson volunteered with the surf rescue service on weekends, building up his skills and love of the aviation role.
He made the transition to a full-time employee in 1989, which he says was the year that changed his life – for better and for worse.
He was married to his “childhood sweetheart”, Leesa, on the back of landing a dream job that he had worked hard to attain.
But the flight plan for life was rocked by a tragedy that would never be overcome.
“The Kempsey bus crash happened, and there’s no secret that sort of ruined my life,” Mr Nickisson recalled.
“It was Australia’s worst ever road accident, two buses collided at Clybucca and I basically quit work after that.
“I just couldn’t do it, the trauma for a young bloke.
“I was early 20s and we were confronted with the two buses that collided, 30-odd people killed outright.”
Mr Nickisson, and the rest of the service, faced a similar challenge when the Newcastle earthquake occurred six days after the crash.
“We were actually in the air when that happened,” he said.
“But prior to all that I just got married; that’s not a disaster, that’s still going.
“But I was suffering, there was no such thing as post-traumatic stress back then, or mental health, you had to be tough to handle it.”
Nickisson says he was probably “too proud” to admit something was wrong at the time but eventually sought help.
“I stepped away, but the boss never accepted my resignation, thank god.”
While the incidents of 1989 would “significantly” shape his life, Mr Nickisson went on to have a highly successful career.
He worked as a crew chief for 26 years until 2010, and helped build the culture of the service and its interaction with the community.
“He loves the service, is passionate about the service, and it sort of has been and still is, his life – apart from his family and friends,” 30-year colleague Peter Cook said.
“He’s very fair-minded, always went out of his way to go above and beyond.
“If anyone ever had a problem of any description, ‘Nicko’ would just wade in and to his own personal cost would put their welfare ahead of his. He is just that sort of bloke.”
Nickisson, a born and bred Novocastrian, knows the love the Hunter has for its rescue chopper.
But he stresses the service is more than just the pilot and the rescue officer on the end of the winch.
He reiterates that the engineers play a vital role in making sure “I’m coming home at the end of the day”.
“There’s no supermans in this service,” he said.
“We’re just doing our job.
“We’re trained to do a job and that’s what we do.
“We’re the ones who get the pats on the back, but we’ve got the volunteers, the marketing staff, the engineers who crawl over these machines daily to make sure they’re safe to fly.
“And then you’ve got the medical side of things.
I watch these people, men and women, day-in and day-out. What they do to save lives would blow your mind.- Graham Nickisson
“I watch these people, men and women, day-in and day-out. What they do to save lives would blow your mind.”
Nickisson can recall many memorable rescues, but he cites two as the most rewarding.
In January 1987, he was involved in the transfer of a sick baby girl, Danielle MacDonald, from Scone to the Mater Hospital in Newcastle.
Years after the rescue he ran into the family and met Danielle, by then a “beautiful grown up girl”.
They maintained a close bond and three years ago Mr Nickisson walked her down the aisle at her wedding – 26 years after the rescue.
The other is a story of help, assistance and care, but ironically no rescue.
In January 2007, Mr Nickisson read a Newcastle Herald article about Jenny Walker, who had a dying wish to see her son’s graduation from the Police Academy in Goulburn.
“I went up and met the hospital and said ‘we want to help this woman’,” Mr Nickisson said.
“We were able to fly her to the parade ground with the help of the police and ambulance [services].
“They flew her back, and then I got a phone call that night from [her husband] who said she’d just died.
“She saw her son and died that night.
“There were a few tears that night let me tell you.”
The event typifies the service, Mr Nickisson says.
A service which “takes its community very, very seriously and looks after its own wherever it can”.
It is Mr Nickisson’s family, who has look after him over the past few decades and enabled such a stellar career.
When asked how important his wife had been to his tenure, Mr Nickisson pauses, before saying “too good” while holding back tears.
He says his two daughters, Georgia and Jackie, have been his rock, and his two dogs have helped him through the tough times.
“My girls reckon I love the dogs more than them,” the veteran air-crewman joked.
He is also proud of the fact he got to work with his two brothers, who were once aircrew officers.
Mr Nickisson will not be lost to the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service, with the organisation retaining him in a promotional role.
The Redhead local’s next mission will be harnessing the financial support of the commercial world and guiding students through the organisation’s role during school visits.
“I can’t speak highly enough about this service and the people that are in it, the people who run it and the people who make it work,” he said.
“It’s an organisation run by the community, for the community.
I’m very proud of the fact I’ve worked for the community for all these years.
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