The following article is published in the Winter 2011 Issue of "Airwaves" - the magazine of the Canterbury West Coast Air Rescue Trust.
by Nick Hawes
He would probably be a Brigadier General in the army or an Admiral in the navy. In a galaxy far, far away he'd be Obi Wan Kenobi. But here in the hanger at Garden City Helicopters, he's just plain Neil.
Chief Pilot for Garden City Helicopters Neil Scott had confirmed my interview time earlier in the day, but it came with a proviso that "if the weather clears, I'll be flying."
That didn't surprise me at all. Everything I had heard, read and seen about Neil Scott suggested that flying was what he does.
And he does it extremely well.
So well in fact, that over the past 45 years Neil has risen to a position virtually unparalleled in the New Zealand aviation industry.
Like most aviators of his time, Neil began his career as a flying cadet and after gaining his Private Pilot License he spent the next 10 years flying commercially, working with local aero clubs and doing aerial top dressing and agricultural jobs. His love of all types of flying invariably led him towards helicopters.
Today, Neil Scott is one of New Zealand's most experienced helicopter pilots, if not THE most, and is considered an icon in the industry. As of February 2011 Neil had logged an enormous 23,500 flight hours of experience, and is rated on 18 different types of helicopter.
Much of that time was spent completing more than 1000 rescue missions working as Chief Pilot for Garden City on the Westpac Rescue Helicopter.
Neil holds an ATPL (Airline Transport Pilots Licence) for both helicopter and fixed wing aircraft, which is endorsed with Night VFR (visual flight rules) cross country rating, agriculture and chemical rating and instrument rating.
In addition he is a CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) approved A, D, & E Category Flight Instructor, and Flight Examiner, for both helicopter and fixed wing.He is the only person in New Zealand who is subcontracted by CAA to issue A category helicopter ratings, the highest rating attainable in this country for helicopter pilots.
With credentials like this, I was slightly apprehensive arriving for the interview.
But I needn't have worried.
Chatting to Neil in his office I found a down-to-earth, straight-talking, caring family man with 'old school' values and standards.
It's his professional and unwaivering approach to maintaining those standards that is one reason why Garden City Helicopters has one of the most enviable safety records in the industry.
Whether he is talking about rescue missions, advances in flight technology or the standards and training required of today's pilots and rescue teams, he speaks with a passion reserved for those individuals who truly respect their profession.
And no matter what information he shares about his long career, you get the feeling that it is only scratching the surface of the stories he's got to tell.
Following Neil Scott's career is like charting the evolution of air rescue in New Zealand. A rescue pilot in this country doesn't clock up 1000 missions without experiencing a wide range of emergency situations in virtually every kind of terrain and weather condition that it is possible (and safe) to fly in.
He was one the first pilots to arrive on the scene at the Cave Creek tragedy on the West Coast in April 1995 when 14 people lost their lives and four were seriously injured after a viewing platform collapsed. In the subsequent inquiry into the tragedy, Neil was an expert witness, and was congratulated by the Commissioner of Inquiry (Judge Graeme Noble) for his input.
A year earlier Neil had flown a rescue mission to attend to six year old Morgan Jones who had fallen from a viewing platform on the Coastal Pacific train after a safety rail gave way. Neil has often recounted this particular mission over the years, saying that Morgan's survival was a career highlight.
Indeed, of all the rescue missions he has flown, it is understandably those involving children that tugs at the emotions of this father and family man the most.
Neil is fondly known by the local crews as the 'Human Moving Map' because of his vast knowledge and experience of many areas and places plus his instinctive, almost uncanny understanding of local weather conditions.
It's testament to Neil's approach and experience that 8 other rescue pilots, and 23 crew members at Garden City Helicopters hold him in the highest regard possible.
It turns out that 'Chief Pilot' isn't actually an official CAA term.
According to the CAA's code of Good Aviation Practice (GAP), the term 'Chief Pilot' is not used in Civil Aviation Rules. In Part 119 Air Operator - Certification, general aviation certificate holders are required to employ a 'senior person' who is responsible for 'air operations and the supporting ground operations'.
This person is responsible to the company's Chief Executive, and can be given any title the company chooses. Fellow pilots joke that in Neil Scott's case, the term 'Aviation Godfather' was too long so 'Chief Pilot' was used instead.
In describing the role, the Code of Practice states : "Chief Pilots need operational expertise, technical know-how, management ability, effective leadership skills and business sense. Keeping a finger in every pie, they are the conduit between pilots, management and the Civil Aviation Rules."
This simple statement sums up a vast range of skills and responsibilities to fall on the shoulders of one single pilot. In Neil Scott's case however, there is no doubt that his broad shoulders are wide enough to carry the load and a lot more.
Neil has worked as Chief Pilot for Garden City Helicopters in Christchurch for over 20 years and was at one stage appointed by the CAA as the South Island Pilots Safety Counsellor.
Prior to this, he worked for the Civil Aviation Authority as a general aviation inspector for 5 years.
Today, Neil is subcontracted to Aviation Services Ltd to issue Commercial Pilots Licences and instructor ratings.
His Flight Examiners Certificate issued by CAA allows him to also carry out competency checks and to make endorsements to licence's.
In the past 17 years Neil has carried out in excess of 2,000 flight tests for the issue of licence's and has utilised his experience to teach and check the competencies of many of New Zealand's top helicopter pilots.
Being involved at this level with their training gives Neil a unique insight into the quality and calibre of today's new pilots.
"You see a lot of youngsters who think you just hop into a helicopter and away you go," he says. "They soon get sorted out."
"The regulations and standards of achievement required means the calibre of pilots being produced these days has never been better," he says proudly. "It's not easy, and it's not meant to be."
It all means more paperwork for Neil, but maintaining the standards required is something he takes very seriously.
Neil completes around 200 annual competency checks for other helicopter operators throughout New Zealand, mainly in the South Island.
It"s is a role he prizes highly, allowing him the scope to revisit and fly alongside many of his contemporaries, catching up with a vast network of skilled pilots who have benefited from both his teaching and in many cases, his friendship.
It"s a demanding role that takes Neil away to other parts of New Zealand and occasionally other parts of the world. He strives to ensure that he always gives his knowledge and advice freely to other pilots ensuring that they in turn can be as prepared and professional as they possibly can.
Neil would be the first to tell you that he"s a 'straight shooter' pulling no punches and is more than happy to tell it as it is, even if it's not what the other person wants to hear.
"We have these standards for a reason," he says "so these pilots live to fly another day."
"Don't forget that a pilot's not just putting him or herself at risk. You're in charge of the whole crew, patients, passengers - the lot. Everyone on board is your responsibility."
As Neil would tell you himself, there are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old AND bold pilots, just careful ones.
Aviation has come a long way since Neil Scott first climbed into an aircraft cockpit and two areas in particular have had a dramatic impact - GPS Navigation and Night Vision Technology.
To a professional career pilot like Neil, any advance that helps you fly safer and better is a good thing - it's as simple as that. There's no doubt that while both of these areas have increased safety and efficiency, they have also increased the work load dramatically.
Night vision technology in particular has doubled the capacity of rescue pilots with the ability to fly at night or in conditions where visibility would have previously grounded a mission.
At the same time, pilots must be rated in their use and the equipment is subject to stringent maintenance procedures and operating protocols - all of which increases the workload for the person responsible for the process.
Even so, Neil looks forward to further advances in safety and performance.
"They're developing new technology somewhere that will give helicopter pilots proximity warning of wires," he says. "Not quite there yet, but it will be. That'll help us a lot."
"But then you've got the problem of paying for it," he says. "That's why the fundraising is so important."
Neil Scott is a pilot that has 'been there and done that'. He's flown government ministers and royal officials. He's saved countless lives and effected the safe recovery of others. He's been at the forefront of changes and improvements in aviation safety and performance. He's even flown a helicopter 'indoors' to help dry a concrete floor in a huge indoor warehouse (something he assured me wasn't actually that difficult!)
He is quick to point out that he's never flown one of the really, really long-distance off-shore rescue missions where fuel calculations and distance stretch the operational limits to the maximum.
I'm not quite sure if he says this with regret or relief, but I think it's a little of both and it leads quite nicely into my last question.
"What would be your hairiest moment in a helicopter?" I asked.
He thought about the question for quite some time before answering. "We were coming in to land on a night time mission once, with the NightSun on which lit up the ground like it was daylight. We were a few metres from landing when the light got accidently turned off and I was thrown into complete darkness! That would've been a pretty hairy moment for everyone on board!"
Knowing that the pilot was Neil Scott, I somehow doubt it.