The aviator

Last updated 15:19 14/01/2014
Alastair Scott

UP AND AWAY: Alastair Scott, when he was a pilot for DHL in Africa.

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Former Palmerston North man Alastair Scott has seen most of Africa from the air as a pilot for small and large aviation companies - the latest is DHL, out of Bahrain in the Middle East. He related much of his adventurous life in aviation to Peter Lampp, including buzzing bush airstrips and auditing major airlines.


Alastair Scott has flown all over, but his best times were when he was a bush pilot in Botswana.

He was flying mostly wealthy tourists in and out of the famed Okavango Delta in southern Africa, mostly eco-tourists and a few hunters, back in 1997.

There were dangers in flying Cessna 182s, 206s and 210s out of the tourist town of Maun, although Scott never broke a plane, as he put it. Some of the airstrips were little more than tracks in the bush, rough clay strips in areas which would take two to three weeks to reach by truck or boat.

The Okavango is fed by waters from Angola, the only major river system in the world to end in a desert, the Kalahari.

Scott says the flights had their own dangers, especially when donkeys refused to budge off an airstrip.

"Any type of game, I've scared it off an airstrip: Lions, giraffes, herds of 100 zebras," he says. "My farming background helped to herd them off."

When the rains came they would turn the aircraft wheels into skids and he remembers zig-zagging down runways, scary but controllable.

"The thunderstorms in Botswana are enormous, very violent."

There are few places to land in the Okavango, and too much water, scrubland and leadwood trees.

Scariest, though, was being caught in microbursts (sinking air), plunging the plane's airspeed.

The flying bug got Scott when, during his sixth-form work experience, he was flown from Bridge Pa aerodrome to Napier in a Piper PA28.

After high school - he attended Palmerston North Boys' High School and Havelock North High School - he began studying agriculture at Massey University, only to drop out after a year to spend two years working in a meatworks to save for flying.

He was exhilarated when he went solo after 10 hours.

"It was amazing. It definitely reaffirmed what I wanted to do."

He topped his class at the Hawke's Bay and East Coast Aero Club - only two of the six are still flying - and was offered a job as an instructor, at $5 per flying hour, and also worked as a barman.

"The hardest thing was finding a job," he says.

He was destined for Air New Zealand, flying up and down the country, while his friends were off doing their OE. So in February 1997 he took a pack and a one-way ticket to Botswana.

There were seven companies that flew small aircraft in Maun. After living in a pup tent, deafened by cicadas and 44 degrees Celsius heat, he finally got a job with Mack Air and stayed for three years.

He moved to another company, Delta Air, as its chief pilot. They had a Britten Norman Islander which gave him his first real flying in a twin-engined aircraft.

Trucks would come down through Africa filled with backpackers and Scott tallied 360 short game flights with them, in mornings or late afternoon. He would fly at about 150 feet in order to spot the wildlife, often making tight turns. To this day he can still smell the coffee that was vomited up by his passengers.

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Scott recalls two of his worst flights.

One was flying out an injured Australian honeymooner who was taken out of a canoe by a crocodile - the guide had jumped on the croc and poked a thumb in its eye until it had let go.

He flew out the body of another Australian honeymooner who had been charged by a hippo; his leg had been split open and he bled to death in two minutes.

From Botswana, Scott drifted home briefly, via Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with 200 flying hours to his name but there were no jobs there.

Then followed two quiet years, flying Metroliners and Bandeirantes for Eagle Air based in Whakatane, while living alone in Ohope.

"It was a very solitary life, but a great learning experience. I learnt how to fly airline style, doing 800 hours a year."

When the Beech 1900s came in he flew a Metroliner to Maroochydore in Queensland. He remembers the plane used a hand- held GPS units to find Lord Howe Island in the middle of the Tasman Sea to refuel.

Then came 2001, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the aviation industry went into freefall.

So Scott put on his backpack and, with a mate, headed to Nairobi, Kenya, where it took him six months to find a job.

"There I met the second-most important person in my aviation career."

That was Adam Ogden, who was starting his own aviation company. Scott became its flight safety officer, training captain and chief pilot.

One flight was to South Africa where they picked up a 1959 Gulfstream 1 turboprop, the first ever made.

They bought it from the South African secret service - it once belonged to Elvis Presley and later crashed somewhere in Angola.

After working 18-hour days, home beckoned again, with a job as property manager with the Ministry of Education for 200 schools up and down the East Coast. That was no job for an aviator so off he went back to Kenya to help set up airlines for the Aga Khan Foundation, which owns 100 businesses in Africa.

"They needed me to get airlines in shape," he says.

That was in 2006 and since then he has gone on to do 60 safety audits on airlines for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which covers 95 per cent of all commercial traffic in the world. Scott heads a team of five who pose 950 questions.

"They have to get a 100 per cent pass mark.

"It has taken me all over the world, to 30 countries and I have two coming up in India."

He audited Afrique Airways in Libya before dictator Muammar Gaddafi fell.

"Libyans are very hospitable and I find Muslims are one of the most family-orientated, welcoming people in the world."

As for the most dangerous places in aviation, Africa and Russia are top of his list.

"I came out of Arkhangelsk in Russia's Arctic Circle on a Tupolev 154, which was more like a bus. We were a good 2 kilometres before we got airborne."

Flying out of lawless Somalia in a Gulfstream, one day, tracer rounds were shot across the front of the plane. He remembers seeing a Somali fighter standing beside a ute-mounted machine gun, trying to get cellphone reception.

In 2002, he flew Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta on his presidential campaign around small airfields.

"We had to shut the engines down or the people would run into the propellers."

Scott went on to start his own aviation training company, had it for five years, trained 1000 people, and sold it a year ago.

In recent years he has lived in Bahrain with his family. He'd gone to school with wife Lou, and they'd met up again later in life. They have two children, Thomas, 5, and Angus, 2, and are now are eager to raise their boys as Kiwis.

But Bahrain is a very comfortable lifestyle for the expatriates and their only encounters with the political turmoil there are burning tyres holding up traffic.

Freight airline DHL wanted Boeing 727 pilots based in Bahrain. Scott had audited DHL in 2008 but he hadn't been in the cockpit for seven years.

He did his type rating and found himself flying a Boeing 757 to Afghanistan to service the US Postal Service contract for the American troops. That meant flying to the military bases at Camp Bastion, Bagram (Kabul) and Kandahar, although he didn't have to do any spiral descents to avoid gunfire.

While operating into Bastion, the camp suffered one of its worst attacks. Scott says pilots had to be aware of the heavy military air traffic, even Predator drones and Osprey tilt helicopters buzzing about the airspace.

"Flying freight is the easiest I've ever done. The reliability rate is 100 per cent, as professional as any other commercial passenger operation."

Most of the flying is at night, to Kuwait, Riyadh, Dubai, Doha, Djibouti, even Asmara at 8000 feet in Eritrea where people live in huts on the side of the runway.

In Nigeria, to audit Virgin Nigeria, he was escorted by armoured car to his hotel in Lagos.

None of which measures up to bush-piloting in Botswana.

- © Fairfax NZ News


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