A North West Air Ambulance pilot looked back on 16 long years of service that led to him being celebrated as one of the UK’s finest airmen.
Captain Neil Airey, 59, has worked from North West Air Ambulance’s Blackpool base since 2001, flying the charity’s doctors and paramedics across the North West to help them deliver rapid, urgent pre-hospital care and treatment to patients in their time of need.
He received the Air Ambulance Pilot of the Year award from the Association of Air Ambulances lastmonth for his for his “lifetime of dedication and exemplary service both in and out of the aircraft”, with TV presenters Rav Wilding and Sophie Long presenting him with the trophy at the Chelsea Harbour Hotel, London.
Captain Airey, who comes from Ulverston, the Lake District, become a pilot at just 16-years-old after joining the Air Cadets as a boy. He served for 20 years as an RAF combat helicopter pilot, in Brunei, Belize, Norway and Turkey, and then became an outdoor pursuits instructor for young people in the Lake District.
He said: “Foot and mouth disease killed my career dead in 2001. I was an outdoor instructor teaching people to go up mountains every day, and the whole countryside was closed down due to foot and mouth. I was the first person who had to let go.”
Returning to his flying roots, Cpt Airey applied for a position with the air ambulance that same year, and was awarded the position.
Since then he has flown more than 6,000 missions, mainly from Blackpool, to all sorts of disasters, accidents and emergencies, from gas explosions to perilous mountain climbing mishaps.
He even met his wife, Heather, a fellow aviation fanatic, at the airport while she attended a flying school.
He said: “The main challenge with air ambulance piloting is weather. You can imagine flying up in the mountains in the Lakes, as we do, fog, high winds and turbulence affect us.
“And what we are flying to is badly broken people, and that can be quite horrendous, but we give everybody the best chance we can of survival.
“People ask me what are the worst jobs we have been to, and obviously it’s when there is nothing we can do for people. The number one thing we go to is traffic accidents.
“Our number two is chest pains and heart attacks, and our number three is the incredibly dangerous sport of horse riding.
“Everybody thinks it will be motorbikes, but they are way down on the list. I do 10 horse riders for every one biker. There’s a lot more people out there riding horses every day.”
In September, he attended a gas explosion on Charles Street that left a 72-year-old woman, Pauline Citterio, in a serious condition in hospital.
He said: “Our main mission is to get the paramedics and doctor on scene to act as fast as possible and then transport people, if necessary, to the appropriate place. The speed we go is 150mph so we can get places pretty quickly.”
Now his tireless work on behalf of the air ambulance service has been officially recognised, as AAA judges praised him as as an “incredible role model” with a “heart of gold.”
The granddad-of-three, also a keen fundraiser for the charity, was secretly nominated by fellow ambulance workers, and had no idea has had even been shortlisted for the award.
He said: “I’m honestly blown away by the recognition from the Association. I could never have predicted that after boarding the charity’s helicopters for the first time all those years ago, I would’ve received this award. Knowing my part in helping people - often in particularly grave situations - has been recognised, is humbling.”
For Cpt Airey, the award, which is one of the highest honours for Air Ambulance pilots, is bittersweet, as he approaches retirement.
He said: “In six months time, I turn 60. The law of this country is that when I hit 60, I must stop being a commercial pilot.”
EU law dictates that pilots aged 60 or above can only transport passengers or cargo if accompanied by another crew member who is up to 59-years-old.
He said: “As I’m the only pilot in the front, it will be ‘Happy Birthday, you’re out of a job’ for me. I have got used to the idea. I will miss it very much, but I will move on to other things.
“I will continue flying in the air show scene. I fly a Vietnam Huey helicopter at the Blackpool Air Show.”
He added: “I’ve had an incredibly rewarding career and as I approach retirement next summer, I want to thank my wonderful crew and everyone on the ground at the charity for their unwavering support, and every single one of our generous supporters and donors for keeping myself and the crew in the air over the years. It’s been an honour to fly for the North West Air Ambulance, and an honour to have received such an important award. It’ll be taking pride of place on the fireplace.”
Heather Arrowsmith, CEO at the North West Air Ambulance Charity, praised his win on behalf of the charity and community: “Neil is truly one of a kind, and everyone is over the moon for him. It’s impossible to do justice to his incredible service and the massive impact he has had on our charity, our patients, their families and the entire community.
“Our doctors and paramedics are able to provide urgent care to patients thanks to the tireless and swift work of our pilots, including Neil – he’s given the gift of time to so many people across the North West, which is of course thanks to the continued support and generosity of our community. This award is enormously well-deserved, and I want to congratulate Neil on behalf of everyone at the North West Air Ambulance Charity.”