From the Classroom to the Skies – An Interview with Alumni Neil Harris
By Scott Hobbs
Neil Harris's journey from a student at Confederation College to a professional pilot at WestJet and an accomplished aerobatic flyer is a remarkable tale of determination, passion, and excellence. Born and brought up in Thunder Bay, Neil's fascination with aviation began at a very young age. We recently had a chance to catch up and get his story.
Scott: Can you give us a brief history of your flying career so far?
Neil: Some of my early memories are flying with my dad on cargo planes in the north. With that early introduction to aviation, it became something I strived for. I spent countless hours on flight sims and later flying remote controlled airplanes, which would be my first taste of aerobatic flying. Being from Thunder Bay and a second-generation pilot, with my father also a graduate of Confederation College, I followed in his footsteps and completed my flight training at the college as well. I graduated in 2010 and secured a job at Wasaya Airways as a ramp worker in Pickle Lake through their apprentice pilot program. I worked my way up from the ramp to a (Pilatus) PC12, (Cessna) Caravan and then a Dash 8. From there I went to WestJet Encore in 2014 on the Dash 8, and then in 2017 to my current position at WestJet on the Boeing 737.
Without the skills I learned from the college I’m not sure I would have had the confidence and ability to get started in aerobatics.
S: What can you tell us about your experience taking the Aviation Flight Management Program? How did it prepare you for your career?
N: The Aviation Flight Management program gave me a level of experience and understanding far beyond the minimum required by Transport Canada. This gave me a much better understanding of the fundamentals of flight which helped me excel in flight training. During my time at the College, I received a float rating, tailwheel and ski training. The introduction to tailwheel aircraft was a huge benefit when it came to aerobatic flying as all of the best aerobatic airplanes are tailwheels. I graduated from the college feeling confident in my knowledge and flying skill, this allowed me to excel as a pilot both at work and later in my aerobatic endeavor. Without the skills I learned from the college I’m not sure I would have had the confidence and ability to get started in aerobatics.
My time at confederation college is something I look back on very fondly, the instructors, professors and fellow students were all fantastic. It made my start in aviation extremely positive.
S: You recently won not just your first, but also your second competition of the season. How did you get into aerobatic flying, and what does it take to “make it” in those competitions?
N: In 2009 while I was still in-flight training, I was able to attend a World Aerobatic championship, after that, it became a bit of an obsession, and my goal was to one day get an airplane and become a competition pilot. In 2012 I purchased my first aerobatic airplane; at the time I had never actually flown aerobatics but knew it was what I wanted to do. I completed basic aerobatic training, flew the plane home, and started practicing.
The tailwheel experience I received from the college as well as the high level of training prepared me to safely step into the world of aerobatics and high-performance tailwheel aircraft.
Getting a good level of training, mastering the fundamentals of aerobatics, and practicing as much as possible was the key to my success. As a member of the Canadian Advanced Aerobatic team, I will be completing several training sessions with a team coach who will watch me fly aerobatics from the ground and help me improve my flying from a judge’s perspective. Having a group of other aerobatic pilots to ask questions and fly with is also a huge benefit. Luckily, we have some amazing aerobatic pilots in Canada and several aerobatic clubs throughout Canada.
S: How has your relationship with Confederation College continued since graduating? How has the college supported your career as a pilot?
N: The great thing about attending Confederation College is the camaraderie with the other classmates. We spent two years together in-flight training and many of us worked together after graduating. We were able to support each other in the initial years as we pursued a career in aviation, many of us still working together.
S: Your aircraft is adorned with the college's logo and aviation logo. Obviously, that's great promotion for the college, seeing an alumni repping our logo while winning competitions, but I wanted to ask; how has this partnership benefited you?
N: Practice is a huge part of being a successful competition pilot, so having financial support allows me to practice more and strive for that perfect flight. With the college logo on my plane, I have been able to connect with several aspiring pilots through social media and in person. The airplane always gets a lot of attention so it’s a great tool to connect with future pilots and maybe future aerobatic pilots. I’m always hoping to get more people into this sport, hopefully, some current or future students will see this as something they can achieve.
S: That's amazing, and one final question. What advice would you give to current and future Confederation College aviation students who aspire to have a career in aviation, whether it be as a commercial pilot or in a specialized field like aerobatics?
N: Study with your fellow classmates, ask each other questions and find the answers together. The great thing about the college is that you are all going through the same thing at the same time. Take advantage of that and work together.
If you find something you are passionate about, then you will find a way to make it happen. At one time flying aerobatics and owning an airplane seemed impossible but if it’s something you really want, you’ll find a way to make it happen. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and network with other pilots in the field you are interested in.
To learn more about Neil’s competitive flying, and see some amazing videos of his plane in action, visit his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/neilharrisaerosports
Are you a college alumnus that would like to share your story? Let us know! Email [email protected]