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When it comes to challenges and career changes, Rick Neely soars

AIR-EVAC pilot Rick Neely of Marble Falls

Burnet resident Rick Neely, 63, with the Bell 206 helicopter he flies for AIR-EVAC Marble Falls. Neely’s career trajectory has taken him from law enforcement officer to corporate pilot to roofing contractor to helicopter pilot with a lot of overlap in between — and that’s just the past 30 years. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

What business owner and helicopter pilot Rick Neely does for a living does not even begin to define who he is as a person. For that, you need to know how he got there.

Thirty-two years ago, the 63-year-old Burnet resident was living in a two-room apartment in Marble Falls struggling to make ends meet as a single parent. His job was sacking groceries at a nearby store. Now, 32 years later, he owns Neely Roofing, a company he runs with wife Shelly and son Paul. He also flies a Bell 206 air ambulance helicopter for AIR-EVAC in Marble Falls and is studying for his real estate license, just because.

“Do I need a real estate license?” he said. “No, but I do things to keep my brain firing.”

Neely has followed his heart, his inspirations, and his God into several somewhat complex career changes, choosing jobs that demand schooling, licenses, and experience he didn’t have when he decided to pursue them. Each change was a challenge he calls a blessing.

“I like challenges,” he said. “Especially the ones I put in front of myself and go and figure out how to conquer.”

Example 1. Although he finished high school, a disagreement with his principal over disciplinary measures deprived him of his diploma.

“I didn’t graduate high school, but by the grace of God, it has not affected my financial or my work prospects,” he said. “It was just a little thing in the back of my mind that bothered me, though. So, at 58 years old, I earned my college degree in aviation science.”

Since he was attending Central Texas College in Killeen and had a job at Mooney Airplane in Kerrville, he sometimes had to drive more than 2½ hours to make it to class. Even though he left work 30 minutes early, he got to class 30 minutes late, but he passed with flying colors.

“The point is that this is the kind of challenge I’m down with,” he said.

Example 2. While working at the Burnet Police Department, Neely decided he wanted to fly for a living. His parents are both pilots, “so I thought that was normal,” he said. He called Shelly from the Burnet airport and told her. They prayed about it and decided to pursue an aviation career path, even though they had no idea how they were going to finance their new venture.

“You find the money for your priorities,” he said. “My dad wasn’t rich either, but flying was a priority to him.”

Better than money, he has Shelly.

“She’s the reason why I am what I am and I do what I do,” he said. “She is the most magnificent support person and partner.”

Married 26 years, the couple have three grown children and “a bunch of grandkids and a few great-grandkids,” he said.

Example 3. As a commercial pilot, Neely flew corporate planes for a variety of companies, including Whataburger. He also worked as director of sales for an airplane manufacturer in Kerrville.

“This is the crazy part of the story,” he said. “God put it on my heart to fly for AIR-EVAC in Marble Falls — not just to be a helicopter pilot, but to fly for AIR-EVAC in Marble Falls. In real world terms, that’s not supposed to be possible, not at my age.”

He was 51 at the time.

He printed out a random job posting from an AIR-EVAC website and put it next to his bed.

“I didn’t meet very many of the qualifications,” he said. “I put it where I could see it every morning and then figured out each day what I could do to scratch off the next item, one item at a time.”

He carries a photo of the checked-off list on his phone, a touchstone of remembrance for what it takes to overcome obstacles.

He bought a small helicopter to train in and build hours. Once he had the 1,000 hours necessary, he took off for Las Vegas, where he got a job flying helicopter tours over the Grand Canyon so he could get the turbine time necessary to qualify for the AIR-EVAC job.

It took five years, but Neely did it. He finally met all of the qualifications to fly for AIR-EVAC, got an interview, and consequently got the job. He has now been flying helicopters for 10 years, six for AIR-EVAC. He has about 5,000 total hours of aviation flight time and has made more than 300 patient flights. He also has a message for people, especially those who are struggling.

“The biggest lie you are telling yourself is that you can’t get out of all the trouble you’re in or you can’t get out of your current situation, and I’m telling you it’s a lie,” he said. “God gave me, like, a thousand chances, and I’m convinced he will do the same for you. Put a challenge out in front of yourself and go conquer it.”

When Neely stands on the helicopter pad at AIR-EVAC, just behind the Marble Falls Fire Rescue station on Avenue N, he can see a reminder of his own early struggles. Just through the trees on the other side of the road stands the apartment complex where he lived 32 years ago with his oldest son, Paul. He will readily tell you how he worked to get from that life to the one he leads now. He’s still doing it.

“I wake up each morning and I pray for God’s will and the power to carry it out, and then I boldly go out and put one foot in front of the other,” he said. “At night, I ask God where I have fallen short and where I owe an amends, and when I get into bed, I sleep like a baby.”

That’s not all. An emotional man, he connects with people, whether close to him or new acquaintances.

“I love helping people,” he said. ““God has blessed me beyond my wildest dreams. He has surrounded me with amazing people. Without the incredible people around me, especially my wife and my son, I could not do the things I do.”

suzanne@thepicayune.com