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Burnet surveyor David Scott traverses Antarctica, Iraq, and beyond

Burnet surveyor David Scott in Antarctica

David Scott of Burnet tackled the brutal Antarctica weather during a four-month stint on the continent in 2020. Scott, a third-generation surveyor, was surveying landing fields for the National Science Foundation and United States Antarctic Project. Courtesy photo

Surveyor David Scott of Burnet thought Texas was one of the toughest places to survey because of the varied and often arcane laws in play. Then, he went to survey the icy landing strips in Antarctica that shift with the ever-changing weather. He also taught surveyors in Basra, Iraq, where armed security was necessary to keep them safe while they worked.

“That’s a big reason I enjoy this work,” he said. “It’s always different, it’s always new. You never know what you’re going to see or what challenges it will give you.”

Scott comes from a family of surveyors, including his father, Gary William Scott, and great-uncle Vernon Adams. His first experience in the field was when he was 12 years old helping his father with survey work for their church. Although he spent many summers working with his father, professional surveyor was not on his list of what he wanted to be when he grew up.

While attending the University of Texas at San Antonio, he pursued mechanical engineering. Then, life interfered. During his sophomore year, his brother died, and Scott decided to take a year off from school. He needed a job in the interim, so he once again joined his father in the land surveying business.

“About six weeks into it, I realized this was very outdoorsy,” Scott recalled. “This was for me. I realized I loved it.”

At times, the profession took him far afield into extreme climates.

“Not only is it cold in Antarctica, it’s also very challenging to do things because one of the things you don’t have is accurate weather forecasts,” he said. “So, you really never know what you’re going to face when out surveying. The way I did it was plan for the worse and do the best I could.” 

Scott spent August through November 2020 in Antarctica with PAE, an international government support company, surveying runways for the National Science Foundation and U.S. Antarctica Program. He focused on the Phoenix Runway on the McCurdo Ice Shelf and Williams Field on the Ross Ice Shelf.

Burnet surveyor David Scott in Iraq
David Scott pursued a career in surveying for the challenges and the fact that he could work outside. In 2013, his job led him to Iraq, where he taught surveying skills to field and office personnel. Courtesy photo

Unlike normal runways or airfields, the runways in Antarctica are constantly shifting due to the ice. Almost every year, surveyors must measure longitudes and latitudes in extremely high winds and  temperatures ranging from around minus-50 to minus-80 degrees. The weather not only affects the person but also the equipment for a job in which accuracy is essential to a safe landing.

“For planes to land in inclement weather, they need to use their instruments to know where the runway is,” Scott explained. “And to know that, they need (accurate) latitude and longitude.”

As a professional land surveyor, it’s Scott’s job to figure those out. He said he’s “basically an expert measurer of the land,” no matter the conditions faced.

Several years before going to Antarctica, Scott was in Basra, Iraq, where he spent five months in 2013 training office and field personnel for Fugro, an international geodata company. In Iraq, the heat and the sand were challenges as was his safety. 

“I had three vehicles and armed guys who protected me whenever I went out in the field,” Scott said. “Thankfully, nothing happened, and I helped train a number of people.”

Surveying in his home state is no picnic either, he explained. Texas is one of the toughest states for land surveying for many reasons. The state uses the complex Texas Land Survey System, which is based on Spanish land grants. It also incorporates the 12 railroad districts that make up the state and requires working with townships and sections in South Texas, leagues and labors in North and East Texas, and blocks and tracts in West Texas.

On top of that, Scott said Texas property laws have about five different legal rules, going all the way back to some of the original Spanish land grants. Texas professional land surveyors must become detectives to uncover what rules a piece of property falls under.

“I did say it was challenging, didn’t I?” Scott said with a laugh.

It’s the extremes that make the profession attractive to the 49-year-old Burnet resident.

“I never like taking the same route to somewhere,” Scott said. “I’m always up for something new, something different.”

Currently, Scott has no big travel plans for work, but “never say never,” he added. Growth in the Highland Lakes is keeping him and his company, Republic of Texas Land Surveyors in Burnet, busy and challenged enough for now.

“It’s crazy the amount of business I’m seeing right now,” he said. “With the (real estate) market the way it is now, I think I’m just going to stay in Texas.”