Wing Commander Richard Knight OBE, Newcastle Airport's new operations director, already has an amazing career behind him as Peter Jackson discovers.
RICHARD Knight, then a flight lieutenant, was the navigator in a Tornado F3 fighter, patrolling the skies south of Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, when the plane lost power in one engine.
“Losing an engine’s always quite entertaining,” he says laconically, “it’s not the easiest thing with just a single engine and all the rest of it.
“But we diverted to Kuwait which was the nearest friendly place and we landed there.”
He tells me the tale in the more prosaic atmosphere of a windowless office in Newcastle International Airport where he is about to take the post of operations director.
He’s a thin, spare man, 45-years-old, and his delivery slightly staccato with the kind of short punchy sentences that make you feel as though you are being briefed before the Dambusters’ raid.
It’s probably because he’s ill at ease being interviewed which, he later admits, “puts him outside his comfort zone”. That’s something for a man who twice has had his hand on an ejector seat handle and thought he was going to pull it, once in a near mid-air collision and once when bouncing on landing.
In fact, Knight is far less RAF and more corporate than I had anticipated, even though he served for 27 years having joined when he was 17 on a three-year apprenticeship.
He was born in Carshalton, just south of London but, his father working in railways, the family moved around and his youth was spent in Luton, Nottingham, Crewe and Leeds.
“I predominantly did my schooling in Leeds,” he says, “not far from Leeds Bradford Airport. I used to ride my bicycle down the dip and up the other side, and go and look at two F27 aeroplanes sat there.”
He had always had an interest in aircraft and avidly built his Airfix kits and he had helped his father restore cars, so, not liking sixth form college, he was delighted to be accepted by the RAF at his second attempt.
He did his initial six-week training at RAF Swinderby in Lincolnshire which was “a real shock as a 17-year-old”.
“I wasn’t so much homesick, but you have to manage yourself in terms of eating, cleaning all that sort of stuff, but I think I’ve got that discipline and I took to it well,” he says.
“Then I went to RAF Halton where you are the lowest of the low. That was nigh on borstal with head boys who would beat, bully and make you run round with not a lot of clothes on.”
He qualified in 1988 as airframe engines junior technician. He had applied for a commission, was accepted and was then sent to RAF College Cranwell for officer training, followed by navigator training, which finished just before the start of the first Gulf War.
During that conflict the RAF suffered high attrition on its low level bombing raids. How did that make him feel?
“You’re quite young, I was 21, and for me it was all about flying aeroplanes. When I look back on it, I think when you join the military you are crossing a line and I was always aware you are crossing a line saying you are willing to die for your Queen and country.”